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Powell Hut strikes back

Wairarapa’s popular tramping landmark, Powell Hut, recently had a makeover after it was struck by lightning in May.

It has become the only Department of Conservation [DOC] hut to be kitted out with a lightning protection system in New Zealand.

Since it was first unveiled on May 14, 1939, by the Hutt Valley Tramping Club, Powell Hut has become one of the most popular shelters.

After lightning struck the hut in May, it shut its doors for just over five months while awaiting repairs.

A DoC spokesperson said the hut was unoccupied at the time, but National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research data suggested the strike happened at about 7am on May 21.

The lightning strike fried the fire alarm, solar power, and gas systems.

Luckily, the strike only caused minimal damage to the structure of the hut.

They said because of the size of the 32-bunk hut, a fire alarm system was required as a condition of the building consent.

The system included fire alarms and heat sensors under the hut and in the ceiling.

The lightning protection system had been designed to intercept direct lightning strikes and protect the hut and its occupants.

Ten lightning rods now circle the hut to provide interception points for the most susceptible parts of the structure.

The most vulnerable parts of the hut were the elevated points on the roof, the ridge capping, and the outer edges.

The rods stick out about 800mm from the roof, bonded through down-conductors to two earthing systems designed to provide a potential lightning surge with a preferred low resistance path to the ground.

The lighting repairs cost DoC $13,675.

The reopening of the hut was delayed because of challenges in accessing supplies and manufacturing materials.

Additionally, DoC said finding a suitable weather window to fly in supplies, and getting contractors to undertake the work were also factors that kept the hut’s doors shut.

The initial project was the magnum opus of Ian Powell, secretary of the Hutt Valley Tramping Club.

Powell was an active tramper and the driving force behind having the hut built between 1938 and 1939.

The Times-Age reported on May 14, 1939, that the hut had been unveiled 4000 feet up Mt Holdsworth in the Tararua Ranges.

“Altogether, there were over a hundred members of tramping clubs present.”

It said ideal weather favoured the opening.

“The new hut, which is located under the shelter of a huge rocky bluff, commands a wonderful view of the whole of the Wairarapa Valley and will provide excellent facilities for mountaineering parties in the Holdsworth region, one of the most popular areas in the Taranaki Ranges.”

Mr WH Wilson, president of the club, said he was the proudest man on the mountain that day.

“The construction of the hut was a self-imposed task and it had been a gruelling one, as all the material had to be packed up to the site by members of the Hutt Valley and kindred clubs.”

After over 40 years atop the ranges, Powell Hut fell into disrepair, eventually being replaced by another iteration in 1981.

The new hut cost the DoC $33,000 to replace.

The hut was replaced again, opening for the fourth time in July 2019.

DoC Wairarapa operations manager Kathy Houkamau said the new hut was built to meet the needs of modern users and to make the most of the spectacular views of the Wairarapa Valley.

“Users value the panoramic views of Wairarapa more than anything else, so we have tripled the size of the deck, provided seating and partially covered it.

“People also wanted more privacy for sleeping, so the new hut has four separate bunk rooms as opposed to one large sleeping area, with a total of 32 bunks.”

In 2021, Powell Hut welcomed 4156 tired trampers, 3012 of which were adults, 938 youth, and 206 children or infants.

DoC said it had recorded 8,192 bookings to stay overnight at Powell Hut since its booking system went live on July 1, 2020.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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