I hate to become repetitive, but this morning began with rain on the alicoop. I think I’m going to need to refine my relationship with precipitation by ditching my bad attitude for one of acceptance, maybe even embracing the rain as part of what makes this trail unique.
Nah, I’ll keep complaining, knowing that it does make the best days even better.
At least I’m in a Holiday Park and can drag my gear to a sheltered picnic table. Here, I have breakfast with sisters Devin and Bri as well as Garrett, fun people I laugh with and enjoy, wondering where they’ve been the whole trail.
I don’t walk with them, though, because Julian plans to pick me up mid-afternoon and we’ll drive to Egmont National Park to climb beautiful Mount Taranaki and watch the sunrise from the top. I am ahead of schedule on my thru-hike at this point, and taking this side-trip feels like one of those serendipitous opportunities that I need to seize.
I pack up, say goodbye and walk the 1 1/2 km into the sweet village of Paekakariki filled with boutiques, restaurants and loads of people.
Julian arrives in a loud Honda Beat, a tiny mid-engine rear-wheel drive sports-car. It’s wild to be a passenger in this tiny almost toy-car low to the ground as he speeds into curves and hills, but it’s not made for tramping so our backpacks nestle in the rear well – with the soft top’s window piece zipped down – and most of Julian’s gear is puzzle-pieced around engine parts and the spare tire, our shopping crouches at my feet.
The journey takes me back to many of the places I’ve been – Waikane, Mt. Lee’s Reserve, Bulls – and I delight in seeing some of my favorite places. We stop briefly by the Whanganui river to dry my tent and rest up for the all-nighter ahead, then continue up north and west towards the coast. The clouds hang in a low bank but we come to their end as the sun sets beaming soft yellow light sidelong onto the hills.
It’s not long before we spot the giant dormant volcano – huge, imposing and snow covered – isolated in the mostly flat countryside, looking like a child’s rendition of a classic mountain in a perfect triangle.
I’m beginning to wonder if I can manage the big climb as we pop into a Chinese-European restaurant, their final customers in 2018 fueling up on caffeine.
The road coils around, switch-backing up the side of the mountain to deliver us with only 1,600 meters to climb this 2,518 meter monster in 6 kilometers. Just as we park, the mist draws back its veil to reveal lovely Taranaki, her snowy sides gleaming in the starry night.
We repack day packs with food, water, layers and micro-spikes for me, ice ax and crampons for Julian and are off before midnight on a path wide and well maintained. I am tired because of the hour, but also for having pushed for weather windows the last several weeks.
The mountain’s steep sides shed pumice in avalanches of boulders, and we’re warned not to loiter in a gully, in one section, they even built a tunnel now topped with stony debris.
We meet a couple drinking champagne at a ski hut, planning their climb at sunrise. After a brief pause, we press on, moving up so leisurely, I comment it feels like a zero day.
After a second, locked ski hut, the scree begins but with beautifully built stairs over an exceedingly eroded section. Bas greets us in regular intervals – on signposts – an old, bearded man presumably the park warden questioning our fitness for the journey ahead.
One sign makes us laugh telling us to plan enough time to be down before nightfall. It’s truly no laughing matter as this mountain sees perhaps the most rescues – and deaths – of all New Zealand mountains due to tourists hiking without enough water or proper gear. Alpine weather can change fast and shorts and a t-shirt won’t cut it.
The stairs peter out to scree of loose rocks on steep terrain that makes for a slippy, grabby ascent. It’s an odd sensation to climb in these conditions and at this pitch in total darkness except for a lone beam of light. The ground appears flat and I stumble like a drunk walking the line. I actually move quite well in it, but become nervous that I won’t be capable when we have to come down this slippery mess.
Every so often, Julian and I turn out our lights to marvel at the mass of stars – the milky way, the magellan cloud, the southern cross. What good fortune to have clear skies. At the end of the scree is a hand over hand rock climb, my hiking poles doing me no good, taking on battle scars as I drag them under my grip.
Right as I begin this easier – though no less steep – section, I notice something glowing magenta in the eastern sky. It’s the quarter moon, malformed into the shape of a boomerang. She looks on as we press up towards an icy wind tunnel, hurriedly put on spikes, and cross under the lizard into the permanent ice and snow-filled crater.
We’re here at the top, the first to climb Taranaki in 2019, and Julian wonders if the first in the world to climb any mountain.
It’s still early, so we hole up out of the wind, sadly in a nasty minefield of poop and paper, with one doodoo-free spot for us to put on more layers.
Four more young men make it to the summit as the sky slowly takes on an orange glow. The cloud below is thick and whipped, as though a frothy sea in freeze frame. Maori legend tells of Ruapehu and Ngaurahoe banishing Taranaki far away with the great Whanganui river representing the tears of her separation. From my perch, I see both distant mountains in purple above the cloud, so fond of these beauties I walked past.
The sun finally appears, changing vivid colors to pastel and cold temperature to hot. The walk down is a long, dangerous and tiring slog. I fall several times, Julian snaps a trekking pole, and I enjoy the super short portion of scree that’s deep in stones and allows me to sort of jump-ski.
It’s a lesson in safety as the return feels further and harder than the start. I am absolutely knackered when we reach the ski hut, curling into a ball with a view and promptly falling asleep.
We had intentions to hike more but decide to go back, far too tired. It’s a lot for one peak, but it was an experience out of my comfort zone – trekking in the dark, placing myself high on an unknown mountain and trusting my gear and hiking partner – and so worth having on this first day of the new year, like a fresh start.
It’s not the sort of opportunity that presents itself often and I took it, trusting we’d figure things out. Granted, we lucked out with the weather – the cloud swirling back just as we left – but Julian takes the long and responsible view, going for it if conditions allow, bagging it if the weather turns, giving it up without any emotional attachment. There will always be another time to go, is his attitude and it’s a healthy one, but hardly passive. He is just as eager as I am to push hard to get somewhere when the getting’s good.
But there’s always a price to pay. I am so tired, when we pass through Whanganui, I call Rob and George and ask if I might recover at their home tonight. They insist I take a rest day tomorrow and so my final two days of the North Island will come a bit later.
We eat leftovers and watch a fascinating film on the making of the Maori number one hit ‘Poi e.’ I have three different kinds of dessert and crash out, my body craving a small pause to rejuvenate – but also my spirit craving time to luxuriate in all I’ve seen and experienced. Such an incredible abundance!