Justine Tyerman gets a case of the shakes during a hike to an historic hut near Queenstown

I've always wanted to be tall and slim and the other day, my wish was almost granted. However, had it come to fruition, I would not have been around to enjoy my new body shape.

My nephew Toby and I were hiking the exquisite Mt Crichton track to Sam Summers' Hut, an area near Queenstown rich in gold mining history. We came across a tailrace tunnel, a deep, narrow gash in the rock that miners had chiselled and blasted away to allow water and debris from a sluicing site to flow into the nearby 12-Mile Creek.

Half way along the tunnel, so narrow that we had to turn sideways to fit through parts of it, my nephew decided it was an appropriate time to mention the recent proliferation of seismic events around the Pacific Rim.

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"Imagine if an earthquake occurred right now Justi. There's lots of them happening at the moment," he said dramatically. "They'd never find us up here."

"Thanks Toby," I replied, imagining ourselves squashed between the two rock faces. "At least I'd get my wish to be tall and slim," I joked.

Anyway, someone would surely notice the bright green and purple JUCY campervan in the car park and come looking for us, I consoled myself.

At that precise moment, I sensed a slight tremor, real or imagined, I'm still not sure. But we both side-stepped out of that tunnel quick smart, hearts pounding, pulses racing, hands shaking.

Thereafter, we steered clear of tunnels. We did however see other impressive signs of the gold mining era like a huge man-made canyon where 1.8 million cubic metres of rock had been sluiced away in search of the precious metal.

We've hiked the track before but on that spring afternoon, there was a touch of magic in the air. We meandered alongside clear alpine streams and gushing waterfalls under a canopy of beech trees with tiny, pale green leaves. Sun beams shone through the trees, lighting up the forest floor like spotlights. Rain drops dripped off mossy cliff faces creating rainbow fragments. The air felt sweet and soft and cool against my face, like the skin of a mushroom. As we climbed higher, the beech trees were draped with long tendrils of sage-coloured lichen like tinsel on Christmas trees.

The hut has two bunks and a bed made from sacking. Photo / Justine Tyerman
The hut has two bunks and a bed made from sacking. Photo / Justine Tyerman

We reached Sam Summers' Hut late afternoon as the sun began to retreat from the valley. Built by Sam and two of his nine brothers in 1930, the sturdy little stone dwelling provided shelter against the harsh elements - heavy snow and severe frost in the winter and intense Central Otago heat in the summer. Sam lived there for about 10 years, while he prospected for gold and hunted for game along 12-Mile Creek. He established a vegetable garden in front of the hut and even grew strawberries. He died in 1997 at the age of 92, and although nearly blind, he was independent until the end, the plaque beside the hut told us.

The hut has double stone walls, a tin roof, a fireplace and chimney, two bunks and a bed made from sacking, and a table with a tin container full of appreciative handwritten notes from people who have visited the hut.

A tin container full of appreciative handwritten notes from people who have visited the hut. Photo / Justine Tyerman
A tin container full of appreciative handwritten notes from people who have visited the hut. Photo / Justine Tyerman

Other prospector dwellings have crumbled away but Sam's hut has been lovingly repaired and maintained over the years. It was heartening to see the hut in such good condition, little changed from when I first visited 25 years ago. There was no security fence or fee or touristy hype about the place. Just a modest little dwelling that gave a fascinating, authentic glimpse into the past.

Above the hut are the ruins of two dwellings belonging to Chinese miners who lived there around 1870-1885. Artefacts and travel records suggest a large Chinese population inhabited the area around that time.

Soon after Toby sent me photos of the hut blanketed in deep snow after a spring blizzard. It looked like something out of a fairy tale.

IF YOU GO

Sam Summers' Hut is a 45-minute hike at the start of the Mount Crichton Loop Track, 12 km from Queenstown on the Queenstown to Glenorchy road.

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