A shadow is absence. I wanted presence, so I have come to the shadow’s source. Perhaps my motive is simplistic, but I am interested in a rather basic question: What can the mountain teach me? My journey starts in the basement of Puke Ariki, Taranaki’s combined museum, library and visitor information centre. I want to gain some insight into how people in the past perceived the mountain. Head of research Ron Lambert rolled his eyes when I asked to see any paintings of the mountain the museum held, and brought me down here to the storage area. Taking a large archive box from a shelf, he says, “There are 200 by Bernard Aris alone. I’ve heard stories of him having half a dozen on the easel at the same time. He developed a very chocolate-box style in the 1860s and ’70s.”
The next featured artist in what turns out to be a production line of archive boxes is Edwin Harris. “He was a draughtsman for the New Plymouth Company, and one of the few artists to get the colour of the New Zealand bush right.”I have noticed that many of the museum’s early photographs of the mountain have scorched-earth foregrounds—charred trees which stand out starkly against the snow-capped peak. Some paintings have stumps in them, too, though most artists have tended to downplay this aspect, focusing on more attractive landscape features.
“Here’s a William Fox,” says Ron, handing me a watercolour. Fox, a former prime minister, is reputed to have made the slowest ascent of the mountain. An ardent teetotaller, he wanted to prove that a man of 78 who abstained was a match for drunkards half his age. Sir William roped himself to a pole, which he embedded step by step into the loose scoria and thus pulled himself up. It took him 12 hours to reach the summit. Asked whether Sir William had proved his point, his guide, Harry Peters, commented that “the experience gained did not confirm the contention.”
As scores of paintings flow past, the degree to which the mountain is rooted in people’s experience of the province dawns on me. Also the degree to which people see what they want to see. Early visions were romanticised, almost biblical in their grandeur. Some were painted for the purpose of recruiting settlers, Ron says—like glossy photos in a travel brochure. The breadth of depictions is remarkable, ranging from the exaggerated cloud-piercer in Charles Heaphy’s 1839 Mount Egmont from the Southward—a Matterhorn of steepness—to the more modest angles of Christopher Perkins’ 1931 Taranaki.
Perkins readily admitted that art was as much invention as depiction. “How much may design be allowed to distort material, and how much material is really needed for a rich yet economical effect?” he pondered as he sought for the right approach. He compared Taranaki’s form to that of Mt Fuji, and related the story of a Japanese vessel anchored in the port of New Plymouth whose crew made “daily obeisance to the honourable mountain.” In its abstract simplicity, Perkins Taranaki broke the mould of romanticised landscapes—its foreground is occupied by that quintessential Taranaki icon, a dairy factory.
Okato resident Peter Lambert also explores the Fuji connection. A keen surfer, he likes to view the mountain from a distance. From his lawn, he points out the profiles of the mountain and the Pouakai and Kaitake Ranges. He is interested in offshore views from the Maui platforms and fishing boats. “If you look at Hokusia’s famous wood-block paintings of Fujiyama, many of his mountains are small and in the distance. In my work I’m getting further away.”
Artists continue to grapple with the question of how to depict this almost perfect cone (see sidebar page 50). As if in imitation of the snow-capped mountains we all draw as children, Taranaki is one of the most symmetrical peaks in the world.
But today’s isoscelean perfection is ephemeral—the mountain has a habit of blowing itself apart. It has erupted eight times in the past 500 years, and will certainly do so again. While most events have been minor—the latest, in 1755, was no more than a cough of ash—on average there has been a moderate or major eruption every 330 years.
Not surprisingly, this is a mountain we watch. A network of seismometers eavesdrops for rumblings below. Early detection of earthquake swarms, which can indicate rising magma, could give weeks’ or even months’ warning of an eruption. To find out what the impact of an eruption might be, I drive to the eastern side of the mountain, to Stratford, to speak to Bill Bayfield of Taranaki Regional Council and Bev Raine of Civil Defence. The focus of the region’s economy would take a huge hit from an eruption, Bill and Bev tell me. But quantifying the likely damage is not easy. “We’re looking at questions like what depth of ash does it take to knock out a water supply, a roof, a dairy farm? We don’t have those answers.”
Bill points out that people often don’t understand the nature or duration of volcanic hazards. “While other natural disasters, such as floods, can be devastating, they are usually over in a few days. Here you could have the mountain erupting for years—and then each time it rains heavily there is the potential for lahars.”
As I drive away, excerpts of conversation loop in my mind. I realise that each time I said “Mount Taranaki” they corrected me, referring to the mountain instead as “Taranaki volcano,” which is how they would like everyone to think of it.
The question is when will it blow? Geologist Vince Neall, of Massey University, spelled out to me the vagaries of volcanic foresight, which is, at best, educated guesswork. “Given that there has been a sizeable eruption roughly every 330 years, going on averages you’d expect something to happen in the next hundred years. But then again, the mountain has no memory of when it last erupted.” In other words, while Taranaki may not erupt for several hundred, or even a thousand, years, the odds are against it.
The crux is this: the probability of a new eruption increases with the length of time since the last one. Taranaki last erupted 249 years ago. After White Island and Ruapehu–Ngauruhoe–Tongariro, which vulcanologists treat as a single entity, Taranaki is the third most likely volcano in New Zealand to erupt. It’s all about odds, Vince said: “Taranaki has erupted intermittently for the past 130,000 years. Just because humans arrived is no reason for it to stop.”their work is educating and preparing the people of Taranaki for the mountain’s next outburst.
Although by international standards Taranaki province is only lightly populated, some 100,000 people live in the volcano’s shadow. Stratford, for example, is only 25 km from the crater. While early-warning systems should prevent casualties,
On a map of the it looks as if someone has dug a compass into the summit and inscribed a circle around it. A circle with a radius of 9.6 km, to be exact. Outside is farmland, within is rainforest. Crossing the circumference by car is like driving into a wall of vegetation.
This abrupt demarcation was created in May 1881, when Taranaki was set aside as a reserve. The original intent was to protect the mountain’s flanks “for the growth and preservation of timber.” With forest in lowland areas reduced to ashes and stumps, it soon dawned on settlers that burning steeper slopes in a high rainfall area would cause problems. In 1900, the reserve became Egmont National Park, the country’s second such estate.
As my car gains altitude I am glad of the grader that came through yesterday. Snow edges the road. At the car park people are sunning themselves in the weak July rays. Conditions are crisp and clear typical post-southerly.
Mark Vickers, the North Egmont Department of Conservation officer, is scraping ice from beneath the tyres of stuck cars with a snow shovel. Snowmelt has run onto the asphalt, and in the late afternoon at 900 m it has soon frozen. Mark takes time out from his automotive rescue duties to show me around the Camphouse, the walls of which sport musket slots. If they could talk, these walls would babble of war. Originally constructed to house soldiers during the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, the Camphouse was shifted from New Plymouth to North Egmont in 1891. Recently refurbished, it makes an ideal base for exploring the mountain.
I set off on the Round-the-Mountain Track. For the first few hours I’m in a green cage made up mostly of kamahi, their boughs draped with mosses, liverworts and filmy ferns. The absence of beech is thought to be due to the trees’ inability to recolonise following an eruption. Rain draws out the bush colours, and horopito glow in the glades and gullies.
The dissected terrain reminds me of the North West Circuit, on Stewart Island. That track follows the coast, crossing the grain of the land. It is the same story here: I drop into one gully only to clamber up the other side and down into the next one.
Most creeks are a strong tea colour, but one is an angry grey—the result of erosion. Another smells of rust, and a coating of ochre has formed on the ferns and grasses at its edge. I smear the stuff on my hands—it feels smooth and cool. Local iwi collected ochre—kokowai—of various hues from such sources, mixing it with shark oil to colour their carvings. The creek reminds me of flooded African rivers, but this isn’t a clay-based stain, rather colour that has leached from the broken earth—portent of the fire within.
I stop for some soup at Stratford Mountain House, which accommodates trampers who enjoy their creature comforts. This eastern side of the mountain is the most developed. Three sealed roads lead right into the heart of the national park—at North Egmont, Dawson Falls and here at Stratford Mountain House. Today’s building is a far cry from the original, with its iron roof and canvas sides. Built on the Stratford Plateau in February 1899, it was shifted to this lower altitude in 1908 to escape “inhuman weather conditions.”
Flicking through scrapbooks in the lounge, I come upon a photograph of a group of Maori at nearby Victoria Falls. Their bright-orange habits grab my eye. These devotees are Morehu, members of the Ratana Church, who make pilgrimages to the waterfall, which they know as Te Rere o Kapuni. The founder of their movement, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, used to go there to meditate and pray, hence it is a sacred site for his followers.
At Stratford Mountain House I meet up with former goat hunter Errol Clince. He spent 16 years with the New Zealand Forest Service and reckons he has shot more than 5000 goats. In January 1974, he was hunting in rugged country in the Pouakai Range, north-west of Mt Taranaki, when he came up out of a creek, pushed back some fern and saw a rusted machine-gun turret protruding from the wreckage of an aircraft.
“It looked like they’d flown into the base of a tree, which then fell over the fuselage,” Errol recalls. “Bits of wing were up in the trees. It hadn’t burnt. I pulled a parachute out of the fuselage and stretched it open. That was when I saw this little white knob. I tugged on it, and out came this leg bone with a boot attached. That’s when I realised the plane hadn’t been found before.”
Errol returned a few days later with police and air-force personnel. “They had a book. All they had to do was match a serial number.” The plane, an RNZAF Airspeed Oxford, had been carrying four crew when it had disappeared on a training flight on October 23, 1942.“We put the bones in little heaps. I carried one out. Then, in 1977, we dug the engines out. Some of the stainless steel and brass was still in good order, and they took them up to the Auckland Museum of Transport and Technology.”There are still planes missing from World War II training exercises. Sea or bush have swallowed them. And country as rugged as that of Egmont National Park does not give up its secrets easily.
Reclining in the comfort of the Stratford Mountain House cafe, I have no desire to change back into my cold, wet tramping clothes, but I know the old bush motto: never leave your dry gear on. So, pasting on sodden polypropylene, I prepare to re-enter the dank forest. In fading light I arrive at Lake Dive Hut, so named because of a small lake which has ponded behind one of two curiously shaped humps called the Beehives. These protuberances, known as cumulodomes, formed as lava oozed from the shattered mountain.
By candlelight, I read a tale of the area I have tramped through today. Entitled “Mount Egmont’s Secret—an elusive smoke spiral,” the story dates from the 1880s, when unexplained smoke was sometimes seen on Taranaki’s southern slopes. It transpires that Mac, a local Irishman, wasn’t getting much butter out of his small section, so he and two friends built a still in one of the gorges. The trio used to collect fungus—wood ear—as a cover for tramping in and out of the bush. They packed the fungus into wool bales and embedded the contraband kegs within. Soon, local newspapers started to run articles referring to “smoke being seen on the slopes of Egmont.” Not long afterwards, Mac hurried into camp warning of an approaching search party. Two of the three set fire to a rata tree some distance away as a diversion. Days later they scanned the newspapers and, sure enough, there in large type was a story headed “Fire From A Tree.”
Later, another search party was intercepted by one of the men’s brothers, who led the searchers on a wild goose chase, spending three nights with them in the bush. They were in a sorry state when they emerged. “You would think they had been digging peat in the worst bog in ould Ireland,” noted one report. The moonshiners eventually abandoned their site, as Dawsons Track became increasingly popular with settlers who liked to winter their cattle in the reserve.
The following morning I steadily lose altitude before branching onto Taungatara Track, a trail well endowed with viscous bog, ankle-twisting roots and other hazards. The streams are up, and I negotiate them with utmost care. More people in the mountains die from drowning than from avalanches or any other cause. Late in the day, as I scramble down the ridge opposite Waiaua Gorge Hut, the river’s jet-engine roar makes me think I’ll be spending a night in the bush. At the water’s edge, it’s not an easy call. I survey up-and downstream. At one potential crossing place there is a large midstream boulder with an eddy swirling behind it. I cut a horopito wading stick to test the depth and current. The water comes up to my waist, and as I lunge for the boulder it reaches chest height, but I’m safe here in the slack water. I catch my breath, then complete the crossing and climb a ladder to the cliff top, relieved at my safe arrival.
In the hut book I find an entry by Gareth and Peter from December 1999. “Spent night in a hollowed-out tree in Waiaua Gorge—very cold and wet.” Cold and wet, but alive. People have died because of visions of dry huts. In 1996, a tramper drowned in the Pouakai Range trying to cross swollen Peters Stream. She knew Holly Hut was on the far bank, and that knowledge killed her. When the warmth of a stove is but five minutes away, it’s a strong will that can sit shivering in the bush.
Another entry in the hut book refers to Taranaki as “the Mount Fuji of New Zealand,” and is surrounded by Japanese script. While Fuji holds a hallowed place in the collective consciousness of the Japanese, with its commercialisation and tourist hordes it is hardly comparable to this pristine peak. About the only things the two have in common are their shape, both being steep, conical volcanoes, known as stratovolcanoes, and the way they suffuse the psyche of people—in Japan at the national level, in New Zealand the provincial.
On day three, I have barely left the hut when I come across a sign: “Warning! Mudslide potential. Do not enter riverbed in high rainfall.” Convincing myself the passing shower doesn’t qualify as “high rainfall,” I thread my way through piles of rubble and shattered trees. This damage was caused by a major collapse of Taranaki’s West Ridge in 1998, which sent a lahar of ice, water, mud and boulders avalanching down Oaonui Stream. Estimated to have dislodged a million cubic metres of material, it was just a small demonstration of the mountain’s instability—a “normal event,” in the language of landslide expert Mauri McSaveney, of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences.
Taranaki is a mélange of unconsolidated rock and ash interspersed with lava flows. Friction holds it together, while gravity and water threaten to tear it apart, and occasionally succeed in doing so. McSaveney has a rather laconic view on the mountain’s stability: “If you could build a mountain that was perfectly designed to collapse, then Taranaki would be it.”
I climb above the bush to Kahui Hut, where entries in the hut book in te reo Maori refer to the nearby sacred site of Te Maru Pa, an ancient refuge of Taranaki iwi in times of war. One note speaks movingly of a mountain Maori consider to be have been unjustly confiscated. “Stand, our respected elder, repository of our ancestors’ knowledge. Take away the heart of the flax bush and where will the bellbird sing?”In the aftermath of the wars of the 1860s, Mt Taranaki was included in the half a million hectares of land confiscated by the Crown. Maori have pressed for the mountain’s return ever since. In 1978, they fleetingly succeeded.
In a two-minute meeting on Owae marae, in Waitara, government representatives, under the terms of the newly passed Mount Egmont Vesting Act, vested the mountain in the Taranaki Maori Trust Board, which promptly returned it to the government as a gift to the nation. It seems doubtful that all Taranaki iwi would have agreed to this piece of political sleight of hand, because at the time Maori were lobbying for the return of the mountain and $10 million in reparations. Accordingly, some Maori began referring to Taranaki as the “magic mountain”—now you have it, now you don’t.
All eight Taranaki iwi—Ngati Tama, Ngati Mutunga, Ngati Maru, Te Atiawa, Taranaki, Nga Ruahine, Ngati Ruanui and Nga Rauru—have traditional links with the mountain and have lodged claims with the Crown for its return, along with much additional land. Processing the claim is likely to take many years; meantime, Maori lament the continued loss of mana they experience while “the heart of the flax bush” remains in government ownership.
As I push on towards Holly Hut, a window in the cloud reveals heavy snowfalls on the upper slopes. The kekkek of two falcons floats down to me. The birds are sharp against the cloud as they chase each other over the ridge. Peculiar landforms here, named Big and Little Pyramid, mimic the mountain—cones in miniature. Rain comes again, heavily. This night I can’t sleep. Standing out on the hut veranda I wait and watch. Every few minutes a blue-white flash silhouettes the ridgeline as an electrical storm plays itself out far to the south—I don’t even hear the thunder. Cold drives me back inside.
On my last day the track climbs up towards Humphries Castle, a fang of rock that jabs into the sky. The leaves of five-finger flash their white undersides as a sou’wester blasts the exposed ridge. There is no need to guess the direction of the prevailing wind. The tips of kaikawaka, or mountain cedar, which thrust above the main canopy, display a distinctive “flag” form, the foliage appearing to stream out on the trees’ downwind side. The kaikawaka are assailed not just by salt-laden winds off the Tasman Sea, but also, in winter, by katabatic winds from the snowfields above.
As I walk on, cloud lifts briefly to reveal Ahukawakawa Swamp, then closes in again, a prelude to hail and sleet squalls. Sleet turns to snow as I reach a bend near Boomerang Slip. The track climbs to 1300 m. Further round the steep faces I spot a recent slip below cliffs of columnar basalt. It spills down the slope from a fresh scar on the mountainside, obliterating the track and scouring out the creek bed far below. When I reach it I don’t linger amongst the pulverised leatherwood trunks—they resemble human bones. I find it unnerving to be walking on an immense pile of rubble only thinly clad with vegetation. There is nothing secure about this mountain.
I leave the mountain to visit a rock. As I drive south from New Plymouth along State Highway 45—the Surf Highway—Mt Taranaki is a constant presence over my left shoulder. Its steep sides are portents of youth; indeed, it is the youngest of the central North Island volcanoes, having first erupted a mere 130,000 years ago.
Rising as it does out of a flat plain, the mountain is one of the most exposed alpine areas in New Zealand. Early settlers referred to it as “the rainmaker.” Ngati Ruanui, living on its eastern flanks, dub it Pukehaupapa: Ice Mountain. Strangely, the naming issue seemed more pertinent when I was away from Taranaki the province. Here, within sight of the volcano, I seldom hear “Mount Egmont” or “Mount Taranaki.” As there is only the one, locals refer to it simply as “the mountain” or “te maunga.”
In 1985, the mountain’s name became a major political issue when the New Zealand Geographic Board considered whether it should remain Mount Egmont (bestowed by Captain Cook in 1770 to honour the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Egmont) or revert to Taranaki, the original Maori (meaning Bare Peak). In the ensuing media scrum the issue became highly politicised, and in the end the government attempted to please everyone, decreeing that either name was appropriate and that the mountain was to appear on maps as Mount Egmont/ Taranaki. Today, Taranaki is the more commonly used name, although many older Pakeha insist on Egmont. I have found it is easy to raise the hackles of just about anyone by using the name they don’t favour. Names, it turns out, mean a lot.
Driving through the Taranaki landscape, I sense the province’s combination of rawness and fertility. In the distance, onshore and offshore, excess gas from the Maui and Kapuni fields flares off. Gleaming milk tankers thunder down side roads that run ruler-straight to the sea. Butterfat, oil, gas—the land yields so much.
Further on, my car wends through some intriguing country. It reminds me of scenes from Vincent Ward’s Vigil. Tree skeletons, green pastures, hummocky terrain, dark rain. The peculiar hummocks are remnants of a massive lahar which swept down the mountain and out to sea 22,500 years ago. Maori used them as pa sites, and British soldiers built forts on them in the 1860s. At Puniho Pa, on the western side of Taranaki, I find Te Toka a Rauhoto sitting on a white concrete pedestal embedded with paua shells. This sacred rock is central to the Maori story of the mountain’s origins, which links Taranaki to the volcanoes of the Central Plateau. I run my fingers over the side facing the mountain, feeling the petroglyphs that pattern the surface.
The origin myth describes a classic love triangle. Taranaki, formerly known as Pukeonaki, and Tongariro both loved the nearby mountain, Pihanga. The two mighty peaks fought a duel over her. Pukeonaki lost, and fled underground down the Whanganui River to the sea. In his flight, he found an ally and guide in the form of legendary stone Te Toka a Rauhoto, whom he followed up the Hangatahua River to take up his present-day position beside Pouakai. Te Toka a Rauhoto then flew east through the gap between the Pouakai and Kaitake Ranges, landing near where the Hangatahua River meets the sea. In 1948, local iwi, having grown concerned for her safety, loaded the rock onto the back of a truck and brought her to Puniho Pa, where she now sits facing her follower.
At nearby Parihaka Pa, I seek out kaumatua Te Miringa Hohaia. Driving up to Parihaka, it is obvious that this isn’t a wealthy settlement—some people are living in caravans, and several of the houses are in need of a paint job—but at one time this was the largest and most prosperous Maori community in the country.
Parihaka is hallowed ground in New Zealand history: the place where the prophets Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi preached their message of passive resistance. In 1879, seven years after the New Zealand Wars had officially ended, surveyors attempted to push a coastal road through confiscated land in the Parihaka area. Te Whiti and Tohu led their followers in a campaign of civil disobedience, removing the survey pegs and ploughing up the land. Hundreds of Maori were arrested, and on November 5, 1881, the conflict came to a head when 1600 armed militiamen invaded the pa. Women were raped, homes ransacked and crops destroyed. Many of the arrested were sent to the other end of the country Dunedin—and put to work breaking rocks for the peninsula road.
Over the ensuing century, the sacking of Parihaka faded from European memory. Then, in 1975, the publication of historian Dick Scott’s book Ask That Mountain: The Story of Parihaka brought the events of 1881 back into the mainstream consciousness. Since then, other writers and artists have sought to bring the injustices of Parihaka to public attention.
Te Miringa greets me at his mother’s house, and we talk in the garage as the rain plays on the roof. A slim man in his fifties, Te Miringa lives on the nearby coast road. He talks more of the future than the past. He is keen to see iwi utilising the mountain, perhaps guiding tourists on interpretive walks. “There are not many employment opportunities at Parihaka unless you are a farmer or work for a farmer,” he says. He is disgruntled by a proposal to build a gondola on the eastern slopes. “The most vulnerable project is one that puts structures on the mountain. We’ve got a mountain that’s special. If people can’t climb it, let them stand back and look at it.”
One spring afternoon a year later, I amble along the coast road towards Cape Egmont, where a string of baches lines the boulder beach. It is Father’s Day, and the denizens of one bach are celebrating by drinking beer in the sun. They call me over and insist that I have a brew. The owner of the bach, Fred Adams, introduces his friends and family. They reckon they are on the right side of Highway 45: “on this side live the coasters, on the other side are the bushies.”
Fred and his whanau are members of a Taranaki iwi, one of four whose tribal boundaries take in the national park. With some prodding, I steer the conversation toward the mountain, currently hidden in cloud. “When a stranger is in town, the mountain hides—that’s the philosophy,” Fred chortles, obviously in high spirits. Quietly spoken Lionel Phillips, who refers to the mountain as “the old fella up there,” tells me that he once biked round it—365 km. “Depending what side of the road you’re on,” he adds with a wink.“We do the round-the-mountain every year,” Fred says.“Oh, I walked it last year,” I reply.“No, I don’t mean the track—we hire a bus and go on a pub crawl!”
The others erupt with laughter and insist that I join them next time. The event is held every year in June, when the cows don’t need milking. This being September, they’re in need of milking now, and the party breaks up as the farmers ready themselves for an appointment with the udders.
As I walk on, I look up at the mountain—and by its shape I know exactly where I am. Hirini Moko Mead, former professor of Maori studies at Victoria University, wrote of the importance of such landmarks to Maori. “A mountain is part of the landscape, it is a reference point. Together with other named features of the land . . . they form a cultural grid over the land which provides meaning, order, and stability to human existence. Without the fixed grid of named features we would be total strangers on the land—lost souls with nowhere to attach ourselves.”
There is no denying that Taranaki gives a sense of identity and place to those who live nearby, but can we measure its value? Trying to determine value is full of fishhooks: there are many values existential, visual and spiritual—which can all be derived without ever setting foot on the mountain. Coast dwellers may not visit Taranaki that often but they still cherish it. Arguably most important is the economic value conferred by the fact that the waters that stream off its slopes quench their cows’ thirst. In a more light-hearted vein, the mountain provides as good an excuse as I’ve heard for a circular road trip. I muse on that point as I walk back to the car and the clouds roll in off the metal Tasman.
A head of me walks a gloved man. Every 20 metres or so he stoops, picks a pellet from the track and tosses it into the bush. The man is Rex Hendry, Stratford area manager of the Department of Conservation, and for him this seemingly mundane task is part of a campaign that has taken months of planning. All over the mountain, other gloved individuals are clearing tracks of pellets. They are conducting the mop-up operation after a precision airdrop of the pesticide 1080.
A cinnamon smell permeates the forest air. The poison pellets, made of cereal and dyed green, are flavoured thus to make them less attractive to birds. We are pleased to see that many of those we pick up bear possum gnaw marks. After half an hour’s walking, I spot a dead possum lying face down at the base of a tree. Rex picks it up by the tail. “Had a bit too much last night, eh fella?” he remarks, before tossing the carcass aside. A loud thump as it lands is a reminder of just how much vegetation these pests ingest. Further on, a live, albeit rather groggy, possum scrambles up a supplejack vine.
Further on we pass a pile of moss-encrusted cobbles—the remains of an old umu (earth oven)—indicating that this may have been the site of a bird-snaring camp. Today there are few birds left to snare. Recent monitoring has shown a decline in the call rates of North Island brown kiwi, something Rex thinks symptomatic of an aging population dying off.
“Kiwi infant mortality in the wild is estimated to be close to 100 per cent,” he tells me. “Other birds don’t fare much better. Recently we reintroduced blue ducks into the park—they have been locally extinct since the late 1940s—but a stoat killed one within a few days.”
The higher we climb, the fewer pellets we find. Rex tells me that DoC generally seeds lower-altitude forests with 5 kg of pellets per hectare, while higher elevations, which have lower possum densities, receive only 3 kg per hectare.
As we ascend the Pouakai Range, our talk turns to the politics of conservation in New Zealand’s most accessible national park—home to 43 bird species and some 650 species of native plant. “To conserve a forest ecosystem, 1080 is absolutely the best thing you can do. The advantage is its secondary kill—feral cats and stoats eat the dead rats and possums. Yesterday I went home and told my children that 50,000 possums were going to die overnight. And that’s a conservative estimate. For the forest that’s quite an outcome.”
Monitoring of trap lines in areas that have already been sown reveals the effectiveness of the poison. “Prior to the drop, 14 per cent of traps were getting possums overnight. After the drop the rate was half a per cent.” Rex does some mental calculations and estimates a kill rate of around 95 per cent.
With so many people living near the park, I thought there might have been more opposition to a 1080 drop. When I query Rex on this point, his reply throws me momentarily. “There are no deer or pigs in Egmont National Park.” Then it dawns on me that with no history of recreational hunting in the park there is no hunting lobby—and hunters are among the most vehement opponents of 1080. As we gain the main ridge of the Pouakai Range we break out onto open tussock, where the track is boardwalked. This section is being upgraded to form a loop with part of the Round-the Mountain Track in the hope that more international tourists will be attracted to the park as a tramping destination.
At Pouakai Hut Rex brews some coffee before we retrace our steps down Maude Track. He turns on a pocket radio and we take in the commentary of the Taranaki–Waikato championship rugby game. As we drop through the bush we pick up the occasional bait missed on the ascent. The radio crackles the bad news as Waikato runs in the tries, but Rex isn’t too dismayed. Taranaki may be losing the rugby, but on the mountain its winning the possum war.
A dark speck against the white, it lay n a hollow formed by its own body eat: a silvereye at 2000 m. It must have strayed above the canopy and been carried by a gust up to its snowy grave. Winds that blew the species across the Tasman had killed this individual. It was an odd thing to find—feathers and flesh in a harsh alpine world.
Our crampons crunched the ice rime as we came into the shadow of the main peak. It was my first time climbing on ice. I turned back when the going became too slippery. Dan continued. Suddenly I was over. I attempted a self-arrest, but my ice axe scraped along the hard surface, barely slowing me. My slide eventually came to an end on the low-angle run-out onto Fanthams Peak. I rose bruised and shaken at how quickly it had happened.
I sit on the steps of Syme Hut, watching the icicles on the eaves and window frames slowly melt in the sun. The whole of the hut’s western wall is embossed with sastrugi—bizarre ice sculptures formed by super-cooled water vapour, straight off the Tasman, which has condensed and frozen on contact with the surface. Giant sausages of ice hang from the hut’s stay ropes.
High above, contrails streak the blue. The thought of people in metal tubes hurtling through the atmosphere, normally unexceptional, here seems fantastical. Tongariro, Taranaki’s nemesis in the Maori creation story, pokes above the eastern clouds.
I watch as the stick man that is Dan ascends, and then descends, without incident. He breaks ice off the hut’s stay ropes with his axe, and we quaff single malt on the rocks to celebrate his climb. He relates tales from the summit. “There were giant leaves of sastrugi as big as dinner plates. I had to kick them out of the way as I came down.”
The hut’s floor resembles a 1960s dance hall—countless crampons have pitted it like so many stiletto heels. In the alcove outside the inner door, an orange rescue sled awaits the next injured (or dead) alpinist. Taranaki is not an especially steep mountain, but rapid weather changes can turn snow to rock-hard ice in minutes. To slip often proves fatal, long run-outs usually ending in bluffs.
Descending Fanthams Peak the next day, Dan cuts steps in the hardened slopes. A climber we watched ascend earlier in the morning nonchalantly strolls down on her crampons, stopping to talk. She tells us she is a member of the Mt Egmont Alpine Club and has climbed the mountain more than 600 times, at an average of 30 ascents a year.
I ask if she has ever fallen. Dan glares at me—this is apparently not the right question to ask an alpinist. She is unfazed. “You see the ridge leading up to Sharks Tooth? Well, I fell there. Luckily I was roped up at the time.” It is unusual to rope up on Taranaki, so she was definitely lucky. She says no more on the subject and saunters on down, her crampons biting the softening snow.
Back in New Plymouth I have a coffee with aptly named mountain guide Ian McAlpine. Having driven up to the mountain that morning to collect a bootful of fresh snow, he has just finished making a snowman outside a nearby outdoor-equipment store. Now in his 50s, Ian made his first ascent at age 11. I ask him about the mountain’s reputation as a killer. More than 50 people have died on its slopes. “Eighty per cent of deaths are slides on frozen slopes,” he says. “I’ve followed people for a thousand metres, with them trying to dig in their ice axe all the way.” As for the mountain being a killer, he adds, “It isn’t for or against you, but drop your technique and it will get you every time.” Taranaki, he says, is dangerous largely because it is so accessible. Three roads end near the bush line. People underestimate it. “Sure, the summit’s achievable in a day, but it’s not easy.”
In my quest to know the mountain, I have talked to farmers, artists, climbers, iwi, conservation workers, tourist operators and pretty much anyone else I have happened upon. For days on end I have driven the back roads that run like wires on a dartboard toward the bull’s-eye of the mountain. What have I learnt? Certainly the importance of the mountain to those who live within sight of it. In alpine areas a single peak can be lost in the landscape, one among many. Not here. Taranaki is so immediate it challenges those who live in its shadow. It stands in isolation, as if to say “I am here you cannot ignore me.”
Taranaki defines the landscape—a landscape it has created through repeated eruption and collapse of its unstable cone. It is also a national treasure, an island of native biodiversity in a sea of farmland, our second national park, an eponymous ancestor, a commercial icon, a provincial symbol and, perhaps most critically, a live volcano. It is both benign and threatening, a creator and a destroyer. The rich, butterfat-yielding soils surrounding it were born in a purgatory of brimstone and giant lahars. Taranaki often strikes me as enigmatic—something that can’t be fully understood. Frequently hidden, it is as though it draws in a cloak of cloud when it doesn’t want to be seen. Perhaps I expected to learn too much from the mountain. As the American nature writer Barry Lopez noted, “the land does not give easily.” But if the mountain taught me anything, it was to respect it. Perhaps that’s enough.
At some point I realised the shadow seen from the aircraft window was not my first view of the mountain. I remembered another time, years earlier. From the summit of Anatoki Peak, in Kahurangi National Park, fully 200 km due north a diminutive triangle broke the horizon. Taranaki, asserting its presence even at that great distance—the banished peak, standing alone way out west.