Your first climb of Taranaki Maunga is a special occasion. But when your ancestor was the first Pākehā woman to climb the mountain back in 1887, it takes on even more significance. By Anneke Smith
It was a peaceful summer evening as I stood peering out the small windows of Syme Hut. I’d grown up holidaying in the Taranaki region but never seen the maunga from this perspective. Sitting at an altitude of 1940m, it felt like I had a direct, level line of sight to the summit.
A large shadow cast down the mountain’s eastern face while the western side glowed a vibrant orange as the sun moved closer to the horizon. I could see pockets of dark volcanic rock and slivers of ice tucked into shaded valleys. A faint trail, not dissimilar to a garden snail’s path, zig-zagged up the scree slopes to the top. I’d felt confident taking my chances to the summit up until this point, but my nerves stirred watching the sun go down on the steep mountain face.
My journey up Taranaki Maunga was years, if not my entire lifetime, in the making. My mum was born and grew up in Inglewood. She raised my brother and me in Hawke’s Bay but would regularly bundle us into the car and head to Taranaki for Easter and Christmas holidays. We played with cousins on the back lawn, ate vegetables straight from the garden and curled up at night under crochet blankets in the ‘boys room’, where my three uncles had slept as kids. On a good day, you could stand on the back porch with a view to Taranaki’s summit.
It wasn’t until much later, when I developed a keen interest in tramping, that I was finally making my way to the top.
I followed the footsteps of my great, great, great grandmother, Frances (Fanny) Fantham. She was 19-years-old when she became the first Pākehā woman to climb Fanthams Peak. It was March 1887. She wore lace-up boots and a shortened dress. She’d set off from Mania on horseback with 14 men and women but found herself walking as the sole woman in a group of five. When they reached Fanthams Peak, also known as Panitahi, it was named in Fanny’s honour. It’s hard to know how she felt at the time. It seems an honour but we know Fanny pushed on towards the summit before turning back on account of her unease about the propriety of walking alone with a group of men. A lot has changed since then and Fanny clearly wanted more for herself and those who came after her. Her signature can be found on the Women’s Suffrage Petition.
It was a beautiful day when a friend and I set our sights on the mountain’s summit. It took three and a half hours to walk from the Dawson Falls car park to Fanthams Peak, with plenty of breaks. The walk began on a bush track lined with flora and fauna, before breaking above the bushline where the track narrowed and turned into stairs at points. The work started when we hit the scree slopes. I can’t overstate how helpful our walking poles were. I carried a single, borrowed, pole and it conserved a lot of energy that would have otherwise been wasted slipping back on the loose rocks.
The walk to Syme Hut is a pleasant day trip with enough challenge to feel you’ve really worked for your packed lunch. At Fanthams Peak you can see farmland, formerly bush, sprawling for miles and the curves of the rugged west coast. There are beautiful views but also, for me, nerves as I realised how steep the mountain face was to climb.
In Syme Hut that night, I to’d and fro’d over whether or not to attempt the summit. In the end, we went for it with another tramper we had met.
It was pitch black as we cautiously picked our way towards the summit. The route from Syme Hut is on the mountain’s southern side. It’s harder than the main track from the North Egmont Visitor Centre. There is no track or poles and generally more potentially hazardous snow and ice to navigate. But our head torches lit the way and we were soon making good progress.
Sunlight crept up on us. Although sunrise was still a way off, everything was illuminated, and what a sight it was. It’s only when you stop to look around that you realise how steep a slope you’ve been climbing. For someone with no previous climbing experience, it was exhilarating. Despite setting off before dawn, we were beaten to the top by a few small groups of keen walkers who’d started out from the Visitor Centre that morning. Some were locals who’d never walked up the mountain before. They were chuffed to finally see the summit and some cracked cold beers they’d carried up despite it being only 6am.
Taranaki Maunga is special. Ask anyone who’s spent time there and I hope they’ll tell you the same. Of New Zealand’s 100 highest mountains, only two – Taranaki and Ruapehu – are on the North Island. On a good day, you can see one while standing atop the other. Ruapehu sits alongside Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro, but Taranaki stands alone and seems to hold an orbital force in the region.
My mother often said she felt the mountain’s absence when she moved to Palmerston North to study in the 1980s. I’ve never felt this sense of absence but returning to Taranaki has always felt like coming home. I’ll be back again soon.