These boots are made for walking
It's a mesmerising start to the Pouakai Crossing.
And, as the Tongariro Crossing in the centre of the North Island is partially closed due to volcanic activity, this 17-kilometre track across the front of Mount Taranaki is a heavyweight candidate for the title of New Zealand's best one-day walk.
The opening stretch is a plodding climb through the sort of forest that goblins probably call home. Ferns intrude on the path; moss forms claustrophobic walls. But the mountain looms ahead, proudly issuing the challenge. A giant scree slope - known to mountain rescue teams as "The Bodycatcher" - slides down the side like a teardrop.
The track traverses underneath it, sneaking beneath towering cliffs as it looks out over the plains to the east. Poking above the clouds in the distance is Mount Ruapehu, the North Island's highest point.
Either side are ridges and razorbacks, saddles and gullies. Far down in one of them is a bed of kokowai - a red ochre that stains the soil and turns the water a rich rust-like red. For centuries, local Maori have used it as a dye for clothing and carvings.
What can't be seen is another human being. It's a grand perch for reflective solitude.
As the trail leads downhill into a valley between Taranaki and the Pouakai Ranges, the weird kicks in. Thousands of dead white trees spread across the valley, bending like hunchbacks towards the east. They've been stripped bare by possums, then blown into crooked position by salty sea winds.
Around the track are purple carnivorous snails with shells bigger than golf balls and clumps of tutu - a lacy plant so poisonous it has been known to kill a circus elephant that foolishly tucked in.
The skeletal forest gives way to the Ahukawakawa Swamp, extraordinary for its existence at this only barely sub-alpine altitude. It forms a golden-tinged bowl at the foot of the Pouakais, and sucks in the wispy clouds to serve a mist-soaked other-worldly eeriness. Epically alone but closed in upon; it's a sensually chilling, wide-open space that should set off agoraphobics and claustrophobics alike.
The classic postcard view of Taranaki comes from the tarns, a couple of ponds that have found themselves in a marvellously photogenic spot. That picture of the volcano being reflected in the water is a reward rather than a gift, though. A day walk cannot aspire to greatness without an element of challenge, and the ascent of the ridge towards the tarns most definitely provides it.
It's not a challenge of danger or technicality; it's one of knackered cart-horse stamina. It's one of thousands of steps, almost all of them uphill. It's one of searing lactic acid in the thighs and cooking under the newly emerged sun. It's one of two hours hoping the set of steps around the corner is the last, then realising forlornly that it's not.
But once there, it's all undeniably worth it. In the afternoon, the mountain no longer glows red. But it still possesses a ferocious, humbling power. It's sorely tempting to drop to the knees in reverence. Well, that's if the jelly legs haven't given way through exhaustion by then.
The writer was a guest of Venture Taranaki.
1 The classic one
Tongariro Alpine Crossing Due to volcanic activity in the thermal heart of the North Island, it's not possible to make the full crossing, but the seven-hour there-and-back hike from Mangatepopo to the Red Crater summit is still staggeringly memorable. It passes rusty orange streams and lava fields before skirting under the shadow of Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films), crossing the epically desolate south crater and climbing for views of the Emerald Lakes. Adrift Guided Outdoor Adventures offers guided walks for $225. +64 7 892 2751, adriftnz.co.nz.
2 The icy one
The Fox Glacier Wrap up warm for the South Island's top day trek, where part of the attraction is that it's never the same twice. Parts of the Fox Glacier move about two metres every day. The day trek goes to one of the 13-kilometre glacier's highest points, passing giant ice pinnacles, cutting through ice gorges and taking in heart-pumping Southern Alps scenery. The $165 Nimble Fox tour with Fox Glacier Guiding (+64 3 751 0825, foxguides.co.nz) includes crampon hire as well as a guide to cut out fresh ice steps for you.
3 The urban one
The Coast to Coast Walkway Auckland sits on a narrow isthmus, straddling New Zealand's east and west coasts. A well-signposted 16-kilometre trail takes you from Onehunga on Manukau Harbour to the glitzier downtown waterfront on Waitemata Harbour. It's where it takes you on the way that matters, though: through urban parks where sheep and cows roam and up several of Auckland's volcanic cones for magical panoramic views.
4 The fiord one
The Gertrude Saddle Route While everyone is pootling around Milford Sound on cruise boats, walkers prepared to take on some steep stretches can take in the fiord from above. The trek to the Gertrude Saddle and back takes between four and six hours, but the steel cables there to assist on the slippery rock slabs indicate it's not leisurely. The rewards, however, are magical rainforest and icefield scenery. Milford Lodge will shuttle you to the start point. +64 3 249 8071, milfordlodge.com.
5 The coastal one
The Coromandel Coastal Track A relatively easy meander over 10 kilometres through farmland and light forest, this is the stroll for walkers who prefer the sun on their face and views out over the sea. Stretching from Fletchers Bay to Stony Bay on the upper Coromandel Peninsula, the track looks out over the Hauraki Gulf and Great Barrier Island, while there are beaches if you fancy a dip. Regular buses run from Coromandel Town.
David Whitley was the guest of Adrift Guided Outdoor Adventures and Destination Great Lake Taupo.
Touring there The Pouakai Crossing is self-guided but well marked and takes at least eight hours. Kiwi Outdoors Centre (027 270 2932, outdoorgurus.co.nz) runs a $40 shuttle bus from New Plymouth, which drops hikers off at the North Egmont car park start point and picks them up at the Mangorei Road finishing line.
Staying there Waterfront Hotel, New Plymouth. Rooms from $225.
More information taranaki.info.
Sydney Morning Herald