Scaling Mt Taranaki
It's been almost a decade since Taranaki was taken over by Japanese actors with shaved heads who were cast as samurai warriors.
When they weren't filming the Tom Cruise Hollywood blockbuster Last of the Samurai, the actors were out in the surf, or looking for a decent bite of the local fare in the city of New Plymouth.
Even though they've since left this western part of the North Island with its black sand beaches, their presence is still felt under the gaze of soaring Mt Taranaki. When filming took place, the Japanese actors enjoyed one of the best summers Taranaki had turned on – locals still dub a good summer "a samurai summer".
I last visited Taranaki in March for Womad, the global music festival that draws thousands each year. It was still warm and the New Plymouth racecourse, normally home to cantering horses, was filled with a sea of tents. I spent my days in the lush Brooklyn Bowl listening to musicians from Mongolia, America and Britain, along with favourites from Auckland and Wellington. At night, I slept on an airbed.
The samurai summer has long disappeared when we leave Wellington at Queen's Birthday Weekend, driving up the west coast towards New Plymouth. On this trip, I'm opting for comfort under a roof rather than canvas. We're staying with David and Nuala Marshall, owners of Ahu Ahu Beach Villas on the edge of Oakura beach. And the roof we're staying under is a blaze of rust red clay tiles that the couple retrieved when Stratford Hospital was demolished.
The four villas, in two separate European-style buildings, also boast some of the classic latticed windows that hospital patients once gazed out of. Inside, 15-metre hardwood piles from Taranaki's wharf run across the rooms as beams.
David has lived under the mountain since he was born there 55 years ago, apart from stints away travelling. On Saturday morning, the keen surfer and fisherman turns up with a plate of steaming hot muffins. He apologises for the weather – if it wasn't so rough, he'd bring fish too.
We want coffee and he points us to Oakura village (pronounced O-waka-ra by locals), five minutes down the road, where New Zealand's teenage surfing sensation Paige Hareb grew up and learned to surf. I expect to see surfers in black wetsuits bouncing up and down on their boards like penguins. But the waves are pounding and it's too messy for anyone to go out. We stop at Vertigo Surf Shop, which David tells us sells decent takeaway coffee. Apparently 14 surfers once surfed on the board now standing vertical outside, advertising the shop.
A stationary coffee caravan is parked outside, but it's boarded up – the barista has gone on a surfing holiday to Bali. Just as we're starting to feel desperate, the shop owner comes out of Vertigo, surf-blonde hair around his face. He disappears into the back of the caravan, yells for our orders, and emerges with two cups of pretty good coffee.
We're keen for a run, so once we've had our caffeine hit, we head to Lucy's Gully behind Oakura.
Near the entrance, the gully is full of towering Californian redwoods planted in the 1920s. It's named after Lucy Stevens, a local Maori woman who was born in a whare near here in 1820. After her son and husband died, she buried their bodies in the bush and regularly went into the gully to tangi, or wail, for them.
You might wonder what else you can do in a provincial town, famous for its surf beaches and towering mountain, when the weather is bad. We laze in private hot tubs at Taranaki Thermal Baths. They're filled for each soak and emptied when your 30 minutes is up. The warm mineral waters are apparently 29,000 years old, and were only found when, a century ago, a petroleum company drilled a kilometre deep to search for oil. It found no oil, but discovered a hot spring instead.
There's also the public Govett Brewster Gallery, the repository for the works of kinetic sculptor Len Lye. Everything you need to know about Lye is in this gallery and its adjoining shop.
You can also get a decent bite to eat in Taranaki. One night, we eat at the eclectic and delicious Lahar Cafe in Okato, and on our final night, we tuck into hot chips at the local Oakura pub. The Garlic Press is chocka on a Saturday night, and renowned for its hearty, award-winning meals, cooked by German-born chef Sohnke Danger.
Our most memorable dinner was at Sushi Ninja, on New Plymouth's main street. Sophie and Ken Kurota were working in Auckland when they moved to Taranaki in 2003 and set up a food caravan to feed sushi to the Samurai actors and crew. It was such a hit that the Kurotas opened their restaurant.
Head chef Ken brings us a plate of beautifully arranged Japanese food – salmon and tuna sashimi, flame-grilled sushi, and temaki rolls of prawn and avocado. Sophie tells us about her trek up Mount Taranaki with restaurant staff earlier this year, two days after the Japanese tsunami and earthquake. When they got to the 2518m summit, staff plunged the Japanese flag into the snow and prayed for those who had lost their lives. She says the climb was the hardest thing she has ever done.
I find out what she means when we decide to ignore the gloomy weather forecast and climb to the summit. At 10am, we start our ascent, wrapped up and bags full of snacks, water and spare clothes. We walk uphill, following DOC poles – in parts it's so misty that it's hard to see.
There's a beautiful Maori legend about Mount Taranaki. It goes that Taranaki once lived in the centre of New Zealand's North Island with other mountain gods Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, near the lovely maid Pihanga. Taranaki and Tongariro fought over her, and Taranaki, wild with grief, left after a battle and became trapped on his current site. When the mountain is covered in a veil of mist and rain, Taranaki is apparently weeping for Pihanga.
Mount Taranaki has taken lives and I think about this when we've been climbing for about two hours. I'm flagging, my clothes are soaked, and I have no idea how far we have to go to the top. I turn to my friend: "How much further do you think? Shall we turn back?"
We can't see the summit as the mist is swirling. But out of this haze, a lone tramper suddenly emerges. "You're only about 30 minutes from the top," he yells to us. Two female trampers come out of the clouds too, making their descent, and a couple with a guide. "It's clear at the summit," says one.
We keep climbing, pulling ourselves up and over rocks. I'm training for a marathon, but this is a different physical and mental challenge. I've seen the beautifully symmetrical summit of this volcano through the window of aeroplanes. I'm determined to stand on the top.
At about 1.30pm, we gingerly climb over icy, slippery rocks and drop down carefully into the volcano's snow-covered crater. We have another 50m icy slope to get to the summit. We're so close. Finally, we're at the highest point of Taranaki, reading a plaque. When the clouds open below, we can see out in every direction. Green everywhere, the odd river, Ruapehu in the distance. For now, I feel like we're on top of the world.
Worth seeing: Govett-Brewster Gallery, 40 Queen Street New Plymouth; open daily, Taranaki Thermal Baths, 8 Bonithon Ave, ph 067591666.
Climb Mount Taranaki or one of the many walks in the seriously good
Egmont National Park visitor centre, open till 4.30pm daily.
Where to stay: Ahu Ahu Beach Villas, Oakura. ahu.co.nz, 067527370
Where to eat: Sushi Ninja, 89 Devon St East, 067591392 The Garlic Press, 81 Devon St, 067578667 Lahar Cafe, Okato, New Plymouth, 067524865
The Dominion Post