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September 2013 Issue
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A latte with your bunk, sir?

The Hanauer Hütte in Austria where meals are served to walkers. Could Great Walks huts emulate this service? Photo: Vince 51.

Would making Great Walk huts more luxurious really be such a bad thing?

James MacKay Hut is one of the Heaphy Track’s main stops and will soon join its sister huts – Perry Saddle and Heaphy – for a complete makeover.

Inside the current hut, it’s dark – even when the sun shines. The windows are small, the kitchen feels cosy with just a handful of people, and slender mattresses line wooden slabs which stretch from one end of each bedroom to the other. You daren’t leave your pack leaning against the wall under a window through fear of drowning it in condensation.

It’s still a backcountry hut in everything except name – a far cry from Perry Saddle and Heaphy Huts. Both these have been rebuilt in the last two years complete with huge double glazed windows, outside decks and bunk beds more familiar to backpackers than hut dwellers. Sunlight pours into the spacious kitchens, which are easy to heat and come with their own solar powered lighting.

No doubt, the same fate awaits the comparatively primitive James MacKay Hut – a matter I discussed in that very location with a couple from Wellington and a Canadian chap. We discussed the fancy new features DOC should include in their upgrade. “How about a coffee machine?” the Canadian quipped. Everyone laughed, but I could tell that behind the smiles they all thought, though dare not admit, that it was a genuinely good idea.

“Ooh, I could murder a latte right now,” said another. “In fact, that’s the first thing I’m going to have when I get back to civilisation.” Everyone nodded in agreement.

It’s quite peculiar how important good coffee has become over the last few years. I often hear people who emigrated here some time ago say: “New Zealand’s come a long way in the last 20 years. When I first got here, you couldn’t buy a proper cup of coffee in this town. Now you can get one almost anywhere.”

And that’s it. That’s all they need to prove New Zealand has become civilised. Never mind that it may be more ethnically diverse with a higher minimum wage and good care for the elderly. The cornerstone of a civilised society is clearly a good cup of coffee – once you have this, everything else follows a natural path to sophistication.

Anyway, back to James MacKay Hut and its extreme makeover. I’m going to dare to ask the following: Would it be so bad to have a coffee machine in the new hut? Taking this a step further, would it also be terrible to have the option of double rooms, hot showers and, say, a cooked meal on arrival?

Great walks in the summer season are wonderful in their own way. You meet scores of people from across the globe with fresh enthusiasm for a country they are only just discovering. But the walks are already far removed from your normal backcountry experience. Your photo stops and lunch breaks are shared with tourists, the tracks and signage are of a quality that renders maps a luxury item, and the huts are larger, better insulated and with more facilities than any hut you’d find elsewhere.

This is great. It means nearly anyone can enjoy these fantastic places. But it’s no good pretending you’re pioneers, treading where few have gone before. It’s already a world apart from, say, the Dusky Track or the Wangapeka.

When you hike in the European Alps, it’s quite startling after a day’s toil at high altitude to turn a corner and see hikers tucking in to giant plates of spaghetti bolognaise and goulash while washing it down with beer served from tap. Bars, restaurants and luxury bedrooms are not uncommon in these places. And after the initial shock has worn off, it’s easy to let your guard down and start enjoying it.

Now, I’m not suggesting Great Walk huts should include waiters serving truffled duck breast while referring to the clientele as sir and ma’am. But surely if people were happy to pay extra for a private room, hot shower and a vat of chilli then it wouldn’t have to ruin things for the rest of us. It may provide DOC with a few extra dollars at a time when it badly needs them.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m off for a caramel latte with extra cream and chocolate sprinkled on top… couldn’t have done that 20 years ago.