The Dallas Morning News
In South Island’s wilds, forget the tent
Backcountry hut network brings together a community of strangers
Finally scrambling out of the bush of New Zealand’s South Island, I paused, surveying the alpine valley in the foreground. Then I saw it. Nestled against a slab of moss-covered schist stood a modest structure, no larger than my 8-by-12-foot college dorm room. With excitement and relief, I clambered toward Cameron Hut.
As a 10-year-old, entranced by the cinematic landscapes of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I wouldn’t have guessed that backcountry huts would become a focal point of my travels in New Zealand. Sixteen years later, I had come for the forests of Lothlorien, the peaks of the Misty Mountains, the hills of the Shire. But it was in the huts that I immersed myself in the culture of those landscapes and spent time with the people who knew and valued them most. New Zealand’s wild spaces deserve their fantastical reputation, but it is the country’s commitment to this vast network of public huts that fosters something unique: a community of strangers even in the most remote backcountry.
Approaching Cameron Hut, I wondered what I would find
inside. No two huts are the same. Some are blaze orange, others beige. Some are more than a century old, others less than a decade. Even if they look similar from the outside, each hut has its own quirks, stories and memories. They are a product of their environment, the people who use them and their moment in history, all of which define a hut’s character.
In 1987, the newly established Department of Conservation took responsibility for maintaining New Zealand’s hut network and the web of tracks (the term for trails) that connects them. Some huts originated as outposts for miners, hunters, foresters, or shepherds, others as way stations for alpinists, scientists, tourists or tramping club members. Now, nearly a thousand of these structures are open to trampers (as overnight backpackers are known) for minimal fees.
Pushing open Cameron Hut’s weathered door, I found four bunks on one wall with a potbelly stove braced against another. A metal countertop stretched beneath the window with a pair of water buckets and two stools stashed below. A wall shelf contained outdoor magazines, a copy of The Girl on the Train, candles of assorted lengths and a jar of ear plugs. And there, over by the window in its familiar bracket on the wall, was the volume I had learned always to peruse when I arrived at one of these huts: the intentions book.
Setting my pack down, I started scanning its pages. Emblazoned with the Maori greeting “Kia ora,” the logbook serves as a guide to each hut and a registry for all visitors. Trampers use it to record details about their party and intended route — hence the name of the book — along with their comments and stories. While some of this information could prove useful in an emergency, it amounts to a beloved anthology of the shared experiences that define New Zealand’s huts. One page might contain mountaintop epiphanies, off-trail discoveries, weather and trail conditions, speculations about whether a bickering couple would survive the trail ahead and whimsical evaluations of the previous night’s snoring. Together, the entries form a living document of hut culture itself, where stories, knowledge, advice and humor pass freely among strangers.
It didn’t take me long to find what I was seeking: the entry my new friends Joanna and Logan had made here a few weeks ago. Our paths had intersected on the Dart Track, a popular, multiday trek through the mountains north of Queenstown, where we had compared lists of mustvisit huts over dinner. I was here because they had told me not to miss it.
Cameron Hut wasn’t glamorous, but it felt perfectly suited to the needs of a solo traveler.
There are four tiers of huts in the system. Basic huts are any combination of walls and a roof that will pass for “very basic shelter,” but not much more. Standard huts are more robust but still spartan structures with a few added amenities like mattresses, water access, a toilet and a wood stove — although if users of such huts want a fire, they must forage for downed branches to maintain the wood supply. Serviced huts feel similar to their standard brethren, but are generally in high-traffic areas or above tree line, where the Department of Conservation must supply fuel and upkeep costs skyrocket. Great walks huts are the most heavily visited and expensive of the bunch, with gas stoves and resident hut wardens.
No matter what its tier, I found every hut worth visiting.
Putting away the intentions book, I took advantage of the warm afternoon sun to explore the area around Cameron Hut. Just outside the door, a small shed protected a wood pile
and well-worn ax. The “long drop,” an outhouse over an abnormally deep hole, sat nestled in a thicket of silver beech 150 feet north of the hut.
To the west, I followed the river until I discovered the series of deep pools beneath a pair of towering waterfalls that Joanna and Logan had told me to visit. Laying my towel on a rock, I braced myself for what would be an undoubtedly frigid but equally necessary bath. Not a bad place to call home for the night.
When you arrive at a hut, any sense of urgency melts away and is replaced by the easy rhythms of hut life. When a predictably unpredictable New Zealand storm blows through, you close the windows and open your book. When your stomach rumbles, you start dinner. When the sun disappears behind the mountains, you light a candle or flick on your headlamp. In a hut, you face simple choices.
As quaint as they may seem, huts also serve a very real need. They provide essential shelter in New Zealand’s most extreme environments. Even hardened adventurers could be persuaded to choose the protection of Iris Burn Hut over the characteristic downpours of Fiordlands, or the warmth of Mueller Hut over the unpredictable snowfields of the Southern Alps. Huts are at their finest when weather is at its foulest.
But inclement weather was the furthest thing from my mind as I settled into Cameron Hut on this sunny autumn afternoon in midMarch. The valley would protect me from the all too familiar winds that had threatened to peel Slaty Hut right off its exposed perch in the Richmond Range. Neither too big nor too small, Cameron Hut’s modest footprint couldn’t compete with the 32-bunk, multiroom huts with flush toilets on the Rees-Dart Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. Yet it felt palatial compared with the tiny Sefton Bivvy — I couldn’t even stand completely — nestled beneath the Tewaewae Glacier.
The size and grandeur of backcountry huts are often linked to their popularity, and prices follow suit. Basic huts are free, but most huts in New Zealand range from $3 to $10 per night. Bunks fill up on a firstcome, first-served basis, but there is always room on the floor. Great walks huts, on the other hand, can cost as much as $35 per night and require reservations months in advance.
For committed hut travelers, there are six-month ($65) and yearlong ($85) passes, which grant you unlimited access to most basic, standard and serviced huts. With just a few visits to serviced huts, the pass more than pays for itself.
You never know who is going to walk through the door of a hut, but you can be fairly confident that your time together will be marked by a trust and civility that Americans rarely expect from total strangers. Generosity and hospitality anchor the communitarian ethos that makes these backcountry huts across New Zealand so welcoming.
As dusk fell on Cameron Hut, I looked at the intentions book again. Foreigners and Kiwis alike noted how they had underestimated the steep trail to the hut but enjoyed the reward of swimming beneath the waterfalls. Some complained about nasty weather. Hunters documented the number of chamois and tahr, exotic species of mountain goat introduced to New Zealand in the early 20th century. Instructions on how to get above the tree line covered an entire page, complete with a hand-drawn map. This hut is remote enough that it often sits empty for days at a time, if not weeks during the winter, yet these entries recorded the enthusiasm of its infrequent visitors and their hope that others would experience some of what they themselves had found here.
Wriggling into my sleeping bag, I opened knowing that sleep wasn’t far off. In the morning, I would add my own story to the intentions book. Then I would tidy the hut, close the door behind me, and head down the trail toward my next night’s shelter.