The long, narrow often bumpy winding road lead deeper and deeper into rural New Zealand and as the fog descended, a strange sense of mystery settled over the landscape. Atene Skyline Track was up next on my To-Hike List. I nervously passed an ominous looking house with a debilitated, “DANGER, KEEP OUT” sign clinging desperately to the wilting fence. Car bodies strewn across an overgrown paddock, dogs running free, barking at the passerby’s, blankets nailed to windows replacing the curtains that would have once hung proudly, a sagging porch littered with overflowing rubbish bags and a couch with burst seams don’t scream a welcoming community. I hoped my destination was a bit further along. My heart dropped as I saw the sign for Atene Skyline Track southern entrance around the next bend. Stroke of luck had it that there isn’t really anywhere to park a car there.
I knew that there was a Northern entrance as the track loops, in between the entrances hikers must walk along the road for a couple of kilometres. I carried on to the Northern entrance. Luckily the northern entrance had a proper car park. I felt safer leaving my car here. There was no turning back. I had come all this way and was going to complete the hike, by golly!
6-8 hours. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign states that it takes 8 hours but you gotta take what the DOC signs say with a grain of salt sometimes. It took me 6 hours 50 minutes. I set myself a goal of completing it in under 7 hours and beat it by 10 minutes. Which I gave myself a literal high five for.
Very. I found this a tough ole hike with endlessly steep uphills and poorly maintained tracks. There were slips across the path, trees had come down over the track in several places, the track was difficult to navigate at times and there were places where the track was completely overgrown. That coupled with recent rainfall, which ensured the track was boggy and slippery, made this one of the more difficult tracks I have hiked. There are places on the track that are extremely narrow with steep drops on either side. Sometimes the track is quite literally a tree root with a sheer drop below.
DOC have stuck this track in their advanced track category. Which pretty much means it’s a challenging hike suitable for people with moderate to high level backcountry (remote areas) skills and experience. Navigational and survival skills are required. Advanced tracks are often unformed and may be rough and steep. In other words, make sure you are an experienced hiker if you want to tackle Atene Skyline Track.
If you are coming from the south (Wanganui/Palmerston North), head through Wanganui onto the state highway, follow that until you get to Whanganui River Road (about 14 km past Wanganui). Take the left and follow it all the way through until you pass Atene (approx 22 km from the turn off). The Northern entrance is just past Atene and is well signposted.
You will need to be relatively fit to tackle the Atene Skyline Track. The ascents are steep and the track is long. I have tried to find out exactly how long but the information is conflicting, ranging from 12km to 20km. It felt like the latter but was probably more in between.
Why Atene Skyline Track?
I have challenged myself to complete 52 different hikes in 52 weeks from May 2018 to May 2019. So far I have completed The Tongariro Alpine Crossing and Deerford Track, this week I wanted to try somewhere completely new (hiking wise), so into the Whanganui National Park I headed. Plus, I spent my summers camping down the Whanganui River when I was growing up so being in the area always brings back a sense of nostalgia. This track also intrigued me because you can see where the river bed used to lie until the river found an easier path. I love how nature changes and evolves over time so it really appealed to that side of me.
To Atene Lookout
The boardwalk start to the hike complete with tree tunnel really gives you a false sense of security. I was stomping (graceful isn’t in my nature) along the boardwalk thinking, ‘Well, this is a nice easy start to the hike’. No sooner had the thoughts entered my head the boardwalk abruptly stopped and the clouds opened their gates. The jacket was donned and the gaiters strapped on. Squelching up the hill with droplets dripping from the hood of my jacket was rather atmospheric. I did, however, think that maybe, just to the lookout would be enough. I mean, that’s a 2-hour hike. That’s still good, isn’t it?
A steep incline through rivers of mud and the passing of vengeful gorse bush led to the lookout. It took me just under 45 minutes to get to the sign for the lookout. I was already ahead of time (chur!). Atene lookout was a 2-minute detour off the side of the track up to a lonely wooden bench looking out to Puketapu Hill. This is the main focus of the hike, the river used to flow around the hill, almost encircling it. But, as nature does, the river wore through the neck of the hill and found itself a more direct route to the sea. From the lookout, you can see the horseshoe shape where the river used to flow.
I gave myself a sharp pep talk and decided to carry on with the hike. A little rain never hurt anyone. Except for the Wicked Witch of the West and last time I checked, I wasn’t green. Plus, completing 52 hikes in 52 weeks means a couple of winter hikes. Winter tends to be wet so I can’t avoid the rain forever. Annnnd it was actually quite fun in the rain. The sounds of the droplets on the leaves were soothing and the mist gave an almost ethereal feel to the bush.
To the campsite
From the lookout, another false sense of security engulfs you as you make your way along a gently graded old overgrown road. There are many places here to stop and admire the views of the surrounding valleys and the Whanganui River curving through the landscape.
As I was meandering along, stopping to take the odd photo, lost in my own little world, I heard a crashing in the bush. Images of a crazed axeman rushed into my head. Especially after passing by houses with great big “Danger” signs attached to the front gates. As I tried to remember some Karate moves (solely taken from watching the Karate Kid) I heard a panicked bleating followed by another crash. I didn’t have to practice my lacking Karate skills after all. It was just the local wild goats.
Soon enough the track suddenly decided that that was quite enough easy walking for now, thank you very much and up the hill, I went. It felt like straight up at times. And if I slightly misplaced my footing it would have been straight down the sheer drops.
Haphazardly placed steps well past their best by date made up a lot of the track from here to the camping ground. When there weren’t stairs, tree roots or precarious paths made up the track. At one point I sat on the bottom step and had a chat to a local Fantail. Fantails followed me throughout the hike, I like to think they were keeping an eye on me. Although, they were more likely waiting for me to pass by so they could rummage in the soil my footprints had stirred up.
Bambi also hangs out around this walk too. As I crashed through the bush I saw the rear end of a doe and her fawn turn tail and scamper away. I wouldn’t make a very good hunter. A, because the thought of hunting something makes my heart catch in my throat. B, because they can hear me coming before I even start.
As I made my way to the clearing of the campsite, the unofficial halfway point (phew, finally!), I could see that the picnic table was already occupied. By a family of goats. That was MY seat, my legs needed a well-earned sit down desperately and the rain was threatening to make another entrance. The staring contest between myself and the goats was short lived as the branches cracked underfoot. The goats bounded off down the track. But not before leaving a little fresh *ahem* present… on the table.
I think I literally scared the crap outta them.
No sooner than I had got out my thermos of tea than the clouds proved that they don’t do empty threats. I sat there with my tea (and learned that you shouldn’t take sips straight from the thermos. Ouch) the rain made a curtain around my wee shelter. This is the only shelter on the track so I made sure I made the most of it.
To Taumata Trig
Once my tongue was sufficiently numb from the tea burn (the struggle is real) time was a ticking and it was time to carry on. Onwards and upwards so the saying goes. I started wishing I had packed my trekking pole as the rain made the track fairly slippery from here to the end of the hike.
Another bench seat sat overlooking the valleys. To get to the bench was quite a task. The thin layer of wet mud over the rocks made it hard for my boots to get a grip and the sheer drop from the track made my heart stop. Especially as I lost footing at one point and had to grab the shrub to stop myself. The bench was just out of reach so I gingerly made my way up, feet racing like a cartoon characters feet. My fingers stretched out as far as they could go I eventually made it and pulled myself up and onto the seat.
I kind of hoped this was Taumata Trig. It certainly felt high enough, and why else would they put a seat here? I mean, the view was fantastic but surely, something special called for a bench seat. Alas, it was just wishful thinking and as I slithered off the seat and carefully onto the devil track I looked up. There was still more hill to climb. This wasn’t Taumata Trig after all.
The track went downhill for a while here, my heart also dropped. That meant there was more uphill as Taumata Trig is the highest point of the track.
Eventually, I rounded a corner after a final push up the hill and there it was. Taumata Trig. All that was waiting was a wooden sign. I was hoping it would at least have balloons on it for the effort. Or some chocolate waiting. A glass of wine maybe. At 572m above sea level, this doesn’t seem much. Especially compared to a lot of New Zealand walks. The condition of the track and the multiple steep inclines make it seem like you should be at least double the altitude.
To Taupiri Trig
Taupiri Trig was the next landmark along the way. From Taumata Trig to Taupiri Trig the track is much more overgrown. At times I had to take an educated guess at which direction the track went. I was generally right. Apart from that time I found myself walking a good 20 metres parallel to the track. A clamber up the bank to get back on the right track was in order.
Top Tip: Every so often I would advise you to stop and look ahead to see if you can spot one of the sporadic orange triangles which mark the track. Occasionally Atene Skyline Track will veer off abruptly in a completely different, unexpected direction.
Even though this part of the track was mostly downhill, there were still a fair few uphills. Each time I saw an uphill I stamped my foot and declared that I had done enough inclines for the day. No one listened though.
The descents sometimes took longer than the inclines thanks to the unstable footing. One part, in particular, was a mini cliff, probably as tall as me (so not that high really) that I had to manoeuvre carefully backwards down. Quite entertaining for anyone watching. Luckily there wasn’t.
At times I walked beside the track as the intermittent patches of grass were less slippery than the path. My trekking pole would have certainly come in handy. If only it wasn’t still lying on my bed. At home. 100 km away. Not with me.
Taupiri Trig is announced by another unceremonious wooden sign.
To the Southern Entrance
From Taupiri Trig to the Southern Entrance is the easiest part of the track. It was all downhill and a load of stairs which made the descent faster. And the knees hurtier. I had slipped further back, although I managed to catch myself before my behind made contact with the ground, my knee must have twisted a little bit. Each step jarred my knee and I was limping slightly by the time I got to the road.
My knee didn’t hold much of my attention though as I was so focused on getting to the road. Envisaging the chocolate bar I was going to buy at the petrol station on the way back had taken over. I could actually taste it.
Exiting the last of the bush and crossing the farmland with the road in view was a magical sight. My chocolate bar was so close now. It took me roughly 6 and a half hours to get to this point.
From Taumata Trig I only stopped once for a cup of tea and a couple of times for a really quick photo. Compared to the dozen or so stops on the way to Taumata Trig including many long photo stops as the droplets hanging from various plants captured my attention. I also stopped to have a chat with a Fantail. Had a lunch stop at the foot of a hill and another tea stop at the campsite as well as the random bench stop by the devil track (that part of Atene Skyline Track now has a new name). I think I was just so focused on finishing after Taumata Trig that I didn’t want to stop.
To the car!
It was a relief to be on even footing again. I relished the fact that I was walking and not having to look at where I was putting my feet. Or worry about slipping over. From the Southern Entrance to the Northern Entrance it’s just under 2km of walking along the side of the road. The road follows the river, during the summer you would get beautiful views. However, I got murky views of a brown, dirty river.
The Whanganui River tends to be quite brown anyway due to the silt. It gets even murkier after a bit of rain.
After wandering through the small rural town of Atene (or Athens. Not called this as a result of any resemblance to Greece) and passing a one-lane bridge, the car was in sight. And still in one piece. Bonus. A quick check of the time revealed that it was 6 hours and 50 minutes since setting off. I had completed my goal. Slippers and dry clothes were my rewards.
Things to keep in mind
- Atene Skyline Track is an advanced track. Please make sure you have at least basic navigational skills (the track isn’t always obvious), survival skills, relative fitness and hiking experience.
- There is no cell phone coverage from the time you enter Whanganui River Road on the drive over. Pop a PLB (personal locator beacon) in your pack just to be safe.
- The track is not always obvious and you will need to take an educated guess at the direction you need to take at times.
- Always tell someone where you are going and your expected return time.
- Wear suitable hiking boots. Trainers aren’t gonna cut it this time, baby.
- A trekking pole would also be super handy.
- Pack more water than you think you will need and enough snacks to last longer than you are intending to take.
- There are multiple slips on Atene Skyline Track. Some cover the track entirely and others make the side of the track drop off steeply and abruptly.
- Check the weather before you go. Wind makes parts of the track extremely dangerous due to some exposed ridges (also with sheer drops on either side of the track).
- Apparently, wasps are common from January through to May. If you are allergic, chuck your antihistamine in your pack.
- There are loads of local wildlife. As you navigate Atene Skyline Track be prepared to encounter wild deer, goats and pigs. Stay out of their way and remember, you are a visitor in their patch of the world, not the other way around. See how many native (and not so native) birds you can spot. I saw many Fantails, a few Kereru (wood pigeons) and even a couple of parakeets alongside all the usual suspects such as sparrows and magpies.
- For more hiking tips, check out this post for my top 11 hiking tips.
- If you are hiking solo, I have the post for you filled with solo hiking tips + why you should give it a go.
Though this is a difficult track. It was so rewarding actually completing it. During the summer you would get magnificent views all the way out to Mount Ruapehu. Though my views didn’t stretch quite that far, the clouds cleared at times long enough for me to get some pretty stunning views of the surrounding valleys.
The local wildlife (though startling at first) came as a welcome distraction from my own conversations with myself. Even if they didn’t stick around long enough for a proper heart to heart. Usually just long enough for me to see a tail disappearing down the hill. But still, it was comforting knowing I wasn’t the only soul there.
If you are wanting to challenge yourself or even just go to a lesser used track, Atene Skyline Track might just be for you.
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