Approaching Mount Egmont National Park feels like the preliminary stages of a rollercoaster. The road steadily begins to rise. Your head begins to tilt back. It becomes darker. The car engine begins to strain as the ground steepens. The bright, wooded plains are left behind, as you plunge into the dense forest. And just for a moment, before the dark canopy of trees blocks out the light, you see it.
Mount Taranaki. The Lonely Mountain. It rises to approximately 2518 metres (8251 ft) and dominates this region of New Zealand’s North Island. It is part of a volcanic belt that straddles the island. Taranaki in the west. Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe in the centre and White Island off the east coast. Taranaki roughly translates to ‘Shining Peak’ in the wonderfully evocative Maori tongue. This must be a reference to the snow-peaked summit, or the small patch of cloud invariably crowning this king of mountains, catching the sun on a bright day. Captain Cook first sighted the mountain in 1770 and swiftly named it Egmont in honour of a British Admiral. The national park surrounding the mountain still bears his name. This contradiction in meaning, culture and ownership led to the most devastating conflicts in New Zealand’s history. Some wounds never heal.
Day One – North Egmont to Holly Hut
We would be hiking in this region for three days. Before summiting Taranaki, we planned to explore the slopes of the mountain and trek the mysterious Pouakai range to the north-west. This day would be short, but steep. We began by climbing a narrow path up one of Taranaki’s mighty wooded shoulders. The weather shifted quickly, and within an hour warm layers had been deployed, though I stubbornly remained in shorts. The path slid around the torso of the mountain, cut into the delicate and volatile slopes with scalpel-like precision. Navigating our way around the mountain was trickier than the initial ascent. A crumbly, narrow path required us to walk in single file.
The legend of Mount Taranaki is a fascinating illustration of how story-telling helped Maori tribes understand their natural world. Many centuries ago, Mount Taranaki and Mount Tongariro were peaceful neighbours. Jealousy over the maiden peak Pihanga eventually brought these two titans into conflict, and after an earth-shattering battle, Taranaki was defeated and banished to the coast. It is said Taranaki is waiting, biding his time before confronting Tongaririo again.
We reached the scene of a huge rock slide. Spilling down the side of the mountain like an overflowing stream, the ‘Boomerang Slip’ is described as being an active slip. A small sign urged us to navigate this section of the path with haste. This was a slash down the flank of the mountain. We were in the presence of a battle-hardened warrior, weathered by time and warfare. It was a humbling experience to hike in an area so revered by the Maori.
Late in the afternoon, we reached Holly Hut. It was one of the most inviting alpine shelters I had ever seen. Resting in a peaceful clearing, the peak of the mountain was still visible behind the hut. The sound of a stream and birdsong added to the idyllic setting. There was a chill in the air, and a fire had been lit in the hut’s furnace. We greeted the hikers inside, dropped our bags by a bed and headed back out. With the evening drawing in, we walked back up the hill for one last look at the mountain. The cloud was starting to clear, and Taranaki was bathed in golden light. It was nearly dark before I was able to tear myself away.
Day Two – Holly Hut to Visitor Centre
Leaving the hut early, our path soon brought us to a boardwalk. Ahukawakawa Swamp would have been nearly impossible to navigate without the boardwalk. We were walking away from Taranaki and towards the densely wooded Pouakai ranges. If these mysterious peaks were in another region of the country, they would be revered by both hiker and tourist alike. As it is, they sit quietly to Taranaki’s north-west, overshadowed, forgotten.
Perhaps I was daydreaming or looking too far ahead, but I slipped on the edge of the boardwalk. My left leg plunged into the swamp. The thick mud yielded and released my leg after a considerable effort. Mud up to my knee and a graze brought nothing but mirth to Lisa. Who needs enemies with friends like these?
We saw nobody all day until early afternoon. After climbing for some time, the track brought us to a small pond and the clearest view so far of Taranaki. Two groups, at least a dozen people, were photographing the mountain from the same spot. The still water in the foreground, the dormant volcano in the background. It transpired a picture taken from this spot had been used in a Lonely Planet guide from a previous year. Everyone wanted the same picture. Bewildered by this lack of imagination, we moved on.
The track sloped steeply down from the hills, and soon we were in the dense forest. Streams charged noisily below us as we navigated an ever-narrowing path. It was a relief to be temporarily hidden from the gaze of the mountain. Our concentration and energy went towards watching our footing and slowly moving downwards by tree root and boulder. Swing bridges helped us over the larger of the streams. Eventually, we reached an end to the trees and hit tarmac. A short but steep walk up the road brought us to the visitor centre and our car. Over the past two days we had covered 25 kilometres. Tomorrow we would scale the mountain.
Day Three – Mount Taranaki
Climbing mountains can be intimidating. A long day, exposed to the elements and constantly climbing can be exhausting, not just physically, but mentally too. Our ascent of Mount Taranaki was to be broken down into stages. Our first target was the Tahurangi Lodge. This privately owned lodge would be reached roughly two hours into the climb. We had been told the previous evening by a Ranger to allow ten hours for the whole trip.
Our spirits were high when we reached the lodge within 90 minutes. We had made a good start. This section of the track was a solid path, known locally as ‘The Puffer’. It was a Saturday, and after encountering few people the previous two days, seeing the numerous groups attempting the climb was a strange experience. We had become used to having mountain ranges to ourselves.
The ascent had been strenuous, and now the route took us through the boulder-strewn Hongi Valley. Orange poles, roughly five-foot-high kept us on course. With the sun beating down, we frequently stopped to rehydrate. The most difficult stage was yet to come. For two hours, we batted up a steep scree slope. Without a solid footing to push off from, progress felt slow. Cloud enveloped us; visibility was significantly reduced. Then finally, rock. The scree had been navigated, and the cloud began to disperse. I did not allow myself to stop for too long, wanting to keep momentum and enjoy the views from the summit.
The next stage was The Lizard. This prominent rocky ridge leads hikers to a snow-filled crater that surrounds the summit. People were numerous here, resting or congratulating each other. The summit can also be reached from the eastern side of Taranaki, with the climb starting at a higher point at a small ski slope. It was obvious who had begun their journey from there, as they were not drenched in sweat of covered in dust from the scree.
Taranaki is now likely dormant. Its last eruption was believed to be in 1755. The summit felt like a battlefield. Blasted rock and ice gave the mountain a skeletal quality. The final climb to the summit followed a spine of harsh rock, which grazed our hands and knees. The view from the top was sensational. The South Island was just about visible. The circular nature of the national park was evident. We were surrounded by an orderly forest, the dark green of the trees stopping abruptly at plains and farmland. The National Park is a circular area with a radius of six miles (9.6 km) from the summit and protected as a Forest Reserve. A birds-eye view of the region places Taranaki at the bulls-eye of a target.
Our descent was significantly shorter than the ascent. At the precarious scree slope, I noticed hikers effectively skiing down at great speed. By digging their heels into the scree, pushing down, and using their thighs as brakes, this awkward section was navigated at great speed. I tried this too, and the rips in the backside of my trousers attest to the low quality of my skiing. But it did not matter. As the sun began to set, the peaks of the Tongariro Crossing came into view. This was the next destination on our hiking marathon.
Mount Taranaki, the Lonely Mountain. Brooding. Sentient. Standing alone, but unrivalled in stature.