Life under a great mountain
I was three-years-old, in New Plymouth, when I made a thrilling discovery. I ran to the window and called to my parents, "look what I've found!".
I'd probably only just noticed it was there. The saying goes that if you can see the mountain it's going to rain and if you can't see it, it's already raining.
'The' mountain? If you lived in Taranaki, what other could there be? When I was growing up, the official name was Mt Egmont and we meant no disrespect. In Maori legend he is a male mountain ... Taranaki.
My grandfather must have climbed up in the 1920s, for there's a photo taken in the crater. The women are wearing most unsuitable footwear but they look surprisingly cheerful.
Family members milked cows and ran a timber mill on the lower slopes, but my parents never went higher than the Stratford Mountain House ... in the car. On Sunday drives we'd see the peak from all sides and marvel at its changing face. From the north, Fanthams Peak is invisible and our mountain appears as symmetrical as Fujiyama. What we take for reality depends on our viewpoint.
I used to be as sedentary as my parents and when I did start tramping, so I stuck to the tracks covered by Philip Temple in his pocket-sized guides. With friends or children I did the Milford, Matemateaonga, Lake Waikaremoana, Heaphy and then the Mt Egmont circuit. Our only deviation from the little book was to start at Dawson Falls rather than East Egmont.
In 1992 I set off around the mountain again with two of my children. Again, we left from Dawson Falls and headed toward Lake Dive. There's a charm in knowing you'll arrive back at your starting point. As A E Housman wrote:
"The world is round, so travellers tell,
And straight though reach the track,
Trudge on, trudge on, 'twill all be well,
The way will guide one back."
But at Lake Dive my sense of reality was challenged. If it weren't for the snow on the main peak, I'd have sworn that Fanthams was just as high. And from most angles it's hard to accept that the rock known as the Shark's Tooth isn't the summit. Taranaki is cunning; he changes his appearance.
We reached Waiaua Gorge after a long and muddy day ploughing through gullies and gulches, to be rewarded by a full moon rising over the peak. Fanthams was now on the right and definitely smaller. We were the only people around.
The next day, we climbed above the bush, through herb and tussock country, ate lunch at Kahui and finally reached Holly hut where a young German couple had a fire going. We had time for a side trip to Bells Falls, slept on cosy mattresses and felt refreshed when we set off on what was to be the last day.
But unseasonable and icy November snow had me crawling across Boomerang slip on my hands and knees and we went down to the North Egmont Visitor Centre, where we were told it would take about six hours to reach Dawson Falls on the lower tracks. When we reached Maketawa hut I'd had enough for one day. The young ones were keen to keep going, so we divided up the food and arranged to meet at Dawson Falls next day. They figured they'd stay that night at Waingongoro, not far from the falls.
I had another cuppa and settled down to relish the solitude, as I had Maketawa to myself. There was nothing but the hut book and Philip Temple to read so I contemplated the peak from yet another angle and went to bed with the birds. I woke before dawn, disturbed a possum loitering around the long drop, watched the twinkling lights of New Plymouth, Inglewood and Stratford far below, and set off as soon as it was light enough.
Two steep gorges and a cliff face to edge around made me glad I'd waited. It was still early when I arrived at the East Egmont junction near Stratford Mountain House and no one was astir. I boiled the billy and ate crackers and Marmite before plodding on. I was happily singing She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain when I arrived at Dawson Falls around 11.30am, ready to reunite with the kids.
No sign of them. What was worse, our car had gone, and when I checked the intentions book I saw they'd written that we'd all come out at 9am and had had a great trip. I started doubting my sanity – or theirs. Hadn't they noticed I wasn't with them? I'd been abandoned on the mountain without money or transport.
But things aren't always as they seem. Finding the track from Maketawa tougher than they'd expected, they'd been worried for me. On reaching Dawson Falls, they'd decided to drive off the mountain, to intercept me at the East Egmont junction. But, having departed at the crack of dawn, I'd already passed by.
So what is real depends on our perspective. And how we see a mountain depends not only on the angle from which we view it but on our experience there.
When we did that round trip in 1992, it was clean, quiet and peaceful. A few years later I was at Holly hut again. Solar lighting had been installed and the hut was packed, with people noisily playing cards late into the night. And I think trampers had been leaving rubbish around, for the nice foam mattresses had been gnawed by rats.
Whether we know him as Taranaki or Mt Egmont, he deserves to be respected. I don't often visit the place of my birth these days, but the mountain has a piece of my heart.