The Lonely Mountain: I’ll Tumble for Ya

I am in love. He’s tall. Really tall. And so handsome. He’s the strong, silent type, though when the pressure builds up too much and he loses his temper, it’s explosive.

I’m talking, of course, about Mt. Taranaki, a volcano sitting all on its own in the southwest corner of the North Island. I fancied Taranaki so much that I actually swooned, which is my poetic way of saying that, mesmerized by his exposed, undulating layers of previous lava and pyroclastic flow events, I walked right off the trail and fell down a steep ravine.


More on that mishap (no harm done, except for losing my sunglasses) in a moment. But first, back to Taranaki. He’s a movie star… he stood in for Mt. Fuji in “The Last Samurai,” arguably the only thing better looking than Ken Watanabe in that whole dreadful movie. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he stars again, this time as The Lonely Mountain, when Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro start filming “The Hobbit” in New Zealand in a few months.

Because, you see, Mt. Taranaki is indeed The Lonely Mountain.

According to Maori lore, Taranaki was once located with all the other big volcanoes on the North Island’s Central Plateau (including Mt. Doom!). He fell in loved with the mountain Pihanga, who was Tongariro’s lover. To avoid the bloodshed that invariably accompanies volcanic love triangles, Taranaki left the Central Plateau, carving the Whanganui River in his wake and ending up in his own little corner of the island, on his own little peninsula, where he is often shrouded in cloud… crying for his love, just visible on the horizon, as the story goes.

Oh, how romantic…

Interestingly, there were no Maori settlements between Taranaki and Pihanga because they believed the two volcanoes would eventually reunite in a wham bam explosive gettin’ it on pyroclastic extravaganza.

Gives new meaning to the hokey old line about making the mountains move, doesn’t it?

Anyway, the weather around Taranaki is famously miserable, with a lot of rain throughout the year and clouds pretty much all the time. So I felt extremely lucky to have (mostly) clear skies during my visit. Originally I’d planned to do the “Around the Mountain Circuit” (AMC) of about four days, going, you guessed it, around the mountain. But when I asked the cranky DOC warden at the visitor center about current trail conditions, he started telling me how one portion was closed due to a slip, another bridge was busted, one area had treacherous mud… I decided to pass and instead do the shorter Pouakai Circuit, which skirted the mountain’s north flanks and then stretched out along the top of the Pouakai Range, itself the shredded remains of another volcano. At about 25km and easily covered in two days, the Pouakai Circuit had the added bonus of better views of Taranaki than the AMC.

Well, sign me up.

The trail began with a climb of more than 400 meters along a ridge called “the Razorback” which was much less demanding than it sounds. It then headed north along the volcano’s side, up and down and in and out of several gullies, slips and assorted old rock slides/lahar highways. It was mostly clear but hazy, yet I still got a thrill being able to make out, just, the Central Plateau volcanoes of Tongariro, Ruapehu (Mordor) and Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom) on the eastern horizon.

Once off the steep scree slopes, the trail lead gently downhill, winding through thick forest with the occasional steep drop-off. In some places, trail-cutting had exposed buried layers from Taranaki’s previous eruptions, which alternated between lava, ash and big piles of rocks. It was fascinating to see the layering so clearly and so closely… so fascinating that I didn’t notice that the trail made a sharp left. I kept walking straight, my eyes on the layers, and tumbled right off the trail and down a densely forested ravine… for about a foot.

If you can imagine it, my left leg from the knee down was still on the trail, my right leg was wrapped around a branch trapeze-artist style and the rest of me was draped upside down on assorted prickly shrubs and trees and brush.

It would have been easy to get back on the trail but for my pack… like all good hikers, I’d put the heaviest items on top, which makes for less back strain when the pack is right side up. Upside down, however, all the weight of the pack was on my head. I wasn’t hurt and was in no real danger, but the simple physics involved meant I was sort of stuck.

I had this image of how ridiculous I must have looked, and every bit of wriggling simply resulted in a branch or twig breaking and making my position less stable (again… no real danger. Even if all the branches holding me had broken, I would have slid about six more inches before getting entangled again, the vegetation was that dense).

It took about 15 minutes to get myself back on the trail, though it would have taken less time if I wasn’t laughing so much. My sunglasses fell off at some point and were quickly swallowed by the forest. I think of it as an offering to Taranaki for good weather, which I got. They were cheap ones, anyway.

Once down near sea level again, the trail led through “the unique Ahukawakawa Swamp.” That’s how all the DOC literature refers to it, though I was never quite clear on what made it unique. As swamps go, it was rather attractive, really looking like more of a fell, and not at all buggy. Relatively recent boardwalking of the trail meant very little mud, too.

Across the swamp it was back up another ridge, this time into the Pouakai Range, the remnants of an old volcano that built up, blew up and eroded long before Taranaki was on the scene. The views back to Taranaki were amazing, especially as the sun set and the full moon rose.

I stayed the night in the nearby Pouakai Hut which was okay, aside from its other guests. There were two bunk rooms: I was in one with a rather unfriendly couple from Oregon who acted like I was such the imposition on their private luxury suite (get over it). The other bunk room contained four obnoxious teenagers and their two adult minders on some kind of Outward Bound, Kids At Risk program. The teens blasted a godawful mix of bad industrial, death metal and gangsta rap on their iPod speakers, basically annoying music that would guarantee they’d be noticed, while smoking and speaking to each other in half-sentences consisting of expletives and the N-word.

Perhaps their worst sin was wearing their baseball hats slanted on an angle in a dated rapper style that just vexes the hell out of me.

They were trying so hard to be edgy and to get people’s attention, yet in such boring, tedious and passe ways. Their constant use of the N-word addressing each other particularly rankled me… you couldn’t find whiter kids if you visited an Aryan Nation compound in Idaho.

Their adult minders were trying to be their friends, too. No discipline or authority or backbone. Ugh.

Anyway, their presence was the only wrong note on the whole hike, so I can’t complain too much (but I will… there’s something about kids wearing their baseball hats on a slopey angle that just Sets. Me. Off.).

The following morning I got an early start and continued up Mt. Henry, part of the Pouakai Range, and then back down into forest. There are several gorges stretched across the path of Day Two on the trail, with ladders and stairs in spots and nothing but tree roots in other places. It was an exciting, full day with an intense upper body workout, let’s just put it that way.

One thing Day Two didn’t have, however, at least once I was down Mt. Henry, was a view to Taranaki. By late afternoon, when I made it back to my car, I realized I hadn’t missed much. The clouds had closed in again and the handsome mountain was lost in his own tears once more.


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