Growing up in the Northern Hemisphere, one of the strangest things to adapt to in New Zealand is having Christmas during summer. Kiwis typically celebrate the festive period at the beach or out in the garden with the barbecue going, which all sounds delightfully appealing - except for the Christmas part.
My good friend and fellow photographer Dawn Chapman and I consider ourselves ‘orphans of Christmas’; We’ve never particularly enjoyed celebrating it for our own reasons, and try to do something out of the ordinary every year as a kind of middle-finger up at the holiday. This year, we decided to hike the Pouakai Circuit around Mt Taranaki, an active volcano in New Zealand’s north island which you may recognise as the backdrop of The Last Samurai (due to it’s symmetrical resemblance to Mt Fuji).
We drive down to New Plymouth on Christmas Day, camp at Fitzroy Beach overnight, then start the 2-day trek on Boxing Day. The trail, which is usually spread over 3 days, takes you from North Egmont to Holly Hut on the first day, across the Ahukawakawa Swamp and up to the Pouakai Hut on the second, then across the ranges and down through steep forest back to the start on the final day. We decide to try and cram the first two days into one, making two 8-hour days of walking with a night in the Pouakai Hut.
The weather is a huge factor in our enjoyment of the trek. The first morning presents raincloud coverage concealing the entire mountain (which, according to Māori mythology, symbolises Taranaki crying for his lost love Pihanga when they were separated during the great battle of the volcanoes). This means that although we can’t see the summit at all, we can hike comfortably up and around the mountain shaded from the harsh New Zealand sun, and the greyness above casts a dark atmosphere over the subalpine hills, making for some beautifully moody photographs.
After traversing the rocky ridges of Taranaki, the Ahukawakawa Swamp breaks into view and at first sight looks intimidating. The Pouakai Ranges line the horizon, standing guard around a hugely vast stretch of yellow and the thought that we have to cross it is almost unfathomable. The clouds begin to disperse, creating a patchwork of light and shadow across the plains and The Lion King’s “everything the light touches…” comes to mind.
A quick rest and bite to eat at Holly Hut and we start the journey into the swamp via a well-maintained wooden boardwalk. Amidst the golden tussock we start to gain some perspective on the scale of the landscape and it becomes less intimidating and a lot more magical. We’re roughly half way across when we turn to look back at the view of Taranaki to discover bright blue sky has broken through all but a few clouds hovering above the mountain, which will surely shift with the wind soon to give us a glimpse of the summit. Realising the opportunity at hand, we hurry to an upcoming bridge in the middle of the swamp to grab what would be any photographer’s dream photo. We’re given a 10-minute window to get the shot before the clouds slither back over and we can’t quite believe our luck in timing.
We reach the base of the ranges and the hard work begins. A 3-hour ascent to the Pouakai Hut in the now baking sunshine is not made any easier by the 15kg packs we’re each carrying, but step by endless step up through light bush and weathered cedar, we make it to the hut - a somewhat modest but inviting home for the night - around 7pm. I can physically feel my feet exhale with relief as I take my shoes off after 8 long, sweaty hours, which has got to be one of the best feelings in the world.
We don’t have long to rest for the light is disappearing fast, so we carry our weary legs back up to the plateau just in time for sunset and witness the most spectacular view we’ve ever seen. Almighty Taranaki dominates the clear pastel sky, a still and silent sentinel glowing a magnificent coral pink, the peaks and shallows of it’s ancient ridges softly highlighted by the fading day. A mutual silence of appreciation fills us as we stand in awe and wonder at the majestic vista in front of us and it sinks in that this is exactly what we came for.
Early the next morning we’re graced with crisp, clear skies and we set off in good stride across the ranges, stopping at the Tarns for the infamous postcard view and climbing the painfully steep Henry Peak. As the trail begins to descend and the grassland turns to forest, the trees offer their roots for steps down into an enchanted wonderland and we meander our way through overgrown ferns under a tropical canopy blanketed in moss.
Another 8 hours of walking and our feet and knees are heavy from fatigue, but we’re conscious and grateful of our packs feeling lighter from less food and water weight. As the forest starts to grow brighter our minds fill with determination and our stride picks up pace, and we eventually emerge out to the end of the trail. Like waking from a dream, the 25 kilometres that have consumed us for the past two days simply evaporate into a memory. Every step is now behind us, destination reached, the circuit complete.