Somewhere above my head, R2D2 and the Clangers were having a right old ding-dong. At least, that’s how it sounded, filtered through a mass of heavily bearded branches. First a shrill volley of robotic whistles flew through the canopy. Back came a quizzical warbling, provoking a further barrage of trills, chimes and peeps. On the spat raged, accompanied by angry swishes as the combatants chased each other through the leaves. Finally, the adversaries emerged: not space raiders but a green -feathered korimako, or bellbird, retreating from a belligerent tui. In the depths of the Goblin Forest on Mount Taranaki, that fantasy sound battle seemed entirely in keeping: this photogenic volcano in the south-west of New Zealand’s North Island is genuinely Middle-Earth otherworldly.
True, Taranaki didn’t actually star in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epic s (though it did body-double for Mount Fuji in Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai).
But its near-perfect cone, diverse habitats and Maori heritage are the stuff of travellers’ – and, particularly, trekkers’ – fantasies. Iencountered the avian rivals on a new walking route, the Pouakai Crossing, which winds around Mount Taranaki’s northern slopes. New Zealand’s second-tallest summit (2,518m), called Egmont by European colonists, has long been a magnet for peak-baggers. But this recently mintedi8.4km hike aims to attract those who might otherwise tackle the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, 130km to the east – widely known as the world’s best one-day walk. I joined a small group to see how the Pouakai Crossing stacks up against its better-known rival.
In a land long ago… One benefit of the Taranaki trek is clear even before stepping out: it’s really convenient. New Plymouth Airport, served by numerous low-cost flights, is less than 30km north of the mountain; half an hour after my shuttle-bus pick-up I was clipping up my daypack at the walk’s start, North Egmont Visitor Centre. Alongside me on that balmy April morning was Nick Brown, my softly spoken, twinkle-eyed guide, and John Haylock, a local hiker and amateur geologist who provided a hearty helping of volcano knowhow. The visual treats began at a viewpoint a little above our drop-off.
To the north, surf rolled in to the shores of New Plymouth, guarded by the humpback Sugar Loaf Islands and Paritutu Rock. Behind us loomed the scarred slopes of Taranaki, and to the east, hazy on the horizon, rose the hefty cones of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro – the volcanoes that form the backdrop for the more-famous crossing. Partly thanks to Hobbit celebrity, the popularity of the Tongariro Crossing has boomed over the past 15 years: more than 100,000 now hike between those forbidding craters annually. Yet while there’s no denying its muscular beauty, you won’t have it to yourself. In contrast, only a handful of walkers set out from North Egmont that autumn day, most heading for the summit -for now, a mere 2- or 3,000 tramp the path winding around Mount Taranaki each year.
Like any hiking trail worth its salt, the Pouakai is rich in heritage, human and natural. The history lesson started just steps from the visitor centre, at the Camphouse – “the old redcoats (British soldiers) building,” as Nick called it. This prefab corrugated-iron cabin was erected as army barracks in New Plymouth during the 1860s Taranaki land wars between local Maori and pakeha (European settlers). Relocated towards the end of the 19th century, today its abunkhouse used mainly by summiteers, and a reminder – the first of many – that this land was far from uninhabited before the British arrived.
The love lives of volcanoes – On this cloudless morning the peak seemed close enough to touch – though touching is unwise. “The mounga (mountain) is male, and the summit is his head,” explained Nick. “Standing, sitting or eating at the very top is considered tapu – very disrespectful.” I’d never really considered the sex of volcanoes until now. But in New Zealand, where legends come landscape-sized, it’s an important factor, as in the torrid rivalry between Taranaki and Tongariro, which goes back way beyond the creation of hiking trails. “Long ago, the Maori say, Taranaki lived with other volcanoes in the centre of the island,” recounted John. “He and Tongariro both fell in love with Pihanga, a beautiful female mountain – and fought a mighty battle over her. Tongariro triumphed, and Taranaki – his wounds still visible today – fled south, finally settling alongside his new partner, Pouakai.”
Quite a tale – but then this is quite a country. Beyond the Camphouse we mounted steps delving into Goblin Forest – not a Tolkien-esque invention but I a recognised term for this emerald woodland, furry with mosses, liverworts and ferns. Rarely has a wood seemed more alive, plants layered on other plants. And among the branches of the twisted kamahi trees I heard the weird warbling of the tui for the first time. “They’re angry little beggars,” smiled Nick. “And amazing mimics – they can even imitate cellphones.” This one, though, merely trilled and peeped, showing off its gleaming blue-black plumage and the white dog-collar tuft that prompted early settlers to dub it the ‘parson bird’. Egmont National Park, which embraces the mountain, is a birding hotspot, harbouring kiwis as well as rare whio (blue duck), which have been reintroduced to its remoter stretches.
Yet even here they’re not safe from predators; though New Zealand has no native land mammals, numerous stoat traps alongside the path betray the presence of rapacious invaders introduced by early settlers. After 20 minutes or so we punctured the treeline and veered west, the trail levelling out as we began to trace rather than bisect the contour lines. And over the following few hours the variety of the track became apparent. There’s curious geology, if that’s your bag. Mount Taranaki is classified as an active but quiescent stratovolcano: although it has snoozed for a couple of centuries, the volcano’s layers of ash, lumpy cumul o-domes, pyroclastic flows and lahars are testament to tens of millennia of eruptions.
Thick congealed lava streams streak its flanks like melting candle wax, or ice cream dripping down a cone. Under the Dieffenbach Cliffs we strode, a lofty organ-pipe rock formation named after the German-born naturalist who first conquered the volcano in 1839. Not that anyone really conquers such a giant; even on this relatively gentle track, it pays to be cautious. At Boomerang Slip, a sign warned us to proceed one at a time, and not to linger: landslides are common on these ever so friable mountainsides.
Stepping carefully – Then there’s the botany. Nick plucked fronds of edible kiokio (Tike cabbage leaves dropped in sand”), and pointed out rot-resistant totara trees, used by Maori for waka (canoes) and the central poles of whare (houses). We encountered several more reminders of the region’s Maori heritage along the trail. To our right, the Kokowai stream trickled into a smudge of rust-hued ochre deposits, coloured by iron and manganese oxide. This spot remains culturally important for Maori, who historically used ochre to decorate their faces, canoes and buildings. By midday the spring sun was sauteing the back of my neck a deep shade of red, and I was grateful for a lunch halt in the shade of Holly Hut.
Here Nick doled out a curious green nugget, a little like an unripe fig: my first ever feijoa. “it’s a Brazilian fruit that grows well here,” he explained, demonstrating how to score a line around its middle in order to suck out the floral nectar inside. Botanical connections with South America continued with sightings of relic species left when New Zealand separated from the ancient Gondwanaland supercontinent: rimu podocarp trees and tussocks of fluffy-headed toetoe, akin to pampas grass. From Holly Hut we descended to Ahukawakawa swamp, a grass-clad wetland fed by the Hangatahua (Stony) River, its waters tinted orange by more ochre. Despite its soggy under layer, Ahukawakawa looks for all the worldlike African savannah -I half expected to spot lions stalking buffalo among the tall grasses and sedges. Yet this serene swathe is a unique ecosystem home to endemic plants, rare birds, insects and – Nick insisted.
“People feed the eels, which return to the same spot each day in hope of a free lunch,” he claimed. A steep trail led us out of the swamp and onto the Pouakai range, among the skeletal, bleached-white trunks of pahautea (mountain cedars). These were the victims of either the saline sea winds or gnawing possums – more invaders introduced by 19th-century settlers. The ridgetop path dipped between rows of dense kamahi and kawaka trees, trunks twisted and gnarled – as they might well be, after seven centuries living with a grumpy volcano. Emerging from the woods, the path traversed a scrubby saddle, winding east to the showcase flourish. Pouakai tarn is an unremarkable sight in itself: a smallish, roundish pond.
But stand just to the north and you get the bigger picture – one that adorns countless postcards: Mount Taranaki, reflected and framed in the tarn’s still waters in all its symmetrical, multicoloured, majestic, mystical, grandiose glory. So, lpondered, Tongariro versus Taranaki: which triumphs in the day-trek stakes? It seems unwise to take sides in a tiff between volcanoes, but here goes. In terms of visual drama and scale, Tongariro’s craggy craters, fumaroles and colourful lakes have the edge. Yet the Pouakai’s less overt charms are many: it has turbulent geology, epic beauty, Maori heritage and diverse nature, but also delightfully sparse traffic – we passed only seven other trampers, three of whom were Department of Conservation workers. So for the sheer pleasure of walking, I’d have to pick the Pouakai Crossing, just don’t tell Tongariro.