We’ve never particularly enjoyed celebrating it for our own reasons, and try to do something out of the ordinary every year as a kind of middle-finger-up at the holiday.
We drive down to New Plymouth on Christmas Day, camp at Fitzroy Beach overnight, then start the two day trek on Boxing Day. The trail, which is usually spread over three days, takes you from North Egmont to Holly Hut on the first day, across the Ahukawakawa Swamp and up to the Pouakai Hut on the second, then across the ranges and down through steep forest back to the start on the final day. We decide to try and cram the first two days into one, making two 8-hour days of walking with a night in the Pouakai Hut.
The weather is a huge factor in us enjoying the trek. The first morning dawns with rain clouds concealing the entire mountain; according to Māori mythology, this symbolises Taranaki crying for his lost love Pihanga when they were separated during the great battle of the volcanoes. This means that although we can’t see the summit at all, we can hike comfortably up and around the mountain shaded from the harsh New Zealand sun, and the greyness above casts a dark atmosphere over the subalpine hills, making for some beautifully moody photographs.
After traversing the rocky ridges of Taranaki, the Ahukawakawa Swamp breaks into view. At first sight, it looks intimidating. The Pouakai Ranges line the horizon, standing guard around a vast stretch of yellow and facing the fact that we have to cross it is almost unfathomable. The clouds begin to disperse, creating a patchwork of light and shadow across the plains and The Lion King’s “everything the light touches…” comes to mind.
After a quick rest and bite to eat at Holly Hut, we start the journey into the swamp via the wooden boardwalk. Amidst the golden tussock we start to gain some perspective on the scale of the landscape and it becomes less intimidating and a lot more magical. We’re roughly half way across when we turn to look back at the view of Taranaki to discover bright blue sky has broken through all but a few clouds hovering above the mountain, which will surely shift with the wind soon to give us a glimpse of the summit. Keen to grab the opportunity at hand, we hurry to the bridge ahead in the middle of the swamp to take what would be any photographer’s dream photo. We’re given a 10-minute window to get the shot before the clouds slither back over and we can’t quite believe our luck in timing.
I can physically feel my feet exhale with relief as I take my shoes off after eight long, sweaty hours, which has got to be one of the best feelings in the world.
We reach the base of the ranges and the hard work begins. A three hour ascent to the Pouakai Hut in the now baking sunshine is not made any easier by the 15kg packs we’re each carrying, but step by endless step up through light bush and weathered cedar, we make it to the hut – a somewhat modest but inviting home for the night – around 7pm. I can physically feel my feet exhale with relief as I take my shoes off after eight long, sweaty hours, which has got to be one of the best feelings in the world.
We don’t have long to rest for the light is disappearing fast, so we carry our weary legs back up to the plateau just in time for sunset. Almighty Taranaki dominates the clear pastel sky, a silent sentinel glowing a magnificent coral pink, the peaks and shallows of its ancient ridges highlighted softly by the fading day. A mutual silence of appreciation between us as we stand in awe, and it sinks in that this is exactly what we came for.
Early the next morning we’re graced with crisp, clear skies and we set off in good stride across the ranges, stopping at the Tarns for the infamous postcard view and climbing the painfully steep Henry Peak. As the trail begins to descend and the grassland turns to forest, the trees offer their roots for steps down into an enchanted wonderland. We meander our way through overgrown ferns under a tropical canopy blanketed in moss.
The most prominent trait that I’ve noticed developing is how detached I’m becoming from everything, not just materially but mentally. I feel it’s an invaluable lesson to learn, being able to depend on nothing but yourself and to become as resourceful as you can.
Another eight hours down, and our feet and knees are heavy from fatigue. At least we’re grateful of our packs feeling lighter from less food and water weight. As the forest starts to grow brighter we too fill with determination and pick up the pace to emerge at the end of the trail…
Like waking from a dream, the twenty-five kilometres that have consumed the past two days simply evaporate into nothing but a memory.
Every step is now behind us, the destination reached, the circuit complete.