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May 2012 Issue
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Snow at Staircase Hut

The hunters' hut makes for a good 'close to home' weekend tramp. Photo: Max Olsen
From Mount Misery Rd, off Herbert Hampden Rd
Staircase Hut, Waianakarua Scenic Reserve

When the forecast is for miserable weather everywhere but you still want to get out of town, the best option is to find somewhere close to home. My Dunedin tramping mates and I were struck with just this situation when a cold front forced us to abandon our planned trip to Mt Aspiring National Park. We were all desperate for a break from the city, but at the same time we couldn’t face the idea of driving for five hours just to be rained and snowed on. The solution was an unlikely one.

I recalled a hut that was purportedly not too far north of Dunedin, but which I had been unable to locate on any map. After checking the DOC website we found Staircase Hut was still there, but neither the hut nor any track to it was marked on maps of the area. We scoured the Internet for route notes and managed to get good directions someone had posted to a hunting blog.

We plotted the route described in the blog on our map and, hoping for the best, headed off with the car weighed down with excessive quantities of food and ‘refreshments’. Being used to long drives to the Alps and Fiordland, it felt strange to be saddling up to tramp only an hour after leaving town.

From the forestry road where we left the car, we followed a well-defined track through tall kanuka forest. Only twenty minutes from the road, we found ourselves in a beautiful, steep-sided gorge, through which ran the amber Waianakarua River Middle Branch. We slogged upstream until we came to an old totara with a marker attached. We slipped and slid up the spur above the river in the company of fantails and tom-tits. A lack of footprints on the muddy track suggested we were the first visitors to the area in quite some time.

At around 500m altitude, we emerged from manuka and kanuka scrub onto tussocky slopes. The views from here showed just how rugged the country is, with bluffs jutting from the bush-clad gorge sides in several places. In one direction, on the far side of the mid-Waianakarua, we could see flat-topped Mt Miserable. In the other direction, we would have seen the sea, were it not for storm-clouds rolling in from the south-east.

From tussock tops at around 600m, we descended the Staircase Spur to the hut. Staircase Hut is a true hunter’s hut. Well stocked with everything from cask wine to slippers, the interior was black with soot and cobwebs hung low from the rafters. A sign drawn in permanent marker over the fireplace revealed that the hut was also the clubrooms of ‘Keano’s Sheep Shagser Club’ and crude pictures drawn on walls and billies gave artists’ impressions of this disreputable society’s antics.

By late afternoon, heavy snow was falling and we went to sleep to the ‘flump’ of snow periodically sliding off the roof and nearby trees. Dawn revealed a good half foot of fresh powder lying around the hut, and our return to town was put off in favour of toastie-pies and more games of cards.

Early afternoon saw us finally getting our gear together and reluctantly trudging off through the snow towards the car. On the tops, the snow was deep in places and the vegetation doubled over under its weight. The snow gradually disappeared as we lost altitude, and by the time we were nearing the river, it was all but gone.

Heading back to Dunedin it was nice to realise that we don’t always have to drive for hours to have a wild and interesting trip.

– Max Olsen