Joe Fagan battles isolation, loneliness and flooded valleys to complete his mission of sleeping in 30 huts in 30 nights
“Are you doing an overnight trip?”
It was the type of question you would expect to receive in a tramping hut – especially one as busy as the Pinnacles Hut in Coromandel Forest Park. At least this time my answer was going to be a little more interesting.
“Actually I am on a mission to stay in 30 DOC huts in 30 days.”
“Wow, how does that work?” my fellow hutter asked.
“You just have to stay in a different hut every night for 30 days,” I replied. “It doesn’t matter what you do during the day so long as you stay in a different hut each night.”
“That sounds amazing. What a great idea. How many have you done?”
“Ah,” I hesitated, “actually I just started today. This is my first night.”
Obviously the credibility of my answer was going to get better with time.
I’m not sure where the idea for 30 huts in 30 days came from. I have always wanted to do it. Perhaps it is because I think the DOC huts are such an amazing resource or maybe I just like the idea of a cheap holiday. Anyway on December 1, 2009 I set out to stay in 30 huts in 30 days.
After spending the first night with my mate Lyndsay sleeping on the deck of the crowded 80 bed Pinnacles Hut I headed south to Tongariro National Park to improve my ‘track cred’. Here, with the Whakapapaiti Hut tantalisingly close the last river crossing was dangerously high. I was forced to bush bash upstream and after crossing six or seven small tributaries I finally made it to the hut just on dark. It was then I realised my 30 huts in 30 days mission was going to be much more of a challenge than I initially thought.
Day three was much easier and I had an enjoyable walk to Te Puia Lodge, in Kaweka Forest Park (love those hot springs. My friend Lydia joined me for two days in the rugged Ruahine Forest Park. More flooded rivers and a steep climb onto the tops saw us bunking down in Tarn Biv, a seldom-used dog box with an open air toilet. The weather deteriorated further and the next day we opted for a short scramble to the unique A-framed Daphne Hut.
In Masterton, we stopped for a hot shower before somewhat reluctantly heading back into the hills for two nights on the Holdsworth Jumbo Circuit in Tararua Forest Park. We spent the first night in the spacious Powell Hut and then, after a beautiful day, slept in the new Atiwhakatu Hut.
On the morning of day eight we drove to Wellington where I caught a flight to Nelson while Lydia headed home. Another friend Reuben picked me up at the airport and we drove to the start of the Heaphy Track. A visit to his sister’s, a couple of detours and burgers in Collingwood meant we didn’t begin the hike to Perry Saddle Hut until 7pm. We walked fast to get there before midnight – one of the self-imposed requirements of the mission. Rueben left early the next morning due to work commitments and I tramped and jogged the 44km to Heaphy Hut.
I met some characters that day including James, a trainee nurse, who had driven from Nelson to Karamea and walked 10.5-hours to Saxon Hut for the night and then walking out again the next day. Heaphy Hut was packed but there was nice camaraderie among the occupants, many who had shared three of four days together on the trail. I was jealous of the guided group who were eating lamb and drinking wine and was hassled by those who had seen me ‘running’ earlier in the day.
After finishing the Heaphy I got a lift to Karamea and once again hit the showers and cleaned my clothes. In heavy rain I started the Wangapeka Track, meeting a number of trampers coming the other way with stories of high rivers, wet nights and no food. I had an entertaining evening at Belltown Hut with John and Nikki, a retired couple from Nelson. They wanted to know if I was allowed to just have brief naps in the huts as I went past and we discussed dehydrated food and John’s anti-pot-burning creation; a tin lid with holes. After dinner John kindly cleaned my Teflon pot and had me momentarily concerned when he came back explaining it had taken him awhile to get all the black stuff – Teflon – off the bottom. You find jokers everywhere.
I didn’t see anyone over the next few days and things began to get harder. I managed to get through to Helicopter Flat Hut but was woken at 2am by a massive thunderstorm. Rain was pouring down and the river beside the hut was roaring. Inside, under the glow of my headlamp, I desperately studied the map and contemplated my prospects of making it to Kings Creek Hut.
It was still raining in the morning but there was little point waiting for it to ease so I set off. It was impossible to cross the river just up from the hut so I followed the longer wet weather track. Here, some of the crossings were bridged or had three-wires but I knew I would eventually have to cross the main river. I passed this nervous time reiterating one of John’s favourite sayings: “I don’t do holidays, I do adventures”.
The last crossing was tough but I finally made it to Kings Creek Hut. Nearby is the historic Cecil Kings Hut but having checked them both I opted for the newer, more spacious version. I spent the afternoon reading magazines and trying to dry kit. After a few wet days alone I was seriously looking forward to some company.
I was so keen to finish the Whangapeka that I arrived at the road end at 8:20am (for my 10am pickup). Here a number of people had been trapped by flooding and had resorted to hunting for food.
Once again alarm bells started ringing but after hiking an extra eight kilometres down the road I met Reuben and his 4WD. At St Arnaud we bought supplies to see us through the next nine days, ate lunch and pondered our options. A terrible weather forecast threatened our plans but we decided to proceed anyway and caught the water taxi across Lake Rotoroa to D’Urville Hut. Here the jetty was completely underwater and we couldn’t even find the track which had disappeared beneath a raging torrent. We ended up wading through knee deep water following track markers through the trees and it was with great relief that we settled into Morgans Hut for the night.
After another day of rain we stayed at the cosy two bunk Upper D’Urville Hut and woke on day 15 to much-anticipated sunshine. We climbed through snow to David Saddle and ran and slid our way to the valley floor. After battling dense bush we re-joined the track in the East Branch of the Matakitaki Valley and pushed on to Bob’s Hut in the West Branch. We both slept well after 10.5 hours of hard tramping.
With the weather deteriorating we crossed over Three Tarns Pass where there was more snow and bush bashed our way to the St James Walkway. It was an easy stroll now to Cannibal Gorge Hut where we were joined by a group of students from Boyle River Outdoor Centre.
We hiked out to Lewis Pass, where I once again said goodbye to Rueben and tried to hitch a ride to the start of my next hike in Lake Sumner Forest Park. It was a lonely experience standing on the highway as cars flew by and the clock ticked on. Realising my appearance – unwashed and wearing muddy long johns – was probably not helping, I had a quick swim in the river and changed my clothes. The next car that came along stopped and later that day I enjoyed a nice walk to the spacious, but unfortunately empty, Hope Kiwi Lodge.
By now my new hiking shoes had started falling apart and on day 17 they completely disintegrated. My feet were really suffering and I spent much of the day hiking in jandals and cursing the manufacturer. Hot pools along the way provided some relief to my frustration as I made my way to Hurunui No 3 Hut.
The following day I joined Christian, a rancher from Montana, for the climb over Harper Pass. Christian was entertaining; he hiked in jeans with an umbrella and had such a small backpack that most of his gear was strapped to the outside by a huge ratchet. After another long day, Locke Stream Hut provided welcome shelter and we both spent the evening trying to dry gear. Outside it continued to rain heavily and I didn’t sleep too well, having read that the tramp out down the Taramakau River to SH73 can become impassable during poor weather.
My anxiety led to an early start and I was happy to make it relatively easily across the first few rivers. Passing Kiwi Hut, my bad weather back-up hut, I negotiated the next few big crossings and made it all the way to the Otira River. After 30 minutes of trying to find a way across I opted for the flood detour.
I hitched to Arthur’s Pass and met up with my friends Kate and Bruce. After a quick shower and a pie, the three of us set off to find a hut for the night. Anti-Crow Hut, accessed from Klondyke corner, was close and convenient, which was lucky because I was now hiking in bare feet. But all six bunks were taken, so after much deliberation on whether the rules allowed this, we slept outside.
Our next stop was Hokitika and the first order of the day was to buy another pair of hiking shoes before tramping to Cedar Flat Huts and the fantastic hot pools. Continuing on down the coast (by car) we stayed at the funky Blowfly Hut, saw Hector’s dolphins at Ship Creek and then climbed to the impressive Brewster Hut for night 23.
After another bad weather forecast forced a change of plans and Kate dropped me off at Makarora where I hiked into Mount Aspiring National Park. Later that night, in Young Hut, I was contemplating Christmas alone when Johan from France and Martin, the King of Estonia apparently, arrived.
On Christmas morning we climbed over the spectacular Gillespie Pass together and dropped into the Siberia Valley. We did the side trip to Crucible Lake and then made our way to Siberia Hut, where it became apparent that it was not going to be such a quiet Christmas after all. There were 18 people staying at the hut, split into two groups: 12 people had flown in on a guided trip and had all the Christmas trappings, and then there was the other group with our freeze dried cuisine.
The next morning I waited for the helicopter I had booked to pick us up, but after 1.5-hours I gave up. I was pretty concerned as it was an eight-hour hike to get out and I would still need to hitchhike somewhere to find a hut. Just as I was about to get going, a plane arrived and I managed to negotiate a lift. For $40 I enjoyed an exhilarating flight down the valley to Makarora. Martin and Johan gave me a ride into Wanaka where I randomly ran into two friends, Arun and Lorraine. After a shower at their hotel I went to the DOC office.
My original plan was to hike over Cascade Saddle but with rumours of it being impassable due to snow I decided to hire a car and do some shorter trips instead. First up was an easy three-four hour hike to Fern Burn Hut, part of the Motatapu Track, and the next day I ran back to the car to join Arun and Lorraine in Wanaka for breakfast before driving to Raspberry Creek and strolling to the impressive Aspiring Hut in Mt Aspiring National Park.
I was getting pretty keen to get things done by now, so the next morning I drove to Queenstown and up Skippers Canyon to stay at Bullendale Hut.
I was back at the car by 6:46am to ensure I didn’t miss the bus to the start of the Routeburn Track. Hiking to Routeburn Flats Hut I tried to help an American tamper erect her hammock tent in a field devoid of trees. That night Liz, the hut warden, impressed by my 30 huts in 30 days mission presented me with a cold Speights. Even better, she radioed ahead to the next hut and told the warden to put a beer in the fridge for me.
My last full day of hiking was amazing. The Routeburn really is a great walk and Lake McKenzie is gorgeous. At Lake Howden Hut, number 30 on my list, with my ‘track cred’ greatly improved, I relaxed and drank the promised lager. Cheers Bushy.
As I sat in the hut I watched a guided group having lunch and I asked one of the guides how many times he had done the track. “eighty-five times,” came the reply. Seeing my surprised reaction, he continued: “But it is always different. The weather is different, the people are different and the track is different. Some of the stones move.” Suddenly my 30 huts in 30 days didn’t sound quite so impressive. But then I realised that I could keep going, too, but only if I was allowed a day off every now and again. A rest day to break up the trip was something I had craved. And now that day had arrived.
The next morning some friends picked me up and took me to Queenstown for a New Year’s Eve celebration. After four showers in 30 days the prospect of hot water, a comfortable bed and a fridge full of beer was pretty exciting. However, and I guess not surprisingly, two days later I was over the hustle and bustle of civilisation. I missed life in the bush and that feeling of having a simple objective each day. More than anything, I missed the feeling of relief and satisfaction that comes with seeing that welcome and familiar shape through the trees.
I missed those huts and the people that use them.
– Joe Fagan