Saturday, 25 January 2014

2nd-4th Jan - New Plymouth & Mount Taranaki

A couple of years ago when I flew from Wellington up to Auckland, I had a window seat on the left hand side of the plane. Looking west towards the coast, I was captivated by the sight of Mount Egmont, a perfectly conical volcano sitting on it's own peninsula half way down the north island. I said to myself that one day I'd go back and climb it. The young volcano, more usually known by its Maori name Taranaki, erupts every couple of hundred years, the last was in the 1850s and I believe we're due for another one soon.

Flying from Auckland to the nearest town, New Plymouth is quite expensive so I got the Intercity Bus instead, via Hamilton, costing $39. The other advantage of travelling by road is that it gives one the chance to view New Zealand's beautiful landscapes. And on this trip we saw some fantastic coastline.

Just before New Plymouth though was one particular bit of landscape I was interested in - In 1984 renown kiwi director Vincent Ward released his haunting movie Vigil, it was the first New Zealand film to be admitted to compete in the Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of a young girl on an isolated farm, whose shepherd father dies while rescuing a sheep. His body is returned by a brooding stranger, who over the next few days begins to court her mourning mother, whilst her eccentric old grand-father provides comic relief with his new agricultural inventions. It could be said though the film's main character though is it's relentlessly storm blasted environment. The lush green hills are perpetually under a veil of thick grey cloud and driving rain, and it is in this lonely, echoing world where the girl, entering puberty, struggles to cope with the death of her father and the looming presence of the usurping stranger.

Some fairly in depth googling revealed that Ward spent years searching for the right location (as well as cast), before finally settling on a valley under Mount Messenger, not far from the coast and within Taranaki National Park. It just so happened that my bus route down the west coast went right past Mount Messenger. I considered getting off the bus, finding and visiting the farm and then hitching the rest of the way, but figured I might get more specific intel in New Plymouth, so carried on. That plan didn't quite come to fruition, so pin-pointing the precise location will have to wait for a day when I've got my own wheels.  
The photos below were all taken within a couple of miles of the assumed location, but on a sunny day don't give a sense of the lonely, almost Celtic land depicted in the movie. I would get more than my share of that the following day though.

Arriving in New Plymouth on a beautiful sunny evening, I visited the tourist information centre (the i-site) and was dismayed to learn that the weather forecast for the rest of the weekend was very poor with strong winds and rain predicted for the following day, when I intended to climb the mountain. I walked around an exhibition on the strong history of surfing in the area, whilst considering my options. 

New Plymouth and the dozen or so coastal towns that surround the circular national park like numbers on a clock-face  (and whose names all begin with either O or P) have for a long time been populated by die-hard surf bums seeking the wild and rugged breaks here. Their culture has filtered through to the mainstream: check out this road sign near the port:

I decided to wait and see what kind of weather the morning would bring. A tall volcano on the coast of an island in the middle of the southern oceans is obviously going to be susceptible to some very changeable conditions, so I'd just have to hope for the best.

I went for a walk down the coast path, out of the town centre, passing a stone sculpting expo. All of the sculpters wearing ear-defenders and some with respirators against the dust and noise, it's clearly not a hobby for those who enjoy quiet and fresh air. I'll stick with painting for now thanks.

Much further south, past the dock and the gas terminal, I arrived at Paritutu, a big rock sticking out from the shore. I climbed up the rope-assisted scramble to the top in ten minutes and watched the sun set. Beautiful views looking west from the top of the rock, Mount Taranki hidden by clouds on the far left.

I stayed that night at the Egmont Eco-lodge twenty minutes walk from the town centre. A curious place with half the rooms run on behalf of the YHA, and the other half by the BBH. Depending on who you book with you may pay more and may not have such amenities as towels included. Since I was a member if neither, I payed full price for the mediocre digs.

There's a shuttle service from New Plymouth up to the park headquarters at Egmont North. Rob, the guy who runs this and charges $45 for a return ticket ($35 if with a group), is also the owner of an outdoor equipment shop in town and is pretty circumspect about the risks involved. I'd recruited two French lads from the hostel who wanted to do the climb too, and together with a Dutch man who wanted to hike the perimeter of the park over three days, we set off at seven the following morning.

This is satellite view of Taranaki, the conical regularity is enhanced by the almost perfect circle of bordering fence.

Mount Egmont/Taranaki is the scene of more fatalities than any other mountain in NZ, including the far higher Mount Cook. Those fatalities are not usually related to technical difficulty - indeed unlike most ascents in the southern alps, Egmont involves no technical mountaineering skills at all. It's a hike and a scramble to the 2518m summit. This would seem to be the problem, since it attracts inexperienced day-trippers and ill-prepared chancers like yours truly.

With that in mind we were quite surprised when our driver, contradicting the advice of the nice ladies in the i-site suggested that us three lads were capable of making the summit, or at least capable of deciding for ourselves whether it could be achieved in the conditions.

At the park HQ at 946m, it was obvious the conditions were far from ideal. It was not particularly cold, but the wind was gusting strong and the summit was shrouded in a heavy layer of wet cloud. The staff inside the warm information centre and HQ looked slightly concerned and offered us more counsel than I guessed was normal. They mentioned that gale force winds were coming in and that weather warnings for the whole area had been issued.

Nevertheless, we were all determined to at least attempt it, especially given the price of the shuttle. The first several hundred feet were very blustery but the bush provided us with some cover. As soon as we crossed the tree-line though it was a different matter. With no shelter at all, we were subject to the full force of the cross-wind. There were moments where we couldn't progress against the gusts, but had to brace against them and wait for it to subside.
In addition we were now up in cloud-land and visibility was frequently no more than thirty feet, and then it started to rain. Though we'd all brought waterproof jackets, Pierre was wearing shorts, not full length trousers, so the wind-chill was becoming noticeable. It became obvious how rough the conditions were when, scanning the landscape for the Tahurangi Lodge, the last place in which we could shelter for a snack, the cloud lifted for a moment and it was there, no more than twenty paces in front of us. We prized open the door and stepped into the small boot-room. Access further into the private lodge was restricted by keycode to members of the Alpine Club, but we were happy just to be able to eat a banana and read a map without it being ripped from our mitts.

Puffing up The Puffer, a 4wd track that goes as far as the telegraph station.
Visibility fair to poor.
Before the wind got to 100km/hr and we were still having fun. Note ill-advised shorts.
Wind blasted at 1500m, still a good 900m from the summit.

In preparation for the climb, I'd come across the tragic and very recent story of a young couple who'd perished on the mountain in October. They'd started the climb with six others on the Saturday morning, attempting a tricky ascent up the east face. For some reason they took much too long to reach the summit, and instead of descending at a planned cut-off time, they carried on up and over to find an easier descent on the other side. By this time the weather had closed in and two couples separately decided to hunker down for the night. Alarm was raised at about 11pm. The lower couple made it down on Sunday morning, but the couple who'd stayed high were stuck. The emotional impact of the tragedy was reinforced by their constant phone contact with police and family. They had a signal, but no escape. They could describe their location, so it was not so much a search, but more of a rescue. With such high winds, helicopter extraction was out of the question, so relays of Rescue teams were deployed, each getting beaten back by the weather. One team got within 200m of them. On Monday morning when rescuers finally made it to them, the guy was long dead and the girl was beyond saving. The full news report can be read here:

While we were recounting this tragedy, a group of local alpinists with a guide emerged from the interior of the lodge and told us they had aborted their summit attempt. That fixed it for us, we reluctantly decided to climb no further than 1500m. Instead with the help of my trail map, we found a route that traversed around the mountain before descending through the ski fields into the bush, and then back along the lower Curtis Falls track to our starting point.

So, no summit for us, but instead, a true taste of the tempestuous weather that permeates the film Vigil. 

Despite our collective disappointment at not making it to the top, we actually had a really good walk once we got below the worst of the weather. I say walk, but these two young French lads took delight in yomping as fast as possible through the gorgeous Tolkienesque scenery. At times it was more like parcourt than hiking, we covered a route described as four and a half hours in just two.

The following day, contrary to the forecasts, was beautiful and sunny. The tantalising summit of the beautiful mountain clearly visible from New Plymouth. By that time though I'd already booked my return ticket to Auckland. Next time I'll have my own wheels.

A final glimpse at the haunting landscapes of Vigil.

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