Rob Suisted

Worlds Apart

Your grandad builds a hut in the bush. But he builds it on public land. Should you get to keep it?

Written by       Photographed by Rob Suisted

The Parks have been coming into the valley for three generations. “It’s this massive nostalgia thing,” says Jesse, left. He, Will, Tim and Pippa settle into a long weekend with a cup of tea. A caricature of Tim’s father, Trevor, who built the hut, watches on.

In the moment that the old ute judders from tarmac to loose gravel, my friend Jesse Park and his brother Will Park reach down in unison and unclick their seatbelts. Just an hour and a half’s drive east of Wellington, we have reached their unofficial dividing line between the normal world and paradise. To our left rise the dramatic hills that border the winding Ōrongorongo River: mounding peaks carpeted with golden tussock and emerald bush.

We pull over beside a pair of Hiluxes and hop out. A squat man in cargo shorts walks over bearing a clipboard and a hessian sack emblazoned with an old bank logo, as if he has just finished project-managing a robbery. We drop three $10 notes—a koha—into the sack and he crosses off Jesse’s name.

The drive continues. We startle two shaggy, feral-looking sheep, which plough into the nearby river. Winding up a steep hill, the route becomes more of a goat track than a road. At one point, we collide with an enormous rock that’s right in the middle of the track.

“I’d have to pay a tenth of the maintenance if I wasn’t thrashing up this river so often,” says Jesse, as we rattle down into the valley. “I know the sound of a tow bar singing off a rock so well.” He pauses, suddenly concerned. “The beer in the back’s gonna be pretty well fizzed.”

Ten kilometres into the valley, we pull up below a slope of shale and rock and jump out to grab our packs. Jesse was right. Most of the Speight’s bottles have exploded. We salvage what we can.

The Thomsons have a purist approach to Goat Stream hut—they walk in rather than drive, and forage for firewood.

Jesse leads us up the slope. It’s been more than a decade since I last came here as a child, but the path feels familiar. Deep within the thick native bush, we arrive at his chocolate-brown hut, dubbed Camp Two. It’s exactly as I remember. Neon-pink curtains and faded brown wallpaper. Lamps in the rafters, a pile of Asterix comics on the bookshelf. The visitors’ book on the table and a pencil drawing of Jesse and Will’s grandfather, who built the hut, on the wall.

“It hasn’t changed,” I say. Jesse grins. “That’s the best part about it. It never changes. And it never will,” he says. It’s a beautiful idea. He knows it isn’t true.

[Chapter Break]

If you stand atop Wellington’s hills and look east across the harbour, you will see a series of ridgelines painted against the sky, each bleeding into the other like watercolour brushstrokes as they darken the horizon. Over the last of those mountainous folds is the Ōrongorongo Valley. It has long been a hiding place, a place to which people escape. The valley’s name comes from Wairaka, a woman from Taranaki who fled her home several centuries ago in a bid to escape her husband. As she passed through the valley, Wairaka was so taken by its beauty that she named it after her great-grandmother, Rongorongo.

The valley’s remoteness made it difficult to settle. As a result, when the Crown took the land from Taranaki Whānui and Ngāti Toa Rangatira, it found little use for its new possession. Several farmers struggled to turn the valley’s mouth into something profitable, but the bulk of the land was left largely untamed by the Forest Service and the Wellington Water Board, which were responsible for its management.

A stream of trampers began making use of the valley: schoolboys in search of adventure, members of Wellington’s nascent hiking clubs, and bored civil servants looking for a quiet weekend retreat. Many began approaching the Water Board for a licence to build their own hut, which it granted for a pound a year.

Jesse’s and Will’s dad, Tim, was a child when his own father, Trevor, built their hut. One day, Trevor took his boy into the middle of the forest and showed him the spot he had selected, high above the valley floor. “I just remember being very small,” says Tim, “looking around and not being able to comprehend that anyone could build anything there.” But as Trevor worked, a small home grew amidst the green.

Throughout the valley, other licence holders were cutting timber from the forest, gathering stones from the nearby riverbed, and hauling kerosene tins—which, when flattened, make excellent cladding—across the mountain range. They built dozens of huts on forested cliffs and in the treeline along the valley’s base. By the late 20th century, there were more than 100 huts scattered through the valley, and they all had names: from Bedlam in the north, through Tijuana and Xanadu near the valley’s midpoint, to Bambazoola in the south. Not all were for individual families: others were built by groups of hunters or by local tramping clubs.

At the annual Moa Hunt, children compete for everything from heaviest possum to weirdest hat; historic wins take pride of place here in Xanadu hut.

By then, however, the valley had passed into the custody of the newly formed Department of Conservation. One of DOC’s core principles was that all conservation land should be accessible to the public. How, then, could it tolerate this DIY village of privately owned huts? DOC’s answer: it couldn’t. By the late 1990s, DOC had declared that by the death of each hut’s licence holder or 2025, whichever came first, the buildings would have to be destroyed.

While the Ōrongorongo Valley appears to have the densest concentration of private huts on public land in the country, it isn’t the only place grappling with this problem. In Canterbury, there are at least 202 private huts scattered across conservation land, from Loch Katrine to Waitaki. In Auckland, there are famously several dozen private huts on Rangitoto Island. In Hawke’s Bay, another 23 leases exist for baches at Pourerere beach.

All up, throughout the country, there are at least 428 private huts on public conservation land. There are hundreds more on land held by district and regional councils. The kinds of licences and permissions vary dramatically across the different communities. But there’s a common thread. As the West Coast’s conservation strategy put it, “Most of these facilities epitomise the ‘traditional kiwi bach’ once commonplace throughout New Zealand, have a long history of occupation and many have been passed down through several generations of the same family.”

In other words, for DOC, the huts are a political nightmare. In the contest between two visions of New Zealand—of pristine natural landscapes accessible to anyone, and of baches built with blokey nous and no small amount of actual number-eight wire—which should the department prioritise?

[Chapter Break]

Soon after DOC took control of the valley, the relationship between it and the Ōrongorongo Club, which represents local hut owners, became tense. “They were really heavy and trying to muscle us out of the huts,” says Tim. First move: DOC raised the licence fees. Tim now pays $744 each year; he says he knows of other licence holders who pay close to $1,100.

The hut community worried they would be priced out. Their decision to escape to the Wellington bush instead of to the ski fields or a luxurious beachside bach had always been as much a matter of financial necessity as cultural preference.

Through countless meetings, and by appealing to politicians who brought their own pressure to bear, the community gained 25 years’ grace, pushing the deadline for the huts’ destruction to 2050. Then they secured DOC’s agreement to tie any further increases in licence fees to inflation.

“Fight was probably the word,” says Tim. “They were out to get rid of the huts. Didn’t like them, didn’t want them. So, there was that constant friction.”

Jesse and Will were raised on the understanding that their hut would one day be torn down. “We don’t like what DOC’s doing,” says Jesse. “But we know we’re not going to win.” When the hut passes out of their control, the brothers will lose more than just a building; they will lose one of their last ties to Trevor.

Marcus Coomer, president of the Ōrongorongo Club, was adopted into the valley by a licence holder who grew too old to maintain their hut. “I’ve never come across a more unique community in my life,” he says.

When the boys come here, they are surrounded by Trevor’s presence: the sagging stone seat he spent an afternoon building; the longdrop he spent days digging out; the old photos that show him in stubbies or a red and black Swanndri. “It’s a part of you,” says Jesse of his connection to his grandfather and to the hut. “If the hut was to go, a part of you goes, too.” The hut means so much to him that he has a sketch of it tattooed on the back of one of his calves; on the other leg is his childhood home in Wellington.

Trevor was deeply involved in negotiations with DOC. He died more than a decade ago. Jesse and Will were so young that they can hardly remember him. But the valley is full of people who do. Take Harvey Peterson, who built his hut, the Flag Inn, as a 14-year-old with several school friends.

Harvey, now 75, invites us onto the deck and regales us with stories of Trevor. “Very dry sense of humour. That was the driest thing about him,” says Harvey. Jesse grins. “He’d say, ‘Oh, come over and have a drink. Come over around 4pm.’ You’d end up having a few drinks. Then he’d bring the whiskey out, and he’d say, ‘Oh, stay for dinner’.” More locals would swing by. As the valley crowded into the hut, Trevor would orchestrate conversations that stretched deep into the night, until finally the visitors stumbled out into the darkness, Trevor waving them off from the trees beside his door.

The valley is meaningful to me, too. I started coming here with Jesse and his family in primary school, soon after Trevor died.

I was lucky to have been invited: I was an insufferable know-it-all, while Jesse spent his afternoons scraping flammable powder off sparklers to create homemade bombs. I planned on becoming a lawyer when I grew up. We joked that I’d be Jesse’s first call if he was arrested.

The first time we drove into the valley, Tim let us stand on the running boards, occasionally dousing us in water as he forded the braiding river. Jesse, Will and I went wandering along a nearby stream, building our own rickety huts from long-fallen deadwood. That night, Jesse and his dad showed me how to shoot possums. Another weekend, we tramped in for the Moa Hunt: the valley’s annual gathering. While the adults cheered, children raced around the riverbed to compete in challenges like biggest rat, most unusual hut, best river raft.

Winner of the Orongorongo Club’s Kids billy boiling competition trophy, keenly fought over during the annual Kids Moa Hunt event on Easter Weekend, Orongorongo River Valley.

What a fabulous place your family has created here, so cool to learn about the area, reads one entry in Camp Two’s visitors’ book. I love the Ōrongorongos and I love you guys, reads another. Almost all the entries share a common theme: a desire to come back. Jesse’s family and other hut owners argue that this is what DOC misses when it says privately owned huts violate the principle of public access. In fact, they say, by bringing in people like me for regular visits, the hut owners are encouraging much greater public access to the valley than there would be otherwise.

[Chapter Break]

To DOC, of course, that doesn’t address the fact that the hut owners control which members of the public can access the buildings: a group that is largely confined to friends and family. This is impossible to reconcile with the Conservation Act, which requires free “entry to and use of conservation areas by the public”.

The legislation chimes with New Zealanders’ belief in equal access to nature. (The ACT Party, adept at button-pushing, has long positioned itself as a defender of trampers’ rights. It has called public access a “right for all New Zealanders. Tramping, hunting, fishing or gathering kai are a core part of what it is to be a Kiwi.”)

There are several DOC huts in the valley and, of course, they’re technically open to all of us. But this “public access” comes with important caveats, which to some make DOC’s position seem hypocritical: even in the off season, a night in most of these huts costs at least $100. To stay in them, you also have to be organised well in advance: the huts are very popular, and spots are allocated on a first-in, first-served basis. (As this magazine went to press DOC was poised to open for a new round of bookings.)

Still, on the spectrum of who gets access, it’s clear that the private huts sit even further from being truly open slather. As DOC sees things, it has little choice but to intervene.

The conflict goes beyond legalities: the way some of the hut owners behave conflicts with DOC’s vision for the valley. For the most part, it seems, it’s not about conservation, but the vibe of the place. Angus Hulme-Moir, DOC’s operations manager for Kāpiti and Wellington, explains: “If you’ve got—and there are a number—poorly behaved licence-holders who crank their stereos in the evening because they’ve got generators, and create noise, you totally take away the value of the site.”

Angus is particularly frustrated by the impact of vehicles. “We give them drive-in permission. I think we give them too much drive-in permission,” he says. “Fifty four-wheel-drive vehicles driving up the middle of the river on a day when people have gone in there to appreciate the beauty of that environment: it’s not hugely compatible.”

He admits that DOC does not get many complaints from the public. Instead, he says, the concerns come from rangers who are based up the valley over summer.

“There’s complaints about noise, complaints about spotlighting and shooting in the valley that often occurs when there’s drive-in weekends, complaints about the number of vehicles driving around the valley floor outside of the drive-in and drive-out,” says Angus. He says that some valley residents frequently cut down bush surrounding their huts, and he worries about their use of chainsaws to cut firewood on the valley floor. “They’re allowed to do that, but it has an impact.”

18-month-old Hazel Barnett (left), three-year-old Jordan Cookson and his big brother Connor, five, have already mastered the art of boiling a billy.

The frustration is reciprocated. Harvey, the older licence holder, summarises the attitude many community members have towards DOC. “They’ve been playing with us for decades,” he says.

Tim, meanwhile, thinks Angus’s concerns miss the value the hut owners provide. On the weekends when hut owners are allowed to drive in to do maintenance, they smooth the road that DOC also uses for access. When trampers get stuck or injured, the hut owners are often the ones who transport them out. “At the end of the day,” says Tim, “we all need each other.”

The perceived failure by DOC to recognise that drives anger, Tim argues. “That’s the crux of it: it’s the hut owners versus the really ideological view of how the whole country should be.”

[Chapter Break]

“I don’t know if it’s going to get through there,” says Will, eyeing the enormous black water tank beside us, and then the track, smothered in supplejack. Jesse does what he can with secateurs, then four of us lift the tank. When we roll it on occasional clear sections of track, I think of Indiana Jones fleeing the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Eventually, we get it to the valley floor and onto the ute. Roped in place, the tank resembles an oversized top hat. We’re delivering it to Antz Coomer, a former diesel mechanic who is rebuilding a hut further up the valley.

The drive is slow, for fear of losing the cargo: a bumblebee keeps pace in front of the windshield. “He’s leading us,” says Will. “Nah, it’s a high-speed chase,” jokes Jesse. Roping in the owners of nearby huts, we roll the tank up to the rough notch in the hill that Antz has dug for it.

Visits these days often revolve around such maintenance, partly because the huts always need it, but also because the maintenance provides a way to connect with others in the valley. It’s a privilege to have a hut here, says Tim. Many of the people who inherited these places carry a real and enduring sense of luck, and just about the only way they know to reciprocate is to keep the huts in good nick, and keep inviting guests. This is their way of giving back.

[Chapter Break]

Five minutes down the road, Marcus Coomer, Antz’s brother, waits for us on an old yellow sofa on the deck of his hut, the Bushman’s Arms. His bathroom is a surprisingly well-outfitted shed; a deer skull hangs from the shed’s door, and a sign reads President. A slight man with a quick smile, Marcus first came to the valley, like me, with a friend whose family owned a hut. He noticed an empty hut nearby; the owner was too old to come in. Eventually, Marcus convinced the man to let him manage the hut. He’s been keeping an eye on it ever since.

Now, Marcus is the leader of the valley’s club. Under his guidance, it has notched up several significant wins. Recently, some of the bitter back-and-forth has calmed and the department has put a compromise on the table. Certain huts, DOC says, can stay if they become available for public booking. Now, Marcus is negotiating how that might work.

Some huts will still be torn down: there’s no way they can be brought up to DOC’s standard. Those that survive the first cull would need to comply with safety standards, the most significant of which is a ban on flammable items like curtains, sofas, blankets and books.

As Angus says, “You’ve got to work to the lowest common denominator when you just get random people turning up.” It only takes one person to leave one candle burning, once. Yet Angus is trying to push back on this point. If he’s not successful, say Marcus, Jesse and others, they will have to “sterilise” the huts of much of their history, novelties and family details: effectively, of everything that makes the huts unique. In Jesse and Will’s hut, that means taking out the Monopoly set that’s lived on the bookshelf forever, the hilariously garish curtains, the faded but well-loved sofa, the family photos and artwork on the wall, and the swathes of green fabric that line the rafters. When Jesse first read the requirements, he sat down and cried.

Other stinging bureaucracies await. Each hut would need a licence-holder to oversee it; current owners would receive no preference for those spots. If they did manage to win selection, they would have to pay new fees and maintenance costs that could amount to hundreds more each year. Some hut owners fear this is another attempt to filter them out.

Paul Nixon, is an engineer and has spent years optimising tech at his hut—called Hydro because it was, for a time, powered by a Pelton wheel hydroelectric turbine. Paul designed this stove with a mate, gearing it to take care of cooking, heating and hot water. A flasher version is installed in his mate’s place down the valley.
The Park family private hut was built by Trevor Park (depicted in the caricature on the wall), in the 1970’s.

And even if an owner did manage to hang on to their hut and keep up with the increased costs, their access would be sharply curtailed: under the proposal’s current terms, the huts would have to be available for public use through a booking system for at least 70 per cent of the year. For some, it will likely be a confronting shift: a free-for-all in a space that was once exclusively theirs. Others, like Jesse, are “open to the idea” but remain deeply uncertain about what it will look like in practice. “I don’t actually know what DOC is going to ask us to do.”

Marcus is realistic about the pressure DOC is under and, with so many huts in play across New Zealand, its worry of setting a precedent. Nevertheless, he holds onto a sliver of hope. Some new legal wriggle-space, or DOC simply deciding to bend a bit more.

Angus, however, is emphatic: there is no flexibility left.

[Chapter Break]

On the riverbed, Antz has piled up several enormous driftwood logs, around which are arranged several utes and a big group of hut stalwarts.

Jesse and Will have known most of these people for as long as they can remember. It’s an eclectic mix of self-confessed bogans in Red Bands and escapees from Wellington’s corporate grind wearing bedazzled Crocs. Their families have been holding bonfires on this riverbed for generations. Elsewhere in the valley this weekend are stoic deerstalkers and enthusiastic trampers, young families and grizzled elders. Normally, they would have no reason to come together. But here, they have formed a community: something that is increasingly rare in the outside world.

The riverbed is part town hall, part pub and part playground. Today it’s also an arena, for the billy-boiling competition that has been bravely fought every year since 1995. “One of the good things about the valley is that you have these long friendships,” says Harvey. “No matter what happens in the outside world, in here you’ve got friends from all different walks of life.”

We pull out the beers that survived the drive up. A light-hearted argument breaks out between Jesse and another valley resident over whether a yellow spot in the night sky is Saturn; he cracks up as she argues incoherently that because the planets move, they can’t be seen.

In the distance, we hear a low rumble: the fireworks celebrating Chinese New Year in Wellington. “I thought those were bombs, that we were finally being attacked,” Jesse says mournfully. He’s thinking of Tomorrow, When the War Began, a 1993 novel that follows a group of young Australians who emerge from a weekend in a remote valley to find that their country has been invaded, forcing them back into the bush full-time.

Barring such a wildcard, he and Will will eventually lose their paradise. “I’m all for keeping it going,” says Jesse. “It would mean the world to me to be able to come in here for the rest of my life. I f—ing love this place. But if it comes to that hard line, we’re not going to start rioting and trying to fight the government off.”

“We’ve just got to enjoy this while we can,” says Will. “Until something changes.”

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