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

After a wet day getting to Waiaua Gorge Hut the rain returned overnight and given how exposed my route to Syme Hut was I thought it prudent to wait for it to ease before setting off. I ended up setting off after an early lunch, probably the latest I’ve ever started, as there didn’t seem much point walking through cloud when sunshine was forecast for the afternoon.

The first item of the day was the only ladder of the trip marked on the topomap, though it didn’t seem much more significant than any of the others I’d climbed the previous day, other than it having a cage.

There were two streams to cross, neither of which favoured rock hopping given how slippery the rocks looked, and the second stream was particularly fast flowing and a slip would have been dangerous. Instead I waded through, the second one was surprisingly deep, running up to my knees.

The track lived up to this sign from the start of the day, though it could have equally applied to the whole of the previous day, and even on the more popular tracks on the first and last day of the trip there were sections in serious need of cutting back.

After crossing Waiaua Gorge there was a relentless three hour climb along an overgrown, steep and slippery track. Easier at least going up than down, judging by the experience of a group of three I met part way up who tried to convince me that the hardest was still to come, while I said what they had still to do wasn’t easy. I think we were both right.

It was mostly thick bush but did open up occasionally for atmospheric sightings of Brames Falls.

It was a pretty rough track, my least favourite parts being limboing / going down on my knees to get underneath falling trees.

After about two and half hours I started to emerge out of the bush to sunshine and big views of the mountain ahead.

The views improved as I gained height and escaped the bush.

Unfortunately while tackling these muddy steep sections one of my poles broke. Obviously equipment failure is never ideal, but if it had to break this was the best time for it to do so. As long as it didn’t stick into the ground I could still use it at two thirds length. I’d just about escaped the mud for the trip for a rocky track on which it worked fine. Phew!

The track finally flattened below the impressive volcanic bluffs of Bobs Ridge.

Before heading into tussock which made a nice change of scenery and was fast to walk along…

…until I got to this rather sizeable canyon which required care to descend, cross and ascend the other side.

After which were more spectacular views looking up toward the summit, and out over the Taranaki region.

Unfortunately while the largest that had only been the first of what felt like a dozen such canyon to cross, slow and tiring work though at least it was clear but with enough wind to prevent overheating in the January sunshine. The scenery continued to impress.

There were some clear examples of lava flows.

About five and half hours since leaving Waiaua Gorge Hut I finally made it to the steps that lead in one direction to Syme Hut and the other direction to Dawson Falls. It was decision time… My plan was to stay at Syme Hut but I was pretty tired and concerned about the wind and exposure heading up toward the hut. The alternative would have been a longer walk back to my car, then an hour driving back to New Plymouth. This was the downside of leaving the hut at 11.30am, it gave less options, though sunset wasn’t until nearly 9pm, the skies were blue, and it was surprisingly warm still.

While making up my mind a girl came down the steps. She had planned to stay at Syme Hut but had bravely (and unusually in my experience of people climbing Mt Taranaki) decided to turn around half way up the scree slope and return to her car. The wind, which at 60kph was near gale force, had proved too much for her. That helped make up my mind to abandon Syme Hut but I thought I’d just walk up to the scree slope for photos and see how much stronger the wind was there than on the steps.

Once I got there it was pretty full on, but more constant than gusty, and poles make a huge difference on scree slopes (she didn’t have any). I also saw a couple of guys ahead making their way up toward the hut without appearing to be in too much trouble. It was warm enough, the weather was fine other than the wind, there were no drop offs if I got blown over, and I had time still to attempt the hut and turn back if it got too much so I decided to push on.

It was pretty exhausting climbing the slope but I made better progress than I feared and it seemed increasingly doable to reach the hut. The sun was shining on me, though only just as it was setting over the other side of the mountain.

The scree gave way to more solid rock which helped though the wind was stronger.

It was strongest just over the lip of the rock, with a snow filler crater to my side, and here crouching and full use of the poles was required to stay upright. Thankfully Syme Hut was just round the corner…

I was very grateful to finally escape the wind and have my first rest of more than a couple of minutes in nearly seven hours of hard hiking. I thought the second day would be the hardest but this was definitely the toughest of the trip. At the hut were the couple of guys I’d seen heading up the hill, enjoying a beer. They were locals who’d just walked up to the hut for some Sunday evening exercise and headed back down to Dawson Falls after we’d talked for ten minutes. Which left the hut to myself, quite the contrast to the 14 people who’d stayed in the ten bunk hut the previous hut according to the group I’d passed earlier on.

It’s a basic hut so only cost $5 to spend the night at, incredible given views like this…

The original Syme Hut was built in 1930 to provide shelter high on the mountain after a couple of men died while attempting to reach the summit. After 57 years it was understandably knackered given its exposed location, often buried in snow during the winter, and was replaced with the current hut.

The hut is firmly held down with cables that hummed and buzzed in the wind, sounding like a fly.

The toilet was a sturdy concrete cylinder with expansive views with the door open, safe enough as the only person on the mountain that evening.

The skies came alive as the sun started to set.

In the opposite direction to the sunset I could see Mt Ruapehu 250km away, such a clear evening looking out over the North Island.

For a couple of minutes Mt Taranaki was lit up red by the setting sun.

I braved the winds to get some photos outside of the hut.

Back inside the sunset just got better. I’ve seen a lot of sunsets but this was up there with the best, and I ran around the empty hut taking photos from every angle.

The mountain side and hut had quite a different atmosphere lit by moon light.

I didn’t sleep too well as the gale force wind continued through the night, when it had been forecast to drop, and I was a little anxious about getting back down safely the next day. I was woken by an impressive sunrise though.

Mt Ruapehu looked quite different in the morning, rising above a layer of cloud.

In the morning I could also see it’s neighbours Mt Tongaririo and Mt Ngauruhoe.

After breakfast I headed back down the hill, which wasn’t that much faster than going up as I was taking it carefully given that the strong winds were behind rather than in front of me today, making balancing on the steep slope tricky.

I didn’t really get to enjoy the epic views at the time as I was concentrating hard on getting down safely.

It was a great relief to reach the steps. From here it was endlessly downhill for another hour with little of note.

I reached Dawson Falls for a quick look in the Visitor Centre and wondered why I hadn’t parked here rather than the plateau. It would have saved walking on the last day and is known as a safer place to leave your car.

It only took 45 minutes along an easy track to return to my car though, with the car park looking quite different in the sunshine. I think I prefer the mountain in some cloud, it’s more atmospheric and seems larger. It remained entirely visible for the whole day, the first time I’ve experienced this in maybe half a dozen trips to Taranaki.

Author: jontycrane

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