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March 2014 Issue
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Some like it hot

Hut fires are great when the weather’s cold and gear needs drying, but what’s the point in lighting one in summer?
Sauna-like temperatures are perfect in the middle of winter, but lighting fires in summer? Surely that’s overkill

I usually avoid tramping in the summer, or just on the fringe of any hot season. The hayfever can be murder, sunburn’s a given, and call me an old granny, but sweltering along in the heat doesn’t make me good company for my tramping buddies.

So late last year, it was a borderline call when I decided to take the week before Christmas off to do the Greenstone-Caples circuit again. I’d done it just over two years previously and been blessed with a good dump of snow going over McKellar Saddle in spite of it being summer, so I figured the temperature couldn’t possibly get too warm. I might even get to build a snowman.

Arriving at Greenstone Hut the first night, I wasn’t too hot but the day was clear and sunny and around the low 20s. There hadn’t been a drop of rain all day, so I was astounded to discover the hut full of European tourists wearing, well, not very much, and sitting around inside the hut, furiously stoking the fire.

“We put more in now, we get it really going! We make it really hot!” one young punter crowed as he threw more firewood on the already roaring stove. “Yes, yes! On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined,” they all cheered as he crammed it full and slammed the door shut. There wasn’t applause, but there well could have been.

The hut was like a sauna – and that’s clearly just the way these trampers wanted it. I retreated to the bunkrooms, opened all the windows and breathed the clean air of the outdoors.

They didn’t bother restocking the firewood the next morning, in spite of my suggestion that they might like to do so.

The next evening, up at McKellar Hut, a touristy couple looked delighted with themselves as they set about lighting the fire on an equally hot and clear day. I’d read a few comments in the hut book about that particular stove being a tough one to get going, so I sat back with my metaphorical bucket of popcorn to watch the show. It didn’t take, of course, and they resorted to puffer jackets instead, although it was far too warm to warrant them. They complained at length about the hut having separate bunkrooms, which they found too cold.

The next day, after I settled in at Mid Caples Hut, I watched the hoards of trampers arriving and braced myself for the inevitable roaring fire. Happily, it never came. I soon noticed a handwritten sign on top of the fireplace, which read: “Do not light fires unless it is cold! Why? 1) It wastes wood. 2) It makes the hut hot and stuffy. 3) It attracts sandflies. 4) It worsens global warming. Thanks, DOC.”

Well knock me over with a Spork! I hadn’t known that fires attracted sandflies. Still, I was relieved that DOC, in its infinite wisdom, had handed down an edict to ease up on the burns.

Later, when the warden arrived, she noticed the note and after reading it, chuckled and said: “I didn’t write that.” Turns out it had been put there by a bunch of Kiwis who had experienced the same sauna the evening before over at Lake Howden Hut. They’d had enough – they put temperature estimates at upwards of 30-degrees.

But it worked a charm. One after the other, the tourists went to light the fire only to read the note and be dissuaded. We were practically high-fiving each other as we watched their faces, crestfallen with the realisation they’d have to perhaps put a fleece on that night rather than sit around in their undies. (You laugh, but I saw it with my own eyes: a hut undie party.)

So it’s a bit of a scam, pretending to be DOC to manipulate the hut environment. But it’s a scam I fully approve of, given the circumstances. And as it turns out, the Kiwi sign-writers made up the stuff about sandflies – but it’s a good myth to have up your sleeve if you, too, aren’t a fan of hut saunas.