Around Mt Taranaki Circuit – Stratford Plateau to Waiaua Gorge Hut via Holly Hut

One of New Zealand’s most iconic (and deadly) mountains, the 2,518m high Mt Taranaki is a 125,000 year old volcano which dominates the Taranaki region. The Around the Mountain Circuit does as it’s name suggests and is a loop track offering views of the often elusive mountain from every angle. Usually walked in 4-5 days I did it in just over 3 days in January 2021, including a detour to spend the night at the 1,940m Syme Hut, the highest on the mountain and one of the highest in New Zealand. This involved walking ~52km over rarely flat terrain as the track winds along many ridges, and across gullies and streams.

I started from the Stratford Plateau Carpark, 1,172m above the sea where my day had begun in New Plymouth. I got brief glimpses of the mountain, covered in more snow than usual for this time of year after snowfall the previous day.

Looking back after starting the track the plateau is quite a surreal place for a large car park.

I passed through an avalanche protection tunnel, the first I’ve seen in New Zealand, though I’ve seen a few in the Alps.

The landscape is quite incredible, steep canyons formed by ancient lava flows, covered in thick bush, with the ever present, if rarely clearly visible, summit above.

I got a few clear views as I reached the Manganui ski field. One of the joys / challenges of this track is how fast the weather can change, even by the highly changeable standards of New Zealand weather.

The track is obvious but was overgrown / waterlogged in places, requiring careful foot placement.

There were somewhat hazy views below of the endless farmland of Taranaki, one of the main diary regions of New Zealand.

I liked the views of the track ahead cut into the mountainside.

I couldn’t see much though by the time I reached Tahurangi Lodge.

Near here is the track leading to the summit which I took back in 2017, though didn’t I get to see much beyond this point as the cloud rolled in. This time I headed along Holly Hut Track under the impressive Dieffenbach Cliffs.

The landscape is pretty epic, the mountain has such a huge presence, and is more varied than most tracks.

Thankfully Boomerang Slip was relatively easy to cross, and there were more huge views beyond. When I’d last walked the Holly Hut Track in 2017 it was thick cloud so I didn’t get to see any of this.

I don’t remember this slip, the steps looked relatively new.

After climbing for most of the morning it was now relentlessly downhill, along endless but well graded boardwalk.

Around 2pm I reached Holly Hut for a late lunch and welcome rest. Reflecting on the forecast of heavy rain on day three and the lack of shelter I considered changing my trip plans. Thankfully there was mobile signal ten minutes walk back up the ridge so I returned in the evening to check the latest forecast, which had improved. By the time I returned the sun had come out and the summit briefly appeared behind the hut, a rather nice view…

I stayed the night at Holly Hut, sharing the 32 bunk hut with a family of three, and six younger people who arrived after 8pm and stayed up talking and playing cards till nearly 11pm. Unfortunately huts are unforgiving when it comes to sound and the bunkrooms have a giant opening at the top, so falling asleep was a challenge.

In the morning there was a battle between the rising sun and the cloud, which the cloud won for most of the day, bringing plenty of rain with it unfortunately. There was little to see today though other than bush which at least offered some protection from the elements.

The track headed downhill with little of note until this sizeable river bed, one of many river crossings for the day.

I managed to carefully rock jump all bar one stream but my boots were still got totally soaked from the wet and overgrown foliage and in places deep mud. Gaiters would have been useful to wear.

A feature of the day was around a dozen ladders, some metal, most wood, almost all of which I descended, not that easy while carrying poles. The poles were essential though when away from the ladders as it could be slippery underfoot, with some steep spots.

Stony River was quite a surreal place, home to a number of naturally red rocks.

Most of the day though was through relatively rough bush, muddy with a fair number of trees roots. At first I was a bit over more bush but by the end of the day I was enjoying the challenge, tricky enough to be interesting but not too much to be dangerous.

After nearly four hours it was a relief to reach Kanui Hut, a functional spot to shelter from the rain and have my lunch. It involved a detour going up the mountain to come back down, with no views, but according to the signage it was still the same time to reach the next hut via this route.

The next two and half hours were much the same, slow going hiking through the bush though in heavier rain with more treacherous mud. For some reason I found it more enjoyable than the morning though, getting into a rhythm and approaching my final destination for the day.

Around 2.30pm I arrived at the smart Waiaua Gorge Hut, where it was a great relief to wash and change into dry clothes. I had the hut to myself for a couple of hours before a pair of guys arrived and provided good company for the evening.

Thankfully the sun came out, helping to dry some of my things, and occasionally the summit would appear briefly, before returning behind the clouds.

Author: jontycrane

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