On a trip to Pinnacles Hut in Coromandel Forest Park, Wilderness meets a candidate for DOC hut warden of the year
I first saw Frouk Miller as we climbed ever so slowly to the track junction.
Between the overhanging foliage and bends in the track, I glimpsed a long-legged blond lit by the orange glow of the setting sun.
After 10 hours solid and exhausting tramping, including a pointless visit to Table Mountain, I briefly entertained the idea that this vision of an angelic beauty deep in the rugged Coromandel hills could only be a mirage.
But a few moments later Miller had spotted us and came bounding over, all smiles and with just as leggy Jess in tow.
Turns out Miller had been waiting for us. She knows how tough the route along Moss Creek is and while not exactly worried, she was beginning to wonder what was taking us so long. That gave us our first inkling we were in the company of a hut warden of the finest order.
Miller, with black Labrador sidekick Jess, is one of only two full time year-round hut wardens in New Zealand. The other is the person she job shares with – eight days on, six days off.
It says something about the popularity of Coromandel Forest Park’s Pinnacles Hut that it is the only hut with full time wardens. From July 2012 to June 2013, 10,260 people stayed in the hut – 70 per cent of them Aucklanders, reckons Miller. At least another 5000 people day-tripped to the hut and nearby Pinnacles rock feature.
All those people make for a busy hut and none in the country is as well set up to deal with them as Pinnacles. There’re 80 bunks, an assortment of gas cookers and even a barbecue. Out front is a line of loos with running taps to wash your hands and teeth. For the brave, how does a cold shower sound?
Miller escorted us to the hut. So impressed with our day’s walk, she offered us the use of her warden’s shower, complete with hot water, much to the dismay of two German tourists on their first ever wilderness tramp. “Sorry girls, but if you had walked the distance these guys had I’d offer you a shower, too,” she explained. She also knows how to talk the guys up in front of female company.
She wasn’t lying about offering the shower to others in need. Miller tells us of the chap who had walked to the hut at least 12 times before convincing his non-tramping European wife to accompany him. Thirteenth time proved extremely unlucky. The couple were absent-mindedly walking the track, not paying much attention to where they were going. By the time the husband got his bearings, they were at Moss Creek campsite and when it comes to tracks, Moss Creek is on the wrong side of ugly. When they finally staggered into the hut later that day, the wife was so shaken, shocked and angry at the arduous experience, Miller offered her the use of her shower, too. “I’m surprised her husband was still alive,” she tells us.
By this stage in the evening we were ensconced on her couch sipping red wine.
Hospitality comes naturally to Miller, though don’t expect the trimmings simply for walking the highway-like Webb Creek Track. You need to do something special in order to get special treatment.
By now you’ve probably gathered Miller’s not like some wardens who can be sticklers for the rules. Want more proof? She feels awful about charging those who turn up without booking a bunk the penalty fees that raise the price of a night’s accommodation from $15 to $39. She doesn’t like freeloaders any more than the next person, but doubling and then some the fee goes against her hospitable nature. She’s not that keen on being quoted about her personal policy, suffice to say she feels it leaves the person with a bad impression of DOC and Miller doesn’t do bad impressions.
That’s not to say she’s a total softy. Woe betide anyone who treats the hut like a hotel. Expecting someone to clean up after you might be acceptable in a four-star resort, but at Pinnacles your rubbish is your business, not the warden’s. Wearing boots in the kitchen is never OK. And, seriously guys, don’t poop beside the boardwalk. “We have that happen three or four times a year,” she says. “It’s crazy.”
Some might think sharing a hut with 79 other people, most of them Aucklanders, another kind of crazy. If that’s the case, Miller has some advice: avoid Saturday’s. “If you have to work during the week you can walk up on a Friday night during the summer and it rarely gets booked out – unless it’s a long weekend.
“During the week if there’s a lot of [people booked into the hut] you know there’s a school group up here and you’ll be sharing it with a few noisy teenagers.”
Miller has been a full time warden for two and a half years now and has yet to tire of a job that requires a three hour walk to her office: “You come up here and after a week you think oh, I’d really like to be home. But then I go home and I think, yay, I’m going into the bush in the next couple of days.
“The day I don’t look forward to going to work is when I’ll have to stop. I don’t ever want to not enjoy what I’m doing.”
Miller fills her days cleaning the hut, walking Jess (who has a special permit to be in the park), weeding tracks, digging drains and talking to people. “Sometimes if I don’t feel like putting on a smiley face I stay out of their way,” she says. “They don’t have to put up with my grumpy day. Most of the time I really enjoy it, though. When I get out of here my friends ask me to come out for dinner and I say nah, I’m all people’d out, just leave me alone. I’m happy to have a couple of nights where I don’t talk to anyone.”
DOC has recently increased water storage capacity to 18,000 litres and upgraded the pipes that carry it to the hut. That was a godsend. “The old pipes were cracking and every time we started pumping water we could almost guarantee we would have to go fix another join or a hole in the pipe.
“There’s always things breaking. You’ve got to use your initiative to fix them and sort it out. Good old Kiwi ingenuity comes into play quite often.”
Miller lives on the Coromandel and says she was once guilty of taking the tramping opportunities in her neck of the woods for granted. “I used to think, ‘the Pinnacles?’ But now that I’ve worked and stayed up here I just think they are amazing. It’s just such an incredible spot. People rave about them and I can see why now.”
The following morning, Frouk and Jess escort us to the start of the track that will lead us back to the car park. We’re going the easy way this time. For New Zealand’s most busy hut, we were lucky to only share it with the two Germans but the coming Saturday is fully booked.
“There’s always someone around,” she says. “Unless it’s really, really bad weather or the roads are flooding.”
Wussy Auckland trampers.