New Plymouth – from the mountain to the deep blue sea
February 26, 2020 • Carl Rapson
9 min read
Located around five hours south of Auckland in the Taranaki region, New Plymouth is a playground for surfers and trampers alike.
New Plymouth or “The Naki” as it’s affectionately known, is a land of real contrasts. At its heart is the perfect volcanic cone of Mount Taranaki/Egmont, which dominates the skyline from the whole region. The mountain draws visitors to the area year-round, with snowboarders and skiers flocking to the slopes in winter, and hikers and trampers traversing the many stunning walking tracks in the warmer months. Some trampers brave the mountain in winter, but this is true alpine territory, so it’s only for the competent and properly prepared.
Surrounding the mountain are the iron black sand beaches that are a mecca for the many surfers that come to ride the cool waters of the Tasman Sea as they break along the rugged coastline. The many beaches face in a multitude of directions, meaning that there’s always plenty of options depending on where the wind and swell are coming from.
We had previously explored the eastern side of Mount Taranaki, so this time we headed up to the northern slopes, parking in the upper carpark of the North Egmont carpark, where you can freedom camp for up to four nights in any calendar month.
Just as they were on the eastern side, the views from the northern side are stunning, and these have to be some of the best views of any places we have stayed so far. There is nothing better than waking up and stepping outside into the crisp mountain air with the mountain providing the perfect backdrop.
From the carpark, we could just make out a red roof poking out above the Toetoe grasses. We wandered up to check it out and discovered that it was the North Egmont Camphouse, one of the oldest corrugated iron buildings in the world. It’s a section of a barracks that was imported from Melbourne in 1855 to house soldiers in New Plymouth.
The North Egmont Camphouse, one of the oldest corrugated iron buildings in the world
It was later used as a base for the armed constabulary, and then as housing for new immigrants, before it was moved to its final resting place up the mountain in 1891, to become tourist accommodation. You can now book a bunk for the night, or hire the whole place for groups, and if you look closely, you can still see the gun slits left over from its previous life.
Holly Hut Track
There are not many short walks that actually go up the mountain from here, as most of them are much longer tramps. These include the summit track, which will take you about 8-10 hours return and it’s advised only to attempt it in summer, unless you are experienced in alpine conditions, or have a guide. We chose to walk part of the Holly Hut track, which is a 4-hour tramp to the Holly hut, where you can stay the night.
On the Holly Hut Track. A four hour walk to the Holly Hut
We were only going a to do a small portion of the track though, to a lookout that we’d seen on the map. It’s uphill all the way, and mostly in the bush without any mountain views until you near the lookout, so quite a slog, and it took around 45 mins to reach the bench at the lookout.
Our original plan had been to just head back down once we reached the lookout, but the mountain was still calling to us, luring us further up his slopes. We just couldn’t resist, so we continued up the track a little way further, and we’re so glad we did as it was truly breathtaking.
Carl gazes up the ridgeline towards the majestic Mount Taranaki
The track continued along a ridge before it started to head back down into the bush. We followed it all the way along the ridge line, taking in the amazing 360-degree views, before turning back the way we came, with more sensational views back down the mountain.
Te Rewa Rewa Bridge
After another great night parked up by the mountain, we reluctantly left him behind and dropped down into the town basin to explore further. Just north of the town centre lies the spectacular Te Rewa Rewa bridge. Opened in 2010 as part of the New Plymouth Coastal Highway, this incredible pedestrian/cycle bridge is 70m long, and spans the Waiwhakaiho River.
Like a bleached whale skeleton, or a breaking wave, the Te Rewa Rewa bridge spans the Waiwhakaiho River
It really is a thing of beauty, with the curving, pure white steelwork designed to emote visions of a breaking wave, or the skeleton of a beached whale. The bridge faces Mt. Taranaki, and on a clear day, the Mount is framed between its arches. Unfortunately, the mountain was wearing his usual cloud hat, so I wasn’t able to get the iconic shot. Maybe next time.
We’d heard from friends about the beautiful Lake Rotokare, where you can freedom camp right on the lake shore, and maybe hear kiwi calling at night as the whole area is a kiwi sanctuary surrounded by a predator-free fence. After a quick stop in Stratford, we drove out to the lake, a few kms east of Eltham. There’s self-contained, non-self-contained and tents allowed here, all in different locations, but only a maximum of 6 vehicles/tents in total.
There’s a great walk that circum-navigates the lake, taking around one and half hours in total. The first part of the walk gives great views of the lake, with the surrounding bush beautifully reflected in the still blue waters. After that, the track heads into the forest, and apart from the odd glimpse through the native bush, that’s the last you see of the lake until the end of the walk.
Beautiful reflections in the still waters of Lake Rotokare
There’s also a newly opened track called the Ridge Track, which climbs steeply and then follows the ridge line, and the predator fence. The whole area is surrounded by the predator fence, with a double electric gate to get in, which is manually operated. With it being a pest free zone, the birds have returned in abundance and the symphony of bird song that accompanies you on the walk is beautiful to listen to.
Once the sun set, we decided to go off in search of Kiwi to see if we could get lucky. We’d never seen any Kiwi in the wild, and weren’t really expecting to see any this time, but boy were we in for a surprise. Not more than 10 minutes into our mission, we rounded a bend and there was a huge Kiwi, just off to the left of the path. He was as surprised to see us as we were him, and didn’t hang around for a chat, but it was an incredible experience to see such a beautiful bird in its native habitat.
The tree canopy on the Lake Rotokare walk
We thought we’d carry on a little longer as we were really enjoying being out in the forest in the dark. We really weren’t expecting to see any more Kiwi though, when we rounded another corner and there on the bank, right next to us, was a much smaller Kiwi. Truly amazing.
The Three Sisters
Still buzzing from our kiwi encounter, we reluctantly left Lake Rotokare the next morning. After passing back through New Plymouth, we turned north on the Surf Highway and around an hour later arrived at Tongaporutu, home to the Three Sisters. You can freedom camp in the carpark here right beside the Tongaporutu River.
Spending the night freedom camping at Tongaporutu
The walk out to the Three Sisters is tidal (two hours either side of high tide) so we had to wait until late in the afternoon before we could set off. Even then we had to wade through a little bit of water, which was a touch chilly. Brrrr.
Even at low tide we had to wade through a little bit of water on the way to the Three Sisters, which was a touch chilly
The sun was starting to set as we rounded the point and got our first look at the Three Sisters in the distance, with a large rock in the foreground which many mistake for Elephant Rock, who lost his trunk a while ago (Elephant rock is actually further down the beach, past the Three Sisters). It does, however have a cool hole running right through it, which you just have to walk through.
The first rock that you see on the way to the Three Sisters, often mistaken for Elephant rock which is further down the beach
The Three Sisters are 25m high sandstone stacks that have been eroded from the surrounding cliffs, and now stand out on their own, taking the full force of all that mother nature can throw at them. There’s really only two of the original sisters left now, and apparently a long time ago they were actually four, although it looks like another one is slowly appearing from the rock face. The cliffs around this area are eroding rapidly, and who knows how long the remaining sisters have left.
Our first look at the Three Sisters bathed in the light of the setting sun
The other inhabitant of this rugged coast is, or should I say, was, Elephant Rock. Unfortunately for him, his trunk fell off a couple of years ago, so he’s got a bit of an identity crisis now. He still looks awesome though.
Te Wera Valley Lodge Camp
Low-cost Campground in Taranaki