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Back-country huts: The best of great ports in a storm

Observer
By: Shaun Barnett, Geoff Spearpoint, Rob Brown

In their new book, Shaun Barnett, Geoff Spearpoint and Rob Brown profile New Zealand's best backcountry huts. Here are a few of their highlights.


They are always waiting for us. Up a hot valley, where the rounded river stones slip like prehistoric eggs under tired feet, the hut hiding behind waving toetoe. Or it might be just over the tussock pass, rain sweeping, body chilled with sweat. There's a smudge of orange before you scrape through the encircling ring of scrub and bust into the dry reassurance of four walls. The belly is soon stoked up, steam rises, the day seems good (in retrospect). It's early to bed while rain marches over the tin roof.
Huts can be palaces or just the pits! The best ones have a certain raffish style, a cocky endurance that sees through the starlight and storms while generations of trampers come and go.
— Author unknown

For two nights, heavy rain battered our tent on the Fiordland tops. We sidled through steep tussock, scrub-bashed our way down bluffs and were wet up to our necks in swollen creeks before the journey ended at Robin Saddle Hut, just on dark. We opened the latch to our little haven as more volleys of wind, rain and mist piled in on us. Few things are so utterly, deeply satisfying as reaching a hut in a storm.

But huts aren't just about shelter. They are also places where people celebrate life events, meet friends and introduce kids to the hills. They provide a base for fishing, hunting, tramping and climbing. They offer handy refuges for those doing biodiversity work. And they are fantastic places to enjoy a brew and discuss all the issues of the world deep into the night, or hole up with a book on a wet day.

The best ones complement and add to the surrounding landscape, and they always have a new experience to offer, even if it is a mouse making an inordinate racket rifling through a food bag at three in the morning, and putting its life in great jeopardy doing so.

By the time Rob, Shaun and I finished the book Shelter from the Storm: The Story of New Zealand's Backcountry Huts in 2012, one of the things that surprised us was just how deep were the personal connections many people have with New Zealand's backcountry huts. We shouldn't have been surprised — we shared that view and had our own special huts too. Huts help reflect who we are in the hills as a people. Huts are the meeting places of an outdoor culture and are about the only tangible expression of it.

So what makes a hut special and memorable? The answer is often very personal, depending on the individual's experience there. Related to that, each hut has an ambience of its own, influenced by factors such as the building design and materials, its age, location, orientation and accessibility, any of which can turn the ordinary into the magical.
Simple things matter, like discovering historical writing on the very fabric of the hut (although we have a somewhat confused relationship with this; we get excited when we see "J.D. Pascoe 1933" scrawled on the side of a hut wall, but angry when we see 'Joe Bloggs, 2012' written in felt pen on the door).

Sometimes though, huts can be memorable for all the wrong reasons. I recently stayed a night in a south Westland hut where, after spending a couple of hours trying to fight off mosquitoes, we finally pitched our tent on the floor so that we could get some sleep.

So in some ways, our relationship with huts is a little like our relationship with the members of our whānau. Some we see all the time and they always feel welcoming. Some seem austere. Some feel like old friends. Some have lots of character but they don't keep us warm. Some keep us warm but don't appeal.

Others we see once in a blue moon, and wonder why we haven't caught up sooner. What they invariably offer though, is welcoming shelter. Walking in the door of a backcountry hut can feel like a hug in the wilderness.
— Geoff Spearpoint

Crosbies Hut, Coromandel Forest Park. Photo / Supplied
Crosbies Hut, Coromandel Forest Park. Photo / Supplied

Crosbies Hut COROMANDEL FOREST PARK

10 bunks, woodburner, serviced, booking required

Crosbies Hut is perched on a grassy knoll overlooking a swathe of the Coromandel Range, with Table Mountain and Maumaupaki (Camels Back) prominent nearby. At night, the lights of Whitianga twinkle in the distance.

As well as commanding stunning views, the hut has unusual angles, intended to resemble a modern Coromandel bach. DoC built the hut in 2010, and it features a large wall clad in red corrugated iron, a trapezoid-shaped bunk area and a prow-like dining area that protrudes into a wooden deck.

The hut takes its name from the Crosbie family, who settled the area in the 1880s. They eked out a harsh existence farming cattle and sheep, as well as collecting kauri gum. Incredibly, farming continued as late as 1970.

Track closures due to kauri dieback prevention measures mean currently the only option leading from Kauaeranga Valley, to the hut is the Whangaiterenga Track. — Shaun Barnett

Sandy Bay Hut, Lake Waikareiti, Te Urewera. Photo / Supplied
Sandy Bay Hut, Lake Waikareiti, Te Urewera. Photo / Supplied

Sandy Bay Hut LAKE WAIKAREITI, TE UREWERA

18 bunks, woodburner, serviced, booking required

Lake Waikareiti is a small, island-studded body of water lying northeast of Lake Waikaremoana, centred in the expansive Te Urewera forests. Although large landslides created both lakes, Waikareiti was formed much earlier, some 18,000 years ago, and consequently, offers gentler, subtler terrain. From the Te Urewera Visitor Centre, a well-graded track leads to the lake, reaching a shelter after an hour.

From the shelter, the track to Sandy Bay Hut passes through forest on the lake's western and northern sides, with occasional views of the many rounded, bush-clad islands (allow four hours in total).

The hut sits just back from the shore, with two bunkrooms on either side of a kitchen area and a veranda.

Although rarely warm, Sandy Bay is pleasantly sandy, providing good swimming. In winter, however, snowfall is not unusual.

As an alternative to the track around the lake, rowboats are available for hire from the visitor centre. — Shaun Barnett

Arete Hut, Tararua Forest Park, Wairarapa. Photo / Supplied
Arete Hut, Tararua Forest Park, Wairarapa. Photo / Supplied

Arete Hut TARARUA FOREST PARK

2 bunks, no heating, basic

Arete Hut occupies a tussock shelf below the pyramid of Arete peak, at a location about as far from the road end as anywhere in Tararua. This is one of the best hut locations in the entire range, overlooking Arete Stream, above which loom the rather forbidding faces of the Twins and Bannister. The view is particularly impressive when the sun rises over the complicated mosaic of tussock, leatherwood and forest in the valley head. It's a great location for alpine flowers, with Māori onion, mountain daisies and edelweiss common during the summer months.

The old hut leaked, a disappointing feature when you needed to be under shelter and kept dry. The new hut, built by DoC in 2007, is just as snug, but it is well built and weatherproof — even for Tararua conditions.

Getting to Arete is not simple. Although routes to the hut exist from all points of the compass, the most direct is probably via the Ōhau River and Te Matawai
Hut as part of a Northern Crossing. Very fit trampers might make it in a day; most will want two. — Shaun Barnett

Anchorage Hut, Abel Tasman National Park, Nelson Tasman. Photo / Supplied
Anchorage Hut, Abel Tasman National Park, Nelson Tasman. Photo / Supplied

Anchorage Hut ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK

34 bunks, woodburner, Great Walk, booking required

By tramping standards, Anchorage Hut is luxurious, in a setting to die for. Safe swimming for the kids, a variety of local walking tracks, glow worms in a cave at the west end of the beach, golden sands and regenerating native bush make it an ideal place for a short, easy outdoor holiday. It's eminently suitable for those with a preference for glamping.

The previous 24-bunk hut, with a veranda out the front, was built in 1973 and an adequate, if rather bland affair. With just 10 more bunks, the new hut, opened by MP Nick Smith in October 2013 and costing almost $750,000, is altogether something different, benefitting from DoC's greater focus on tourism. It is several times larger, architecturally designed, open and modern, with attractive landscaping around it to improve the ambience.

With scheduled water taxis arriving every few hours during the day to the beach right in front of the hut, this isn't somewhere to come for solitude. Having said that, when I was there recently at the height of the season much of the beach was deserted. Anchorage Hut is four hours along the benched Abel Tasman Coast Track, which winds through scrub and lush bush from the Mārahau road end near Motueka. — Geoff Spearpoint

Spurs Hut, Te Kahui Kaupeka Conservation Area, Canterbury. Photo / Supplied
Spurs Hut, Te Kahui Kaupeka Conservation Area, Canterbury. Photo / Supplied

Spurs Hut TE KAHUI KAUPEKA CONSERVATION AREA

4 bunks, woodburner, basic

Spurs Hut is a Canterbury high-country destination that can be managed by most people who just want a pleasant two-hour walk along an easy farm track. Located at the head of the Ōpuha River, the four-bunk hut was possibly built as early as 1896 as a musterers' hut for Clayton Station, which had been taken up as a run in 1860. Between 1881 and 1919 the station was owned by Australian Hugh Hamilton, whose two sons ran the property, and it is likely that the hut was built during their tenure. At the time, the Claytons were running about 19,000 crossbred merinos.

After Clayton Station went through tenure review in 2003, the hut passed over to DoC management and was upgraded, with the addition of a veranda and covered porch. Spurs Hut is one of those hidden Canterbury gems, and like much of this retired high country makes for a great overnight walk or mountain-bike trip. — Rob Brown

Luxmore Hut, Fiordland National Park. Photo / Supplied
Luxmore Hut, Fiordland National Park. Photo / Supplied

Luxmore Hut FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK

54 bunks, woodburner, Great Walk, booking required October-May

The word "hut" is barely applicable to Luxmore. It's massive, even for a Great Walk hut, with bunkrooms that are more like barracks, and as a result feels rather impersonal. The location, however, can't be argued with, and as you relax on the generous veranda soaking in the views, you tend to forgive the building's design.

The Kepler Track was opened in 1988 as a direct response to the growing demand from tourists for easier tramping tracks in the Fiordland region. But the history of a track up on to the Mt Luxmore tops goes back much further, to the time when this area was used for summer sheep grazing. Local farmer Jack Beer cut the original track up on to the tops and, with all the modern improvements, it takes about 5-6 hours to walk from the car park at its start to Luxmore Hut. Along the way, the track passes through some beautiful forest, before climbing up through impressive limestone bluffs and breaking out on to the tops a few minutes from the hut. — Rob Brown

Port William Hut, Rakiura National Park, Stewart Island. Photo / Supplied
Port William Hut, Rakiura National Park, Stewart Island. Photo / Supplied

Port William Hut RAKIURA NATIONAL PARK

24 bunks, woodburner, Great Walk, booking required

Port William Hut occupies a grassy flat fringed by forest near Magnetic Beach. It's one of two huts on the Rakiura Track Great Walk and offers trampers a place of tranquillity. A gentle sea laps the sandy shore, and from the jetty, you can look out over the rounded headlands of the sheltered harbour. A long history of human occupation has seen Māori, whalers, sealers, sawmillers and gold miners all attempting to wrest a living from the area's natural resources, with mixed success.

Perhaps the saddest chapter was a failed attempt by the New Zealand government to settle the area with Shetland Island crofters. The Shetlanders struggled hard to establish farms, but the damp climate and dense bush were against them. Most soon abandoned the island, losing everything they owned. All that remains of their efforts are some stately gum trees.

Port William Hut is an easy three-hour stroll from Lee Bay on a well-graded track. — Shaun Barnett

Extract from A Bunk for the Night: A Guide to New Zealand's Best Backcountry Huts by Shaun Barnett, Geoff Spearpoint and Rob Brown, on sale now (Potton & Burton, RRP $49.99

For hut bookings and the latest track conditions and alerts, visit doc.govt.nz

Check alert level restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz