Taranaki Region of New Zealand

No region in the North Island has more tangible character than Taranaki, and none more symmetry. It does not melt imperceptibly into other regions, and it has an infallible touchstone - its mountain.

The region derives its name, climate and much of its character from the dormant volcano that bulks from its heart.

Scene-stealing Mount Taranaki (Mount Egmont) is approximately seventy thousand years old and its last eruption was hardly more than two centuries ago.

Detonations and molten debris have moulded and enriched Taranaki's terrain. More than thirty rivers cascade down the mountain's forested flanks and meander through lowlands. Its summit tugs at clouds from the Tasman, rich in rain.

Green, fertile, and threaded with roads in a tapestry of tidy farms and toy-like towns, Taranaki is the most densely settled rural region in New Zealand.

Long a bucolic corner of the country, a world sufficient to itself, its isolation has been ended, its character transformed by New Zealand's energy needs.

Onshore and offshore, huge reservoirs of natural gas have been located and tapped. Modest but significant oil wells operate, and drilling rigs have become as familiar as dairy herds on the landscape.

The region's city, New Plymouth, has a prosperity most New Zealand centres envy.

European observers noted many villages set among kumara plantations intersected by streams. The region's park-like appearance was evident even then.

Before human intervention, the Taranaki region was heavily forested. Moa-hunting Polynesians burned off vegetation along the coastal fringe to drive their quarry from cover.

The later and more numerous classic Maori settlers cleared further coastal ground, largely for horticulture.

The first Taranaki Maori believed the mountain partook of the valour of their fighting chiefs. 

When a battle was won, the mountain seemed to swell with pride and grow taller. After the powerful chief Tahurangi lit a fire and left his tap" at the summit, no Maori went there.

The wisps of cloud at the peak were seen as Te Ahi-a- Tahurangi, 'the fire of Tahurangi'.

Mount Taranaki Folklore

According to folklore, Taranaki dwelt at the centre of the North Island in a village of volcanoes.

The lovely Mount Pihanga was the only female volcano.

Although the others lusted after her, she was loyal to her handsome husband Tongariro.

When Tongariro was away however, Taranaki wooed and won Pihanga. Tongariro returned and surprised the pair in the transports of passion.

The skies darkened and the earth shook in a blistering brawl. Uproar ensued, and one volcano after another exploded.

Finally the adulterer was driven out. In his flight from fiery Tongariro, Taranaki carved out the bed of what is now known as the Wanganui River.

In heartbreak and despair, he slept near the sea, where the Pouakai Range pushed out a spur and trapped him forever.

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It is said that when mist covers the mountain's summit, and rain lightly falls, Taranaki can be seen grieving for the love of his life.

Today the mountain is still trapped, but protectively so, within Egmont National Park.

As early as 1881 it was decreed that all land within six miles (nine and a half kilometres) of the summit was to be spared from axe and plough.

The national park as such came into existence in 1900.

So Mount Taranaki, alias Egmont, rising from a green lake of forest, survives as an island set apart from the affairs of humanity, though skiers glide down its snowfields in winter and trampers walk its tracks in summer.

Topographically and ecologically, Mount Taranaki is an island. It was the last - and by far the largest - of the volcanoes that formed the Taranaki region.

Its alpine area is disrant from other alpine regions.

With no near influences, evolution has been free to indulge itself in the creation of plants and insects unique to the mountain.

Even migrant species have a character not found in the same species elsewhere.

Among the park's distinctive plants are the Egmont red tussock, the Egmonr harebell and mountain daisies.

A fern unique to Mount Taranaki, graces rocky gullies up to fourteen hundred metres.

Insects include rare moths and the indigenous wolf­spider, camouflaged high on bare scoria screes.

The fat New Zealand wood pigeon, the kereru, can be seen and heard in squeaky flight for a thousand metres up the mounrain.

Tuis, bell birds and fantails are commonly found up to thirteen hundred metres.

The grey warbler nests in sub-alpine scrub as high as seventeen hundred metres.

Beneath the tall rimu and rata of the lower forest zone and the kamahi and kaikawaka (or mountain cedar) of the upper slopes, the ground is lush with ferns, creepers and moss.

For the Maori, Taranaki was revered, feared and useful. They laboured up its lower slopes in search of red ochre for pigment.

They deposited their distinguished dead in mountain caves.

Densely vegetated ridges and valleys offered refuge - and temporary sites for settlement - after defeat in war.

Its silent places allowed tribesmen to communicate with the whispers of dead ancestors.

But the upper reaches of the mountain were not to be trodden.

They were the haunt of the ngarara, the mythical reptile of the Maori, whose chilling howl could be heard in high wind.

Today's visitors may feel they are in an enchanted domain too, but one with far easier access.

From the three main centres - New Plymouth, Stratford and Hawera - it is a half­ hour journey.

Three good roads lead up to visitors' centres and signposted walking tracks.

Mount Taranaki may be the most climbed mountain in New Zealand, but some experience and care is needed.

The weather can change suddenly and mists can blow up.

Less experienced climbers should take a guide, or a companion familiar with the mountain.

Egmont National Park is more than a winter playground. In summer it offers a leafy sanctuary from lowland heat.

Its forest paths are among the most pleasant to walk in New Zealand.

The rain­fed vegetation, mantled with shiny moss, is a lavish spectacle.

Streams rattle between boulders, and roar over cliffs. The views - with the mountain above and much of the North Island below - are imposing.

The tired traveller can find strength and delight returning in the sweet mountaIn air.

Mount Taranaki may still grieve for lost love, as Maori mythology tells. Indeed, until recently, Maori were reluctant to live along the path the mountain might take should it march off to do battle with Tongariro and reclaim Pihanga.

Meanwhile Pihanga's loss is human gain.

Simmering Land Problems

As New Plymouth grew from a few muddy tracks and huts to lanes with durable colonial cottages, the region's original Maori population and rightful owners drifted back.

They were dismayed and aggrieved. It was only a matter of time before conflict came.

In 1855 New Plymouth colonists, sensing menace, formed a militia. 

In 1860 long-simmering land problems, brought to a boil by a disputed block of land at Waitara, became lethal.

New Zealand's Governor, Gore Browne, clumsily sent in troops to end Maori muttering.

Colonists had to abandon open country.

Their farmhouses burned as they huddled behind the stockades and entrenchments of besieged New Plymouth.

Women and children were shipped to Nelson.

Within a year three thousand armed men guarded the settlement. 

The conflict sputtered on through several battles at the beginning of the eighteen-sixties, and surfaced in the south where the Hauhau warriors began guerilla warfare. 

Maori of the Hauhau wished to hurl all Taranaki colonists back into the sea.

Armed tension persisted long after the bloody bush-fighting ended in 1869. In the eighteen ­seventies,

Hawera's colonists, dissatisfied with the protection given by the government, briefly declared themselves a republic.

Similarly the Maori of Taranaki formed a commune at Parihaka, under Mount Taranaki's western slopes, peacefully dedicated to the preservation of Maori land and character.

Under the guidance of the tenacious prophet Te Whiti Rongomai, the commune's inhabitants practised both agriculture and civil disobedience.

Finally, in 1881, some fifteen hundred of the colony's militia surrounded the unarmed and outnumbered dissidents of Parihaka.

When the assault force moved in, they were met by a welcome party of two hundred dancing children.

The village was nevertheless burnt to the ground and Te Whiti and his lieutenant were imprisoned.

The government, fearing that a jury might not convict Te Whiti, or that a judge might pass too lenient a sentence, introduced a law detaining him indefinitely without trial.

Today the nonentities who tore Te Whiti from his people are forgotten.

Te Whiti is celebrated in poems and songs, and his grave in the village of Parihaka, is one of New Zealand's few shrines.

Related Article:

Taranaki Trails - Hiking trails and walking guide for North Taranaki.