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Hutless in the north

Kauritatahi hut, looked after by Thames Deerstalkers.

The upper North Island is often touted as the winterless north, but trampers from the area say that’s not the case and more backcountry huts are needed. 

Leading a group of young Aucklanders through torrential rain and a biting southerly, outdoor instructor Emily Wood found herself wishing for a nearby hut.

The group was in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, gunning for their Duke of Edinburgh awards, when, as is often the case in this wild part of Auckland, the weather went south.

They’d planned to camp at Whatipu, at the southern end of the ranges, but looking down on the valley they saw their plan was dashed. The wind was coming in straight off the Tasman and thrashing the coast. There was no way their tents could withstand the onslaught. So instead, Wood led her group to a sheltered valley where they spent a frigid wet and miserable night.

Wood says nothing causes a group of teenagers to become grumpy more than a cold, damp night in a tent with wet gear to look forward to wearing the following morning.

On the countless Duke of Edinburgh Hillary Award trips she’s led, Wood has experienced many similar situations and often wished there was a backcountry hut to stay in.

“When you get a southerly wind coming through the campsite and the rain is coming down, you just don’t want to be there and it isn’t fun for the kids. It would be so much easier if there was a hut so they could light a fire and have their gear hanging up to dry.

“Having a fire can up the morale of a group big time. It’s so much nicer to have four walls,” Wood says.

She is annoyed there are so few backcountry huts in the upper North Island and would like to see more built. She doesn’t want “five-star hotels”, her term for some of DOC’s Great Walk huts, because they’re too comfortable for the groups she leads.

Like all good outdoor instructors, Woods wants her students to expand their comfort zone by experiencing its edge.

“I don’t want them to feel like they’re in a hotel because then they won’t grow,” she says. “But if there were more basic huts it would be fantastic.

“I believe all youth should experience staying in huts as well as staying in tents. When staying in huts they learn to respect other people much more so than when camping.”

Wood isn’t the only tramper annoyed about the lack of huts in the upper North Island.

Bryan Dudley, the president of the Auckland Associated Mountain Clubs (AAMC), an umbrella group that advocates for 13 Auckland tramping clubs, and Auckland Tramping Club president Graeme McGowan both want DOC to build more huts in the upper North Island to foster recreation

Both men are tired of hearing excuses from DOC about why it can’t.

“We applaud DOC’s recreational role for those who live south of Lake Taupo,” says Dudley with a trace of irony in his voice. “But Northland, the Coromandel and the Kaimais have been neglected since management passed from the Forest Service to DOC. It is time to catch up with the rest of the country.”

The Northland, Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions contain nearly 50 per cent of New Zealand’s population, yet there are a total of 25 DOC huts combined in all of these regions, about one hut for every 88,000 people.

In Marlborough, which has a total population of 42,549, there are 66 huts; 62 per cent more than the upper North Island even though Marlborough has only two per cent of its population.

Stewart Island/Rakiura has 28 huts for a population of 402. That’s one hut for every 14 people.

According to official information provided by DOC, in the 2012 financial year it spent a total of $26.9m on recreation in the Northland, Auckland, Waikato and the East Coast/Bay of Plenty conservancies.

In the West Coast and Nelson Marlborough conservancies alone, DOC spent $26.8m despite these regions having a fraction of the population of the upper North Island.

The 2012 expenditure on the Canterbury, Otago and Southland conservancies was $45.4m, 69 per cent more than the upper North Island’s share, even though the north’s population is 160 per cent larger.

There are obvious reasons for the differences in expenditure, such as the department’s greater land holdings in the South Island and the extra cost of maintaining popular tracks and Great Walks.

For Dudley and McGowan, however, these statistics reveal an imbalance and when out exploring the backcountry this is most obvious by the lack of huts in the upper North Island.

“Half the population of New Zealand has ready access to just six per cent of the huts in New Zealand,” Dudley says. “The ratio of facilities to population needs looking at and some degree of fairness sorted out.

“That doesn’t mean 450 of the 950 DOC huts have to be shifted north of Lake Taupo, but if the number of huts in the north increased by one per cent of the total, it would make a huge difference.”

On top of this imbalance, Dudley says of the 25 backcountry huts in the north, 10 are also now included in DOC’s booking system so are unavailable to backcountry hut pass holders. DOC’s website technology means any hut included in its booking system is automatically removed from the backcountry hut pass for the entire year.

“For some time we have been trying to save Aucklanders from paying for local huts twice, once through purchasing the annual hut pass and again on booking as the hut pass is not accepted at Coromandel, Great Barrier and Northland huts,” says Dudley. “DOC’s latest response has been to increase the number of huts we have to pay twice for.”

In 2011, the AAMC made a special appeal to the Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) for help in addressing the devalued hut pass, but things have only got worse with DOC recently announcing Waitawheta Hut in Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park will be included in the booking system.

DOC acknowledges there is an issue in the northern part of the North Island with its annual hut pass. A spokesperson said it intends to revise the current online booking system by July 2013 and will establish criteria to address the issue of bookable huts and the value of the annual hut pass throughout New Zealand. However, this won’t solve the problem of too few huts in the north.

DOC recreation managers Gavin Walker and Richard Davies lead the teams in DOC’s Wellington HQ that decide how best to spend the department’s recreation budget to foster recreation.

Davies is the immediate past president of the FMC which advocates on behalf of tramping and mountaineering clubs around the country and is familiar with the issue from both sides of the fence.

In 2010, under his leadership, FMC held a conference attended by northern recreation groups to discuss outdoor recreation opportunities in the north and came up with a list of ideas to increase recreation, including more huts in Northland forests, on the Coromandel Peninsula and in the Kaimais.

Club members suggested building basic huts and, in sheltered areas, cheaper three-sided structures. New tracks were also suggested.

Trampers Mark Stanton, Angela Barnett, Pinnacles Hut, Coromandel Forest Park

Trampers Mark Stanton, Angela Barnett, Pinnacles Hut, Coromandel Forest Park

DOC Director-General Alistair Morrison responded in October that year, saying the department’s strategic shift under its Destination Management Framework meant the department would be looking anew at how to encourage people to get into the outdoors.

He said FMC’s suggestions had merit, but to carry them out DOC would need to find “reductions elsewhere”.

“While the strategic shift in investment may support some of this activity, our main priorities are going to be focussed on places that support tourism and encourage people to start recreating in the outdoors,” Morrison said.

Two years on, McGowan and Dudley say everyone is still waiting for DOC to support any of the ideas suggested at the FMC conference.

According to Gavin Walker there are three main reasons why the department is holding back from building more huts in the north: DOC’s small, fragmented land holdings make it more challenging, they aren’t convinced building more huts will increase outdoor recreation and the north’s warmer climate and topography mean it’s suited to camping and coastal recreation.

“There are opportunities in the north, but they’re often harder to make happen than they are in other parts of the country because a lot of the areas of public conservation land are pretty small and fragmented,” Walker says. “It’s not as easy as progressing a hut network in other parts of the country.”

For example, in Auckland DOC manages a meagre 36,000ha of public conservation land, two-thirds of which is on islands in the Hauraki Gulf. In the Nelson Marlborough conservancy it manages 141,6279ha of public conservation land.

The Waitakere and the Hunua Ranges, the largest parks in the Auckland region, are managed by Auckland City Council.

DOC does manage land in the Te Henga area of the Waitakere Ranges which is part of the 75km Hillary Trail and a section in desperate need of a place for trampers to overnight. But Walker says this is another area better suited to camping.

“The real strengths of the upper part of the North Island are its amazing coastal sites and a relatively warm climate by New Zealand standards, so why wouldn’t we do everything we can to meet Kiwis’ needs and interests for camping in that part of the country?,” he asks. “It doesn’t mean we’re not interested in providing recreation opportunities for backcountry hut users, but hey, let’s play to our strengths.”

Walker also says DOC has built three new huts in the north – Mt Heale Hut on Great Barrier, Crosbies Hut on the Coromandel Peninsula and Hauhungaroa Hut in Pureora Forest Park – over the last few years.

He also said in the next few years the department will expand Pahutea Hut in Pirongia Forest Park to better cater to school groups.

Davies says there are other ways the department could invest in recreation in the north to encourage more people into the outdoors.

As an example, rather than building more huts on the North-South Track in Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park, he says the department might foster greater use of the track by upgrading it and thereby reducing the time between each of the current huts.

“The challenge I put to users is whether building more huts is really the thing that will make the biggest difference,” Davies says.

Dudley and McGowan don’t buy any of these arguments from DOC. Dudley points out none of the three huts mentioned by Walker are new – all three are replacements for huts that were previously there and have taken DOC a long time to rebuild. By contrast, huts in the South Island, such as Siberia Hut which burned down in March 2011 and was replaced by November that year, are replaced quickly.

McGowan says the three huts Walker mentions are a small investment given the size of the population in the upper North Island. He wants to see more aggressive activity from DOC and a longer term plan.

He and Dudley would like to see DOC build a hutted track from the top of the Coromandel Peninsula that links to the North-South track in the Kaimais and goes nearly as far as Rotorua.

They say it would prove popular with overseas visitors as well as domestic tourists and contribute to the economies of small towns along the way.

Dudley and McGowan also reject Walker’s view that the upper North Island’s climate makes it better suited to camping and coastal recreation. McGowan says coastal campgrounds do serve a section of the population, but should not be mixed up with backcountry recreation. He questions whether DOC has consulted anyone in the north about focusing on coastal campgrounds.

“As President of the AAMC I do not recall being approached,” he says. “Also, the very fact that DOC justified its booking system due to the ‘dangerous overcrowding’ of huts such as Waitawheta suggests that people want bush huts.”

Dudley disagrees with the ‘winterless north’ comment made by Walker and shared by many other people around the country.

He describes this commonly held notion as a myth. While the Kaimais get only light, occasional snowfall, he says cold and wet weather is the norm in the winter months.

Outdoor instructor Emma Wood agrees: “It does get damn cold, even in the Waitakere [Ranges]. It may not snow, but it’s still bloody cold especially if you get a southerly coming through.

“We do have a winter up here and we have a lot of wet weather

“We’ve got Macpac tents but they don’t always hold up and moisture comes through the bottom. Most people will go through one tent maybe every five or 10 years, but even though we look after our tents some of us are going through a tent every two years because they’re literally up for 52 weekends in a year and then school holidays on top of that.”

Dudley says the Kaimais and the Coromandel are also hard places to find camping spots due to the nature of the environment: thick forest cover, steep land and few river flats.

“During winter the area is pretty inhospitable,” he says. “Without huts, the forest parks would only be used for part of the year.”

McGowan acknowledges huts alone don’t increase recreation, but he says for people who are new to tramping, for those getting older or who don’t want to haul a tent, huts are important.

“I think there are lots of places in the north that have the right environment and more huts would attract more people and be a success.”

Dudley and McGowan want DOC to replace huts it removed, despite public opposition, such as Cashmores Clearing, Te Aroha and Mangakino huts from the Kaimais and Waiwawa Hut from the Coromandel.

Graeme McGown is adamant DOC should build more hurts in the upper North Island.

Graeme McGown is adamant DOC should build more hurts in the upper North Island.

They also want the department to replace Moss Creek Hut in the Coromandel and Wairere Hut, which burnt down, in the Kaimais.

Walker told Wilderness he sympathises with northerners about the lack of huts. He said DOC would like to hear from outdoor recreationists in the north about what the department can do to better foster recreation there.

Davies said tramping clubs in the upper North Island haven’t traditionally spoken with the same clear and unified voice as clubs in other areas of the country such as Wellington and Christchurch.

“There’s a whole lot of recreational groups that could come together to speak very strongly and that would certainly help us [to know what to do] because there’s nothing more confusing than a range of different messages about the same place,” Walker said. “Perhaps this could be a call for recreation groups in the north to get organised and to sit down with us and other users to figure out what actually would better meet their needs.”

Dudley says “this is rich coming from DOC”. He says AAMC has been organised since the 1940s and represents 13 tramping clubs with more members combined than all of the Wellington clubs put together.

“We think it would be fair to say we are constantly being ignored or given the run around by DOC despite numerous representations on a range of issues,” he says.

McGowan agrees and says DOC shouldn’t be pointing the finger at Auckland tramping clubs when for the last two years they’ve been waiting for DOC to respond to their suggestions about ways to create more recreation opportunities in the north.

“I’d welcome Walker and Davies to an ATC club night to outline to us DOC’s plans for New Zealand in total and the north,” McGowan says. “There are Chinese whispers DOC is only interested in tracks that attract large numbers of overseas visitors and is reducing expenditure in all other areas.”

Walker suggested it might be possible for tramping clubs in the north to partner with the department to build more huts in the region or even build their own with DOC’s guidance.

Walker says this is what other recreation groups around the country have done, such as the huts built and maintained by deerstalkers on Stewart Island and the work done by Permolat on the West Coast.

Dudley is not impressed.

“We think DOC planners should start working out where most of the tax money is coming from and how much benefit those in the top part of the North Island are getting from DOC’s recreational spending before they ask us to build any more of our own huts as well as pay for the rest of the 950 huts in the country for other people to use.”

Where could extra huts go?

Coromandel Forest Park

Hihi: Located around 5km from Kauaeranga Valley Road. A hut around this position would link the Pinnacles to the Broken Hills area and the road to Pauanui.

Waiwawa Hut: A track once dropped down from the Wainora Tramping Track, just beneath nd directly east of Table Mountain, past Pt442 into the head of the Waiwawa River where a hut of the same name was located. A hut here would create another overnight experience and one way trip that would follow a section of Waiwawa River

Moss Creek Hut: This would provide an ideal beginners loop of approximately 16km that would allow trampers to walk up to Pinnacles Hut for the night. The next day, the walkers would head to a new Moss Creek Hut, (there is currently a campsite in this location) and then walk out to Kauaeranga Valley Road.

Kapowai River3hrs from the road end. The River is a beautiful area of the Coromandel and a hut located at its head would allow people to explore it at their lesisure.

Kaimai-Mamakau Forest Park

Te Aroha: Located around 2.5hrs from the road end, a mountain hut here would make a number of link trips possible.

Wairere Hut: A hut somewhere on Wairere Track would provide a much needed stop over for people walking between Motatapere and Huruni huts on the North-South Track.

Cashmore Clearing: A hut here would open up a number of overnight loop trips close to Tauranga.