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January 2016 Issue
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Undercover track cutters

Frank and Honora spend weeks of a year clearing tracks to huts.

Frank King and Honora Renwick, cutting tracks into the back of beyond

It’s hard to pin down exactly what changes an entire culture. But there’s a fair argument to suggest two keen trampers operating under the radar have done more than their bit to change the mindset of DOC.

Two decades ago, the department felt it too risky to allow volunteers to fix overgrown tracks and dishevelled huts. DOC feared it would be responsible if something went wrong so, by and large, people left them to it.

Not Frank King and Honora Renwick. You may have seen these names crop up in hut books, particularly in the Canterbury and West Coast regions.

To say they’re keen trampers is an understatement. Since the early 1990s, the pair have been on more than 700 trips together, spending, in total, more than four years in each other’s company in the backcountry. Despite both having full time jobs they spend around 80 days a year in the hills; the most in a single year being 132 in 2002, just using weekends and holidays. Even they admit that year was “pretty full on”.

But the Christchurch-based couple have had a greater impact than you may think when it comes to changing the face of the backcountry. While most were letting DOC do its thing, Frank and Honora could see the department didn’t have the resources to manage its entire estate, which was leading to a loss of huts.

“There was a real risk we could lose a remote hut in Arthur’s Pass called Big Tops Hut [Koropupu Hut],” says Frank. “DOC was removing huts and I thought the same would happen here unless the route to the hut was fixed.”

Koropupu had a bit of mystique at the time, as people tended to get lost trying to find it. Frank realised that if a good track was cut and people started visiting, the hut could be saved.

“At that time most people thought DOC would get upset if we cut it ourselves, but when I thought about it, if you respect the position of the track and don’t do crazy stuff, no-one will get upset,” says Frank. “So we got onto it and people started going there.”

They then turned their attention to other neglected huts and bivs; none more successfully than Pfeifer Biv near Otira.

“It was really trashed,” explains Frank. “It had been crushed by snow, the door had been left open meaning snow packed inside in winter.

“Access was either horrendous scrub or hideous screes raining with rocks. But it was close to the road, a great spot, and we could see it had potential.”

Over many weekends, the couple hacked a track from the Morrison Footbridge, at the confluence of the Deception and Otira rivers, up to the hut.

DOC was never ‘officially’ aware that Frank and Honora were improving these tracks but in reality, not only did the rangers know, but they supported the couple.

In the case of the track to Pfeifer Biv, they saw a shift in the department’s approach. “I got a call from DOC,” says Frank, “to say they had a bit of money to spend and how would I feel about them replacing Pfeifer Biv with a new hut.”

This was a colossal success. They had been keen to let people know the track had been improved. They needed to demonstrate there was a demand for it and the department had not only registered that, but had gone one step further.

“Some people say they don’t tell others about their favourite spot, but I’m the opposite,” says Frank. “I want to share. I’m not disappointed when I can’t get a bunk at Pfeifer because there are so many people there – that’s part of the success achieved.”

The couple are delighted to see DOC’s U-turn on volunteer involvement with the introduction of the Community Conservation Partnership Fund (CCPF), where a pot of money covers volunteer expenses for approved backcountry projects.

Frank and Honora have applied for funding for hand tools so they can continue to maintain the 12 tracks they now look after.

“Track clearing is the key thing,” explains Frank. “The huts generally don’t need too much work. The biggest part is keeping access open. You can fly into a hut, do a couple of days’ work, and keep it in good condition for 10 years. But keeping a track open requires regular attention.”

Honora and Frank are a great example of a tramping romance. Both were members of Christchurch Tramping Club in the early 1990s. They first met on a trip at Mt Rolleston. Honora was impressed by Frank’s style.

“The group got out of the car,” she explains, “and people said ‘it’s raining; the trip’s off’. But Frank said ‘I didn’t go all the way out here just to go back. We should at least go to the ridge’.

“Everyone agreed and we had a good day out. I remember thinking ‘who is this guy? He’s not leading the trip but he’s persuaded everyone to carry on’.”

She didn’t immediately see him as boyfriend material, though: “We sometimes used to cross swords and have an argument. We still do.”

But she could see Frank had a good heart and the relationship blossomed over time.

They live in the Christchurch CBD where Frank works with data, looking after academic records, while Honora works as a phlebotomist in a room with no windows.

This distinctly non-rural life fuels their desire for the backcountry, so every spare moment outside work is spent planning and going on the trips that recharge their batteries.

A third of their trips are dedicated to track clearing, but they will always carry loppers with them wherever they go.

“You can do it,” urges Frank. “You don’t have to wait to be told it’s OK. Just go along with some secateurs and if you see some twigs blocking a marker or a sign, just go ‘clip clip’. No-one’s going to slap you around – you’ll be making it better for everybody.”

– Matthew Pike

Frank and Honora by the numbers

132 the most number of days spent together in the hills in a single year

1569 the total number of days spent together in the hills

723 the number of trips they’ve done together

95 the age at which Frank aims to still be tramping

12 the number of tracks they currently look after