The province of Taranaki (nicknamed “The ’naki”) juts out west from the rest of the North Island forming a thumbprint peninsula centred on Maunga Taranaki (a.k.a. Mount Egmont), an elegant conical volcano rising 2500m from the subtropical coast to its icy summit. Taranaki means “peak clear of vegetation”, an appropriate description of the upper half of “the mountain”, as locals simply refer to it.
The mountain remains a constant presence as you tour the region, though much of the time it is obscured by cloud. The summit is usually visible in the early morning and just before sunset, with cloud forming through the middle of the day – the bane of summit aspirants who slog for no view.
Taranaki’s vibrant provincial capital and largest city, New Plymouth, makes a good base for day-trips into the Egmont National Park, surrounding the mountain. It is also very convenient for short forays to the surfing and windsurfing hotspot of Oakura.
Rural Taranaki’s attractions, including the Surf Highway, are best sampled on a one- or two-day loop around the mountain.
According to Maori, the mountain-demigod Taranaki fled here from the company of the other mountains in the central North Island. He was firmly in place when spotted by the first European in the area, Cook, who named the peak Egmont after the first Lord of the Admiralty. In the early nineteenth century few Maori were living in the area as annual raids by northern tribes had forced many to migrate with Te Rauparaha to Kapiti Island. This played into the hands of John Lowe and Richard Barrett who, in 1828, established a trading and whaling station on the Ngamotu Beach on the northern shores of the peninsula.
In 1841, the Plymouth Company dispatched six ships of English colonists to New Zealand, settling at Lowe and Barrett’s outpost. Mostly from the West Country, the new settlers named their community New Plymouth.Read More
The small but bustling city of New Plymouth, on the northern shore of the peninsula, is the commercial heart of Taranaki and renowned New Zealand-wide for its concerts and arts festivals. Port Taranaki, at the edge of the city, serves as New Zealand’s western gateway and is the only deep-water international port on the west coast. There’s a strong arts and gardens bias to its attractions, though it is a pleasure just to be in.
Just offshore is the Sugar Loaf Islands Protected Area, a haven for wildlife above and beneath the sea.
Egmont National Park
Egmont National Park
Taranaki (Mount Egmont), a dormant volcano that last erupted in 1755, dominates the entire western third of the North Island. Often likened to Japan’s Mount Fuji, its profile is a cone rising to 2518m, though from east or west the profile is disturbed by the satellite Fantham’s Peak (1692m). In winter, snow blankets the mountain, but as summer progresses only the crater rim remains white. The mountain is the focal point for EGMONT NATIONAL PARK, the boundary forming an arc with a 10km radius around the mountain, interrupted only on its north side where it encompasses the Pouakai Range and Kaitake Range, older, more weathered cousins of Taranaki.
Surrounded by farmland, the mountain’s lower slopes are cloaked in native bush that gradually changes to stunted flag-form trees shaped by the constant buffeting of the wind. Higher still, vegetation gives way to slopes of loose scoria (a kind of jagged volcanic gravel) – hard work if you’re hiking.
Three sealed roads climb Taranaki’s eastern flanks, each ending at a separate car park a little under halfway up the mountain from where the park’s 140km of walking tracks spread out. North Egmont is the most easily accessible from New Plymouth but you can get higher up the mountain at East Egmont, and there are particularly good short walks around Dawson Falls. The i-SITE in New Plymouth has extensive information on the park.
All three trailheads are under an hour’s drive from New Plymouth, but with accommodation close to all of them, avid hikers may choose to base themselves inside the park. Gung-ho hikers go for the summit (not a trivial ascent by any means:; deaths do occur). If you want to spend longer than a day on the mountain, the varied Pouakai Circuit or the testing Around the Mountain Circuit might fit the bill.
All of a sudden it hit me – if there was such a thing as composing music, there could be such a thing as composing motion. After all, there are melodic figures, why can’t there be figures of motion?
- Len Lye
Until fairly recently, New Zealand-born sculptor, film-maker and conceptual artist Len Lye (1901–80) was little known outside the art world, but his work is now earning well-deserved recognition. Born in Christchurch, Lye developed a fascination with movement, which expressed itself in his late teens in early experiments in kinetic sculpture. His interest in Maori art encouraged him to travel more widely, studying both Australian Aboriginal and Samoan dance. Adapting indigenous art to the precepts of the Futurist and Surrealist movements coming out of Europe, he experimented with sculpture, batik, painting, photography and animated “cameraless” films (he painstakingly stencilled, scratched and drew on the actual film). Lye spent time working on his films in London, but towards the end of World War II he joined the European artistic exodus and ended up in New York. Here he returned to sculpture, finding that he could exploit the flexibility of stainless-steel rods, loops and strips to create abstract “tangible motion sculptures” designed to “make movement real”. The erratic movements of these motor-driven sculptures give them an air of anarchy, which is most evident in his best-known work, 1977’s Trilogy (more commonly referred to as Flip and Two Twisters), three motorized metal sheets that wildly shake and contort until winding down to a final convulsion.
Lye envisaged his works as being monumental and set outdoors, but was always aware of the technical limitations of his era and considered his projects to be works of the twenty-first century. Just before his death in New York in 1980, friend, patron and New Plymouth resident, John Matthews, helped set up the Len Lye Foundation, which brought most of Lye’s scattered work to New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The foundation has been instrumental in furthering Lye’s work. The Wind Wand is the most visible and largest product of their work though the foundation has also been instrumental in creating Lye’s Water Whirler on the Wellington waterfront.
New Plymouth festivals
New Plymouth festivals
Festival of Lights (mid-Dec to Jan nightly dusk–10.45pm; free; wfestivaloflights.co.nz). On summer evenings, stroll the gorgeously lit pathways of Pukekura Park between illuminated trees, then rent a rowboat festooned with lights. There’s live music most nights.
Taranaki Garden Spectacular (late Oct to early Nov; wtaft.co.nz). Ten-day celebration of the region’s fine gardens, timed to when the rhododendrons are at their best.
Taranaki International Festival of the Arts (two weeks in early Aug; wtaft.co.nz) This biennial festival (odd-numbered years) features a wide range of music, films and plays in venues all over town.
WOMAD (mid-March; wtaft.co.nz) Superb annual three-day festival of world music that takes place in Brooklands Park. Hundreds of international artists performing on six stages, workshops and a “global village” market.