Seeking the perfect sunrise

By Emma Darragh

We started early, hydration packs loaded up with water, muesli bars and white bread marmite sandwiches.  The Kauaeranga Kauri Trail, or Pinnacles Walk inspires great expectations and a lofty sense of anticipation, not least because of its name. It is one of New Zealand’s great walks and can be achieved in a single day. 

Today we are trail running the Pinnacles for the first time.  I had walked it before on two separate occasions, once with children aged five and seven, and more recently, with thirty ten-year-olds on a primary school camp. Both walks took around four hours to the Pinnacles Hut, with many, many stops for lollies and an overnight stay before attempting the final climb to the summit. This time was different.  Three adults.  To the top and back in a few hours. No stops for lollies...

The road-end carpark and start of Pinnacles Walk is at the foot of the ranges, nine kilometres of unsealed road from the Kauaeranga Valley Visitor’s Centre.  Tranquil bush campgrounds line the road, offering your pick of several riverside camping destinations should you choose to stay overnight before the hike.

The Pinnacles track includes one of several swing bridges and a river crossing in the first thirty minutes, following Webb Creek to Hydro Camp before rising steeply up the valley.  The Pinnacles Walk used to be a pack horse track, designed as a way to deliver supplies to Kauri loggers clearing hundreds of acres in the Kauaeranga Valley in the 1920s.  The trail is filled with fascinating evidence of that time in history, with many of the original elements upgraded and restored to accurately reflect the era. At the Hydro Camp beside Webb Creek, all that remains are large cut logs, but it is easy to imagine workingmen settling at this flat clearing in the bush with their horses drinking from the nearby river.

The Pinnacles Walk

The Pinnacles track is a decent climb, but so full of interesting landmarks it distracts your attention from the hard slog.  The walk’s iconic stone staircase - giant steps cut into solid rock  - allowed those sturdy packhorses to get their supplies to the various logging camps up the valley.  The distance between steps might have been good for horses, but it is not a natural stepping space for human legs, and the steps reduce us from run to walk with several stops to catch our breath along the way.   At the end of the steps, the track continues through dense bush and breaks out onto clearings where the views are vast and dramatic.  The track becomes white, wide and stony and you get a sense of the elevation achieved, gazing out on steep peaks and deep crevices in the valley below.

Up ahead, the Pinnacles Hut looms large, civilised and welcoming.  Boardwalks lead us all the way to this high-quality modern hut, with facilities including 80 bunkbeds, an on-site warden, gas cooking, solar lighting and toilets.

We carry on past the hut to the apex of The Pinnacles - the most thrilling part of the trail.  The terrain is windswept - mountain tussock brushing at the edges of the winding single track that soon becomes hundreds of wooden steps.  They ascend to an imposing cluster of rocks with iron handrails and ladders planted into the sides.  It’s a case of step by tentative step as we wend and weave around the narrow track, up and over boulders and ladders to reach the viewing platform at the top.

Sunrise header

Nothing can compare with arriving at the top of the Pinnacles just in time to capture the perfect sunrise.  Silently we remove marmite sandwiches from camelbaks with fingers cold from the wind chill factor at 759 metres.  The stillness and magnitude of the mountainous surroundings is staggering.  Looking east we see the sun rise in a fiery blaze over Tairua.  Light hits the sharp peaks of the ancient, once-volcanic ranges to the North.  The dramatic boulders and vast valleys of the Kauaeranga are laid out behind us and a tiny glimpse of the Firth of Thames and Hauraki Plains to the west seems a million miles away. 

It is exciting to run back down the Pinnacles steps after carefully navigating the rocks and ladders on our descent from the summit platform.  From the hut we follow the wide white stone track past a helipad and an enormous hollow log lying on its side.  As an alternate return route, we take the Billy Goat Track at Hydro Camp. The track initially climbs to a saddle, offering incredible views of the Kauaeranga Valley, though it is a particularly long and steep descent, and tough going on the knees.  The track follows the old Billygoat bush tramline before dropping down into one of the roadside campsites at the foot of the valley.  It is just a 300m walk back to the road end carpark from this point.

The Pinnacles Walk Coromandel Forest Park

We ran to the top of the Pinnacles and back in about four hours with plenty of rest stops along the way.  The Pinnacles can be walked in a day allowing three hours each way to the hut, with another 40 minutes each way to walk to the top. An overnight excursion will give you more time to experience the walk to the hut at a leisurely pace, with a night’s rest before ascending all those stairs to the top.  It is worth waking early to witness a New Zealand Must-Do - capturing that perfect sunrise from one of The Coromandel’s most spectacular vantage points.