I only really engaged with my surroundings when we hit Waverley. Waverley used to have an op-shop where you could buy freshly knitted hats from a gaggle of local old ladies. It has closed, like much of the rest of Waverley. So too has Patea. It started with the works, but now there is nearly only pubs left in this beautiful little spot with the giant wooden church and imperious post office. Patea is of course famous for the Patea Maori Club and their hit "Poi E".
It was early evening when we rolled up to Dawson Falls Carpark on Mt Taranaki's southern slopes, and not long before we hit the trails eager to catch sunset on the summit of Fanthams Peak at Symes Hut. It looked like a distance on the map, so I was surprised to see the sign suggest it was only 3 1/2 hours (about 2 1/2 at our pace). Now this was mountains with hand rails stuff. Steps up through the bush, and sub-alpine belt and the bottom of the scree slope (thousands of them).
They deposited us at a loose scree several hundred metres below Fanthams Peak which we hurried up to bask (well basking in a very arctic way, sort of like I guess Walrus's bask) in the sun setting over the Tasman Sea. The light lit up the mountain, and the hut and the little concrete toilet.
The next morning it was a struggle to raise our towny bodies early in the cold. It was 8am by the time we were out the door, slipping quickly off Fanthams Peak and beginning to trudge up Taranaki's marbly slopes. While the mountain had been clear except for a whisp of cloud earlier, the mist now twisted around us and we were free to focus on the step in front of us rather than the wider world and bigger task ahead.
It cleared off as we neared the top and started to search for gravelly paths between the wind driven ice. We hadn't expected the degree of ice we encountered, contorted onto rock outcrops or blown in ladder like formations across the scree.
The last section, in its iced condition, required some route finding and some mixed ice and rock scrambling as well as some pack shuttling. I was very conscious of Taranaki's reputation for damaging the unwary and ill-equpped. We made the crater rim safely and descended down into the front wave of the hordes climbing the mountain from the other side. Jeans and tee-shirts are de-riguer up here and we felt a little out of place in our tramping dress-up clothes. We climbed the summit pyramid to get the 360 degree panorama, broken only by the subsidary summit of "sharks tooth"
Our day was far from over though as we descended the mountain down the easier northern route to the level of the round the mountain track and headed left towards the Pouakai ranges where we planned to stay the night. The track traversed the lower slopes of Taranaki pleasantly under the vertically fractured volcanic cliffs and we stopped for lunch where the track bent around the end of a large spur. The National park boundary is so distinct, from whereever you are you can see a piece of the green mottled pie, beyond this the pastoral scene extends to the sea on three sides.
As we contoured around the mountain the Ahukawakawa swamp came into view and the vast skeletal forest on its eastern flank. The forest is a standing graveyard of mountain cedar, victims of the possums eating habits. I took a photo of a stoat trap below a couple of these skeletons and apparently there is extensive possum control going on as well - though we saw many droppings. Some mountain cedars still survive and they are amazing looking trees, windblown and desolate in the subalpine environment.
We stopped briefly at the luxurious Holly Hut before heading on to Pouakai on the recently boardwalked track, a joint initiative of DOC, WINZ and the local council, great stuff! Dropping our packs we strolled to the trig station of Pouakai itself, hoping that the cloud would lift off the mountain. It didn't, but we could see over to our hut on the opposite ridge and the feet began to ache with the thought of freedom so we took off back down the hill. Unlike our sole occupancy of Syme there was plenty of company in Pouakai hut that night and I slept listlessly and was pleased to get out of there in the morning into the mist. Although it wasn't thick and cleared at one stage (funny how volcano's look the same from every angle!)
Our cunning strategy the previous day was to get as far away from our car as possible so we had to walk all the way back, and funnily enough we had no choice. Down off Pouakai, and through the stream and bush to the main road and visitors centre. A quick flat white and off up the hill to the Round the Mountain track, 500 metres vertical of easy 4WD track in the middle of the day. A quick lunch in the shelter of the Tahurangi Lodge porch then a rapid clockwise descent of the Round the Mountain track saw us at Dawson Falls carpark all freshened up from a swim in Wilkes Pool and ready for ther long drive back to Wellington. Some good exercise and a long intended mission finally come to fruition.