High up Mt Taranaki

By Liz Light

Liz Light takes a walk up Mt Taranaki.

Halfway up The Puffer, trees and shrubs have given way to tussock grass and alpine herbs. Photo / Liz Light
Halfway up The Puffer, trees and shrubs have given way to tussock grass and alpine herbs. Photo / Liz Light

It's a perfectly formed volcanic cone and a perfect day. As we drive through lush pasture land, the conical shape of Mt Taranaki doesn't change. The mountain is skirted with dark forest and, towards the top, the brown rocks and tussock are covered with bright white snow in winter.

The geological story behind this exquisitely shaped mountain is that it formed during repeated volcanic eruptions about 120,000 years ago. It last erupted, in a minor way, in 1775, so volcanology experts describe it as dormant rather than active or extinct.

It must have put on a great show back in its exploding days, throwing fire, rocks and lava high enough to build that perfect cone.

Captain Cook sailed past on the Endeavour in 1771 and christened it Mt Egmont after John Perceval, Earl of Egmont and Lord of the Admiralty. The good earl supported Cook's first voyage and naming the mountain after him was his reward.

Now, it is more commonly known by its first name, Taranaki, which means shining peak. The Maori story of its creation is much more romantic that the geological one.

Taranaki, a male mountain, lived with the other volcanoes in the Central Plateau and when he made loving advances to pretty little Pihanga, possessive Tongariro blew his top (as volcanoes do) in rage and Taranaki was forced to flee to the west. On the way he carved out the Wanganui River then settled near the setting sun.

I read that the 2518m summit is a six- to eight-hour round trip. It's tempting, but when we leave the carpark at North Egmont Visitor Centre and start walking we realise every step is a steep step up, so we settle for a less-challenging half-way-to-the-top loop.

Part of the pleasure of the climb is noticing the progressive changes in the plant species that grow at different altitudes as we ascend. Mt Taranaki's lowland flanks are covered with dense rainforest dominated by giant rimu and rata. At the carpark, the forest giants have given way to kamahi, totara and kaikawa. As we climb, the trees become increasingly stunted and gnarly and are decorated with skeins of hanging moss. It's very goblin-esque and would be magic at night; I can see the hanging webs of glow-worms under dark mossy banks.

By the time we reach a stretch of the track appropriately called The Puffer, the forest has shrunk so that I'm taller than it. The views go on forever; to Tongariro and Ruapehu in the east and over New Plymouth, with its tall chimney about the size of a pin, to the curved shiny Tasman Sea.

There are apparently 28 species of native birds in the park, including 60 or so pairs of kiwi and 15 species of introduced birds. But in my four-hour walk I see only one wood pigeon swooping into a valley, a thrush and a small unidentifiable bird fossicking in leaf litter.

The haul up The Puffer is hellish, and any wistful thoughts of the summit are banished. By the time we reach Tahurangi Lodge the forest has disappeared and we are surrounded by knee-high alpine tussock grasses.

A cloud has appeared from nowhere and is playing peek-a-boo with the mountain, covering it, swirling around and then withdrawing and showing the peak again. We skirt around the mountain for half an hour before heading down the also aptly named Razorback. Going down is a breeze. We are soon in the Mountain Cafe scoffing panini and drinking coffee. I've earned it.

IF YOU GO

* The summit is a 1.6km vertical climb that takes between six and eight hours return. The weather is changeable and unpredictable, so check at the visitor centre before you go, and take enough clothing and equipment to ensure you are able to cope with any type of weather.

* The summit track to Tahurangi Lodge and the loop down the Razorback takes four hours.

- NZ Herald

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