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March 2016 Issue
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Tramping gold

The historic three-bunk Ballarat Hut. Photo: Emma Richardson
Mt Aurum Recreation Reserve and Ballarat Creek Conservation Area
Total Ascent
Archie’s Hut, three bunks; Ballarat Hut, three bunks
Follow Skippers Road to the car park at Skippers Creek Homestead and campsite. Take Bullendale Track

Ballarat Hut, Mt Aurum Recreation Reserve and Ballarat Creek Conservation Area

A door hinge creaked in the wind. Tussock swished about frantically in the basin beyond the hut. But inside it was warm, safe and dry. It was easy to muse about Archie now, as the billy hissed steam and we poured another cup of hot chocolate in Archie’s Hut. The lone man going to get his gold, working the battery, sitting here in his little hut amongst tussock and the ever-present wind. His photo smiled down at us from the ceiling. What was it like, we wondered?

A solid day’s walk to the goldfields, up from the old homestead at Skippers Creek, we’d travelled through the gorge, pushing through giant stands of beautifully weedy lupins in shades of pink, purple and white. We bypassed a small dam – one of many remnants of the pioneering past of this place, which included as its feats not only gold mining, but also the first hydroelectric power plant in New Zealand. Along with the foundations of once bustling hotels, ragged poplars and long-forgotten fruit trees marked out patches that these early pioneers would’ve called home. Now there was not much of it left, although here and there a tart gooseberry waited, ready for picking and eating.

A scorching sun ensured we stopped for a dip in the delicious blue pool at the confluence of Skippers Creek Left Branch. Bypassing Dynamo Hut, we sought a bit of shade under patches of beech and savoured the gloomy interior of Dynamo Red Hut, further up valley. No doubt the darkness of this hut would be a bit much on anything other than a day as hot and bright as ours. As the sun started to simmer down, we wandered on up-valley, side-stepping the odd clump of Spaniard to emerge in the lovely tussock basin that is home to Archie’s (or Copper Creek) Hut. A real character place this, with its beech pole framing and bunks. As the wind picked up we started to wonder if our planned route over the tops and down to Ballarat Hut would be a goer. The light faded from the tops in a spectacular swirling of sun and churned up cloud.

Wind, cloud and cold plagued the basin next day, but in the spirit of hut bagging we pushed on up to the head of the valley, sidling incised gullies and writing off any misconceived notions that climbing Mt Aurum would be a nice little detour. Not today. A lonesome kea accosted us as we edged our way up chunky scree towards the saddle west of Pt1872, and delicate alpine buttercups held on between the jumbled boulders. Reaching the ridgeline, we dropped swiftly down the other side on a series of steep spurs running into Ballarat Creek. Travel was a little less user-friendly here, with Spaniards, a few steep bits, and then little grovels around cascades in the stream.

Eventually, the contours levelled out and we climbed onto the edge of a small terrace to appear directly beside Ballarat Hut. This cosy tin and paned-glass window was a welcome sight. Legend has it that the hut was built by a local runholder using materials salvaged from the Bullendale settlement when that was abandoned after the goldrush. Nowadays, goats bleat beyond the hut door, and although it’s all been added to conservation land, the area still brings to mind the days when autumn was for mustering and tea came black, in chipped enamel mugs.

With Archie’s and Ballarat behind us, we retraced our steps to a spur coming down from Prince of Wales, 1734m, and took this to below the summit, crossing into Skippers Creek Right Branch. Down in the valley once more, it was an easy plod out among more gold mining relics and races that scratch the tussock slopes of this landscape. Near Bullendale Hut, rusted remains are not the only legacy left by the Phoenix Battery – even today, the water downstream of this site is too toxic to drink. But as we trudged out to the dusty Skippers Road, it was hard to imagine Archie would’ve been too bothered by that. They bred them tough back then.

– Emma Richardson