Climbing Mount Taranaki: Just hope the mountain doesn't explode

The first concern is that we need a pre-walk gear check. Over breakfast in New Plymouth's Chaos Cafe, Nick Brown from Top Guides discusses the equipment we'll need for the trek – good waterproofs, hiking boots, warm layers and a head torch.

The second omen comes later that day when I visit the town's Puke Ariki Museum. Mount Taranaki last erupted in 1854 but an information panel gleefully declares that there's a 70 per cent chance of it erupting again by 2050 and a 90 per cent chance of it happening by 2090.

When I mention this to Brown at the start of the trek, he just smiles and says: "Don't worry, I've got my umbrella."

Normally, a few hundred people a year tackle the Pouakai Crossing, a 19-kilometre walk that traverses the northern slopes of Mount Taranaki near the west coast of New Zealand's north island. Or at least they used to. Thanks to a certain guide book publisher, that number is now expected to be in the thousands.

In October, Lonely Planet made Taranaki its No. 2 region in the world to visit during 2017. It declared the walk an "unmissable experience", which is "arguably every bit as scenic as its rival [the Tongariro Alpine Crossing]".

That's a big call. Tongariro is often lauded as New Zealand's best one-day walk and is unlikely to relinquish that title without a fight. Which is why I'm here, to settle the debate once and for all.

At least that was the plan. Unfortunately, an unseasonably wet summer has meant parts of the crossing are ankle deep in mud. Throw in a niggling Achilles tendon injury on my part and Brown suggests that instead we tackle Pouakai Crossing Lite. We'll start at the end of the walk and do the last third in reverse, climbing up onto the Pouakai Range to see the volcano at sunset then returning in the dark.

We set off at 4:30pm, entering Egmont National Park from an entrance on Mangorei Road (the park is named after the volcano's other official name, Mount Egmont, given to it by Captain Cook in 1770).

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Brown's background is in outdoor education so he's particularly knowledgeable about "what you can eat" and "what you can use to make fire". As we stroll along the narrow tree-lined wooden boardwalk, he points out edible bush asparagus (surprisingly tasty) and pepper leaf (predictably peppery). He also shows us some of the plants local Maori used to treat wounds and dysentery.

As we ascend, the vegetation changes – the trees get shorter, their trunks increasingly twisted and covered in thick green moss and lichen. At around 800 metres we enter the "Goblin Forest", a mystical emerald kingdom where ferns and gnarled kamahi trees crowd the boardwalk.

A noticeable lack of birdsong adds to the eeriness. The absence is due to the park's population of stoats, rats and weasels. Traps dotted along the path plus signs warning of a recent 1080 poison drop indicate the efforts being made to bring them under control.

After 1½ hours of steady climbing we emerge onto a plateau flanked by a hillside peppered with ghostly dead cedar trees, victims of the park's possums and the region's harsh sea winds.

A lookout provides sweeping views across lush farmland to the coast, where a cluster of volcanic sea stacks called the Sugar Loaf Islands guard the entrance to New Plymouth's port.

Just before we reach Pouakai Hut, one of two well-equipped Department of Conservation huts on the crossing, we get our first teasing glimpse of Mount Taranaki, its snow-dusted tip appearing fleetingly above a hillside.

Despite Lonely Planet's recommendation, Top Guides' most requested tour is still the summit trek, a 10-hour slog to the top of the volcano, which at 2518 metres tall is the North Island's second highest peak. 

According to Brown, it's also the country's second deadliest. Lured by its comparative accessibility and lack of technical difficulty, people often attempt it on their own, unaware that the region's fiercely capricious weather can suddenly plunge them into an unexpected snowstorm or bewildering fog.

No such concerns for us today. After a rejuvenating tea and Tim Tam stop, we climb one last hill and the volcano slowly unfurls before us, a magnificent symmetrical cone silhouetted against a deep blue sky. This is rare. The summit gets around seven metres of rain a year so more often than not the volcano is shrouded in cloud.

Brown points out the rest of the Pouakai Crossing, showing us where it skirts the volcano's north-east slope before crossing the Ahukawakawa Swamp, a rare sub-alpine wetland that's home to more than 260 plant species and oddities such as a giant carnivorous purple land snail.

As the sun slips towards the horizon, we hurry down a meandering path for the "money shot". Conveniently among the tussock are two small mountain lakes called tarns, which on a still day provide a perfect reflection of the mountain in all its Mount Fuji-like glory.

Soon the sun will disappear and we'll don our headlamps for the return journey, our footsteps guided by dancing pools of light. But for now we linger, watching the flanks of the mountain glow a rusty orange in the setting sun, its vast triangular shadow creeping ominously towards the sea. 

According to Maori legend, Taranaki and Tongariro once fought a mighty battle after both falling in love with a female mountain called Pihanga. Taranaki lost and was banished to the west of the country, his tears forming the Whanganui River.

This newfound attention gives Taranaki a chance to strike back, and from what I've seen, he's a worthy contender.

FIVE MORE WALKS IN THE REGION

POUAKAI CIRCUIT

Pouakai Crossing not enough? The 24-kilometre Pouakai Circuit completes the loop, returning to Egmont National Park Visitor Centre via forests, wetlands and an impressive swing bridge over the Waiwhakaiho River.

NEW PLYMOUTH COASTAL WALKWAY

This award-winning 12.7-kilometre walkway stretches along the coast of New Plymouth. Highlights en route include Len Lye's 48-metre-tall kinetic sculpture Wind Wand, the striking skeleton-inspired Te Rewa Rewa Bridge and the funky Paris Plage cafe.

KAPUNI LOOP TRACK

Easily accessible from the Dawson Falls Visitor Centre, this two-kilometre trail follows the Kapuni Stream past the spectacular 18-metre-high Dawson Falls and one of the country's oldest continually operating generators.

OPUNAKE WALKWAY

In South Taranaki, this signposted seven-kilometre ramble along Opunake's foreshore takes you past Old Cottage Hospital, birthplace of Olympic gold medal-winning runner Peter Snell, and Te Namu Pa, a former Maori defensive settlement.

OTUNAHE SCENIC RESERVE WALKWAY

Thanks to its position within a predator controlled region, this private 70-hectare reserve is home to an estimated 500 pairs of Western North Island brown kiwi plus native bellbird, tui and kereru. Suggested $NZ10 donation. See purangikiwi.co.nz 

For more info on walks in the region, see doc.govt.nz 

Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand and Taranaki Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-zealand 

taranaki.info 

FLY

Air New Zealand flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to New Plymouth via Auckland. See airnewzealand.com.au 

WALK

Top Guides' five-hour Pouakai Tarns sunset walk costs $NZ249 per person (min two people). The full-day Pouakai Crossing costs $NZ299 per person (min four people). See topguides.co.nz 

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