They protect us from the elements and keep us warm and dry, but in a new book on New Zealand’s backcountry huts, author Geoff Spearpoint argues they do more than shelter us from the storm – they are a link to the past and an important part of Kiwi culture.
Surprisingly, Geoff Spearpoint makes an unlikely author of a book on huts.
It’s surprising not because of Spearpoint’s lack of outdoor cred – this is the editor of the authoritative Moirs North, the indispensible tramping guide to the Otago Southern Alps, we’re talking about and there’s barely a corner of the country he hasn’t explored in his 62 years. But when he’s out and about in the hills, he prefers pitching a tent or sleeping under a blanket of stars to staying in backcountry shelters.
“Here’s a terrible admission,” he says during an interview with Wilderness. “I’m not really a huts person.
“When I go into the hills I don’t go to huts. I go to the hills to change, to enjoy being in the mountains and the outdoors but also for the difference from daily life.”
Considering Spearpoint, together with Shaun Barnett and Rob Brown, has written a book – Shelter from the storm – all about huts, it certainly comes across as a terrible admission. At least it would do if it were true.
Spearpoint may prefer to sleep in a tent or on a sun-warmed rock, or beneath one if there’s an overhang to hand, but that doesn’t diminish his passion for huts. He sees them as a “living, breathing” part of New Zealand’s history and culture and says a “little part of me dies” every time a hut is removed from the backcountry.
The first hut Spearpoint ever saw was in 1966 when he tramped to Tauherenikau Hut in the Tararua Ranges. At the hut was a chap named Joe Gibbs. “We had no idea there would be a hut there,” Spearpoint recalls. “This really nice old guy was at the hut. He invited us in, he had a fire going and put a cup of tea on for us. We came out with our eyes just wide open, it was fantastic. That was a great initial intro.”
Not long after, he spent his first night in a hut – Cone Hut. He remembers tramping in with his school friends and lighting the fire using wet wood and white spirits. That night he dried his leather-soled boots beside the fire and the next day hadn’t walked 200m before the heels fell off. “It was a great experience – they were special days,” he says of that first overnighter.
Of all the nights he’s slept in the backcountry, those he spent during a storm at Banister Basin Hut, an Internal Affairs hut, stand out as some of his most memorable. The hut is no longer in the Tarauras, having fallen into disrepair, but his memories of spending several days ensconced in the small tin structure remain fresh. “There were huge thunderstorms and I slept on the top bunk because that was closest to the tin and the rain was just so intense on the roof.
“That was a special night out in a hut. I’ve had thousands of fantastic nights out in huts.”
By this stage in our interview, it’s clear that contrary to Spearpoint’s claim he’s about as stout a hut man as you’ll find. And it’s those ‘special nights’ that he says make huts more than a recreational asset; they are a “living, breathing” part of New Zealand culture and a link to the past. They help form part of the Kiwi identity – a connection to the land and the country. That’s why he’s gutted the government department tasked with conservation and fostering recreation seems hell bent on removing huts from the backcountry. He’d rather see dilapidated huts die where they lie, to become relics that future generations of trampers come looking for.
“It just saddens me so much that a government department using taxpayer money bleats that it has no money while at the same time can find the funds to fly in and take huts out,” he says. “I’m really sick of this cleansing and purifying and scorched earth policy [that says] the only good place in the hills is one devoid of any human impact.
“This is our culture. If we can’t maintain them then the least we owe them is to let them die gracefully where they are.
“In the future they will become historical artefacts. People will go in and seek out these little corners and look for little signs of whereabouts old huts were.”
Spearpoint cites the example of Pyke Hut on the West Coast, which was on the site of an old mining camp. “There was leaking in the roof, so the solution in DOC was to go and pull it down, burn it and fly it out. I think it is just so short sighted, so lacking in appreciation of what is already an historical artefact.”
Quail Flat Hut on the Mueller River was built by meat hunters in the 1960s, but when it fell into disrepair and started to collapse, DOC removed it. “It’s in an isolated corner of a national park,” says Spearpoint. “It doesn’t matter if there’s a little pile of metal there in the long term and I would just let it die as it is. But no, [DOC] has the money to fly in, clear it up and take it out.
“No wonder Kiwis have trouble knowing who they are. Our identity comes from the land. Maori know that. Pascoe knew that. It’s hard to establish an identity with the land when you keep sweeping away all human traces of honest toil in it.”
It should be noted that Spearpoint commends the Department of Conservation for the work it does. Many of the department’s frontline staff are doing good work, he says, sometimes even going against head office policy to ensure some recreation assets don’t get put on the ‘to be removed’ list. But such is the current disconnect between frontline staff and head office – and, says Spearpoint, between DOC and the local communities it operates in – that he calls these staff “brave”.
It’s no secret the department is trying to do more with less by relying on volunteers and business to make up any shortfall in funding or operational capacity. When it comes to looking after huts, Spearpoint has no problem with doing the maintenance and helping out DOC and groups like Permolat. He tramps with a pair of plastic loppers so he can clear overgrowth and ties pink surveyor’s tape to trees to re-mark routes. If the hut he’s staying in needs a tidy up, rather than leave a note in the hut book for DOC he’ll roll up his sleeves and do it himself or come back later with the required tools and parts. He encourages all trampers to do this and says they should be doing it regardless of whether DOC had the financial wherewithal to maintain all huts and tracks more often.
But he also says DOC could do a better job of maintaining existing assets if it had its priorities right.
“If you talk to anyone in recreation in DOC the word tourism or tourist will come out very quickly,” he says. “I would flip it on its head and make locals and what locals want in their patch the top of DOCs priority list for recreation and I’d leave tourism at the bottom. Tourism will sort itself out and find ways to come up the chain because it’s got lots of advocates in power.”
Spearpoint points to ever increasing hut sizes and cost to stay in them as proof of tourism’s dominant role in DOC’s recreation strategy. “I don’t think any New Zealanders have been asking for bigger, flasher, individually designed huts. They want good, safe, comfortable, clean places but I don’t think that anyone has asked for the kind of standard that DOC is saying we will have.
“Sometimes the more flash things get inside some of the bigger huts, you’re about as isolated as if you’re sitting at home looking out at the garden. There’s not a connection. The thing I like about places like Slaty (Slaty Creek Hut, Waiheke River), you can have the door open, the fire going and be watching robins in the doorway. It’s all there, within a few feet.”
By contrast, the high standard huts “offer you an opportunity for a conservation experience but I don’t think they give you much in the way of a cultural, ‘who we are in our own hills’ feel”.
An October poll of Wilderness readers found 65 per cent preferred staying in Standard Huts – those fairly basic huts with minimal facilities and which cost around $5 a night. Only 1.5 per cent said they preferred the Great Walk category of huts and 12 per cent said they preferred Serviced Huts.
Anyone who has stayed at the serviced 80-bunk Pinnacles Hut in Coromandel Forest Park can attest to how different an experience it is compared to staying in, for example, the standard eight-bunk Wharfedale Hut in Oxford Forest. In the close-quarters of the latter you can’t help but meet and talk to people. In the spacious former, groups huddle together and tend to keep to themselves. For a tourist it’s a great adventure, but it’s not the real hut experience Spearpoint and most New Zealand trampers love.
Spearpoint says huts are levellers of people – it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, in a hut you’re just another tamper – and they “absolutely fit with our egalitarian nature”.
This levelling nature of huts is something he’s experienced firsthand on many occassions. Entering Top Forks Hut, cold and wet and with 20 days in the hills behind them, Spearpoint and his companions were met by Taraura Tramping Club members who had already nabbed all the bunks. “They welcomed us in, made a brew, made space and set us up by the fire,” says Spearpoint. One of the hut occupants turned out to be Fred Hollows, who made a name for himself performing cataract operations in the third world. “Here’s Fred Hollows, world-renowned this and that, setting up a hammock in the rafters so there was space,” laughs Spearpoint at the memory. “Huts are levellers and you have to keep them small and intimate to do that.
“Sometimes the crowding is the thing that makes the vibe that generates the memories.”
Writing and researching Shelter from the storm has not so much hardened Spearpoint’s and his co-author’s attitude towards the conservation of New Zealand’s backcountry hut heritage, but helped them discover their place in the world through learning about their own culture and identity.
“It has made us more aware, more proud of our cultural heritage in the mountains,” he says. “And it’s given us greater depth of appreciation of not just our mountains but who we are as a people and how we connect with them as well. You can’t but be impressed when you go through the history of some of the early [deer] culling people, the huts internal affairs built, the club huts – they’re just monuments to people’s love of the outdoors and the mountains.
“We keep looking past ourselves and our own recent past to thinking for something to have street cred it must be very, very old,” he adds. “But a culture is a growing, living thing. To me it’s not just about their historical relevance; it’s also about their living relevance to the culture and their connection to the past.”
Spearpoint hopes Shelter raises the profile and recognition of huts and “gives them some of the status they deserve in our wider cultural fabric, not just the hills”.
“It’s a book with mana,” he says, “and that in itself will help to give more credibility and recognition to the whole range of our huts – from the flash huts to the very little huts – and I think it will give whoever reads it a much greater understanding of where our huts have come from – they haven’t suddenly just landed on DOC in 1987. They come from roots all over the place and have got lots of connection [and] culture for lots of people.”
Shelter from the storm by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown and Geoff Spearpoint is published by Craig Potton Publishing.