The New Zealand Underground does not consist of an immigrant mafia, a foreign cartel or basement-dwelling, rum-running speakeasies. In this land of lamb, back-country huts host New Zealand's version of the 'underground railroad,' providing shelter, comfort and a meeting place for the diversity of trampers that turn up nightly. There is a whole culture that exists out in the bush, up in the alpine or down in the glacial-carved valley. This is the culture I dived into, the culture that I was looking for and the culture I learned from while in NZ (pronounced 'En-Zed'). I was leading the life of a tramper. These were the days of my Hut Life.
New Zealand is criss-crossed with trails, routes and Great Walks (nine hyped, referred and diversified tramps that take the cake - and make you pay for it too). I tried a few of each. And throughout these tramps, there are huts, lots of huts - almost 1,000 in total - which are built and maintained by the Department of Conservation (DOC). They range from the 50-bunk resorts with running water, lights, gas cookers and heater, flush toilets, hut-warden quarters (making weather updates available), stainless steel counter tops, tables and benches to the much simpler four-walled, four-bunk shanty - just enough to keep the elements out and the possums at bay (if you're lucky).
The cost for these huts range from the steep $45NZD a night for the luxury of a Great Walk hut to $0 for the tin-roofed tent two days from nowhere, just down from the saddle and across the ridge line. After completing the Tongariro Circuit and Able Tasman Coastal Track (both Great Walks), I wised up and purchased my back-country hut pass (6 month pass for $60NZD), my pass to the land of trampers, trappers, hunters and others like me. This pass allowed me access to almost all huts outside of those on the Great Walks. I paid off my pass on my next excursion and no longer had to tote my tent on the trail.
There was nothing better than walking into a DOC office and looking at the grand maps of the area. Looking for the trails less traveled, figuring out time tables, routes, elevation and anything else that would aid in the tramp. Nelson Lakes National Park is and was one of the best places to go and explore - unlimited options that could be strung together to form an overnight get-away to a two week intensive that dropped you out at Arthur's Pass, some 160+ kilometers (over a hundred miles) as a crow flies. You could go get lost. And people did. While I was there, each time I introduced myself to other hikers and hut-goers as "from the States," many would then take a look at my feet to see if I was wearing Nike shoes. This was not because they were interested in my choice of footwear, but because a young American male was missing (for several weeks) and was last scene wearing Nike's.
You heard stories like this. People lost, hiking in conditions they shouldn't, choosing routes outside of their experience level, making bad decisions when confronted with the power of Mother Nature - and with these stories came a lot of troubling outcomes. These stories made me think twice, these stories made me do my homework before starting and these stories kept me 'using good judgment' along the way.
In Nelson Lakes, I was hiking with Gerald the German (from a previous blog) for the first two days. We moved at an amazingly quick pace. On the first day up Robert Ridge and on to the majestic setting of Angelus Hut, the DOC signs and information said to plan on 6-7 hours... we were there in just over four. This was one of my favorite days of hiking. For an hour, we walked straight up with almost no shade, but was compensated with amazing views of the lakes. After we hit the ridge, we were in a different realm, an alpine area that stretched on forever in all directions. At one point, I counted seven different ridge lines and valleys extending off to the horizon. The trail was constantly rolling up and down over boulder fields and peaks, while vivid blue-green mountain streams and lakes found their homes in nooks and pockets below. As a bonus, that night we were treated to a still and colorful sunset over the lake next to the hut. And once the sky went dark, a heavy fog rolled in from nowhere and covered camp until the sun burnt it off the following morning.
A lot of people hike to Angelus Hut. Its combination of accessibility and setting make it a must do in the area. But from there, we went off the beaten track, and followed a route up to the peak of Angelus Mountain 2075 meters) and then over the saddle to the optimistically ironic Hopeless Hut. The difference between a route and a trail is that routes are not marked or maintained by the DOC. We were told to follow the rock cairns (stacks of rocks leading the way) by fellow trampers. This made hiking that day a lot more interesting. We had to always be looking ahead, picking the best lines and choosing our paths accordingly. We made it to the summit by noon and spent an hour talking with the four others already there. Of those four, was the famous outdoor photographer of New Zealand, Craig Potton (http://www.craigpotton.co.nz/). I listened while Gerald and the two Israelis talked to him about shooting in places like this, snapping photos and making adjustments on their expensive camera gear. Mr. Potton was working, he was at the office, punching his own special time-clock. The tramping dream job.
The rest of the afternoon was secluded scree slopes and boulder fields. Sliding, stumbling and scratching our way to Hopeless. It was farther than we had thought and my shoes had taken a beating, but with each strenuous day comes the relaxation of night. Hopeless Hut was heartening. And it also had history. This hut had been opened by the man, the myth, the legend - Sir Edmund Hillary: The First Man to Climb Everest.
There is nothing better than taking off your shoes and socks, airing out your feet and putting your pack down at the end of a day. The simple things in life become appreciated again. Instant noodles and potato mash, maybe some dehydrated peas or beans and some salt and pepper (if your lucky or remembered) was something that I looked forward to, something I thought about throughout the day. That night in Hopeless, six of us sat around an old 'Cooker' wood-burner drying out damp clothes, sipping down warm tea, listening to the wind whistling, sharing stories from the past and wondering who would be the next to fetch the water from the nearby river. I slept like a log that night.
Each night you are brought together by the trail.
There were days that I had hiked for eights hours by myself, dripping in sweat and covered in blobs of suntan lotion from the exposed hillsides. There were days that I hiked with a friend through the cover of trees and over their slick roots and surrounding rocks - landing me on my ass once or twice. And there were times that it rained for hours on end. Those were the days that I remember best. No one likes being cold and wet. But sometimes there is no choice and once that choice has been made, I found myself in the shoes of an ornery six year old, looking for the puddles, the pools of water to jump in to see how far I could make the water splash. It was a form of entertainment I guess, something to look forward to when the hut still seemed so far away. I also found that I moved much faster on the days it rained. No picture stops, no rest breaks really, because once I stopped moving I got cold.
It had been a long first day on the Rees Track. There was a constant rain soaking the valley and everything in it. The rivers were rising, the pastures were bogged in spots up to my knees and the cow patties from my fellow grazers were starting to mix with the mud. Then there was a steady climb. And as the fifth hour of hauling my drenched self and belongings along, my head rose as my nose picked up the smell of the stove. It was a smell that was familiar, but from my childhood. Coal. The hut was now just across the way, marked easily with the dark smoke escaping from the black pipe poking through the roof. Someone had already made it to the hut and started a fire. The day got brighter from that point. Being cold and wet no longer mattered, because the rest of the night was going to be spent in the cozy confines of a hut - with complete strangers.
Huts are communal by design. And with this simple design, everyone shares - not because they are forced to, but because that is how communities function. Out there, I was part of this sub-culture, this greater hut community. Hut goers share food when they have extra, break open their first-aid kit to patch up a cut or provide pain relievers for those nagging injuries. They supply information and experience to those needing it. They pack candles to ensure light past sunset. They carry cards to add entertainment. Hut goers are good people.
I was on day three of the Greenstone/Caples track and heading up and over the saddle. It was raining even before I woke up. No one else from the hut was heading that direction. It was a lonely and intimidating hike. Within an hour I reached a bog that had no alternate route around and decided to walk along an underwater log to cross the deeper section. Three-quarters of the way across, I slipped and went waist deep into mud and murky water. It was hard to move and as I pulled myself out, my mind started racing about the possibilities of being stuck out there for the night - wet and dangerously cold. I knew I was the only way heading in that direction and most likely, because of the rain and steep decent, no one was to be coming from the other side. I became very aware of my surroundings and took extreme caution with each step and decision. I sang out-loud to keep my spirits up and to pass the time, making up songs and verses that I could never reproduce again. There was no one to judge. When I reached the hut that day, I was greeted by a bloody dear head sitting next to the outside sink and doorway. I had never been happier to see such a sight.
Ed and his son George were natives out for a bonding experience. A day earlier George bagged his first ever dear. They had come in on a heli(copter) and would be leaving the same way in a few more days. Ed soon after got the fire going while others wondered in from the trail from the other valley. He was an outdoor professional, guiding both fishing and hunting excursions throughout the South Island. He showed me a simple fire-starting technique, using a piece rubber from a bicycle tire. I will now carry a strip of tire in my survival kit - rubber will burn even if it's wet. That night, George proudly shared slices of his fresh venison with the eight of us hut goers. It was like having a five star steak dinner. The generosity was greatly appreciated by all.
During my time on the Rees/Dart track, I was befriended by Kiwis Dave and Bain. These guys were hard-core adventure racers. They have biked, hiked, paddled and raced all over New Zealand. This was not their first rodeo by a long shot. Towards the end of the hike, they realized I was running low on food and gladly gave me pumpernickel bread and cheddar cheese. They even offered to throw in some vegemite (a down-under condiment of concern) and I graciously declined. Another good German, Markus, picked me up at strenuous Cascade Saddle with multiple sections of chocolate dripping with caramel. These simple gestures and their companionship on the trail made all the difference in my moral.
On the third day of my Nelson Lakes NP adventure, I arrived at my next hut early in the afternoon to find a bow hunter (Jade), his seven year old son (Jordy) and his mate, a trapper (Buck). I am not making this up. If West Virginia exists in New Zealand, they were from there. A bit back-woods in the back-country, these three kept me entertained with their local political, educational and parental stances. Jade only has Jordy for two days a week, mom has him the rest of the time, and he was attempting to toughen him up. Jordy and I explored the golden high-grassed delta area following rabbit trails in search of their holes. Jordy was set on bagging himself a rabbit. Jade showed him how to make a snare and once we had settled on a few locations, he helped Jordy set the trap. While we were off doing that, Buck was strategically placing nine possum traps. The rest of the time, Buck was catching up on lost sleep in between chain-smoking sessions. All three came up empty. No deer, no rabbit, no possum. But they did share some sausage links in the morning during breakfast and Jordy left me with with one of the finest quotes of insight I had ever heard.
"Do you know why people sneeze? Well it's because sometimes when you breathe, things - like bits of dirt - get stuck on the dingly in the back of your mouth and a booger forms. Then it tickles. Then you sneeze!"
One night I was up talking about religion with a mom. Everyone else had gone to sleep and we were having a heart-to-heart. Then the hut warden came in and told us to prepare - 15 teenage school-kids were coming up the trail with their three supervisors. The night had gone from comfortably quiet and blissful to complete madness. Then there are the snorers. There is no way to avoid this. Each hut night, there is bound to be one, and you just hope you are tired enough to sleep through it. I always carried ear plugs. But not even ear plugs were enough from keeping me, and the rest, up for hours the night the keas invaded. The kea is a large indigenous mountain parrot who curiously roam the skies of the alpine areas of the South Island. These birds are the clowns and pranksters of the avian world. They are intrigued with trampers and mischievously investigate anything left alone. And that night, from 4:00am on, a crew of 10-12 keas pecked, scraped and slid on the tin roof - cackling and partying at our expense. They were having a ridiculous amount of fun and sleep was not on their agenda.
I always carried a book for times when the hut was quiet, usually early in the afternoon or just before bed. But most of the the time was filled in conversation, or listening in on others. And when worldly news, weather and equipment talks ran low, there was always time to fit in a card game or two. A couple Israelis introduced me to Yaniv. It became the hut game-of-choice and I spread it like the swine flu. It's a combination of Rummy and Uno, but with a Hebrew twist. I lost every round that first night, but became Yaniv savvy by the end of my hut tour. Cards could be used as the universal language, a common denominator between barriers. And it was fun.
There is no single demographic to describe hut goers. They range in age, race, religion, body type and nationality. Some come for exercise, others for the sense of accomplishment. Some bring the family and others go-it alone. There are those that are gadget and gear loaded and those that minimize to the extent of sawing their toothbrush in half. But when I asked fellow trampers why they do this, no one had a straight forward answer. So then I turned the question on me. I did this, I tramped for 27 days, I slept in 13 different huts with over 100 strangers, I carried 35 pounds of necessary life on my back for over 350 kilometers during five multi-day tramps and four day hikes, I drank from streams and lakes, I ate more than 60 granola bars and consumed scoops upon scoops of powdered milk mixed with water, I went without showering for up to six days at a time, I 'forgot' to shave for two months and I made many life-long friends and contacts because I enjoyed being outside. I also enjoyed pushing myself, enduring the elements and completing a track. I loved learning from those out there that knew more than me and sharing with those who knew less. I tramped because of the lifestyle it breeds and the community it attracts. I guess there is no simple answer, but I do know that I can't wait to get back out there, back to the Underground, back to Hut Life. Another trip to New Zealand will ensue.