Image of the April 2013 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
April 2013 Issue
Home / Articles / Wild Comment

The worth of a back country hut

Perry Saddle Hut. Photo: DOC

Long time tramper Peter Lusk gets toey about hut fees

I will never pay hut fees again. Not until the day I die. I’m really serious about it. And my main reason is this: Every dollar paid in hut fees is another step on the road to the privatisation of New Zealand’s treasured huts and tracks system.

When I started tramping in the mid-1960’s, all the huts were free. Or more correctly, you paid for them once in your taxes and there was no question of paying twice.

Then along came Rogernomics with its infamous ‘user charges’.

First up was billing people for the public health system. It was met by an angry campaign under the slogan, “You’ve paid once, don’t pay twice.”

And people didn’t pay twice.

Around this time, my wife had to go to Greenlane Hospital in Auckland for a simple test which involved staying the night. Soon after she received an invoice from the hospital board. I still remember the walls of our home reverberating as Carolyn bellowed: I’m bloody well not paying this bill!

And neither did she. Tens of thousands around the country took the same stand. Hospital debt collectors did the rounds but people stood staunch and the government, realising it was badly beaten, quietly reverted to the status quo.

But after a short period of wound-licking they tried the same trick on the users of backcountry huts. It was organised more cleverly this time. The government preceded the ‘user-pays’ drive with a big funding cutback for DOC. And it got its way, largely because Federated Mountain Clubs signed up in exchange for a big discount on the Annual Hut Pass for its members.

I still avoided paying hut fees as often as I could.

My first encounter with a DOC hut warden had me moving out of the hut and setting up camp about a kilometer up river from the Welcome Flat hot pools. However, I did sneak back to use the hut toilets. But mostly I stayed in remote huts on the West Coast which are still free or where wardens seldom visit. Sometimes I took a tent fly and stayed away from huts altogether.

The only time I’ve bought an annual hut pass is on a tramping club trip to the Rees/Dart near Queenstown where DOC wardens are stationed in most huts. Our trip leader accepts the fees’ regime and lets it be known that those without hut tickets would not be welcome. And yes, there was a very efficient warden at Dart Hut waiting for us.

Two recent experiences though, made me decide to stop paying altogether.

The first was a trip through the Heaphy Track where I purposely avoided staying in the huts. Being almost retired I’m able to choose my weather, so slept out in a lovely beech forest the first night, listening to numerous kiwi and a friendly ruru which had stationed itself just above my head. Next evening in the Heaphy Valley I curled up under a limestone overhang amongst the roots of giant rata.

I’d already been warned by the hut warden at McKay that camping within 500m of the track is illegal but I was one jump ahead of her. The Heaphy Valley does not come under DOC’s jurisdiction – it’s Maori Land and I had the blessing of my good friend Rick Barber of Ngati Waewae to stay there.

Huts can be dirty, smelly, overcrowded places, and with double glazing you miss out on so many of the sounds of nature – it’s not just the bird calls, but the lapping of water on lake shores, the fluttering of leaves, the creaking of tree trunks in a gale.

As I said at the beginning, my primary goal is to keep the huts and tracks system public. On that same trip through the Heaphy, DOC carpenters were busy putting the finishing touches to their new ‘backcountry mansions’ at Perry Saddle and the Heaphy Mouth. My overriding impression of walking into Perry Saddle was that of a hospital ward. Everything was so clean, so polished, so free of normal hut paraphernalia. Then I noticed the sleeping benches were gone and replaced with a series of bunkrooms and individual beds.

It was clearly set up for privatisation. I almost shouted this to myself as I made a quick exit from the place.

Ever since making my pledge on hut fees I’ve felt great. It’s just so important for my peace of mind to know I won’t be contributing to the privatisation of huts and tracks.

More than that, I spread the word to every other tramper, Kiwis or tourists, who pay their tax in the form of GST from the moment they get off the plane. Don’t pay hut fees, I remind them. You’ve already paid through your taxes.

– Pete Lusk is a West Coast tramper and a member of the Federated Mountain Clubs executive. He is also a member of Forest and Bird and has a special interest in coal mining.