Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) has always been a focus for those who live under its 2,518-metre peak. The mountain appears in many guises – on postage stamps and postcards; club, school and commercial logos; sports and social club badges; corporate letterheads; calendars; gravestones; and even in the design of a Crown Lynn dinner set.
The 2003 film The last samurai, which starred Hollywood actor Tom Cruise, was filmed in Taranaki. The mountain stood in for Japan’s Mt Fuji, and a Japanese village was built in the Urutī valley north-east of New Plymouth.
Māori know the mountain as Taranaki, Pukeonaki or Pukehaupapa, and venerate its peak.
In tradition, Mt Taranaki once dwelled with the volcanic peaks of the central North Island. Taranaki and Tongariro fought for the favours of the bush-clad beauty of Mt Pīhanga. After a titanic battle, the defeated Taranaki fled west, gouging out the valley of the Whanganui River to the sea. Then, guided by his guardian rock Te Toka-a-Rauhoto, he turned to the north and came to rest. But, while Taranaki rested, Pouākai mountain extended a ridge that stopped him from continuing his flight. Taranaki remains there to this day, with his guiding rock cemented firmly in place at the marae at Pūniho, near Ōkato.
In 1642 Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed past Taranaki and named what is now Cape Egmont ‘Cabo Pieter Boreels’. However, cloud hid the mountain.
British navigator James Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to see Mt Taranaki. On 11 January 1770, sailing south off the Raglan coast, they saw ‘a very high Mountain ... made very much like the Peak of Tenerieff’1 (today’s Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands). A couple of days later, sailing off the future site of New Plymouth, Cook named the nearby islands the ‘Sugar Loaves’, and the mountain after the Earl of Egmont, the First Lord of the Admiralty.
Two years later French explorer Marion du Fresne caught a glimpse of the peak and dubbed it ‘Le Pic de Mascarin’ after his ship.
The chief Tahurangi was reputed to have been first to conquer the peak. He lit a fire on the summit to claim the land for his tribe, about 1420.
New Zealand Company naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach was the first Pākehā to climb Mt Taranaki. He made two unsuccessful attempts in 1839, accompanied by Māori guides. On 23 December of that year, with Wellington whaler James (‘Worser’) Heberley, he finally reached the summit.
Jane Maria Atkinson was the first Pākehā woman to climb Mt Taranaki, with her husband Arthur and five others in February 1855. Each day, the men would cut a line in the bush, and return in the evening to Maria, who remained at their camp, cooking. After eating they would all move forward along the newly cut track to camp for the night.
What’s in a name?
For generations Taranaki Māori battled for official restoration of the mountain’s Māori name. In 1985 the New Zealand Geographic Board approved the name change, beginning an emotionally charged debate. Tempers blazed on radio talkback shows and in newspaper correspondence. The next year it was announced that both Taranaki and Egmont would be the official names for the peak. While ‘Taranaki’ is slowly becoming more accepted locally, James Cook’s name of ‘Egmont’ still has dedicated supporters.
Recognising the importance of the forest cover on the mountain, the Taranaki Provincial Council reserved a large area in 1875. In 1881 the mountain and land within a radius of 6 miles (9.6 kilometres) was made a forest reserve to preserve the timber resource – a far-sighted decision for the time. The Egmont National Park Act 1900 made Mt Taranaki, with the Pouākai and Kaitake ranges, New Zealand’s second national park.