New Zealand: Around the Mountain (Taranaki)

Anvil headed black clouds sit over the grey sea. The rain is coming. 10 centimetres any time from now. I don’t want to go anyway, so I don’t. Another day of rest, of waiting. At around 2pm the weather bomb drops. Nothing happens. All day. I spend most of it lying down. Outside puddles form and fill. Grass is submerged. Earth turns to mush. By morning the clouds have barely lifted, still grey but no longer emptying over the land. No more excuses but I still leave late. I park in the Egmont Visitor Centre car park. I chat with the woman from the Department of Convservation about the weather. Improving but unlikely to be ideal. Good enough. Holly Hut is only a 3 hour walk from here. I’ve done it before, so I know what to expect. The ridge climb is a grunt. Hot inside my waterproof. The rain comes in short, fast bursts. Refreshing, rather than soaking. The sun returns, warming my back. Views open up beyond the mountain. The fields of green that lie beyond the dark of the forest. Clag passes through and around the endless ridges of Taranaki. The streams cut fissures through lava bluffs. The land looking as though it has been wrenched apart by the hands of a giant.

The track is flooded with yesterday’s rain. Sometimes it flows, impersonating a stream. Other times, deep clear pools wait to bathe my boots. My feet are wet, I’m not sure they were dry to begin with. There wasn’t much time between here and Ruapehu. I drove out of the village of Whakapapa, went north to Te Kuiti where I knew the fuel was cheaper. From there I drove all the way out West, back to New Plymouth where I planned on having a day off, which quickly turned into two. I left my boots outside the van in a pocket of sunshine. In the 10 minutes they had on their own, an isolated shower had already washed over them.

Around the next corner the weather closes in again. Whatever view there was is lost to me. Ahead I can hear human sounds. Screaming or laughing, I’m not sure. I catch up with Amy and Decan. “Are we having a nice time?” I ask. “We’re getting there,” said Amy. “Not far to go now,” I tell them as I pass. A little further along is the signpost I’ve been waiting for. 5 more minutes to Holly Hut. Inside I meet Josh who is going around the mountain the other way. Most of the bunks are taken by members of a work crew who are busy rebuilding the boardwalks across the Ahukawakawa Swamp. Amy and Declan come in not long after me. Once we’re settled they ask Josh and I if we want to join them for Monopoly Deal. “Is it going to take as long as Monopoly?” Josh asks. Amy tells us it’s a quick game, we could even have a few rounds. “I’m keen,” I say, “but I must warn you I’m very competitive.” Which turns out to be nothing compared to Declan, who beats us every time. Dinner happens, the rest of the trail workers return. A group of girls working on their Duke of Edinburgh Award come in and start making an instant cheese cake. The mix needs time to chill in the fridge, something they haven’t carried in with them. The outside temperature is probably cold enough, so they leave the pan on the deck. One of the workers, Matthew comes and takes notes on my journal. “Just let him write,” one of the others interjects. I try to explain the notes aren’t important. None of this matters. The brief conversation we have means more. Matthew brings out a selection of spoons. The girls have decided they’ve had enough cheesecake, so we finish off the gooey, biscuity mess. Supervising the girls is Liz, a member of the local Mountain Search and Rescue team who gives us good chat. We talk of good trails, of bad trails, of trail building. Staying up late is easier, Holly Hut is one of those few off the Great Walk circuit to have solar lights.

I wake to the smell of bacon wafting through Holly Hut. The trail builders certainly eat well out here. I tick off the morning motions, put on my damp socks and slide into wet boots. As I leave the mist begins to burn off. The track leads first to Bell Falls. One of the workers assured me the sign is right. It really does take half an hour to get there and I make it take that long as well.  Between the high canopy, the summit of Taranaki emerges. I’ve already seen more than I’d expected to. The sky is open, blue. The sun bursts over the Pouakai Range. Light glitters through the forest. Against the bright light, deep in the shadows a plunging torrent of white burst out of a valley. Not bad. I continue down the track in to the bed of the Stony River. I hear a distinct whistling sound nearby. Where are you? I peer across the flowing waters, looking in the pools up and downstream. On the rocks almost directly in front of me a pair of Whio chat to one another. I stop to admire them for a while. They join the main course of the river, sitting still while the water rushes away around them.

More water courses flow off Taranaki to join the Stony River. So much of the black sand beaches of the West coast begins here. This mountain is in decline. At one stream crossing I hesitate, then I remember my feet are still wet from yesterday and plunge straight through. The Duke of Edinburgh team are somewhere in front of me. I follow their footprints through black sand, choosing to cross creeks where they have. I have no doubt they’re better educated in these matters than I am. The further I get from Holly Hut, the worse the quality of track gets. The West face of Taranaki has no visitor centre, no road. This side of the Egmont National Park remains wild and relatively untamed. I am surprised then to find an aluminium ladder in place to make short work of a descent in to another stream bed. Things don’t improve. I schelp and schlurp through mud. A keruru bursts into life overhead. Often, I am the loudest sound in the forest. Sometimes the next stream is louder. A tui impersonates a Star Wars droid somewhere in the canopy. I reach the junction for Kahui Hut. Sat on the floor around the signpost are the Duke of Edinburgh Team. “How’s it going so far?” they ask. “Easy,” I tell them, “I got to follow your footprints.” That’s not the case from here. They’re turning off, up to the nearer hut. I’ve still got a while to go to reach Waiaua Gorge Hut. Liz tells me the track gets a little better from here, some of the streams are bridged. Catching silk threads of cobwebs with my face. I slide down gullies and scramble up the other side. None of the streams are bridges. Only after I pass the second turn off for the Kahui Hut do I find bridges, which make moving forward so much easier. To compensate I find huge bogs between trees, where leaf litter has mixed with rain water. The mud sucks at my boots and I pull on through.

When I arrive at Waiaua Gorge Hut I find it empty. I have the place to myself for as long as it takes to get the fire going. There’s no kindling, no axe, but plenty of wood. There’s a single candle. I remember nearly burning a house down with a candle once, so I’m sure that will help in getting a fire started. I drip melted wax on to wood and cardboard. This seems to hold the flame for long enough. The splinters of pine begin to crackle. Then a father turns up with his children. Not long after, their mother and a friend arrive. Mum and her friend have come from Egmont Visitor Centre. They’re going around the mountain in two days. There will always be someone out there going harder, doing better than you. I’ve learned now to celebrate it. “You’re crazy, good for you.” I tell them. They apologise for disturbing my peace, which is nice as I was hoping for a quiet night. The kids push Dad to play the Yes No Game with them, which they lose on the first question every time. Then they sit around the table playing some form of Scattergories. I find I’m unwittingly justifying answers whenever an argument breaks out. “What’s a dugong?” Dad asks. “It’s like a manatee,” I reply after Mom’s friend struggles to explain. The family move towards the fire. “Thanks for lighting the fire for us,” the father says. “Sure,” I say, thinking I didn’t do it for you.

The ladies racing around the mountain suggested they wanted to be on the track at 7am. I get up just before then and am the first to do so. I watch the dawn light erupt over the top of Taranaki. In the end my fellow guests still leave before me, which is good because I don’t want to be chased. Dad and the kids are left to clean up. In the beginning I find I’m a little unsteady on my feet. Not awake yet? Or maybe not quite up to another big day. There used to be another hut on this side of Taranaki. The warning notes online I checked the day before I left informed me Lake Dive Hut burned down late last year. The only way to get around is to keep walking. So much for taking it easy. I haven’t warmed up. I’m not better off after the first stream crossing. My legs aren’t long enough. I don’t have the strength. The rocks are wet and covered is moss. I rest with my left foot and start to slide. I swap to the right and slip. All I think about is falling. I try and push on, get both feet up and they both fly backwards. I land on my hands, spread over the rock. I wonder if I land comfortably because I’d already seen in it happen in my mind, or if thinking about falling made me fall. Sometimes it’s both safer, and easier to get your feet wet. The boots I’d managed to almost dry out overnight in front of the fire are soaked through again.

The steep drop in and ridiculous climb out of Waiaua Gorge breaks me in to the day. The first stop is another waterfall. Brames Falls is almost invisible with the morning sun shining from directly behind it. From this distance I’m not impressed, the trail never gets any closer. I don’t care. I ride the ridge up the mountainside, only ever one foot slip away from falling down either side. I slide backwards on the slick mud more than once. I reach the high point beneath what I assume is Bob’s Bluff. Towering cliffs of organ pipe rock formations. It isn’t Bob’s Bluff at all. The one Bob got named after himself is another boost up the side of Taranaki. This open face of rock doesn’t get a name, nor do they get marked on the map.

A boulder sticks out across what little track there is. Branches or roots emerge from beneath. I’m not going to get passed with my pack. I put one leg on the wood and lean forward. My pack scrapes to a halt on stone. I can’t release my foot. I’m facing straight down a gully. No thank you. I slide backwards, pull my foot out and swing around. Made it. The base of the bluff is as challenging as the climb up. I have one foot on a boulder, my second one comes down and both slip out from under. I have no idea how I’m managing to control each fall but I land softly on my front. “Fucker,” I spit in to the boulders face. I pull myself over the next one and sit down for a second. What am I doing here?  Why am I walking around a dormant volcano alone? Whose stupid idea was this? There’s nothing else I can do but keep moving. One foot in front of the other.

After a while things get easier again. The two ladies are on the ridge ahead. They turn back and wave. I drop in to a deep gorge, cross a dry stream bed and start coming up the other side. “Oh hello,” a voice says. Emma stops for a chat. She summited yesterday in the fine weather and then slid down the scree slopes to Syme Hut. “Are you staying there? It’s the best hut I’ve stayed in. You really should go,” she tells me. I know the forecast for tonight is rain. I also know if I go up, I have to come down. “I’ll think about it,” I say. “How about this gorge eh? Wasn’t expecting to find this here. It’s not on the map.” She’s right. Hardly any of the features around the mountain are marked. I suddenly realise I’ve been spoiled by OS Maps at home, where seemingly everything is marked. The map translates to the landscape. Fewer surprises. Emma moves on, halfway around her own circuit. Another bigger bad-ass than me on the trail. I carry on, walking my own walk.

The trail follows a contour line, only one boot wide, broken by repeated dips into creek beds and over streams. I stop to watch the ghoulish grey clouds spin and twist up the slopes of Taranaki. Like ropes they pull thick cloud cover in. I reach the Southern summit route. Up the mountain is Syme Hut. Down the infinite staircase is the Dawson Falls Visitor Centre. The moss covered goblin trees near the visitor centre stop me. I spin on the spot, looking up at the endless levels of green. Somehow I realise I’ve missed this. The North Island does bush different. Better than the seemingly endless beech forests of the South Island. At Dawson Falls I find the cafe is still open. I’ve got at least another hour of walking ahead. I drop in and order a hot chocolate, which comes with a couple of marshmallows on the side. Something to help with the final push. From out the window I could almost see the hut on the opposing ridge line. Not more than 500 meters from here. I can’t get there that way, I have to head up the valley and down the other side. As I finally approach Waigongoro Hut it looks like somebody is home. Again I find no smoke, inside there’s a lemon, an onion, a pan and a black sack full of rubbish. The bunkrooms are empty. While I’m unpacking my bag I hear the tapping of feet. Someone is here. I peer in to the kitchen. Empty. How strange. Only when I go to fill out the intentions book to I learn the source of the noise. Rats in the walls. Brilliant.

I get up in the night to check the wall rats aren’t destroying my stuff. I don’t see any movement, nor to I see any indication of general rummaging. Maybe they can’t get out of the walls.  I get up again for real and get on with it. The weather is good again in the morning so I commit to the high track via the ski fields. The formed track is oh my god, so nice, amazing as long as it lasts. The Stratford Plateau comes fast and easy and with it one of the finest views of Taranaki so far. One that shows it isn’t the perfect cone after all. The South side sweeping up again to form Fantham’s Peak, which is tucked away up in the clouds. I reach Manganui Gorge and meet the wind head on. I push through to the shelter at the ski field and add some more layers. Things get worse. The wind brings the clouds over the mountain. The sky closes in. Visibility drops. Rain starts to fall. I take shelter under the deck of the Tahurangi Lodge.  I swap my fleece for my waterproof. Some guys come back from an aborted summit attempt. No visibility up there either, and too much ice. I’m glad to have passed up on going up. I think I could go up but I don’t know I could get down again. Down is going to destroy me.

I have to go down from here to Maketawa Hut. I could see the hut briefly in the gaps between the clouds. Not far to go. The wind sprints cold over the summit. Rain beats down. The steps down are pools of water with muddy bottoms. I take my time. I could even go all the way out today but what’s the point? I’m already wet through, the hut is dry and will be warm too once I get a fire going. Day trippers stop in. A man with a Ta Moko on his face comes in and fascinates me with tales of Maori victories against British troops back in the day. It sounds like they won, but today it feels like they didn’t. He tells me more about his hopes for a brighter future for the Maori of Aotearoa. I regret not having a recorder, not keeping a record of all his words.

Wind rattles around the Maketawa Hut. Rain slams in to the walls with such force I wonder if the door is open. Again I find there is a scuttling and squeaking of rodents in the walls. I’m only an hour’s walk from the van if they make it in to the communal area and in to my food. Safe to say the night’s rest is not the best. In the morning I doze, no rush. The front door clicks open. Already? I guess I’d better get up then. There’s a man making breakfast in the communal area. He’d been to the dawn parade. It takes me a minute to realise today must be Anzac Day. He settles in and talks to me about how Maori are trying to create a divide, how things aren’t as simple, as easy as they used to be. I feel like I’m getting the other side of yesterday’s conversation, the conservative white farmer. The conflict of views, of stories, is astounding. As more and more day trippers pop in for a look I make my exit. The final walk out is easy. I start to sweat on the final climb. No matter, everything will be going into the wash later. I pop out of the bush into the overflowing with cars carpark of the Egmont Visitor Centre. The sun is shining. The summit is exposed. A light dusting of snow litters the peak. I unpack in to the van. I go in to the visitor centre. In a few days my backcountry hut pass expires.

I worked it out, at a cost of $94 up front I ended up paying around $5 for every night I spent in a hut. Bargain. I don’t hesitate in replacing my 6 month pass with 12 even though I don’t have that long left. Had I been paying full price for each night, the second pass would have already paid for itself. Then it’s done. Another big track consigned to memory. I hit the road. The roll down hill returns the fuel gauge to full, which is a lot cheaper than filling up with diesel. I stop in the town of Stratford to shop. All I know for sure is I need soap, then I need somewhere to stay with a shower and some laundry. The holiday park in town has a private spa available for $5 for half an hour. I go all in. Treat yourself. Then it’s the usual post-hike debrief. A shower, clean clothes. Look in the mirror with slightly less disgust than last time. Laundry, with not enough time to hang it on the line. And then tea, copious amounts of tea.

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