Gay hiking

Here’s why hut hiking is the best way to see New Zealand

“It’s a musty, filthy old dog box. Totally disgusting. I think about 10 people get there a year.

This is how Carol Exton describes Jacs Flat Bivvy, a wood and tin hut that sits in dense forest at the foot of a dark valley in New Zealand. It is so small that you have to bend over to crawl inside. Still, of the country’s 1,000 government-run hiking lodges, it’s Exton’s favorite. It’s the kind of place that inspires his trekking adventures and exemplifies the tradition embedded in New Zealand’s beloved hiking culture.

Indeed, in a country famous for its soaring mountains and rugged coastlines, hiking is a way of life. Huts line over 9,000 miles of public trails in New Zealand, providing the perfect setting for exploring.

Not all are twin bunk bed basics like Jacs Flat. Some are architectural wonders, perched on alpine ridges overlooking glaciers. Many have been around for over a hundred years, standing like sentinels of ancient rainforests and golden beaches. Over the decades they have borne witness to history in the names and messages of former hikers carved into the walls.

It’s no wonder these camps, many of which are free or paid, inspire the kind of devotion that can motivate people like Exton to visit every lodge in the country.

National heritage icons

Huts first appeared in the remote outback of New Zealand in the late 1880s. Using local stone, sheep herders built them in the leafy foothills of the Southern Alps. The gold panners gathered sheet metal huts on the banks of the rivers. Some outliers have been erected on desolate coasts, as refuges for the castaways of sunken ships.

Shelters sprung up in even greater numbers in the mid-20th century, following ecological damage caused by deer, chamois and other animals released by European settlers to make New Zealand feel more “home”. she “. Over the decades that followed, professional loggers eradicated hundreds of thousands of these animals and left behind a legacy of six stacked huts in some of the most isolated parts of the country.

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Other huts were born out of stranger circumstances. Along the rugged southern coast of Fiordland, in a sea cave not far above the high tide line, is a five-bed cabin built by a man named Owen West. “Westy”, as he was known, landed here in the mid-1980s after jumping from a fishing boat following an argument. According to legend, he swam through formidable waves to shore, where he dug shipwrecks and jetsams from the sea to build his abode.

Then there are the huts that housed those on the run. Ellis Hut in Ruahine Forest Park is named after Jack Ellis, an accused murderer who hid here from authorities in 1904. Asbestos Cottage in Kahurangi National Park was once the home of a woman fleeing an abusive husband. She fled to the mountain refuge with her lover in 1914 and lived there for 30 years.

Many huts had previous lives as schools, lighthouse keeper’s huts and farms, all eventually converted for public use. By the time the Department of Conservation (DOC) was formed and inherited the entire network of huts in 1987, there were hundreds of huts scattered like buckshot across the mountains of New Zealand.

Mountain memories

These origin stories combined with the architectural features of each hut (or lack thereof) add to the tradition that makes hiking in New Zealand so appealing.

Brian Dobbie, 64, has worked on the team that has run the network of huts since DOC’s inception. Over the past 34 years, he’s seen all kinds of cabins, including one painted bright purple with orange flowers, where he spent a funky night in the 1980s.

He believes that because the DOC huts are always open and accessible to everyone, they promote a certain conviviality between strangers. He remembers a trip where a torrential downpour pushed him and dozens of others out of their flooded tents and into a small hut. “At one point there were 30 of us in the six-berth hut,” he says. “We had less than three square feet each.” They manage happily.

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That’s part of the appeal, says Dobbie. Even the humblest cabin can take on meaning that transcends its corrugated iron roof and wooden walls. They become places of connection and self-reflection, places where memories are created and simple pleasures savored.

Logbooks tell the stories in the scribbles of passing hikers. In the less used huts – the more popular ones – the logs can go back years, with only a handful of entries recorded over a 12 month period. Not all are paper. “Jacs Flat Bivvy’s logbook is the doorway,” says Exton, where people scratched their names along with a few short sentences about where they’re going and what they’re doing.

This tradition of recording means that some huts yield startling discoveries. On a wall of Double Hut, in Hakatere Conservation Park, Canterbury, Dobbie spotted a particularly famous name scrawled among several others. “[It] was Sir Edmund Hillary,” he says. “Sure, [he didn’t write] “Mister Edmund. It was “Ed Hillary”. This man, who climbed the highest mountain in the world, also stayed here and left his mark.

A local obsession

The ability to uncover such hidden stories is one of the reasons why some particularly zealous hikers have made it their mission to visit every hut in the DOC network. These “hut baggers”, as they call themselves, come from all walks of life and have often been obsessed since childhood.

Exton grew up in a suburb of Wellington, bordered by the harbor on one side and steep bush-covered slopes on the other. As his classmates walked home from school along the road, Exton took to the hills. “For two or three hours between school and tea time, I would just go exploring,” she recalls. Now 60, Exton often disappears into the hills, packrafting, kayaking and hiking to some of the most remote cabins in the country. So far, she has registered 525 huts.

It thrives on the irresistible attraction of huts scattered throughout nature, just waiting to be found. The more difficult the access, the greater the thrill. Reaching Jacs Flat Bivvy took two attempts, a three-day hike, and a “hard 12 hour” hike, she says.

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Benjamin Piggot loves the freedom that hut hiking offers. “It’s an escape,” says the 25-year-old. “It’s time to get back to zero with your friends, have a cup of tea around the fire and talk about the things that really matter.”

Piggot visited his first hut at the age of 11, which sparked a passion for life. Since going all-in 10 years ago, he’s gone through 312 lodges. His favorite is East Matakitaki, accessible via a six-day hike through Nelson Lakes National Park. “It was just a brilliant trip, lots of snow, lots of adventure, one of those trips where you were cold and wet most of the time,” he recalled.

Feeling connected to nature is the very essence of hut hiking. “New Zealanders are the type to go outdoors,” says Piggot. “I think we have a deep connection, ngahere [in the Maori language]to the earth and the forest.

TRAVEL TIPS
Reservations: Cabanas are priced according to the facilities they offer and range from free (basic) to around $10 per night for a cabana equipped with heating and cooking facilities. The Great Walk cabins are the most comfortable with gas cooking, solar lighting and flush toilets. They are also the most expensive at around US$75 and must be reserved online. The vast majority of backcountry huts do not require reservations and are paid for via hut tickets, which you can purchase in advance and use as you go. The DOC’s online mapping tool lists each hut, along with its location, fees and features.
Label: Non-reservable cabanas are on a first-come, first-served basis, but going first does not mean the cabana is yours. It is customary to make room for latecomers, even if the hut is full, and to turn on the kettle for them.
Some huts have dedicated caretakers or managers, but many go untended for months at a time. Hikers help keep cabins clean and tidy. Before leaving, sweep the floors, wipe down the benches and restock the firewood. Bring all your garbage (do not burn it or throw it in the latrines).
Health Notice: As of press time, there are no vaccination requirements for staying at DOC huts, so visitors should assess the risk of exposure to COVID-19 when planning their trip. As sleeping, cooking and washing facilities are often shared, you may want to consider options such as pitching a tent near the cabin when camping is permitted or avoiding busy times such as Saturday nights and bank holiday weekends .
Petrina Darrah is a freelance travel writer from New Zealand. His work has appeared in Conde Nast TravelerAtlas Obscura and the New Zealand Herald, among others. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.