The Hard Way
Circling and summiting Mount Taranaki
When you’re close to Mount Taranaki, walking around it for four days, you see that all those logos lie. It’s not the same smooth and symmetrical cone on the signs for the bank and the local shops, but something much more jagged and lumpy. There’s no forgetting it’s a volcano you’re looking at.
This circuit, with its view from all degrees, is a popular tramp. So much so it has its own acronym, the AMC (Around the Mountain Circuit). Although it’s nothing compared to the nine hour walk up the mountain and back – for the satisfaction of summiting, tourists come from all over, in various levels of fitness and in every kind of inappropriate footwear (boat shoes, gumboots, even jandals have been worn for what is partly a scramble up rough scree).
Thom and I started our AMC at the north of the mountain, on a well-marked track which gradually rose, taking us through airy bush of leatherwoods and ferns. We tramped up to a point where the bush stopped, then followed a ledge of earth on the mountainside. We passed the Dieffenbach Cliffs, named for Ernst Dieffenbach who, as leader of a motley group of explorers, crossed the area in 1839 on his way to the summit. An earnest young geologist exiled from his native Germany for his liberal political beliefs, Dieffenbach was able to persuade local chief Kake to go with him, and he in turn brought two slaves. Their guide for the trip was Tangutu, a Māori mystic turned ardent missionary who would wake them all in the small hours of the morning with his prayers and hymn singing. Also in on the trip (until he fell and slid half way down the mountain) was an African-American cook known as Black Lee, and a 31-year-old whaler named James Heberley.
By early afternoon we came to Holly Hut, and watched as trampers filed in, group by group until every one of its 32 bunks was occupied and the last arrivals were forced to sleep on the floor. Our own bunkroom filled up with two families, including a boisterous snorer and a young boy who would sit up and speak, seemingly still asleep. Nice people, all of them, but still we were happy to get away and get into the bush early the next morning.
Our route on that second day veered out toward the coast, remaining in the bush but for river crossings. This was a dark and leafy forest of kamahi, miro and mahoe, and we tramped through it at a steady pace, all the while talking politics, history, tramping technique and TV shows. We solved most of the world’s problems, probably. But always we forgot those solutions the minute we encountered a river to ford or a fallen tree to move around.
We arrived at Waiaua Gorge. A couple were already there: a Dutch oil tycoon and his Russian wife, resting, possibly still traumatised from their long first day. They too had reached Holly Hut the day before, they told us, but decided to push on to the further Kahui Hut. They didn’t make it there till 10pm and after all that scrambling through the dark they found it full. Bedding down on the hard wooden floor was their reward for the day. Now they sat on the sun-warmed verandah of Waiaua Gorge Hut, the man trying to decide whether they should do the seven hour walk that led to Lake Dive Hut or to give up on the circuit and walk out to the road. His wife waited for his decision, passing the time by reading a Russian newspaper and asking us a series of direct and personal questions: “How old are you?” “Do you have children?” “Why not?”
Below us lay the gorge. It was a real rift in the land, a deep valley with a narrow river at the bottom. Above us, as always, was the mountain. Bare at this time of the year – no bush, no snow. That evening, after a meal of instant soup and instant noodles, but before our nightcap of whisky in plastic mugs, we watched it change colour as the sun went down. The peak turned rust red, like a Monument Valley spire in an old western, and then it darkened to a deep, green grey.
We clambered down a fixed ladder into the gorge early the next morning. About us the bush dew was drying off and the loamy smell of the forest was rising. We headed up, puffing as we tramped out of the bush and along a narrow ridge that took us to rock bluffs that were like a concrete wall on the mountain side. A man was there, a lean and rangy local perched on a rock beside the track, glugging from a water bottle. Don’t bother heading back down the hill he said. Take a shortcut and go straight up to Syme Hut on Fantham’s Peak, the ledge jutting out of Taranaki’s cone. “It’s just all moss and tussock you’ll be walking up,” he said. “Girls do it. I see them coming down, screaming and carrying on.”
It was only as we staggered up this steep, steep slope that we thought hard about his advice. He hadn’t taken this route himself, he had seen girls doing it. And they were just coming down, not going up. And they were screaming. We now knew why. Despite being soft moss underfoot, this was tough going after climbing out of the bush - the sun was beating down, there was no way to go but straight up. It was an intense relief to reach the top, a feeling tempered by the strangeness of the place. We had come to the Rangitoto Flat, a landscape devoid of anything growing, just mounds of stones and dust. Nearby was Syme Hut, a small building in the shadow of the mountain, tied down to the ground with wire rope. Its wooden floors were splintered by crampons, and there was a row of bunks, a table and a bench, but no fire. Two men were already there, and later we would watch a third scramble down the rough scree of Taranaki’s peak.
We were closer than we had ever been to the summit. Although we had set out with no plans to climb it, we now thought hard about it. The climb would add a mountain peak to our trip, while skipping another lengthy day of walking through bush and in and out of river beds. All afternoon and evening we pondered it. Despite the advantages, the peak was daunting. The face we could see looked impossibly steep and was made up of only loose scree and scoria. Our fellow hut occupant had done it as a day trip with only a light pack. “That part near the top is horribly dispiriting,” he told us. He said it was a matter of sliding back one step for every two forward.
Still worn out from our day of steep climbing, we ruled it out. We would carry on through the bush as planned. Yet we found ourselves looking again and again to the mountain, to that difficult slope, wondering. Waking the next morning, we heard wind whipping the hut. “No way,” we said. “Definitely not.” But a few hours later, our bellies full of porridge, we found ourselves at the edge of the peak still pretending to be undecided.
We began, trudging up the scree. It wasn’t hard at all, easy even. All our deliberation had been over this? Soon the hut and clouds were behind us. A helicopter went by, below us. But as we climbed and the slope became steeper, the scree thinned out. It slid under our feet, like marbles on a lino floor. We needed to use our hands, crawling and sometimes taking a break by lying on our stomachs. Thom tried carving footholds with his boots, and we went up like that, moving slowly. At one point I waited for him to go ahead, and watched a stone dislodge and roll and roll down the slope, gathering speed and skipping along the surface to go rolling out across the flats.
Three hours after we had started our ascent, we hauled ourselves up into Mount Taranaki’s crater, a sheet of iced over snow ringed by a neat wall of fractured rock. Thom and I noticed these things only vaguely. We were dazed, still reeling from that horrible scree. Our faces were dusty and our clothes were rank after four days of lugging heavy packs and the sweat of the scree climb. Having forgotten a hat, Thom had wrapped a tea towel around his head. In this state we staggered across the crater and almost bumped into two children, an Asian boy and girl sitting in the sun, cradling an enormous bag of barbecue Doritos. More people emerged – German tourists in street clothes, a chubby young man in sunglasses, and the children’s father. The area was all activity, a tourist hub. It seemed we’d come there the hard way.
On the peak itself, we joined the crowds looking out over the farm land and towns of Taranaki, over the clouds and the ocean. There was much snapping of cameras, and everyone remarked on the fantastic views. Yet I felt strangely unimpressed. Since Syme Hut we had had fantastic views. The peak gave a great vantage point but it now seemed an arbitrary achievement – it was our four days in the bush, the weirdness of the crater, the steepness of that scree slope that would remain with me, and that would keep us going as we began the long and tedious plod downhill.