Saturday, 8 December 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 06 - Mt Taranaki

Thursday 29th November
What started as utter hell turned out to be a great day. I climbed up Mt Taranaki, enjoyed amazing views and an exhilarating ride back to town.

Taranaki National Park, the "heel-shaped" peninsula in the North Island's west, is one of the places I was really looking forward to visiting. It consists of a single mountain, the 2517m Mt Taranaki, often referred to as New Zealand's Mt Fuji. Its white cone is right at the centre of a circular forest, which is surrounded by farming country all the way to the semi-circular coastline. This tribute to symmetry is really cool to look at on a map, and it's one of the country's most scenic views. It's visible from hundreds of kilometres on clear days, a friend of mine apparently saw it from as far as the South Island (a local man told him he hadn't been that lucky in twenty years).

The first thing I did yesterday afternoon, after jumping off the bus in Stratford, was to visit the i-Site office and ask about the track's conditions. Big mistake. As usual, they were full of crap, pardon my French. A thick-waisted woman who's probably never been up the mountain herself told me matter of factly that anything above 1800 metres is socked-in and only accessible with icepick and crampons. She almost succeeded in dissuading me from the hike I was so eager to do, and almost convinced me to go for a dull low-altitude bushwalk instead.

Had she looked outside the window, she'd have seen that Faltham's Peak (1966m), the lower peak on the mountain's western side, was almost completely free of snow. To confirm this, the owner of the hostel I stayed at claimed that one of his guests had hiked up there a week before without any problems. To further prove his point, a local mountain guide had just strolled in for a chat, reporting perfect walking conditions. The 2517m summit was a different matter, though. The crater is still covered in snow and going up there without crampons, he said, would be only my choice. Good. He refrained from lecturing me and stuck to practical advice, leaving it up to me whether I'd risk my life or not.

Unfortunately, that's a very rare attitude. When speaking with Kiwis, it's far more common to be treated like children, something that's really getting on my nerves. I have enough examples to fill up a blog post, not just from i-Site people, but from ordinary locals, too. I love this country and its people, but this is the one thing I can't stand. Many Kiwis seem to assume that every foreigner coming to NZ is inexperienced, stupid and irresponsible, has no common sense and needs babysitting.

I do understand they have to deal with inexperienced people who are unaware of many dangers, and of course there's the occasional dummy who tackles a multi-day walk in sandals, but there should be a line between being helpful and patronizing. Many tourists are actually more experienced than those i-Site and DoC people who don't work in the field but sit in offices, relaying third-party information and selling commercial tours. Commercial tours being my second point: so many natural attractions have become blatantly commercialised, making it really difficult to get away from the fuss and hype and enjoy things the good old self-sustained way. There are tours and services for virtually everything, from charter cruises to wiping your ass on day walks. It's often so overwhelming that it's easy to forget one can experience the attractions independently and for free. Sorry about the rant, I just wanted to express my opinion about one of the very few negatives this country has. Now back to the great Taranaki day.

The following morning, still undecided whether to do this as a one or two-day trip, I packed my sleeping bag, spare clothes and some food, jumped on my bike and headed towards Dawsons Falls, the national park's south-eastern access point. That was the hellish part. 23 kilometres of terrible headwind coming straight from the sea. I was frustrated, I was exhausted, and I really regretted not hitching a ride instead of biking. However, once the road turned north and entered the national park, things got a lot better. Sheltered by the forest, there was no wind whatsoever and the roller coaster of a road changed into a gentle, steady climb. I was already looking forward to the ride back. That said, it was still a long way up and together with the awful headwindy ride from Stratford, it took me over two hours to reach the car park at the visitor centre, where the Falthams Peak track begins.

After a quick coffee and a chat with the DoC guy, who confirmed the climb was fine all the way to the hut and caution was needed only if hiking to the summit without crampons, I set off towards the peak. According to the signpost, it would take 3,5 hours each way. According to the guy, a reasonably fit person could make it in three hours. Which means I'm more than reasonably fit.

The trail starts as a nicely maintained walkway, essentially a long stairwell that made me sweat like a greenhouse after a few minutes. I soon decided to drop my sleeping bag and spare clothes, since I was only going for a day walk after all. I did consider spending the night up at the hut, but the hostel's hot shower, internet and warm bed made a very strong point. Besides, the weather was supposed to deteriorate overnight and I didn't want to be up there when it happened.

The first half of the climb was, as already mentioned, a long set of steps; quite steep steps. About half way up, the stairs ended and the real challenge began - a steep climb on volcanic scree, the kind where you make one step forward and two steps backward. With my mouth full of dust gritting between my teeth, I eventually reached a small plateau and met a bunch of young Germans who had just started to slide down on the tiny snowfield up ahead (crampons and icepick my ass). Apparently, the hut was only minutes away, which gave me great relief considering it had only taken me two and a half hours to get there.

While admiring picturesque 360° views from Faltham's Peak (and wondering what kind of people leave a bag of rubbish in a mountain hut), I seriously contemplated hiking to the very summit, the snowy slope so inviting, so tempting, and so climbable even without crampons. Alas, it was getting late and despite the temptation, the crunchy snow under the feet and the fact that I had climbed 2000m just to miss the remaining 500, I had to turn back and start descending. Descending was fun, though! As difficult as it was to negotiate the scree on the way up, it was an exhilarating slide down, followed by a jog down the stairs (I've had a lot of practice on the long escalators in Prague's underground)

Getting back to the car park took me less than an hour and the exhilarating jog was promptly followed by an exhilarating bike ride. Again, what took me 2,5 hours in one direction, uphill and against the wind, was a matter of fifty minutes on the way back. It was a... synonym for exhilarating swoosh down the hill for 8km and then sweet revenge against my everlasting nemesis, the wind, which turned out to be a great ally when blowing in the right direction.

I was knackered after all the riding and walking, but it had been a great day (sweet as, to paraphrase my favourite Kiwi saying). However, the disappointment for having been so close and yet so far from the beautiful, snowy summit of Mt Taranaki was considerable. I must come back some day and finish what I started. And also to see the sunset reflecting on the snow-covered slope. For now, though, the next stop is Tongariro National Park.

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