Slippery slopes, threatening weather and a very early start don't stop Vicki Virtue from getting high on the beauty and spirituality of Mt Hikurangi, the first mountain in NZ to see the sun.
"Where?" was my first response when Peter Hillary suggested we climb Mt Hikurangi.
Despite it being the first mountain in New Zealand to see the sun, the highest non-volcanic peak in the North Island and according to Ngati Porou the first piece of land to emerge when Maui fished up the North Island, I'd never heard of it. When I told friends I was going to climb it, they gave me the same blank expression.
For those of you who also don't know, it's about 20km inland from Ruatoria and the highest mountain in the Raukumara Range that runs from Bay of Plenty to East Cape, arguably the most rugged and remote region in the North Island.
But to Ngati Porou it's a lot more than just a geographical point of interest — to them it's a sacred mountain they look after like a grandparent. Ngati Porou believe they've been in the region since the land emerged from the sea and Hikurangi, at that time, was the iwi's breadbasket — a mountain covered in rich forest and teeming with wildlife. Today the mountain still provides food by way of a working farm on the lower slopes.
Peter Hillary is in the midst of compiling a list of the seven most important summits in the North Island, and though the final seven are still to be agreed, Hikurangi is almost certain to be one of them: for its geographical location, historical significance and (if I may suggest) difficulty.
Having recently climbed Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain, with Peter, I have some idea how his interpretation of "easy" compares to mine — so when he assured me climbing Hikurangi would be a walk in the park, I knew to be a little sceptical.
In fairness the first four hours are relatively easy up a farm track, but after that it starts getting a bit harder. We spent the night at the hut about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, because we wanted to summit for dawn and be the first people in New Zealand to see the sun rise. Unfortunately that meant getting up at the indecent hour of 3.15am — and I'm not a morning person.
The slope behind the hut was challenging (mind you, even a flat path would have been at that hour). It was steep and peppered with clumps of speargrass, or Wild Spaniard as it's less descriptively called, which invariably grew in the exact spot where I needed to grab hold of something for balance. Fortunately we had a 14-year-old with us, who insisted he was absolutely fine wearing shorts and charged ahead, his yelps of pain providing an effective warning system for the rest of us. The grass looks remarkably innocuous, but it's incredibly sharp and not something you want to accidently sit on, as I nearly did on more than one occasion.
It was a clear night when we set off, but as we entered the forest, low cloud enveloped us. It's a strange feeling walking at night in a misty forest: the old trees started to look like ents from The Lord of the Rings, pondering the strange creatures out and about so early. There isn't a lot of forest left on Hikurangi: most of it was burned during the early 1900s to make way for farmland. What remains is mountain beech forest, an unusual sight so far north, but the high altitude that sustains it no doubt saved it from the inferno.
The rough path required a slow, steady approach in the dark: in places it was quite steep and slippery, especially once we hit the scree chute leading to the summit. I spent most of my time clambering up on all fours like a mountain goat (without the grace and agility).
It was a delicate balancing act heading up the chute: if I put my foot on the wrong pile of loose rocks I would have started a small avalanche. So I edged up as gingerly as a tightrope walker, trying not to look down because on the one occasion I did it looked mighty steep.
At the top, a narrow ridge stood between me, and the summit, with a sheer drop on either side. At that point I decided I'd gone quite far enough. I could see the summit, and I saw no need to risk life and limb to stand on top of it.
But it's not quite the same is it? You can't climb a mountain and not go to the top, it makes the rest of the effort seem somehow pointless. It might have been this sense of purpose, my pride or the reassuring words of encouragement from my partner to "just get a move on" that sent me scampering across and to the top. I missed sunrise by about 10 minutes, but I didn't mind, the views were spectacular and I no doubt saw the sun before most people in New Zealand.
There are two summits on Hikurangi: according to Ngati Porou, the right hand summit with the trig station is the male summit, and the left hand one the female summit. Although the male summit is geographically higher, Ngati Porou believe the female summit is the highest due to women being held in higher regard.
We'd tried to climb Hikurangi many times before, but the weather had always hampered our efforts. On this attempt the approaching rain held off just long enough for us to reach the top, but it was bitterly cold and the cloud started to close in, so we beat a hasty retreat. Strangely, the narrow ridge and scree chute didn't look anywhere near as steep and terrifying to me on the return journey.
The rain held off just long enough for us to get back to the hut and enjoy the magnificent views we missed during our night-time ascent. It's a stunning part of New Zealand: the mountains, rivers, valleys, and hardly any people or houses to spoil the landscape.
A highlight of our visit was Te Takapau a Maui: the incredible carvings produced by artist and art tutor Derek Lardelli for the millennium celebrations on Hikurangi. The scale of the site is extraordinary, and listening to the story behind the works is fascinating.
Ngati Porou believe they are direct descendants of Maui, and the nine huge carvings, just below the mountain hut, pay tribute to Maui and his family. Legend has it his canoe remains buried deep within the mountain. A superb carving depicting Maui himself is the centrepiece of Te Takapau a Maui and the other eight carvings are positioned in a circle to reflect a traditional navigation compass. Waka Haurua, the first carving in the series, faces east to the rising sun and every year on January 1 Maui watches the sun rise between the two wakas that form the entrance to Te Takapau a Maui.
When we set out to climb Hikurangi, Paora from the Ngati Porou Tourism Centre told us, "If getting to the top of Mt Hikurangi is your sole aim, then you're here for the wrong reasons."
While I'm pleased I did make it to the top, it's the spiritual experience that makes Hikurangi so memorable. We have lots of wonderful mountains in New Zealand but the story of Hikurangi sets it apart.
If you want to climb Hikurangi get in touch with the Ngati Porou Tourism Centre in Ruatoria, ph (06) 864 9004 or email: email@example.com.
Camping is not allowed on the mountain but you can book the 8-person hut. For further information visit doc.govt.nz.