City life was getting to us, making us scratch at the walls of our apartment and we were getting fed up at little things, itching for something to do... so we decided to listen to the tingle in our toes and started hunting for a pre-winter hike. Sean's dad had got him this great book for christmas - Shelter from the Storm; The Story of New Zealand's Backcountry Huts - which basically just inspired us to google NZ's best hut. The search came back with Syme Hut, Mt Taranaki. One of the sweetest features of the New Zealand outdoors is these insaaane backcountry huts. We have this remarkably diverse network of little cabins, literally unlike anywhere else in the world, and for those who venture into our most wild places there is often a humble structure to cover your head for about five bucks a night.
Growing up in New Zealand with families that love camping and the outdoors, we already had all the gizmos and gadgets we needed - sweet sub-zero sleeping bags, a gas cooker and all the lightweight plates, cups and utensils we'd ever need - buuuut... we didnt have it with us in Auckland. Not letting this dwindle our spirits we packed up our school bags (hiking-packs tucked away in our childhood wardrobes) with basically the opposite of appropriate mountain-climbing gear.
- Pot from our kitchen - one of those trendy ones made of stone
- Duvet - we figured we'd just hop inside the cover and be right as mustard
- Apples - for super lightweight snacking
- Two hot water-bottles - pre filled of course
- Six litres of water
- A portable coal BBQ - wtf??
- And a collection of more appropriate bits and bobs...
We had spoken to the DOC ranger on the phone and she had warned us that Syme Hut's nickname was The Fridge. Situated at around 2000m above sea level this basic hut has no form of heating and the likelihood of water was pretty low as the watertank was notorious for freezing over. Luckily we had all of our ski-gear with us so bags filled up with thermals and ski jackets tied around our waist we took our can do attitude five hours south to the base of Mt Taranaki.
On the Department of Conservation website the track to Syme Hut was rated as Advanced/ Expert and although having done a very very limited amount of hiking we RATED ourselves... this was a novice mistake. The start of the track is at the Dawson Falls visitor centre on the Eastern side of Egmont National Park. The sweet DOC ranger in the visitor centre sold us our Hut tickets and a map of the Volcano then sent us on our merry way.
The track starts by winding up through old growth forest, where the trees are bearded in dark green moss that makes the branches seem like the arms of reaching monsters. You pass over a couple of streams with hundreds of birds singing over-head until you start to hit the alpine line. The trees become suddenly dwarfed - its almost as if you are the one thats gotten bigger. Feeling like giants, we trudge on up the hill leaving the midget forest and entering the golden tussocks. At various points along the way there are signs so in terms of knowing where to go it's pretty easy - Syme's Hut is plopped on Phantom Peak a little below the summit. Breaking out of the bush we got our first glimpse of the top and at this stage out heart rates were up but nothing too overwhelming... then came the stairs. We decided to have a wee break with some water and nut bars - at this stage we had only been walking for about 40 minutes. We thought we were KILLING IT. The sweet DOC Ranger had said that this would take us about three hours but we were already more than half way along the track according to the map.
Refreshed and rehydrated we continued on our merry way spirits flying high as we climbed on up. It was probably on the second case of stairs that the burn started to kick in, you know the one you get when your on your third set of squats at the gym, that deep inner burn. The pace slowed but that was ok as we started taking in the ridiculous views. You can make out the perfect circular line of where the forest turns to pasture at the edge on Egmont National Park (pull it up on google maps its super cool from a birds eye view). We could see the top of the stairs and were excited as we thought the most difficult part was almost over... OH HOW WE WERE WRONG.
When the stairs end, the hard part starts. The remainder of the hike is on scoria - which is just a fancy word for volcanic shingle/ gravel / loose rock. This means that every step you take your more likely to go down then up. There's no set track just a bunch of sticks in the ground about five meters apart to point the way to go. This is when we reeeeallly start to regret that stone pot and coal BBQ stashed on our backs. It's gruesome, grueling and every other synonym for fudging hard. We've always made fun of those people with hiking poles - you know the ones that seem to have an excessive amount of gortex and carbon fibre - but now we got it. We craaaved that swish gear as we scrambled up the side of this mountain.
Fast-foward about two hours of intense breathing, multiple swear words and so many trips we could've gone to every country in the world and we still aren't at the top. The last part of the climb is kind of a relief as the ground is solid but also kind of daunting as there is a bit of low level rock climbing involved. We hauled our exhausted bodies over the boulders laughing at our extremely amateur attempt at hiking. Then it was over, we'd made it. Phantom peak. Amazeballs. We'd timed it perfectly the sun was just about to set casting a firery glow to the western side of the Volcano. It was blooming freezing so we ditched our bags in the hut and rugged up in all the clothes we had bought then set out to admire the sunset.
We stayed over night, enjoying the company of a couple gortex clad hikers who made fun of our pot and duvet. No wifi, no cell signal, no electricity just great company and a deck of cards. It dropped to about -10°C overnight inside the hut, definitely earning it's nickname 'The Fridge' and although we cursed them on the way up the hot water-bottles were a lifesaver.
It's a pretty cool feeling climbing a volcano, gives you a bit of time to ponder and puts insignificant problems into perspective, like we have the ability to literally conquer MOUNTAINS. It's a challenge but all of the coolest things are and it has to be one of the best views of the milkyway in the world after all for five dollars a night you get bizillion star accomodation.
Peace and smiles,
Sean & Katie
If you want to know anymore about the hike or can recommend other great spots feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org