[Photograph: View of The Mount taken from Papamoa Hills]
On the end of a 20km strip of sand, piled with civilization and surrounded by ocean, sits Mauao, the volcano on the beach.
This spectacular peninsula, known popularly as ‘Mount Maunganui’, is a more recent addition to Tauranga, made directly accessible to the city in 1988 by the harbour bridge. The Mount peak (Mauao is its Maori name) is 761ft high.
9am and the sun is already beating down upon Mount Maunganui as we walk along Pilot Bay; the harbour glistening on the left; The Mount looming ahead. The volcano itself is extinct, (so they say) and serves locals as a scenic exercise apparatus, and already the regular keep-fitters are jogging up between the trees that line the path.
A short stretch of steps lead us upwards to a wider footpath, where sheep stand and stare, chewing over-elaborately. The path climbs gently, unveiling a gradual view of the port as we rise above the trees.
We pass through a gate, where the path tunnels beneath a green canopy, getting steeper and steeper as it spirals closer to the peak, stealing the breath from our lungs. The climb grows tough on our calves and just as the lactic acid starts to burn, the trees clear and open out onto a vast screen of blue.
Glitter beads the surface of the ocean, blending with the clearest sky. Matakana Island slips off the horizon, its white beaches and emerald trees layered against the dusky mountains beyond. The path levels out for a moment, and then we reach The Goat Track.
A rocky cliff with a vague track carved jaggedly upwards. The sign may as well not be there! Hands and knees in full action, we climb the side of The Mount, keeping our heads from swooning as we glance down the sheer drop to the Pacific ocean below.
Finally, the top is in sight. Staggering up over the edge, and feeling pretty glad to have our feet back on solid ground, we catch our breath, hands on hips and throats thrust at the sky. We pass a random picnic bench (how did it get there?) and under an arch of trees, and before us, a spectacular view unfolds.
You can see Mount Maunganui Beach on the left, famous for its surf and 20km stretch of beach. On the right is Pilot Bay, the humble harbour beach, which faces inland towards Tauranga city port. In the distance is Papamoa and the Papamoa Hills rising up from the horizon. Then there’s the little mound of rocks and greenery jutting out from the beach on the left – that’s Leisure Island. You can walk out to the rocks at the end and feel like you’re floating in the sky.
I touch the trig at the top of The Mount, which marks the highest point, just as a ceremonial ‘I made it to the top’ sort of thing, and then we venture back down again… a slightly more sensible route this time.
“Of course, there’s the coming down too” – Tiggers Don’t Climb Trees
Twisting back around the side of The Mount, feeling almost as though we are about to walk off the edge of the Earth, we give our knees a good pounding, greet some more sheep, and take the scenic route back towards Pilot Bay.
Many an afternoon has been spent walking around Mount Maunganui, browsing the funky high street; reading on the beach; exploring and mouse spotting on Leisure Island; swimming and people-watching … it’s only three bucks away, or a scenic bike-ride, and the perfect place to be on a sunny afternoon with nothing to do.
The Mount has a population of around 30,000, and the town is well equipped for young people and holiday makers, with cafes, bars and surf/skate shops lining the ‘mainstreet’. Mount Maunganui Beach thrives from day-to-day with various water sports: surfing; paddle-boarding; kayaking; swimming… and you certainly won’t fail to see a handful of tourists strolling or making their sunbeds on the sand.
Stick around for less than five minutes and you are bound to see hang gliders soar from the top of The Mount: giant arcing shapes that weave and somersault across the sky, landing in a cloud of sand on the beach nearby. In the evenings, the town’s long boarders congregate by the beach and take over the road that eventually leads towards Papamoa, and they skate barefooted without a care in the world.