Ernst Dieffenbach was looking for a challenge. The 28-year-old German was a naturalist travelling on the Tory with colonist E.J. Wakefield. It was 1839 and the ship was lying offshore of the future New Plymouth.
Before Ernst stood a conical shaped cone mountain, rising majestically above a forest of green, a tuft of cloud hovering over its summit. No man had ever set foot on Mount Egmont's utmost peak - the mountain was considered tapu by the local Māori and the European whalers who lived at Ngāmotu turned their backs to the mighty cone and looked to the sea.
Ernst was determined to be the first man to reach the top of Mount Egmont. Wakefield wasn't interested in accompanying him, neither was local whaler Dicky Barret - but he did lend him his cook, an African American man named Black Lee.
Māori tried to discourage the group from their adventure, the mountain was tapu, ngārara (giant lizards) would eat them… but an old tohunga was eventually persuaded to show them the way.
It was a strange little group that set out from the Sugar Loaves on 3 December 1839. Tangutu-na-Waikato the guide wore a cloak of his own making, his only weapon a hatchet. Ernst had his gun and Black Lee had his cooking utensils. Food was not a problem - Tangutu had gardens dotted through the bush. He would dash off into the undergrowth and return a few moments later with a dried fish or some oil in a tin, which he would use to rub in his dark and greasy hair. Sometimes he brought a handful of leeks or a watermelon.
It was six days before the group had their first peek at the mountain - it had been obscured by bush before then. Going was mind-numbingly slow, it rained and everyone was wet and miserable, to top it all off supplies were low. Tangutu was convinced the little team lacked the support of the gods. Perhaps he had lead them on a merry dance on purpose? On December 15 they admitted defeat and headed for home.
But Ernst wasn't going to give up that easily. Four days later he set out with a local whaler James ‘Worser’ Heberley, a Māori guide E. Kake, who took his slave with him, and Black Lee.
This time the going was faster - they took a different route and reached their previous stopping point in four days. The group set up camp at 1800 metres - thought to be somewhere between today's North Egmont and Bells Falls.
On 23 December they attempted the summit. Good progress was made by using a rocky channel scooped out of the blue lava, then climbing up the scoria. Ernst’s diary reads "As soon as we reached the limits of perpetual snow my two native attendants squatted down and took out their books and began to pray." No Māori had ever been that high before. "To them the mountains are people with mysterious and misshapen animals…" Ernst and James headed for the summit, leaving the others behind. They cut steps in the frozen snow and made good progress along a ridge of “rugged scoriae’ which took them to the summit. "A most marvellous view opened before us, and we followed the line of the coast toward Kawhia and Waikato."
But thick cloud descended, enveloping the pair and they set to their experiments. Ernst tried the degree of boiling water and estimated the height of the mountain to be 8,839 feet (2,946 metres) - it's actual height is 2,518 metres.
The pair found the entire skeleton of a rat - perfectly preserved - and surmised that a hawk must have taken the rodent there for a quiet snack.
But Ernst doesn't include everything in his diary. In fact he missed a rather important point. In his diary, James Heberley claims he beat Ernst to the summit. James writes that Black Lee had accompanied the pair for a short while toward the summit, but had fallen and hurt himself and decided to return to the two Māori waiting further down. James continued driving his fowling piece into the ice and dragging himself up the mountainside. Ernst had a sharp pointed implement with which he dug into the snow and used as a support. Just below the summit James claims that Ernst slipped and fell. He left him behind and continued on to the peak. "I got on top of the mountain 20 minutes before Dieffenbach, I wanted to call it Mount Victoria. There was not room for two men to stand on the top."
Despite being the first men to the summit Ernst and James hadn't taken anything to write with so they could leave proof of their expedition, they hadn't even taken along a flag. Instead they put a charge of shot and a gun flint on the summit. By 28 December the group were back at the Sugar Loaves.
Rawson, D.H. (1989). The First European Ascent of Mount Egmont by Ernst Dieffenbach and James Heberly December 1839. New Plymouth: Distributed by mountain and tramping clubs of Taranaki.
Dieffenbach, E. (1843). Travels in New Zealand with contributions to the geography, geology, botany and natural history of that country. London: J.Murray Capper Press.
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