If you're feeling like you ate too much at Christmas, or have too many fit adolescents around you, I have the perfect antidote - a walk up a steep hill.
This particular hill is a place I've been meaning to visit for ages. It's 35 years since I came to live in this province, and during that time I've climbed Taranaki, the Pouakais and the Kaitakes. But until recently, I'd never climbed Paritutu. A friend suggested I put that right, so on a perfectly calm sunny day we made out ascent from the carpark at the base of the rock.
I'd never thought much about this narrow rock cone before, other than to think it is part of the crater of an ancient volcano. We're told the islands and Paritutu are the eroded cone of a volcano. The exhibition in the Puke Ariki museum explains the sequence of Taranaki volcanos, but for most of us it's just a rock which dominates our city.
I was keen to go because it's host to several rare native plants, and right there at the start of the track is the first of them - a glossy leaf shrub Melicytus obovatus growing on both sides of the path just after the signpost. Related to whiteywoods, this tough evergreen shrub would look good in any garden.
The walk starts off with wooden stairways and three flights up on the left is a very attractive shiny fern. This is a very rigid form of Asplenium oblongifolium which has adapted to the hot, dry, windy conditions and is much tougher than the usual form we see in the forest.
Just beyond this is a huge leaf Brachyglottis with pale grey- green, paddle-like leaves. It always amazes me because this tropical- looking plant is a daisy and closely related to the cute daisies in the lawn. Plus the fact such a big leaf plant can handle all the salt winds.
There's lots of gorse looking more like it does in its native habitat in England. Here the gorse is stunted, growing around knee- high rather than way over head high as it does in most of New Zealand.
There are flaxes galore, showing how this plant can cope with two extremes of ground conditions. Technically called xerophytes, flaxes are quite happy growing in swamps where every day is a wet day, and yet they are equally content growing on dry, barren, rocky outcrops like this, where the roots may go for weeks without proper nourishment or moisture.
Then, after the wooden steps you're faced with an almost vertical rock face. I guess I realised it would be steep but it's a surprise when you're actually confronted with just how steep it is. Without the convenient chain wire rope it really would be a challenge, but the chain gives you both physical and moral support. You can pull yourself up with your right hand on the chain while your left grips the rocks, and you just hope your feet are following in synch. It's almost like those artificial climbing walls with foot and hand holds a convenient distance apart.
We stopped several times to admire the view and to allow me to search for plants, but the real reason was to catch my breath. The views are stunning, and I guess the surprise is just how big New Plymouth is when you have this bird's eye view. It seems a vast expanse of housing and trees; it really is a very leafy city.
When you reach the top, the flattened area is much bigger than I imagined and leaves plenty of room for people to sit and relax, or scour the perimeter fence for plants, as in my case, or simply to enjoy the views in every direction. The islands look great from here, as do the ranges and mountain.
If you head over towards the southern end, there on the side facing the mountain are three intriguing native shrubs. First up a small bronzy grey leaf is Corokia cotoneaster, and sometimes this plant is thought to be a special form unique to this rock.
Corokia are a terrific wind- hardy shrub for our gardens and make a fine, easily clipped hedge. Next is an upright wiry shrub with a yellow hue, one of our native daisy bushes Olearia solandri. It's named after Daniel Solander, who came on the first botany voyage with Cook and Banks.
And then a glossy leaf Hebe, which is either Hebe speciosa or H. stricta. I'm not going to stick my neck out on Hebes because there's so many of them and they're so confusing - especially when you're stuck on a steep cliff.
If you go to the southernmost point and look over the fence you'll see a soft-leaf trailing plant. You have to wonder how the plant can survive all the hot sun and wind, but the leaf has a waxy surface to reduce water loss. This little native trailing plant is actually edible; Tetragonia tetragonioides, or New Zealand spinach, is quite tasty. Captain Cook made his crew members eat it to help avoid scurvy, a disease caused by lack of fruit and vegetables.
He was strict on this, making his crew eat and drink vegetable concoctions such as rimu beer. I'm told the native angelica or Scandia rosifolia grows up here but I couldn't find any. But I have seen lots of it growing in the borders in front of the Kawaroa swimming complex. It looks like a glossy leaf fern or celery.
And then it's time to descend. Some people find the coming down harder than the going up, but for myself I found it a breeze, using my bum as a third pivot point. You can either come down facing the world, which allows you to lay your body back for balance, or else turn around and face the rocks and come down as if descending a ladder.
Before you know it, you're back in the carpark, and that's when I realised that all the special plants that grow on the rock are planted here in the beds either side of the pathway and in the centre of the roundabout.
The ground hugging blue leaf plant is Pimelea oreophila, a native Daphne.
So if you're feeling lazy you can observe these special plants without making the effort - but you're missing out on the thrill of the climb and all those amazing views.
After our descent we wandered over to look at the fabulous rock carving on display at the Rangimarie Arts and Crafts centre. Half a dozen people were working away on their stone carvings, turning bland blocks of stone into tactile works of art. I'm always in awe of the vision these folk have, seeing the potential in a slab of rock that would always just be rock to me.
My thanks to Joelle Xavier.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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