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Nights to remember

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March 2022 Issue

Shaun Barnett has spent a few nights in the backcountry. Here’s his pick of the best

All trampers will clock up many days in the backcountry, there’ll be many nights too. Some will be happily memorable, others so miserable they’re best forgotten. Any one can sear themselves into your memory. Of all the nights I’ve spent outdoors, these are the most unforgettable.

Famous arrivals

It was 1992 when my friend Darryn and I reached Crow Hut. It was deserted, pleasing us no end. Nothing like having the whole hut to ourselves. We spread out and settled in. 

Then, damn it, three old codgers appeared wearing woollen Swanndris, carrying Mountain Mule packs and swinging ice-axes long enough to reach their armpits. I was 23 and am ashamed to say that my first thought was ‘Bugger, now we have to share the hut with some old farts that look like they’ve stepped out of the 1950s.’

But these were not just any old farts. Even as an ignorant youth, I knew enough backcountry history to recognise the names ‘Mannering’ and ‘Hamilton’. 

John and Guy Mannering were the sons of George Mannering, the pioneer climber who had made several early attempts on Aoraki and very nearly succeeded. With them was engineer Jon Hamilton, son of Bill Hamilton who is credited with inventing the jetboat. Jon had helped refine the jetboat engine for his father’s company. As well as jet boating on the Colorado River, and in New Guinea and Nepal, Jon led the jetboat team on Ed Hillary’s 1977 ‘Ocean to the Sky’ trip up the Ganges River.

In other words, they were practically backcountry royalty and they were happy to share their stories with men young enough to be their grandsons. 

Guy talked of pioneer ski plane landings on the Fox Glacier neve, his trips to Antarctica and career in photography. We listened to Jon’s tales of gigantic stopper waves in the Colorado River. John Mannering told us about building the very hut in which we were now ensconced and the supposed ghost that haunted it. 

Then we heard how these adventurers, all aged in their late 60s and early 70s, had climbed Rolleston the year before (to celebrate a century since Guy and John’s father had climbed it), tramped over the Three Passes and were now about to tackle Avalanche Peak. 

What’s more, these old farts could fart with the best of them and afterwards roar with the laughter of young men. That sure kept the ghost away.

What a night of stories. And for me, it was a timely lesson about prejudging people. 

To my eternal regret, I had forgotten my camera, so have no photo of these three men outside the hut they had helped to build.

Freaked out

I’m not sure why you can spend hundreds of nights in the mountains without a jitter and then one night something freaks you out. During the early 1990s, I spent a year kiwi surveying on the West Coast and got used to travelling alone, often in the dark and navigating off-track using a torch. 

One night, after a routine listen on Kirwans Hill, I was making my way back to Kirwans Hut. Below the bushline, the track enters what feels like a tunnel through the altitude-stunted forest. It’s called the Kirwans Hill Route and is about a kilometre long.

I strolled along happily, like any other survey evening. But then, dark thoughts entered my head. I became convinced that something awful was following me. And it wanted to harm me, perhaps even kill me. Despite all appeals to reason and logic, I could not shake the thought. And then, consumed by the fear of this thing, I managed to tell myself that if I ran, it would run after me and that would be it. I had to remain calm, walking, and not panic. 

It took all of my resolve not to run, trying not to look over my shoulder, and the time dragged by. I walked faster and faster, but didn’t dare run. Finally, I saw a candle in the hut window and could hold back no longer. I sprinted to that haven. It took some time to calm down before everything seemed normal again.

What was it? Simply a dark, gnarled forest, a silent night, my own footsteps, and the imagination running riot? Who knows.

The unforgettable sunset from Biggs Tops in Kahurangi National Park, Shaun Barnett Black Robin Photography

Astonishing sunset

Sometimes you just get lucky.

Four of us were camped on Kahurangi’s Biggs Tops near the head of the Karamea Valley. There are extensive views of our second-largest national park. The photographers among us hoped to capture the panorama in good light. But the chance of sunset seemed remote, as heavy cloud cloaked the western ranges. It looked certain to be a fizzler.

But then, just before dusk, a shaft of light burst through a rent in the clouds like the finger of God. Wow. But it was not over. Another stabbed through, then another and another, until there were several shafts of light arrowing through the bruised sky. It was apocalyptic.

You can tramp a long time before seeing a light show like that.

Evening recital

Federated Mountain Club meetings were often planned with a tramp afterwards, so following one Christchurch AGM there was an opportunity to visit Mt Somers. A group of us enjoyed the circuit, tramping through snow to reach a newly-built Woolshed Creek Hut.

With the woodburner stoked, dinner eaten and a feeling of contentment settling in, someone suggested reading aloud.

I think I may have read a short passage from one of the hut’s small library. Then David Round, a former FMC President, stood up. We all knew of David’s quick wit, great delivery and formidable ability to orate, honed by his training as a lawyer and interest in amateur theatre. But we were unprepared for the performance that followed. David proceeded to recite several poems, including the classic ‘Ballad of Idwal Slabs’ by Sowell Styles, passages from books, a Rudyard Kipling quote, all from memory and all with an actor’s delivery. It was mesmerising.

To give some idea of this feat of memory, ‘The Ballad of Idwal Slabs’ has 17 verses, all about the length of this first one:

I’ll tell you the tale of a climber; 
A drama of love on the crags; 
A story to pluck at your heartstrings. 
And tear your emotions to rags.
He was tall, he was fair, he was handsome; 
John Christopher Brown was his name; 
The Very Severes nearly bored him to tears …
and he felt about girls much the same.

The Kawhatau Valley provided a ‘Minties’ moment when rising rivers trapped Barnett on a rock ledge. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Marauding kea

Telltale yellow around their nostrils showed the seven kea as juveniles. And by their behaviour, they were obviously delinquents too.

Five of us were camped on Cascade Saddle, with Mt Aspiring/Tititea rearing into the sky. The summer evening washed the whole tarn-strewn tussock bench with golden light. It was sublime save for the constant ambushes from the gang of seven. Working in groups, the mischievous parrots hopped forward, heads cocked sideways, trying to distract us while their mates made rear attacks. We spent half the night flailing arms and yelling.

It was only after one had claimed the prize that we realised what they had been seeking all along: Jeannine’s bright red plastic mug. The victor grasped it in his cheeky beak and flew over our heads, seemingly taunting us. Then, with a glance to make sure we were watching, he dropped it over the nearby cliffs. Gone.

We couldn’t help but admire the devilry of these young birds.

They continued to harass us for half the night, but at least there were five of us against seven. After Jeannine, Andy and I headed down to Dart Hut, Rob and Colin stayed another night, and faced the gang’s full concentrated force. As well as thieving Colin’s scroggin, one stole his headlamp, somehow turned it on, and dropped it in a nearby tarn. It was still shining when Rob retrieved it.

Moments like these

Have you had a memorable night in the hills you’d like to share? Email your story (max 180 words) to editor@lifestylepublishing.co.nz and we’ll publish the best in an upcoming issue.

Back in the early 1990s, Allen’s confectionary company had a well-known series of advertisements about their minty lollies. At times of sporting fiasco or personal disaster, their advertising ditty would chant: ‘It’s moments like these you need Minties!’

One night my tramping companion and I found ourselves on a rock ledge in a gorge of the Ruahine’s Kawhatau River. The rain poured and we had only a makeshift pack liner to block the worst of it. We had become trapped by rising river levels in an unexpected storm and were now overdue. There was room only for us to sit in our    already sodden sleeping bags. So we sat all night, listening to the river boulders knocking.

Little sleep. No food.

Or so we first thought. When Andrew ferreted around in his pack, he found a bag of Minties. Sucking one each, we chanted the ad: ‘It’s moments like these you need Minties’. For one brief moment, the situation was absurdly, stupidly, hilariously funny.

– Have you had a memorable night in the hills you’d like to share? Email your story (max 180 words) to editor@lifestylepublishing.co.nz and we’ll publish the best in an upcoming issue.