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June 2013 Issue
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Wardens: friends or foe?

Some hut wardens can make your day, others can turn a smile upside down. Photo: Keri Moyle

Some hut wardens really turn on the welcome while others make you wish you were anyplace but there

We heard about the warden before we met her, from a man walking in the opposite direction. We were nearly at Upper Caples Hut after a long day walking in the snow with cold, wet boots, and having figured out that we were only a few minutes away from the hut, it was odd to see this man leaving to walk back to the car park so late in the day.

“You’ll meet her soon,” he said to us, jerking his thumb back over his shoulder in the direction of the hut. “Best not to argue with her.”

With only an hour of daylight left, and with snow softly falling all around, he’d been instructed to leave Upper Caples Hut due to his failure to produce a hut ticket or pass. Presumably he’d already had a day of walking to get into the hut and now had to get out into the cold, dark, snowy night, and keep on keeping on. I’m all for people paying for the usage of huts, but it seemed a little bit silly, and possibly bordering on dangerous, depending on the person being kicked out into the night.

“She’ll make you get your hut passes out right here on the track,” he cautioned, seemingly more concerned for our fate than his own. “If you don’t have a pass, she’ll make you turn around and walk out again.”

There was an impending flaw in this logic, though. Trampers on the Caples and Greenstone tracks are allowed to camp along the bush edge, 50m from the track, though there’s a fee if you camp near the hut and camping on McKellar Saddle or the open valley floors is a no-no. It then follows that nobody could reasonably demand we produce hut passes while on the track – as our intentions could have been to camp – rather, only if we were at the hut itself.

To make the matter slightly more irritating, I knew my hut pass was at the very bottom of my pack, and I wasn’t keen to unpack everything right there on the track with the snow falling, just to keep a stringent warden happy.

The man tramped off and we didn’t see him again. If I’d been him, I would’ve been tempted to hide in the bushes until the warden passed by, and then double-back to the warmth of the hut.

Soon, we met her. She was a large, nuggety woman with a permanently angry expression and an air of determination. A range of items were hanging off her pack by carabiners, including a plastic mug. Clearly she was ready for any situation that might arise, including the pressing need for impromptu cups of tea.

“Normally,” she declared to us, “I would make you get your hut passes out right here on the track and show them to me. But I’m feeling generous today.”

I stifled the urge to inform her of her illogical argument, thinking it wiser instead to suck it up, close the conversation as soon as possible, and push on to the hut. (My blisters were also in favour of this strategy.)

And so she tramped off down the track, attacking the steps like a bat freshly out of hell, leaving us to ponder how the presence and attitude of a warden can affect your track experiences so widely.

It wasn’t long before that, on a solo womble around the Abel Tasman, that I met this lady’s exact opposite. He was ready with a friendly smile rather than a plastic mug and a scowl, and happily chatted with the folk in the hut about the surrounding area. I tested the limits of his affable nature by asking how the toilets worked. (Bear with me – my dad had asked how they dealt with waste, given the high numbers of visitors on the track each year, and I’d promised him I’d come back with an answer.)

“I’ve never had anyone ask me that before,” he laughed, half-amused and half-worried. “I can show you the holding tanks if you want.”

I took him up on the offer and he was happy to answer as many questions about the removal of faecal matter that I was game to ask.

Back at Upper Caples Hut, we mused about the two ends of the warden spectrum and how they, as the front line of DOC for many people, affect our perceptions. For instance, many people who’ve walked the Milford Track will have met the warden at the first hut who conducts a hilarious hut talk and nature walk later in the evening. It’s a friendly, warm, humorous face of DOC, and one that’s a far cry from a stringent individual who wants you to bow to her authority.