I know there are a good many die hard trail walkers out there, who wince at the thought of hitch hiking long sections of a trail along roads, but we are not these people. From Whanganui to Palmerston North, it's common for many TA hikers to hitch a ride from one town to the next owing to the long stretches of road that it takes in. Not being one to enjoy being hit by a car and generally walking in fear of that happening, we opted for a hitch. In lieu of this missed section though, and thanks to the extra time we would have, we first headed on a side trip to visit Mt Taranaki.
The forecast was bad, and when visiting an information centre to grab a map, we were met with frantic head shaking. "No, you're not going this weekend I'm afraid". I understand that this person was doing what they felt right, and stopping people going out into bad weather. But, and really not wanting to sound like someone with their head up their ass, the rain was already pouring and up to this point we've walked and worked in much worse. Couple this with my apparently innate reaction to do something I'm told I can't do, we began the walk to our first hut for the trip in the lower reaches of the Mount Taranaki National Park, Waingongoro hut. As we made our way in the rain we tried our luck with hitching again, though didn't feel hopeful that anyone would want some soggy vagrants in their car. Cars kept passing and we were mentally preparing for the long, wet walk ahead when a car travelled from the opposite direction we were headed and turned around to offer a lift. Kiwi hospitality never fails! The person in question had seen us on his way home but didn't have space, so he'd dropped his work truck at home and doubled back in his smaller, but considerably emptier car. He took us the relatively short distance by car to the trail head where we would be on our own and left us to it. We carried on. The rain had continued, and small streams had become faster flowing. There were two streams to cross before the hut, no wider than a couple of metres and with plenty of sticks to use in support we crossed without issue, even with fast following water flowing over our knees. We were sodden, obviously, so breathed a sigh of relief to find a wood burner and good supply of dry wood. We got changed, lit the fire and hung up our things to dry out. The forecast for the following day wasn't any better, so we would have to simply see what happened.
The weather the following day was annoyingly accurate, and to cut a long story short, we stayed in the hut. A short recce to the nearest river, where again we would need to wade across, soon proved that the continual rain had swollen the river to the point where it simply wasn't safe to cross. Deflated, I admitted defeat and turned back to spend a second night in Waingongoro hut. It at the very least would provide some down time to catch up on our journals and some reading.
New Zealand back country is infamous for its changeable weather. It's the first thing you hear about if your planning on spending long periods of time in it. Take clothing for every eventuality, plenty of food and water and so forth. I would also argue that it is changeable largely because you rarely go for a couple of hours into the back country. You'll go on a full day hike in a loop or walk from A to B perhaps with an overnight camp or night in a hut in the middle. Spending this much time outdoors simply gives the weather lots of time to change. Good weather in the morning can turn to heavy rain by the afternoon/evening, so we were prepared but there was no need to take chances we didn't have to. Every year the sad news will come about people who lose their lives in the wilderness, and we were keen to not let our own excitement and desire to push on put us in any unnecessary danger.
As hoped, the following day offered clearer skies and a better chance to reach our next hut. Syme's Hut. A cosy 10 bunk hut situated at 1500m up on Fantham's Peak, overlooked only by the summit of Mt Taranaki. We plodded up the steep scree slopes, passing through the layer of cloud and reached a saddle that offered our first chance to really take in the views of Mt Taranaki. A final push up the last, and honestly very small climb, we saw what would be our home for the night. Still one of my favourite locations for a hut so far in New Zealand. We had originally considered pushing on, but with the thought of an evenings photography up here we settled in for a lazy afternoon.
From the forecast we'd checked before leaving town the two days before, and what we'd gathered from other hikers, we were in for an interesting night. Wind speeds were building, gusting up to about 120km/hour (75mph), the gable end of the hut bearing the brunt and rain spitting in through the seal of the window. The visibility was to close in overnight, with some prepared to spend the following day here, waiting for better conditions. For the time being however, I was living it up being blown around the side of a mountain as the light faded. Awesome.
With dawn breaking, and the worst nights sleep in New Zealand so far behind us, we could make plans for the day. The wind was still strong, and cloud still surrounded the hut. Others in the hut felt good about their decision to wait it out, but having already kicked our heels for the day we wanted to try and make it to one more hut before heading back to Whanganui. The trail down from the hut was on the eastern slopes of Taranaki, and with the wind still blowing from the west I hedged my bets on conditions being good once off of the plateau. Thankfully this proved to be a good choice.
We wound our way down the mountain side and walked in calmer weather for some time. Thick mist from surrounding cloud accompanied us as we headed for Lake Dive Hut, but eventually we broke through to fine clear conditions. It would be easy going from here. Our evening at Lake Dive Hut would have given us fantastic views of Taranaki had the cloud lifted, but as I mentioned earlier our plan to leave Symes Hut was a good one, and cloud remained thick on the tops from the moment we left to the moment we began hiking out on our last day. I'm hoping that some time in the future we'll be able to return here and make it all the way around the mountain, maybe even with some winter mountaineering thrown in...