I'd been looking forward to getting back to the North Island, because I had a plan: to explore the amazing volcanoes of Taranaki and Tongariro. I thought I'd start with the Around the Mountain Circuit (AMC) at Taranaki, with a trip up to the top of Mt Taranaki itself if possible, because there was an Acorn dealer nearby whom I'd arranged to meet for some post-walk work; so I didn't waste any time in driving straight from the Catchpool Valley to Egmont National Park on the western coast of the North Island.
Mt Taranaki was named Mt Egmont by Captain Cook after the Earl of Egmont, who sponsored his first voyage, but the Maori went to court to try to get the name changed to Taranaki, their original name for the mountain, and in an astounding case of trying to please everyone, the court ruled in 1986 that both names were valid. As a result, on all the maps you see 'Mt Egmont or Mt Taranaki' printed by the peak, but whatever you call it – and I prefer Taranaki, because it seems more appropriate – it's a stunner.
Egmont National Park – at least that name hasn't changed – is almost circular and encloses Mt Taranaki at its centre, and it's fair to say that the mountain dominates the entire area. Taranaki is an almost perfect volcanic cone, with a beautiful snowy peak and, from a distance, only one blemish on its slopes, that of Fanthams Peak, another little cone. I didn't appreciate just how immense the mountain is, because when I drove towards the peak, the weather was totally overcast and I couldn't seen a thing; but when I woke up on the morning of my trek, having slept in the back of Zed at the National Park's headquarters, there it was, looming above me. The day started off as clear as a bell, and it wasn't long before I was stomping off on the track, with my borrowed backpack filled to the brim, and my backup pair of faithful old walking boots on my feet.
The AMC is a swine, no doubt about it. It might look all innocent on the map, but it goes up and down more times than the New Zealand dollar's exchange rate; volcanoes have huge lava flows down their slopes, so the mountain is a bit like your hand if you put your fingertips on the table with your palm facing down. This means that walking round the peak means climbing and descending throughout the day, but despite the physical challenges, it's a beautiful track, and when the weather is clear, you can see for miles from the volcanic slopes. That's when the weather is clear, though...
Rain, Rain, Go Away
Day 1 started well, as would most of my days on the trail, but it soon started clouding over and it wasn't long before the rain set in. I'd decided to follow the higher alpine route because of the better views (the other route was mainly through forest), and after climbing up the aptly named Puffer – a really steep track that I thought would never end – I clambered around the mountain to Dawson Falls and started heading downhill towards Lake Dive, and that's when the cloud kicked it. I could see it approaching from the west, in a big thick rolling mass, and before ten minutes was up I was surrounded by cloud, with a visibility of about 20 metres and a temperature drop from boiling down to seriously cold; the weather rolls in pretty quickly when you're this close to the west coast, and it's particularly noticeable when you're up in the mountains.
Still, the rain kept off long enough for me to reach the hut at Lake Dive, at which point the heavens opened. Luckily the hut I was in had a stove with plenty of dry wood, and it wasn't long before I had a roaring fire going, slowly drying out my sodden clothes. When I arrived at the hut I was alone, quite a rarity on a popular walk like the AMC, but soon I had company in the shape of Jacek (pronounced 'Yatsik'), a Kiwi who had come over from Poland with his family when he was 11, back in the bad old days of martial law and Solidarity. He was very interesting company, and we decided to walk together for the rest of the trip, especially as the weather had made the track a lot more treacherous than normal, and a broken ankle is a bit of a downer if you're on your own.
Friday saw us scramble over the alpine route to Waiaua Gorge, and again the visibility was pretty bad, although we did get a good view of the volcano in the morning before the clouds rolled in. Saturday was much the same, with the track wandering around through alpine scrub and rainforest to Holly Hut. This walk is probably the most physically demanding track I've yet done, with climbs and descents of about 1000m every day, and by the time we reached the huts I was totally exhausted, even more than I'd been on the Pyke Loop; I can generally walk for miles and miles on the flat, but put a hill in front of me and watch me squirm.
Saturday evening was fun, with a large Kiwi family taking up half the hut and entertaining us with tramping stories and wee drams of whisky, the generous souls. The Christmas pud and custard they gave us went down a treat, too; needless to say the family was only on a one-night trip, something that was more and more apparent as they unpacked sausages, potatoes, vegetables, bottles of wine and all the other delights that you take for granted in the outside world, but which suddenly become perishable and heavy when you're on a long trek.
To the Top!
Sunday morning was very cloudy, but Jacek and I got up at 6am to try to get to the base of the summit track nice and early. Luckily the cloud was mainly round the northern side of the mountain, and as we came round to the northeastern side (where the AMC begins) the sky cleared slightly, showing a huge billowing mass of cloud pouring off the mountain towards the north; as with the Southern Alps, winds come in from the west and get forced upwards by the mountain where they condense into rain clouds, but slowly the cloud cleared from the peak until it was all blue skies, so I decided I just had to go up. Jacek's knee had been playing up and he sensibly decided to give it a miss, so we said our goodbyes and I started the long haul up to the 2518m (8261 ft) peak, complete with a full pack and my trusty old boots.
There were two major problems, though. The most pressing, and the most painful, was that my trusty old boots were, by now, my crusty old boots; the soles were so thin it was like walking in crepe paper sandals, and with volcanic rock being the sharp stuff it is, I felt every stone, which wore out my feet far more quickly than it would have done in the old leather toughies that had been stolen in Christchurch. The second problem was that however I tried to adjust my pack, it was truly uncomfortable; I'd had my own pack stolen in Christchurch and had borrowed this one off a friend for a few weeks, and there's just no substitute for your own backpack. After a four-day circuit walk with shoes from hell and a backpack that didn't fit, the 45° scree slope and the serious climb to the top of Taranaki really took it out of me. I got to the top but it hurt, it really hurt; however the view was stunning, not because I could see for miles, but because a low layer of cloud was covering the country as far as the eye could see, and from the height of the summit I could see above the clouds, just like in an aeroplane. Mt Ruapehu, the highest peak in the North Island, was a cloudy hump in the distance, and the crater at top of Taranaki itself was quite stunning, and well worth the strains in my knees and back.
Climbing volcanoes is an art, though. You might look at a volcano and think it's just a case of plodding up a 45° rock face until you topple into the crater, but however solid the thing might look from a distance, it feels more like a pile of sand than a mountain. Imagine trying to walk up a massive heap of gravel, and you're not far off the experience of climbing a volcano; add in a full backpack weighing you down, and it's definitely a case of three steps forward, two back. The best part, though, is coming down; on the snowy slopes at the peak I simply skied down on my shoes, with the backpack giving me enough weight to push me down, and on the scree I moonwalked down in half the time it took me to get up. I paid for it with aching knees, but with a kilometre of volcano to slide down, it was quite an experience.
Coming back to civilisation in the form of Dennis and Heather's hospitality – Dennis being the local Acorn dealer in New Plymouth, and Heather being his wife – was pure luxury, especially as Dennis had stocked his fridge full of beers in preparation (it seems I'm getting a reputation for turning up at the dealers and demonstrating exactly what a bottomless appetite looks like). We spent the next three days travelling round schools in the Taranaki area, driving right round the mountain on the Monday and heading up the coast on Tuesday, with one local school slipped in on Wednesday morning. I can think of worse ways to earn NZ$500, and by the time I left New Plymouth I'd gorged out on barbecues, brews and excellent company, and was ready for the next volcano.