Fair dinkum in spades

A walk in the Takitimu Mountains

Venerable grocery items in food cupboard at Upper Wairaki Hut, Takitimu Mountains

New Zealand Geographic has just published my story on the hut restoration movement in New Zealand. Lack of space prevented the inclusion of an episode in which I visited several tramping huts in the Takitumu Mountains with former Federated Mountain Clubs president and current author of Moir’s Guide South Robin McNeill. We were reflecting on the fact that huts are the museums of the hills, preserving the memories of many lives over many years, both in the written entries (and occasional poems and sketches) that trampers leave in hut books and in the ephemera that is left behind in a hut after the visit.

We stepped in to Aparima Hut in February to find on the table a fresh kiwifruit, a thriller, a book of Hindu mantras and a bag of scroggin. This hut is on the Te Araroa trail, so receives regular visits—a stream of SOBOs (south-bounds) and a few contrarian NOBOs (north-bound). The hut book showed that 180 “TAs” had passed through since November.

The next hut on our route—Spence—had deer bones on the mantelpiece, a collection of metalworker’s files and a copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran on the bookshelf.

The jackpot was our overnight destination: Upper Wairaki Hut. When something is commendably genuine, McNeill likes to call it “fair dinkum,” and Upper Wairaki Hut was fair dinkum in spades. In the food cupboard I found tins of decades-old golden syrup and milk powder, three kilogram-sized canisters of Sifta salt (deer cullers must have liked their condiments), a giant tea caddy and a vintage box of Edmonds custard powder that evoked memories of childhood steamed puddings.

The hut still had the original fireplace, with an assortment of number-8-wire hooks for hanging billies, of which there were several to choose from. We were soon cooking Korean rice porridge and other arcane freeze-dried culinary items that McNeill collects in his overseas travels and consumes on his back-country jaunts. Other than the exotic cuisine, and the fact that we were not oiling rifles by candlelight, all was much as it would have been 50 years ago.

In the morning I spooned some of that golden syrup on to my porridge. It was as black as molasses and sweet to my tongue.

For the deer cullers, huts like these were homes in the hills, in ways that visitors can’t experience to the same degree. During my research for the story I was intrigued to discover that the word “hut” was once used for the shell of a tortoise. Another obsolete meaning is as a mental or spiritual consolation. Both meanings will have resonance for today’s hut users.

Another Robin I discussed huts with—geographer Robin Kearns—compares huts to marae, noting that both serve as social aggregators, have unwritten protocols and are imbued with history. In such places, as well as sleeping with the past you “sleep with the future,” he said. Sweeping the hut before you leave and laying in a stock of dry firewood is part of an etiquette that arises from a shared understanding of how the hut network functions as a commons. “An ethic of care is fostered by the knowledge that only a few human beings may be in the back country at any one time,” Kearns said. “My choice to delay my departure by half an hour while I collect firewood may enable the next person to generate life-giving warmth after staggering to the hut through a blizzard.”

By extension, hut restoration is a gesture of generosity and hospitality to those unknown others who are part of the whanau of the back country. It is a form of whanaungatanga.

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