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The sanctuary of a hut

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November 2023 Issue

They come in all sorts, shapes and sizes. They can be smelled before being seen, and they're part of what makes the New Zealand backcountry so wonderful.

It took until I tramped Te Araroa Trail for me to appreciate the diverse collection of huts dotted along New Zealand’s public tramping network.

The tremendously varied geography of New Zealand is undoubtedly Te Araroa’s highlight, but the trail also invites trampers to experience modern DOC huts, prospectors’ dwellings, former farmhouses, musterers’ huts, New Zealand Forest Service two-, four- and six-bunkers and a whole lot of structures in between. It’s a characterful collection. 

And, it makes Te Araroa unique. Nowhere else in the world is there such a string of affordable huts in which to rest, meet fellow trampers or shelter from the weather. And each hut is as varied as the trail underfoot. 

I first experienced New Zealand backcountry huts in the Tararua Range and the Central North Island during the late 1970s and early 1980s. A fond recollection of that time is the way one’s sense of smell becomes attuned so that, after hours of experiencing only the scent of the forest, the smoky signature of a hut can be detected before it is seen.

Huts are public places, and although I have often hoped to have a hut to myself or my party, paradoxically I have had many serendipitous encounters in them. In Maungahuka Hut I once met a stranger with whom I spent the evening in interesting conversation. We parted in stormy weather next morning feeling like old friends, yet I no longer recall his name or face. In a warm hut the social dynamic between parties can feel like one of the best aspects of humanity. On the other side of the coin, I’ve had the occasional encounter with a hut occupant who painted others as little more than intelligent baboons.

Prior to tramping Te Araroa in 2015 I had visited only half a dozen of the route’s South Island huts, so it was to become a string of ‘ticks’ for me. As I tramped, mostly alone, through the autumn and into winter, I came to appreciate the sanctuary of a hut like never before.

My partner Hana joined me for one of Te Araroa’s best – and most weather-dependent – sections, between St Arnaud and Boyle River, which crosses the notorious Waiau Pass. Weather fronts held us up at Blue Lake Hut for a couple of extra days but eventually it cleared and we committed to the pass. By the time we were crossing the rocky notch high on the range, snow was falling heavily. That evening, our soggy clothes filled tiny Caroline Biv with steam as rain continued to fall.

In Ada Valley the following day the river was uncrossable. We marked the waterline with stones, pitched our tent and waited. Eighteen hours later the river had scarcely dropped, so we walked several kilometres upstream to a fork and a safer crossing point.

By now, there was little food left; we were going to be overdue and we felt beaten down by the constant cold and wetness. As we pushed into the wind up the valley towards Anne Hut, the rain blew in again and we became very cold. Eventually the hut appeared across a broad river terrace. It offered a refuge from the weather.

We stumbled in and slammed the door on the storm. A radio hung on the wall, and with just five minutes left before the DOC office closed, we messaged our contact. Soon the hut was festooned with every stitch of our wet gear. The fire blazed and we sat before it, tingling as the warmth crept back into our hands and feet. 

(The radio in Anne Hut is no longer available – Ed.)

Mark Watson is a regular contributor to Wilderness and the magazine’s former gear editor.