Home on the Range
Empress Hut, perched on the western flank of Mt Cook, is one of more than 1000 huts peppered throughout the New Zealand back country. But how secure is this heritage in the face of difficult economic times?
Tramping hugs and bivvies are dotted around the back country of New Zealand like nowhere else on earth. At last count there were over 1000 that are managed by the Department of Conservation, and dozens of others belong to tramping, climbing and hunting clubs and farm stations. They range from tiny shelters little larger than dolls’ houses, set in the highest basins and ridgetops of the Southern Alps, to the ubiquitous single-room four- and six-bunk ex-Forest Service huts that provide the bulk of back-country accommodation, to semi-luxury split-level structures with flush toilets, running water, bunkrooms for 40, gas heaters and cookers. The last are found primarily on the Great Walks network, which includes such famous tracks as the Milford, Heaphy and Abel Tasman.
Many huts are a legacy of the early pioneering days of exploration and endeavour in the rugged and unforgiving high country. Others have their origins in the hardships of farming the grasslands of the Southern Alps. There are huts that date back to early forays into tourism in Fiordland, Mt Cook and Westland National Parks and a large number which were built soon after the Second World War as hunting bases for deer cullers. Some have been added in recent times as tramping has grown in popularity as a recreational activity.
The most modern huts are the result of a focus on the needs of more inexperienced trampers and upmarket ecotourists. The Department of Conservation uses the term “back-country comfort seekers” (BCC) to describe these visitors, whom DoC says are seeking a higher standard of facilities than those which are on offer in conventional huts. About half the users of these facilities are New Zealanders and the rest international visitors.
For traditional Kiwi trampers, the words “back country” and “comfort” have little in common. An authentic tramping experience, they would argue, involves paying a physical cost in exchange for the reward of experiencing the glories of nature.
Many of these people are alarmed by the sight of their favourite huts falling into disrepair through lack of money for maintenance. They fear that DoC may over time reduce hut numbers by up to a third. Not only the huts would go, but also the track and bridge networks that lead to them, effectively reducing the amount of country available to the tramper.
We can no doubt all appreciate the value of a hut on a wet and stormy night, and no doubt many lives have been saved by the proximity of huts. For families too, huts provide a wonderful opportunity to introduce youngsters to the hills in some degree of comfort; but they also provide an invaluable taste of the pioneering experience. For me at least, this is why huts are so attractive, especially the smaller, older structures with minimal facilities. They provide a sense of austerity in the midst of dramatic surroundings, and foster the sort of self-reliance that is largely unnecessary in our automated, high-tech world.
Consider Field Hut. Built in 1924 on the western flank of the Southern Crossing in the Tararua Ranges, it has a history intimately linked with the growth of tramping in New Zealand. Many trampers and climbers, serving their apprenticeship in the Tararuas before going on to more difficult forays in the Southern Alps or overseas, have rested for the night within its walls.
I can well recall my own early tramping days, trudging up the steep track to the hut, located just below the bushline. This section of the route was frequently covered in the dark after work on a Friday night, with a flickering torch and often in the rain. It was always a relief to reach the hut and collapse into a sleeping bag stretched out on the hut’s hard wooden sleeping platform. In those days there was no such thing as a self-inflating sleeping mat, or even a roll of closed-cell foam.
Achieving sleep under such conditions was an art form, made somewhat easier by the fact that you were so tired from the tramp that just to lie down in the dry was pleasure beyond belief. This and being lulled to sleep by heavy rain on the roof, a gale buffeting the hut and the stealthy rustlings of mice and rats searching out your hastily packed away food supplies.
While for the most part huts provide welcome refuge from the elements, there have been instances when even solid timber and concrete have proved no match for nature’s power. In 1977, Three Johns Hut—a memorial to three climbers lost on Mt Cook in 1955—was torn from its anchors in a violent storm and hurled over a precipice, killing the four occupants. This hut site, at Barron Saddle, above Mueller Glacier in Mt Cook National Park, had often been feared for the extreme winds, often in excess of 160 km/h, which funnel between the mountains. The hut was replaced by a barrel-shaped structure in 1981 on a new, slightly less exposed site.
In 1986, a hut warden staying in the old Welcome Flat hut, in the Copland Valley, was jolted awake in the dark of a stormy night to discover that the hut was moving. Unable to wrench the door open, he leapt from a window into a sea of sludge and struggled to safety moments before the hut, which had stood on its site since 1913, was swept into the roaring brown torrent of the flooded Copland River. He was able to shelter with others in the large new hut, 100 m away, which had been completed only two weeks earlier. This new hut has since been damaged by mud slides, too.
Narrow escapes have happened on more than one occasion at Lake McKerrow Hut, in Fiordland National Park, when the lake level has risen rapidly in a deluge and the stranded occupants have been rescued by helicopter or jet boat after having broken through on to the roof.
Some have not been so lucky. In February 1995, two DoC hunters were drowned when Bushline Hut, in the Richmond Range, near Nelson, w’as washed away as a result of a cloudburst upstream in the catchment during a
period of heavy rain. The hut has been replaced on the ridgeline above the old site and is now called Hunters Hut
in memory of the lives lost there.
The spectacular 1995 and 1996 eruptions on Mt Ruapehu hurled boulders through the wall and roof of New Zealand’s highest shelter, Dome Shelter (2660 m), which was within 300 m of the erupting crater lake. Fortunately, no one was in the hut on either occasion, and the structure has subsequently been repaired.
If there is a particular type of hut that is most identifiably part of the New Zealand back country, it is the old. Forest Service one-room hut. There are literally hundreds of these dotting the mountain and forest landscapes of both the North and South Islands, and they are the ones most likely to be threatened by any retrenchment.
These sturdy, simple structures were built throughout the country in the 1950s and 60s as part of the government response, through the now defunct New Zealand Forest Service, to combat the exploding deer population. The deer-culling programme began officially in 1931 with the introduction of government-employed hunters who were ultimately responsible for the destruction of over two million noxious animals, including one million deer, in the 35 years up until 1966.
The campaign was waged initially from tent camps, bivvies and some existing huts, but a rapid hut-building regime, facilitated by airdrops of supplies, saw an intensification of the war on browsing animals. By 1966, in Canterbury alone, more than 200 huts and bivouacs were sited in the deer blocks.
With the advent of helicopter “meat shooting” and later live-deer recovery, the emphasis on hut-based shooting declined. The huts were left standing as a testimony to those hardy souls who lived rough for months in the wilds of the high country, arresting the destruction of forest and tussock land. And, of course, they have been a boon to successive generations of trampers, climbers and hunters who have roamed the great outdoors, seeking the experiences the back country offers, and grateful for a comfortable hut to rest their weary frames at the end of the day.
In recent years, many of these huts have taken on a new role as bases for possum control. Ground-based hunting using traps and poison is a more focused form of possum control than widespread aerial drops of 1080 poison. Small, remote huts can still be viewed as a valuable asset in the war on noxious animals.
The standard ex-Forest Service hut is a one-room structure, sometimes with a porch added, in which four or six bunks are fixed or free-standing along one wall. An open fire with outside chimney is fixed to the hut wall, and this is the means of heating and cooking, although in recent years many of the fires have been replaced by pot-belly stoves and sometimes coal ranges. A cooking bench and two or three louvre windows complete the structure, which is framed in wood with a sheet-metal exterior and corrugated iron roof. A large rainwater tank stands beside those huts which are remote from a water supply.
The huts were originally painted bright orange—hardly an environmentally sensitive colour, but highly visible from the air and also from a distance for foot parties. Many have since been repainted in more demure tones, and they remain scattered throughout the ranges on ragged ridgetops, in sheltered basins and hanging valleys, alongside flashing rivers and deep in forest recesses, as ubiquitous as beech trees and sandflies.
These huts provide more than shelter. The hut book found within keeps a record of decades, if not generations, of users, particularly in the more remote locations. Intentions recorded in hut books are often the first port of call for search-and-rescue personnel, and these books often provide the most up-to-date information on track and route conditions liable to be encountered ahead, entered by the last party through. Books in some huts date back 20 to 30 years with often only a handful of visitors per year entering their various exploits, successes and failures.
Following the tragedy of Cave Creek, in 1995, in which 14 young people lost their lives when a platform collapsed in Paparoa National Park, DoC embarked on an ongoing programme of asset reviews. Huts, tracks and bridges all come under scrutiny.
The department looks after 1020 huts and spends $6 million per annum on maintenance and servicing, of which only $3 million is recovered from hut fees. About half of all huts—the most basic ones—have no fees at all. For better huts, fees range from $5 per adult per night to $35 per night for huts in the Great Walks category. Some huts receive fewer than 10 visitors per year.
Through lack of maintenance, many huts are falling into disrepair. DoC claims a chronic lack of funds and deferred maintenance schedules inherited from the huts’ former custodians, the Forest Service and the Department of Lands and Survey, are to blame. Others believe DoC’s focus has shifted from the provision of purely recreational facilities to the establishment of large tourist-oriented huts and amenities from which it can derive a greater income. This change of emphasis has been driven, in part, by the New Zealand Tourism Board’s thirst for overseas visitors.
To alleviate its difficulties, DoC considered removing many of the little used huts which were at the end of their lives. Trampers became concerned that remote, low-use huts might disappear. These fears were compounded when DoC analysts adopted a site-ranking system which blended current and projected visitor numbers and factored in a site’s importance as a recreational and educational experience, along with its potential to increase visitor appreciation of New Zealand’s natural and historic heritage. There was considerable unease in tramping circles that in this ranking exercise huts, bridges and tracks were being viewed in isolation from each other. Removal of any one might effectively close off remote areas which demand extended trips from one catchment to the next.
Concern about the potential impact of these measures turned into anger with DoC for callously “selling out” the tramping community. DoC claims the site rankings were intended for setting maintenance priorities—with little used huts going to the bottom of the pile—and not as a basis for removing any huts.
In the past two years, the department has spent considerable sums on hut inspections, surveying some 750 of their total pool of huts, assessing what work needs to be carried out, how urgent it is and what it will cost.
The department has also been working with user groups to develop standard hut designs (4-, 6- and 10-bunk) which comply with the Building Act and local-body requirements so that it can start replacing huts over the next three years. This liaison has restored much goodwill between DoC and tramping clubs.
In May 2001, much to the relief of outdoor enthusiasts, DoC received a special allocation of $16 million from government to be spent over three years on the upgrading and replacement of huts and toilet facilities. Around $5.5 million of this money will be used on deferred maintenance and to address safety issues and service standards on all huts except those slated for replacement within the next three years.
With another $4.5 million of the grant, DoC has earmarked at least 26 huts for replacement over the next three years-14 of them 4-, 6-, 10- or 12-bunk structures. Most are ex-Forest Service huts, many of which have received little or no maintenance in more than a decade. Conversely, there are 12 huts in the 16-bunks-and-over category marked for replacement, despite the fact that several of them have not yet reached the end of their expected 50-year lives. DoC says some of these huts are too small to meet current needs, and they are being replaced to relieve overcrowding.
Some trampers had hoped to see a larger sample of smaller huts selected for replacement, if, as the department claimed, the planned replacements were not to be at the expense of the smaller low-use huts. DoC says it hopes to be able to continue replacing huts well beyond the initial three-year period.
Much of the residue of the $16 million will be used to improve toilets and sewerage systems for high-use huts, campsites and picnic areas.
The bottom line for many trampers and climbers is this: can they rest easy in the assurance that their favourite hut will be maintained in a usable condition or replaced if it falls over?
If your favourite haunt happens to be on one of the Great Walks or is a well-used alpine hut at Mt Cook or a larger valley hut in Nelson Lakes, then you can be sure it will be well cared for. These huts have high maintenance costs, offset by high use, and are expected to continue growing in popularity.
There is less certainty about less frequented huts. Some who have seen how DoC has spent money in the past on more popular facilities at the expense of remoter sites still harbour considerable disquiet. Andrew Turton, vice-president of the Christchurch Tramping Club, who has been working with DoC on the huts and tracks issue for some years, believes that the department has an unofficial “sinking lid” policy with regard to the older and little used back-country bivvies: “Once they become too dilapidated to use, they will not be replaced.”
That said, the present Minister of Conservation, Sandra Lee, has decreed that no huts are to be removed without her approval.
Although it seems inevitable that sooner or later some huts will go, Brian Dobbie of DoC offers the assurance that “There will be no hut removals without consultation with interested parties.” He further comments: “Remember that the existing huts were mostly erected to serve deer cullers, and if we were setting up a network of huts for recreational purposes today, it would be very different. Some areas do seem to have an unnecessarily large number of huts. In the Hokitika River catchment, for instance, there are about 70 huts, most of them very little used. Does every valley there need 10 or 11 huts, often spaced only a short distance apart?”
Many trampers would argue that the very attractions of a large, remote catchment such as the Hokitika, where huts are sited in high valleys often bordered by swift, unbridged rivers, are the challenging routes and the satisfaction that arises from each hut gained.
Discussion about our huts will probably continue for some time, and although many of the evocative old huts will inevitably be replaced by more robust, better-sited structures, it is hard to imagine a time when huts will cease to be our stepping stones into the wilderness.