A tribute to the mountain – despite its lack of bears

Photographed from the path down to our park – the mountain and the magnolia

It was perhaps the desire to post more photos of our Magnolia campbellii and the mountain that motivated me to write about te mounga.

It remains an active volcano and most of the province is urged to have evacuation plans at the ready. At least we can head north or inland to get away. I am not sure how those around the coast are meant to evacuate should a major eruption occur because either way, their escape routes take them around the base of the mountain – unless they evacuate by sea. In reality, it is more likely to be lahars or ash clouds that are the problem. As you head around the coastal side of the mountain, the remains of lahars are a dominant feature in the landscape.

Photo credit: u/apexcutter on Reddit

Flying in to New Plymouth from the south takes one over the mountain and on a clear day, the sight is breathtaking. It is a near-perfect cone sitting alone, very close to the sea and surrounded by what is called the ring plain – land that is rolling to flat farmland. Lacking my own image, I found this photo on Reddit. That is the Tasman Sea in the upper section. The dark circle around the lower mountain is where the native bush ends – the boundary of the National Park giving way to farm land.

As seen from an Inglewood garden in late spring

It is an extremely accessible mountain which makes it one of the most dangerous in the country because inexperienced people underestimate it and fail to factor in that it has alpine conditions at higher altitudes. The fatality rate is high. In icy conditions, people can slip a long way. Neither Mark nor I have ever climbed it. As Mark says, he loses interest really quickly once above the bush line. Plants, not rocks are his thing. And I am wary of mountains. My brother remains buried in the ice of the Himalayas on the slopes of Mount Makalu.

Whereas Mount Fuji in Japan is widely accepted as being of sacred status, going well beyond just those of the Shinto faith, we are such a secular and residual colonial society that many people struggle with the thought that of course our Mount Taranaki has deep spiritual significance for the original people of the land. When Maori politely requested that people stop standing right on the top point of the pinnacle and, if my memory serves me right, refrain from carrying any bodily functions at the summit, the howls of outrage were loud. For what is the purpose of climbing a mountain if you can not place your footprints on the very highest point? The same people who are appalled at the thought that anybody might vandalise a graveyard and who would never dream of urinating on an altar regard it as a civil liberty that they can do what they wish on the highest point of te mounga.

Mind you, that outrage pales into insignificance compared to the outpouring of anger when the name of the mountain was addressed in 1983. Captain Cook named it Mount Egmont in 1770, after the Earl of Egmont who never came to New Zealand and died before he got to hear of the honour. But of course the mountain had names before that and a long campaign led to the decision that it could be called either Taranaki (the most common of its pre-European names) or Egmont. This might be called hedging bets but to some, this outrage was tantamount to the end of western civilisation. There are even a few older people who insist on continuing to make a stand by calling it Mount Egmont but they are a dying breed. Literally. The name ‘Mount Taranaki’ has taken precedence in official usage and to people beyond the region. To locals, it is simply ‘the mountain’, or ‘te maunga’ (in standardised Maori) or ‘te mounga’ with an o in the local dialect.

While sacred is rarely used as a descriptor and spiritual connection makes some people scoff, there is no doubt in my mind that our mounga is embedded into the very souls of people who are born here or spend time living here. Long before I ever came to Taranaki, I noticed that most people identify where they come from by the nearest town or city. Not Taranaki folks. They commonly declare themselves as coming from Taranaki and that, I think, has more to do with the mountain than the province. It is widely visible throughout the region. In summer, we make small talk about when the very last vestiges of white ice will melt. In autumn, we chart the first snowfalls. Through winter, we note how low the snow is lying and in spring we observe the retreating snow line. If it is blocked from view by cloud (as mountains often are), we can make that the marker of small talk about weather. Every rescue or dramatic event, including avalanches, makes headlines as do the relatively few days that the club skifield is open.

Te mounga just is. It was there before any humans populated this area. It will be there long after we have shuffled off the mortal coils. If that is not a shared spiritual connection that transcends all other social constructs, I am not sure what is.

An image search on line will yield many astounding photographs of our mountain. Some are even untouched by filters and other enhanced editing techniques. There are countless references giving more information but these give a brief, and probably accurate oversight.

The legends: https://taranakimounga.nz/the-project/about-taranaki-mounga/history/

The official history: https://www.linz.govt.nz/regulatory/place-names/tuia-%E2%80%93-encounters-250/mount-taranaki-or-mount-egmont

Climbing advice: https://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/taranaki/places/egmont-national-park/things-to-do/tracks/mount-taranaki-summit-track/

Amusingly, I found an article from Wilderness Magazine comparing NZ mountain peaks to more famous international peaks. Of course the comparator for Mount Taranaki is Mount Fuji in Japan.

“Why they’re similar: Are you kidding? Look at them!

Why they’re not: Taranaki seriously lacking bears and a summit post office

This comparison is a no-brainer. The two mountains look almost identical – so much so, that Mt Taranaki was famously used to represent Mt Fuji in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai.

They look like cartoon summits – ask a five-year-old to draw a mountain and they will quickly pencil something that looks very much like Fuji or Egmont.

Both have erupted within the last 350 years, both take about four or five hours to climb from where the road ends and both involve steep rocky ascents.

But the fact that they’re relatively straight forward to climb means both are commonly underestimated. The changeable weather makes Taranaki statistically one of the most dangerous mountains in New Zealand. And regular deaths on Mt Fuji have resulted in Japanese authorities urging wannabe peak-baggers to climb only in July and August, when conditions are mildest.”

The Japanese can keep their summit post office but I am now worrying about the distinct lack of bears to spice up a summit attempt on our mounga.

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