Ever since I visited Syme Hut five years ago, I have dreamed of returning. At the age of 24, I had recently rediscovered a love of tramping and the backcountry. I had spent five years at university, swept up in a life of environmental activism and learning all I could about global issues and grassroots action. I cared deeply. I accepted a summer job as an “assistant field botanist”, undertaking vegetation surveys throughout New Zealand. I confidently assured my new employer that I was solid in the backcountry, having grown up tramping and hunting with my family. Looking back now, I realise how green I really was.
Three months later I was hooked on the outdoor life. Sure, we mostly measured marginal scrublands, dealing with scratchy gorse and bush lawyer, sunburn and wasp stings. Sure, I was getting paid peanuts and my days off were hardly ever in areas where I had any friends. But I was camping every night, walking every day, cooking in a camp oven, swimming in gorgeous streams, sitting with the full moon and writing poetry for the first time in years! Better yet, the connections I formed with the people I worked with were so strong and real. I had found a fast track to human connection, and a connection to the earth that I had not imagined.
So there I was at Syme Hut. It was my first ever solo multi day tramp. I had spent a few days on the Round the Mountain track, studying plant identification and enjoying the solitude, and had decided to shoot up to Fanthams Peak for lunch. I had read about the young woman, Fanny Fantham, whose name had been given to the South Peak of Mt Taranaki after she was a member of the first European party to summit in 1887, at the age of 19. What a wonderful peak to ascend for my first solo trip! It was hot and steep, and every two steps forward lead to one slide back in the loose scoria. I momentarily questioned continuing.
But think of Miss Fantham! When I reached the summit and saw the hut, I was so proud of myself. The view was phenomenal, and as I read the entries in the hut book I realised I couldn’t head back down that afternoon. I just had to watch the sun set and rise from that magical spot. I was joined by a lovely man with two children, and we all had dinner together before watching the spectacle of the sunset.
In the morning I watched it rise again behind Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe and took off down the mountain whooping with joy, snapping a quick selfie with a huge sh!t-eating grin.
In the five years since, I have stayed in numerous back country huts throughout NZ. I have tramped by myself both on-track and off-track, in New Zealand and abroad. I have worked for four years as a field worker with the Department of Conservation, and I now work as a trapper in Fiordland. That bright-eyed, eager 24 year old sometimes feels like a distant memory, and it is easy to dismiss those early trips as naive and soft. But those trips are what sparked my desire to take my life in this direction. The joy I felt that summer has determined so many of the decisions I have made in my life. I hope to continue to carry and fuel that enthusiasm and love for the mountains. Thus, when I found myself living in the North Island last spring, and feeling a little bit of a lack of spark, I decided it was time to return to Taranaki Maunga.
I looked at my work schedule. I looked at the weather forecast. Hmm. The only window I could see fell between 8pm and 6am, the night after a day in the office. A night hike to Syme Hut, with an alpine start to get back down before the weather? I finished work, filled my belly and drove. It rained most of the way, and I wondered if I would indeed get the window I was hoping for. But as I passed through Whanganui it began to clear… Wispy clouds danced around the summit of the mountain, warning me of high winds, but stars shone. This was it. I packed a small bag, intending to stay at the hut for long enough to sleep for a couple of hours and heat up a dehy meal before returning. I took off up the track, with bubbles of excitement rising in my belly. Maybe I would see Taranaki’s unique Powelliphanta snails!
I reached the bushline much faster than I’d expected, and carried on up – Older but fitter, I thought smugly. It was an incredible night, cold and raw and breathlessly beautiful. As I reached the scoria slopes I realised just how windy it was. I had to lean into the strongest gusts. Eventually I reached the point where I would need to put my crampons on to continue. I sat down and evaluated the situation. The wind made me feel reasonably uncomfortable about proceeding onto the snow, yet I was feeling great and it was so bloody pretty. I put my crampons on for the first time in a long while, and took a few tentative steps. Oh, I wanted to go all the way! I hiked another 25m before realising one of my crampons was not functioning properly. I tried to sort it out as the wind tried to rob me of any loose items.
In the end I decided this was not an ideal situation to be continuing up alone. I descended to a flatter spot and removed my crampons, taking in the view of the North Island. I reflected upon how far I had come from my first foray up this mountain, and wondered how much further I will desire to take this. This quote from Steve House’s book ‘Beyond the Mountain’ came to mind,
“I look up, knowing that I do not know a fraction of what there is to
know about myself.”
Whatever the future holds, I feel incredibly grateful for the abundance of opportunities I have to explore the special places of this earth, to bask in the awe of the mountains, and fall in love with
the little treasures of the forest. To experience a realm that is still wild, where your success depends entirely on your own abilities and strength of mind. For the opportunity to feel fear, to feel
discomfort, and to discover how I react to those feelings. For the humans who share these sentiments, who will sip whisky in a cold hut, share yarns around a campfire, jump naked into an alpine tarn with me… I seek also to remember the passion with which that 24 year old version of me sought to bring about positive change and stand up for the earth. To channel some of this stoke and joy to defending our wild places and to try to leave a smaller footprint as I chase a life of adventure.