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Touring New Zealand 2005 - Part 4

We then set out on one of our favourite scenic roads from Taumarunui to Stratford, the SH43. This is a superb scenic road which was the subject of the first of the Heritage trails in 1990. It has more recently been labelled the 'The Forgotten Highway' on many of the boards. We have the original Heritage Trail booklet 'Taranaki and SH43' covering the SH43 and a few other less memorable trails. They should be available at Information Offices but have often been in short supply possibly due to the renaming. There are however big introductory boards at either end and signs to further comprehensive boards at most of the main points of interest. It was a fascinating trip on one of the early roads and cut across the grain of the countryside over a number of saddles giving commanding views. It is a road which is only 150 kms from end to end, some of it still unsealed, which merits (and takes) plenty of time. We have previously done the journey a couple of times from both ends but we never tire of it. This time we mainly looked for things we had missed last time round and have written them up to augment the existing information on the web site from previous trips.

The first exploration off the main route was the Te Maire Reserve - we took a 10 minute walk, with a nice river crossing on a small suspension bridge, to reach a loop walk which takes a further one hour forty minutes to complete. The initial section is in very good condition and makes an excellent forest walk through Podocarps but with so much undergrowth growing on and up all the trees it is reminiscent of the 'goblin forest' round Mountain House at Mt Egmont (Taranaki). We have made a note to allow time for the full walk next time

We took another side trip down a gravel road to see the Mt Damper falls, which are one of the highest inland falls in New Zealand at 76 meters. It was well worth the 20 minute walk and the falls are a narrow stream cut deeply into the side of a huge "bowl" eroded into the mudstone - quite unlike anything we have seen before. It is worth the slow trip down the gravel road. Part way down the road is a large picnic and parking area for the Moki forest tracks with a few old steam boilers from the logging days. They have now added a small caravan site just down the road - there seems to be no good place for a tent but there are three or four slots for caravans or campers. The Moki forest is the home of the endangered Kokako bird but we did not have the time to go in search this visit.

Then comes a highlight of the trip, Whangamomona Village. We had first been recommended the trip and the village whilst in the Catlins by some people we met (Anne and Mike) and it had been reinforced by another suggestion from a chance meeting in Auckland with someone whose father had worked in the village. Whangamomona, the Valley of Plenty, was first settled in 1985 and quickly reached its full size of about 200. It has always been controversial and had difficult access - in 1903 the Prime Minister, Richard Seddon was tipped into a pothole by the inhabitants as a protest at the road conditions and eventually improvements came.

The community spirit still survives, although to some it now looks little more than a ghost town. In 1989 the village declared itself an independent state in protest at changes in the regional boundaries which removed it from its home in Taranaki. Independence Day celebrations are held every year on the Saturday closest to November 1st. There is a signposted walking trail round the village which we followed part of - much of the village is like a time warp which has led to it being used for several films.

The Whangamomona Saddle has a walk leading off from the viewpoint which looks sufficiently interesting we will schedule it for a future trip. The next high point is the Tahora Saddle where we found a cafe and "camp site" perched on the peak - a wooden platform on the peak doubles as a view point and helipad. The cafe looks as if the meals are good and there is accommodation and slots for camper vans. The sheltered camping area is relative only to the exposure of the remainder of the hill top! It is somewhere to return to stay but in a cabin. The cafe is full of old pictures and information despite being only a few years old and we had an interesting talk to the lady who runs it who was Russian. The family now has three qualified helicopter pilots and they are trying to sell the cafe.

One next passes over the Pohokura Saddle, named after a Maori chief it was settled first in 1880 - in those days the road was so bad it took three days to pack in supplies. As with many other points on the trip there are interpretation boards at the viewpoints. The final Saddle, the Strathmore Saddle can give superb views and on a clear day gives a vantage of the four main North Island mountains, Taranaki (Egmont), Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.

Our final stop was at an old Douglas Brick Kiln which is listed by he New Zealand Historic Places Trust. It is situated a couple of hundred metres off the main road then down a gated farmers track. It is in poor condition and protected by an external roof.

Mountain House and Egmont National Park

After we had completed the SH43 to Stratford we hurried on to Mountain House for a couple of days. It is sited at 845 metres not far below Stratford Plateau, on one of the only three road entry points to Mt Egmont. We have been to Mountain House several times before - it is small but serves some of the best food we know in New Zealand. The rooms at Mountain House are simple but adequate and the price is moderate at circa $95 a night for a double hotel room or $115 for a chalet with full kitchen facilities. Berta, a skilled chef trained in her native Switzerland, takes great pride in the service provided. She and her recently deceased husband Keith have run hotels in the area for thirty years.

Keith, who was local, was killed in an unfortunate car accident involving tourists driving on the wrong side of the road, just before we came two years ago. Keith was also an artist and there are many of his pictures on the walls. Berta has just held an exhibition of his work and launched a book which contains many of his paintings. The set up is very much a family affair and one very much feels a guest in their home - the lounge has their photo albums on the tables and their scrap books going back twenty years.

The food is out of this world - we had booked for 2 days but after the first meal promptly negotiated a third day, looking back on our diary we found it was not the first time we have done that at Mountain House. We selected Creamed Paua and Scallops as starters the first evening. Paua is a local seafood like a Black Abalone - it needs to be beaten into flat sheets to soften it and then left to marinade in its own juices in fridge for three to four days after which it is tender enough to eat. At the Mountain House it is then served minced in a cream sauce which is probably not the classical way of serving. The Paua shells are also very beautiful and are used for a lot of local jewellery. The main courses are a mixture of local specialities and Swiss dishes - we had Rabbit in Mustard Sauce and Honey Ginger Duck. Rabbit has been a huge problem in New Zealand since it was introduced for hunting and food although not in the class of Possums at present. We both, somewhat unusually made it to sweet and had the their excellent homemade cheesecake, this time a brandysnap cheesecake - the waitress asked if we wanted one with two spoons to which Pete answered no two with one spoon.

Other favourite starters of ours are Crumbed Sweetbreads in a Espaniole sauce and Whitebait. Whitebait is a local speciality and is a very small, almost translucent fish which is served as an omelette. Favourite main courses are Lamb Shanks with home made Spaetzli, and NZ Pheasant in Brandy Sauce. We did not always get to sweets but those we tried included a Swiss apple pie (covered in Meringue), an excellent Swiss Apple Streudel and probably the best cheesecake I have ever had. They could sell lots of recipe books very easily. UPDATE FOR 2005 nights 2 and 3

The wine list is largely NZ - there were several of our favourites on the list. They also have a special list which includes wines such as Cloudy Bay Sauvignon which we indulged in the first evening (note the list varies rapidly so do not expect particular examples).

Mountain House is right in the middle of the walking areas in the Taranaki National Park and the walks from Mountain House cover a variety of different forests as one works up through the tree line. Perhaps the most interesting is the Goblin forest which is primarily Kamahi which began life perched on the trunks of other trees, developing distinctive gnarled, intertwined trunks as they grew around the branches of existing trees which have now been stifled. The Kamahi trunks and branches are covered in mosses, liverworts and ferns while other trees and shrubs grow perched on the Kamahi forming compound trees.

It is difficult to give a proper impression of these walks through these spectacular rain forest which surrounds Mountain House, hopefully the pictures will convey something of the extra-ordinary atmosphere. The 15 minute circular Kamahi walk enables one to sample the goblin forests. The Patea Loop Track is a good introductory walk which takes one through the Goblin Forest past incredible moss draped fuchsias as you walk across the deeply dissected flanks of the volcanic cone. It takes a little over an hour. The Enchanted Track is a third round trip walk but one that involves considerable height gain unless you can get a lift to the Plateau and just walk down it. It drops 300 metres with spectacular views of the mountain terrain and The Dawson Falls area as well as the sea and the Tongariro mountains on a clear day. It also gives an excellent opportunity to observe how the sub-alpine scrub changes into the goblin forest as one descends. We normally do it as part of our round trip walks to Dawson Falls.

The Taranaki forests have less bird life than many forests - this is largely because of the height and low temperatures which dramatically reduces the insect population and hence reduces the number of birds. There are however plenty of Tui and Bellbirds which contribute to the outstanding dawn chorus, Tomtits, the Rifleman which is the almost as small as a Wren, the almost as small Silvereye and the Plump New Zealand Pigeons. The lack of insects does however mean that birds tend to follow one in the hope you disturb the insects.

One does need very sturdy walking  shoes or preferably tramping boots for all but the Kamahi and Potaema walks even if the weather is good and it seems dry underfoot when you leave. This is an appropriate point to state, for the record, that DOC who laid out the various walks and tracks have defined most of those in Taranaki as Tramping Tracks. DOC's definition of a Tramping Track strictly means "limited formation, often with steep grades, generally marked. Suitable for the moderately fit, experienced and properly equipped people wearing tramping boots" On the longer walks one should remember that the weather on Mt Egmont is well known for rapid changes and appalling conditions can quickly develop even in summer.

This year (Feb 2005) it was pouring with rain the first morning so we decided to give our Rohan waterproof jackets and walking trousers/shorts a test and started on the Kamahi walk as far as the intersection with the Patea walk which we continued round and back to Mountain House - it took about an hour and the surface was good enough not to provide any problems even with some water on the surface. The Rohan waterproof jackets proved excellent especially the peaked hood which can be tightened so even ones face keeps dry - the only problem is that you end up with tunnel vision and a risk of banging ones head on overhanging branches especially when taking big steps uphill as Pete found to his cost. The Patea track is well formed and climbs at a steady rate that can be walked at a reasonable pace without leaving one breathless, probably somewhere between 1 in 10 and 1 in 8 in the stretches with formed or informal steps.

It was still pouring with rain in the afternoon at Mountain House so we took a trip into Stratford where we were seduced into a huge ice-creams at the Northern Dairy - they must have been some of the best value ice-creams ever. The girl put two enormous carefully consolidated and shaped scoops on each cone and charged us $1.20 each and answered our query about the price with the comment "a single is two scoops and a double is three scoops" We decided that there was nothing we could do except have another walk so we drove to Dawson Falls, another of the entry points to Egmont intending to just walk down to the Falls. They were quite impressive after the rain and we took a couple of pictures from the bottom and top. The rain had stopped and the sun was breaking through so it seemed a shame not to do the Kaponi loop walk taking us up through the bush and back past the Visitor Centre. The DOC book says it is a one to one and a half hour tramp but that seems much too long and it only took us about half an hour plus the time going up and down to the Falls. It really needed boots but we got by in Trainers and walking sandals as our boots were still drying out from the morning.

Our last full day we woke to a beautiful morning and our clearest view ever of Mount Egmont - the pictures we took are at the start of this section. We decided to do a bigger walk and did an excellent round trip to Dawson Falls along the Waingongoro Track, to Dawson Falls, up to Wilkies Pools before returning on the High Level Round the Mountain Track then dropping down the Enchanted Walk back to Mountain House where we returned to our room on the Kamahi track. The first part of the Waingongoro Track is common to several of the walks from Mountain House but after 25 minutes one passes the turn off for the Enchanted walk. After that the stretch to Dawson Falls involves several river crossings which need some care as they can be slippery. We diverted to look at the Waingongoro hut. It is one of a series of huts spaced along the two 'Round the Mountain Tracks' each taking 16 - 24 people on communal sleeping platforms and bunks. DOC have about 900 such basic huts for Trampers in New Zealand.

The most memorable part of the Waingongoro Track is crossing the swing bridge, a flimsy contraption of wires holding up a series of cross bars forming a walkway with only a bit of wire mesh to add confidence. You look straight down to a rocky stream bed far below as you careful inch your way across. Fortunately there was little wind otherwise they do not so much swing but sway and writhe like two drunken snakes hung across the river. This swing bridge is certainly not the longest at 26.5m but supposed to one of the highest at 29m. It certainly looked a long way down as one carefully placed ones boots on the 8 inch wide strips and clutched the two waist high suspension wires and inched across. Not surprisingly there is a faded notice suggesting only one person crosses at a time. After that the remaining river crossings were tame and we seemed to soon be back on familiar tracks from Dawson Falls.

We had a look round the Dawson Falls Visitor Centre which is memorable for having some of the worst presentation of information I have ever seen - some examples are white print on a background of tussock grass and other low contrast combinations and information displayed at 45 degree angles to the horizontal so you have turn your head on its side to read it. The maps are without scales and in random orientations so the two maps of the local walks bear no obvious relation two each other. The original information, probably written by the staff, is fine but it is almost impossible to interpret. It was probably some misguided attempt to employ contractors to Jazz Up the displays at vast cost. I took pictures last time as example for my customers of what not do! Perhaps the point of most concern is that there is no information, such as times or distances or difficulty, in the area which would allow visitors to plan even local walks when the desk is closed, presumably there is a policy that you have buy the information. At least they have added a good display case of stuffed birds - the girl from DOC was very helpful and understood our comments on the other displays fully.

It was then time for the next stage, the climb up to Wilkies pools where the water has sculptured the rock into marvelous shapes. After scrambling up past the pools and taking a few more pictures of the smoothly sculptured rocks forming the falls from pool to pool we stopped for a couple of sandwiches before we returned to join the Upper Round the Mountain Track following signs for the Stratford Plateau. This section ends with some excellent views out over the valley. We did not go as far as the Plateau as that would have meant a road walk to get back to Mountain House - instead we went down the Enchanted Track to rejoin the Waingongoro Track about half an hour away from Mountain house. The Enchanted Track had some excellent views from the Trig point before dropping steeply down what seemed like thousands of steps back to the Waingongoro Track. In actual fact the descent is 300 metres. The total time was just under 6 hours including the time for short and long stops.

On the final morning Pete got up early to get a picture of the Mountain at dawn as the sun hit it - the character changes so much with the lighting.

On our way out of the Egmont National Park we passed another short walk which is worth taking. The Potaema bog walk is interesting as it takes one through a wide variety of different scenery as one approaches the edge. Swamps are areas where the normal sequence of vegetation is interrupted. The Taranaki swamps are, in effect, huge frost hollows, trapping cold air and creating completely different microclimates in the acidic conditions created by the high nutrient concentrations with abnormally cold temperatures for the height. The Potaema bog is surrounded by a forest of rimu, rata and Kamahi with kahikatea, New Zealand's highest growing tree growing at the edge. The forest quickly gives way manuka, lancewood, flax and large sedges with sharp cutting edges. The walk ends over the swamp on a boardwalk so one can see the rushes, sedges and blue flowered orchids. .

We stopped again in Stratford at the Dairy where we got a fascinating picture with a juxtaposition of the two cones, one the typical but sadly less common one on dairies and the cone of Egmont. We also got a picture of the icecreams - fantastic value for $1.20 each!

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