- Otaki Forks to Field Hut (20 bunks, wood stove) 3 hours. Field Hut to Kime Hut (20 bunks) 2-3hr; Kime Hut to Maungahuka Hut (10 bunks) 5-6hr; Maungahuka Hut to Aokaparangi Hut (2 bunks) 2.5-3hrr; Aokaparangi Hut to Mid Waiohine Hut (6 bunks, open fire) 3-4hr; Mid Waiohine Hut to Holdsworth Lodge via Powell Hut (30 bunks, woodstove) 7-8hr
- Near the end of Otaki Gorge Road. Park up at Parawai Lodge
- Topo50 BP33
Rain patters on the roof. John Rhodes hands me a slightly steaming bowl of tea.
The contents of our packs lie disembowelled over the otherwise empty hut, soft light fills the interior and shadows crouch under the benches. We eat lunch, then John squeezes the last dregs out of the teabags. No wastage for this man.
After taking photographs, Rob Brown and Geoff Spearpoint come inside. John hands them tea, too.
Geoff and John recall that the last time they tramped together was in 1968: before I was born. Field Hut was a mere 44 years old then.
Good old Field Hut, 86 years old and still going strong.
Our group of four will traverse the Tararua Range from west to east by way of the Southern Crossing, main range, Mid Waiohine and Mt Holdsworth. En route, we’ll stay in, or pass by, some nine huts, and it occurs to me that our trip is really a tramp through the various eras of hut building in New Zealand.
A picture on the hut wall shows Fred Vosseler, co-founder of the Tararua Tramping Club (TTC), sucking a pipe while staring at the fire embers when Field Hut was new. The TTC commissioned master bushman Joe Gibbs to build it in the early 1920s. Gibbs and his co-worker pit-sawed timber on site. One man hauling up on the long blade, the teeth rasping over the stubborn wood; the other man down in the pit, aided by gravity in his saw stroke but cursed by it too when the stinging sawdust fell into his eyes.
I recall another picture from Geoff’s book Waking to the Hills of one unfortunate pair (including Vosseler) lugging the corrugated iron water tank up to the hut – a task that even the horses hauling the hut’s cladding had baulked at.
Field was completed in 1924. Since then, the hut has undergone various alterations and modifications, and changed hue a few times, too. When I first visited Field in the late 1980s, it was a red and green affair. Now it’s a cream colour and has the regulation fire exit out the back. The TTC has maintained it throughout the nine decades of its existence; and now it’s the Tararua’s most venerable hut and – indeed – the oldest purpose-built tramping hut in the country.
During the financial strictures of 1990s, the cash-strapped Department of Conservation earmarked the hut for removal, but protest from the outdoors community saved it. It remains a piece of history, representing that great era during the 1920s and 1930s when outdoor clubs boomed and began to build shelter in the hills.
Sure, the backcountry has had huts ever since Maori erected rough whare during their mountain travels. Later Pakeha farmers built crude corrugated iron affairs in the high country to house musterers. Tourism interests also erected huts to encourage tourists to places like the Milford Track and even the Tararua Range. The Mt Hector Track committee was active in the early 1900s cutting tracks across the range, hoping to encourage tourists, and built a short-lived hut called Te Moe Moe near Otaki Forks, and also the original Alpha Hut.
But Field was the first hut built by the TTC, itself the first established tramping club in the country. To me, Field is a symbol of that great endeavour by clubs to open up the backcountry, not for some pecuniary purpose, but for the sheer love of tramping through bush and over mountains. For recreation, not remuneration.
After lunch, we shoulder our swags and head up the ridge towards Kime Hut. The weather is not flash, nor very bad by Tararua standards. Not like the 2009 storm that killed Seddon Bennington and his companion. Or the conditions that finished poor Esmond Kime 80 years before.
In 1922, Kime and a companion, Alan Bollons, attempted a Southern Crossing from Alpha Hut. They’d almost reached Mt Hector when a south-easterly storm overtook them. Kime collapsed in the snow from exhaustion and urged Bollons to seek help. Bollons suffered mishaps on his way out, but was eventually found by rescuers at Top Tauherenikau Hut and the search for Kime resumed. Five days after the storm, a Tararua Tramping Club search party led by Fred Vosseler found Kime – sheltering under a rock and somehow, miraculously, still alive. The rescuers reclad him in warm, dry clothes, but then made a fundamental error – brought on through ignorance about hypothermia – by giving him brandy. After carrying the young man for three hours back to the shelter of Alpha Hut, they made a second mistake by setting the victim next to a blazing fire. Kime’s blood rushed to his warming extremities, leaving his core organs dangerously chilled. One hour later, he died. Newspapers running updates of the unfolding drama reported that Kime had been found alive, only for readers to later learn of the tragedy.
TTC members erected Kime Memorial Hut in 1930, again using the skills of Joe Gibbs. One other hut built in the vicinity, the Hector Dog Box, had proved inadequate for the exposed tops – its timbers literally blown away in a southerly.
The current Kime Hut is the highest on the range, situated on the tops in a slight hollow below Hut Mound at about 1400m. I’ve always thought it attractive from the outside; the pitched roof forming a pleasing shape. But inside, this high ceiling results in a cold, cheerless hut. There’s no heating, and the place is impossible to warm. One tramper had written in the hut book ‘Hut lives up to the “fridge” reputation’.
Fridge or not, Kime has saved the lives of many trampers, as did its predecessor. Geoff remembers visiting the original hut, not long before it was replaced with the existing one in 1978.
So Kime Hut represents two intersecting hut-building eras. The first hut was a sort of symbol of lost innocence: a tramping club erecting a hut as a memorial to one of its own. The second hut was built as a collaboration between the TTC and the New Zealand Forest Service (NZFS) when the government had largely replaced clubs at the forefront of hut building.
DOC plans a replacement for Kime, which will represent a new era and century.
After our night at Kime, the dying winter southerly reveals clear skies and the sure promise of a sunny day. Tendrils of mist rake Bridge Peak, but have neither the strength nor volume to persist. We tramp along the main range, passing over knolls appropriately endowed with the names of trampers past: Boyd-Wilson, Yeates, MacIntosh and Vosseler.
Leatherwood and tussocks form a colourful mosaic on the flanks of the Neill-Winchcombe Ridge; a route I’ve not been over yet. Geoff has, of course. He tells me how, as an inexperienced and ill-equipped teenager, he and a mate tried a winter traverse. Cold and exhausted, and in deteriorating weather, they retreated back to Winchcombe Biv, which undoubtedly saved their lives that night. With darkness approaching, and already wet, Geoff would not have survived a night in the open with a home-made kapok sleeping bag.
Geoff and Rob haven’t seen the new Tararua Peaks ladder, where we trade stories about the old chain ladder and its predecessor – just a chain, part of which is still visible.
Once down the ladder, a final climb ensues to Maungahuka: one of the most idyllic situations for a hut on the Tararua tops. There’s a sizeable tarn, a brow of ridge to deflect the worst of the westerlies and a grand view over the northern range. Back in the early 1960s, a group of Forest Service rangers and trampers camped here and reckoned it would make a great spot for a hut. Over the summer of 1961-62 the NZFS constructed a standard six-bunker on the site.
Not long after the NZFS took over responsibility for pest control in 1956, they embarked on the greatest hut-building programme in New Zealand, possibly the world. Over the next 20 years, the NZFS built hundreds of huts and bivs for deer cullers; the original Maungahuka among them. I’d stayed in the old hut, but this was the first night I’d spent in the new one built in 2006.
The first of the new DOC-designed huts erected in the range, it suffered teething problems when the ventilation system allowed Tararua weather in, causing dampness and mould. With the ventilation now sorted, the hut forms a very pleasant destination. Double glazed windows and fully insulated walls make it warmer than Kime, and the sun-catching veranda is a most satisfactory place to sup your morning tea.
Along the main range we continue, traversing some of the lovely sinuous bends in the ridge. The breeze slowly builds, and worryingly thin pencil-liner clouds arc over Hector. But we’ve got another 12 hours before the next front hits, and there’s another hut to visit for lunch. I’d never made it to the old Forest Service two-bunk Aokaparangi Biv, but I’m sure it was not a patch on this new DOC hut. Built in 2008, the new ‘biv’ – hut is really the more appropriate term – has two bunks, a boot room and a small deck. Nestled on the bush edge, strategically away from the track down to Mid Waiohine Hut, it’s popular with hunters.
When DOC undertook its major review of recreation facilities during 2004, Rob Brown, Geoff Spearpoint and I were among the trampers consulted. We argued strongly that in some locations a two-bunk biv is all that is required. As they can be flown in largely intact, they cost much less than four-bunk huts. To our satisfaction and DOC’s credit, they listened and Aokaparangi is an example of the new two-bunk DOC design.
With the increasing wind flapping our coats, we drop down the steepish track to the Waiohine River, remotest and mightiest of all the Tararua rivers. The destination for our third and final night: Mid Waiohine Hut.
This classic old Forest Service six-bunker has changed little since it was built in 1962. Over the last half century, many Forest Service huts have been modified: a veranda added, windows replaced, a wood stove put in and the open fire taken out; the darkness alleviated by new skylights. Not so Mid Waiohine Hut. Geoff piles wood into the open fire, I cook dinner on the original bench; later we recline on the wire bunks. Apart from the effects of age, the hut remains essentially as it was 48 years ago.
While alterations often mean improvements, to the heritage-conscious historian it is important that some huts survive in near-original condition. Mid Waiohine is one NZFS hut earmarked for preservation in its primary state. Top Maropea in the Ruahines and Mt Fell Hut in Mt Richmond Forest Park are other examples. This sort of interest in our huts heritage is extremely pleasing. They may not be the Taj Mahal, but these simple structures represent our backcountry history. At least a few huts from each era need to survive.
That night Geoff and John between them relate the story of the ‘Sutch search’ to Rob, who hasn’t heard it before. In 1933 four trampers including Bill Sutch traversed almost the full length of the formidable Waiohine, trying to escape the river during appalling weather. With just a couple of day’s provisions, they inched their way down river for almost two weeks before emerging onto farmland. The hut and bridge at Mid Waiohine would have nicely cut short their suffering: but they were 30 years too early.
In the morning, rain leaks from the sky. We reluctantly snip back the bolt on the door and begin the climb through dripping trees under torchlight. It’s a biggish day ahead: 800m of climbing to Isabelle; a descent of 200m, then another 300m climb to Holdsworth and a substantial drop to the road.
Visibility remains good, but through the saddle and up Holdsworth a shrieking wind reduces us to stumbling clowns. Geoff is enjoying himself, relishing this Tararua slog with a nostalgia that some might consider twisted.
We arrive at Powell Hut to find it bursting at the seams. The largest and most popular hut in the park, Powell has seen three incarnations, all associated with the Hutt Valley Tramping Club – Geoff’s old club. It has bunk space for about 30, gas cooking rings and a wood stove – a far cry from the original. Some stalwarts scoff at such luxury in a backcountry hut, but it’s all part of the mix. People have different wants and needs. It’s about diversity.
We end our tramp passing the three-sided Mountain House shelter (itself a replacement for two previous huts) then down to the solid 1960s-style Holdsworth Lodge – an example of a large road-end hut mainly used by school parties.
In four days we’ve traversed the history of hut building in New Zealand. We’ve trodden through several eras: clubs, Forest Service and DOC. From the stark, frigid shelter of Kime to the steamy warm interior of Powell, from the history-soaked walls of Field to the modern clean of Aokaparangi.
Each hut has its own place, value and history.