As long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by mountains. Especially of the fire-spewing kind 😉 Perhaps because of the total absence of them in my home country The Netherlands… or perhaps it’s something more. The awe-inspiring beauty and majesty of them. The mysterious lure of hidden valleys and adventurous trails beyond. Or just being in awe with the powerful force of nature and the sheer natural high that ensues when you immerse yourself into their surroundings.
New Zealand is one of those places I will never get tired of bumbling around. I have cried when I left there, and it truly hit me when I cried tears of joy, just at the thought of going back there again, after 11 years, when I boarded a plane going to Auckland.
When I arrived in January 2013, I had only 14 days to visit a small portion of the North Island. And I was running out of time wherever I went. There were just so many places I wanted to explore or revisit. I had to do the Rangitoto-Motutapu track, and camp overnight on the island. And the Tongariro track. I wanted to climb Mount Tarawera too, and happily bumble around in its formidable fissure, but it turned out that was prohibited. There are so many things in the Taupo-Roturua volcanic field alone to keep you occupied and blown away for weeks on end. And then I haven’t even mentioned White Island, or some truly awesome places on the South Island of New Zealand…
I definitely wanted to return to Kawhia, one of those magical places I discovered in 2002, when I had a working holiday visum and the luxury of exploring the country at length. Kawhia is a little off the beaten track, a hidden seaside gem at the end of the road, tucked away in a huge bay of many coves, and visited mostly by local people. I accidently ended up there, immediately loved it and wanted to stay there for a couple of nights. I met some locals and had a wonderful time. It has a hot spot underneath its beach, which is accessible only at certain times at low tide, when you can actually dig a hole in the sand and it will fill up with hot water. And thus create your own temporary natural hot tub on a beach in the wilderness. Pure bliss!
The geological wonderland of Marokopa beach.
Then I decided to take the backroad to Marokopa and Awakino, beautiful places on the wild westcoast I heard about. It was indeed pretty spectacular; the whole coastal area is a geological wonderland.
Change of direction
From there on, I intended to make my way to Tongariro National Park. But then I was distracted again… There had been a solid spell of steady warm & clear weather going on, and just when I was about to set forth from Awakino towards the east, it suddenly came into view. The mountain that was hardly ever visible. The elusive Mount Taranaki, shrouded by its own mysterious low-hanging clouds for most days of the year. I went there in 2002, and saw nothing but fog.
But now it stood there, clearly visible, and beckoning in all its glory. It took my breath away, and I couldn’t resist. It was calling me and I had to go. I literally skidded to a halt and changed my course and planning there & then. And continued on south towards Taranaki instead.
When she comes to greet me
As I didn’t have any proper gadgets, I really missed listening to music sometimes. The local radio stations were mostly out of reach while I was driving on these backcountry roads. And of all the songs I missed, the one I most eagerly longed to hear at the time was ‘Hard sun’ by Eddie Vedder. It had been in my head for days.
I looked for a place to stay, and ended up camping in the backyard of a restaurant at the foot of Mount Taranaki, owned by a Dutch couple who had emigrated to New Zealand a few years before. In the evening I treated myself to the luxury of a nice cold glass of New Zealand chardonnay, whilst talking to the restaurant owner about the practicalities of climbing Mount Taranaki. And suddenly the complete CD of ‘Into the wild’ came on playing in the background. Including ‘Hard sun’, while we were looking out over Mount Taranaki looming on the horizon, silently casting its irresistible spell.
Not to be underestimated
Mount Taranaki isn’t for the faint hearted. People have died going up there. The altitude gain is nearly 1600 metres from the start of the track to the summit, at 2518 metres. And it takes about 8 to 10 hours to go there & back again, along a very steep stratovolcanic path. Weather conditions are fickle and can change at any time without warning. But if things are starting to look grim, and if there’s any doubt whatsoever, you need to have some straightforward survival instinct, and most importantly, the common sense to turn back. And not wanting to risk your life just for the sake of some ill-defined compulsive need to conquer the top.
Steep stratovolcanic paths.
Mesmerizing circling clouds
The next morning I got up at ridiculous o’ clock, and saw one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen, on a majestic and completely cloudless Mount Taranaki, straight from the front of my tent. Things were looking good. But then I got lost on my way up, wasting about 1½ hours of valuable time to get back on the right track. I cried tears of frustration – but in the end it didn’t matter.
At some point I turned around and looked down a dizzying slope. And saw clouds forming and dancing in circles around the top, with Tongariro and Ruapehu shimmering in the distance. I just stood there gazing at them, as they gracefully made their rounds. It was an utterly mesmerizing moment.
As I walk through the valley of the shadow of clouds, I shall fear no heights 😉
Force of nature
I made it a fair way up the notorious scree slope, but I had reached the point of no return. Heavier and darker clouds were gathering at the top, and an icy wind started to pick up. It was getting too late to go there and back again, and reach the end of the track safely before darkness. And that was OK with me. Even though I was only 200 or 300 metres or so below the summit.
It didn’t matter.
Something must have happened on Mount Taranaki that made a deep impression. It was like a force of nature that can’t be explained.
Natural high! and a Wilderness Coffee on the side 😉
According to Maori legends, the mana – the spiritual power – is especially strong at Mount Taranaki. I’m pretty sure I felt there & then what they were on about.
Every time I hear ‘Hard sun’, these images appear in my mind. The thought of them alone instantly sparks the natural high I felt then, and still triggers tears of joy. It touches me more than I am able to explain in words. The connection is that strong.
When she comes to greet me
She is mercy at my feet
When I go across that river
She is comfort by my side
When I try to understand
She just opens up her hands
Sparkling joy of life itself
I wholeheartedly disagree with the defining statement ‘happiness is only real when shared’, from the movie ‘Into the wild’. I have felt insanely happy at moments like these, even though I was completely by myself. That doesn’t make sharing happiness with others any less valuable or important, but there was nothing unreal about that intense feeling of euphoria flowing through me on Mount Taranaki.
It’s being able to find the sparkling joy of life and appreciate the happiness within yourself that makes it real.
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
This story was originally published on my own Facebook page, on 7 June 2016.
How to get to Mount Taranaki
Mount Taranaki looms majestically over the coastal area near New Plymouth, on its own peninsula in the west of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s about 30 kilometres from New Plymouth to the DOC Visitor Centre at the North Egmond end of the road, and the start of the walking track to the top. Take State Highway 3 from New Plymouth to Egmond Village and turn left onto Egmond Road towards Kaimiro. It’s worth staying in this area, where you can enjoy fantastic sunset and sunrise views of the mountain – if it’s visible 😉
The track starts behind the Visitor Centre at an altitude of 946 metres and winds up an astonishing 1572 metres on the 6,3 kilometre route to the top, at the lofty heights of 2518 metres. There are several other tracks and shorter circuits looping around the lower slopes. Be careful not to take the wrong track – like I did… and lose valuable time on your way up.
You can find more practical information & details in the DOC Mount Taranaki Summit Track brochure.
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