It’s nearing the end of a very long day. The trail has twisted and turned for almost 20 miles now, plunging through bush, down to creek beds and dragging me back up to open tussocky tops. I stop to catch my breath, throw off the pack and flop, lifeless, at the side of the trail. I pull out the GPS, a rare treat and something I only sanction every hour or two. There it is, a small black square less than 1km from my current flop point. Princhester Hut. I haven’t even clapped eyes on it, and yet and I’m already deeply in love.
Princhester is one of 900 backcountry huts throughout New Zealand. Owned and operated by the department of conservation (DOC), they range from teeny weeny 1 or 2 person bivvys to the biggest (or so I’ve heard) 80 bunk hut in the Coromandel. I’m dedicating a whole wodge of words to these huts because they have been by far the greatest surprise
addition to the journey so far.

Martin's Hut - my very first hut experience. Rustic.

Martin’s Hut – my very first hut experience. Rustic.

I had no idea how integral to the trip the hut system in the South Island would be. I was vaguely aware of it, thinking I’d use them as a back up if need be, but that I’d spend most of my time in the tent. As it turns out, these huts go way beyond just a place to rest your head. They are a response to the demands of the immediate physical environment, a shelter from the storm, and a somewhere you are most likely to meet another living soul – something that can be rare in the vast expanse of backcountry down South. 
Top Wairoa Hut, the Richmond Ranges

Top Wairoa Hut, the Richmond Ranges

Best of all, these huts are a nod to the days of old. They are woven from the very fabric of New Zealand’s history. No hut is without purpose, whether it’s 6 or 60 years old, it was built for a reason. Some were constructed to house forestry workers as far back at the 1930’s, when deer culling was a full time job, supported by the government. Men would live for months at a time in bright orange huts, painted that way so that they were visible in the thick mountain fog. Others, in the Canterbury high country for example, were put in place to assist with the annual sheep muster – a yearly round up of the livestock. And the remainder have been put in more recently for recreational use – either by hunters or local tramping clubs. To understand the reason for a hut’s existence, is to better understand the area you’re travelling through. And I love that. 
If you take the time to read the messages, the hut walls tell a story of their own. Okay some are the scrawls of horny school kids (apparently Martin woz ere) but others carry a little more depth in their meaning. Should you ever visit Double Hut, just beyond the Rangitata river, you’ll see an inscription that reads: “E.hilary, training run. 1952.” Yeap, that’s Sir Edmund Hilary, the first man to climb Everest. He rested his head in the very same four walls, as I. Magic. 
A Frame Hut, Rakaia river valley

A Frame Hut, Rakaia river valley

What I love the most is that every hut is so wonderfully different. Each has their own personality and charm. Here’s my top 5 so far: 
  1. Rose Hut: Middle of the Motatapu mountains. Set on a grassy plain looking down the valley. Huge veranda and an icy stream close by. 
  2. A Frame Hut, Rakia River valley: It’s just so cute I want to eat it. And buy one of my very own. 
  3. Hurunui Hut: Nestled just inside the bush-line in Lake Sumner Forest Park. This one delivers a stellar sunrise. There are mice, but they’re relatively well behaved and will entertain you with their circus tricks pre-dinner.
  4. Martins Hut, Longwood forests: This one took my hut cherry, and so will always have a special place in my heart. It epitomises ‘original features’ i.e everything is original. There are holes in the walls and the door blows open in the night. Creepy.
  5. Mt Rintoul Hut: It’s a long slog to make it to this one, up at 1,206m. On a clear day you can see the Tasman bay and the bustle of Nelson way in the distance. Beyond the hut, the only way is up and along the Mt Rintoul ridgeline.
Rose Hut, Motatapu Mountains

Rose Hut, Motatapu Mountains

Glory aside, huts are communal spaces and there are unwritten rules which must be followed within them. A few points to note on hut etiquette are:
  • Farting is generally outlawed. If one does escape you should claim it proudly as your own (hunters do this very well) or contain it within your sleeping bag. 
  • Snoring happens – bring earplugs and deal with it. 
  • Mice and rats will eat your food – bag it up and hang it from the ceiling. 
  • Getting up at 5am and rustling bags is inhumane. It’s still dark outside. Why in God’s name are you making your porridge in the dark? Go back to bed and wake up with the sun.
  • Hut bedtime is 9pm. This is non negotiable. 
  • When using the hut loo for a no.2 – take aim and get a clean shot, or pee it down. No one wants to see the dehydrated peas you ate last night clinging to the side of the long drop. 
At the end of a long day, there’s just something magical about rounding the bend to see the sun glinting off of a tin roof in the distance. Turning the handle / flipping the latch / pulling the dodgey piece of of string and not knowing who or what you might find on the other side is all part of the fun.
Camp Stream Hut, built in 1898

Camp Stream Hut, built in 1898

Like a good girl, all organised and what not, I’d posted a parcel of food ahead to the village at Arthur’s Pass National Park. I scampered the 5km off route up the hill to collect the box, and spent a night at the youth hostel there. And boy am I glad I did, for that night the heavens of the West Coast of New Zealand opened. And they poured.
I’m not fussed about running in the rain, in fact, I quite enjoy a gentle mid-jog shower. But unfortunately the next section of the trail involved a) fording a river to get to the start of it and b) running down a river after that. So for two days I hung out at the YHA –  making new friends, instigating an international marshmallow roast-up on the living room fire (delegates from the USA, Ireland, Israel, Germany and … Norfolk were in attendance) and waiting for the river levels to drop.
Days on the trail aren’t always about the physical terrain. Often I find they’re a result of all
The beautifully board walked route up to Goat Pass

The beautifully board walked route up to Goat Pass

the many variables involved in a human powered journey: general mood, tiredness, weather, what you ate for breakfast… One guy had told me that the Mingha – Deception track was his favourite section of the entire TA trail. Couple that with the knowledge that they use it for the annual Speight’s Coast to Coast race, and I thought I was on to a winner.
The fact that there was no one up at Goat Pass Hut creeped me out. This was a trail I’d been warned to avoid at the weekends. SOBOs had talked of ‘crowds’ travelling up the pass, but when I arrived in the evening the clouds were creeping in and there wasn’t a soul around. So I’ll admit I started the next day down the Deception river in a bit of a funny mood.
“Both the Mingha and the Deception river can be dangerous. Do not attempt this trip when bad weather is forecast or the rivers are high. Descent of the deception river will require up to 30 compulsory river crossings.” 
The slippery trail down the Deception River

The  start of a slippery trail down the Deception River

Before each crossing I would take a deep breath, clip my safety tracker in a waterproof bag to my sports bra (in case I fell as lost my pack), give myself a bit of self talk and off I went. Some crossings were only calf deep. But as the river widened further down the valley, other’s came up to my chest (although in the deeper water the flow is often calmer and more manageable). Sometimes I’d make it half way across the river, put my leg out into the stream and feel a force on it that was just too strong. So I’d backtrack, and spend 20 minutes travelling upstream again to find a better place. The going was painfully slow, I grew tired of being frightened and got full-on frustrated. And when I get frustrated, I cry. So I cried. And filmed it so you all could see (aren’t I lovely?).
Post cry things were a little more rosy, but I wasn’t concentrating when I stepped off a rock and some undergrowth gave way. I went over on my right ankle and it gave a nice loud crack. I hit the deck and swore repeatedly. There I sat for 5 minutes letting the pain waft around, reluctant to get up and find out exactly how bad the damage was.
The Deception river a little further down.

The Deception river a little further down.

I put the damage at about a 7.0 on the ankle-scale, but the final few hours of the day were a sorry state of affairs. Anyone who’s ever rolled an ankle knows that your body takes it as some kind of permission to repeatedly let it give way. “Oh this is what we do now, weeeee, what fun!” my ankle would sing as it rolled three, four, five… over ten more times. Each time my yelp was reduced to a less audible whimper.
At the bottom of the valley I then spent 2 hours hobbling and scrambling along  a ‘flood track’. These tracks are designed to avoid the riverbeds, and to keep you safe. Mostly they’re a pain in the heiney as they sidle a steep river bank and take you up and down with
An angry right ankle

An angry right ankle

no apparent rhyme or reason. This one was an extra special case. The rain and wind had caused a truckload of trees to come down, which left me crawling on hands and knees under trunks, over branches and sliding down muddy slopes. It was only later that I learned practically no one else doing the trail took this route. In the hold up at Arthur’s pass I’d missed the always crucial cross-chat with South-bounders and the instructions to just go out and take the road.
At 5pm I made an area flat enough to set up camp for the night. I crawled into the tent, inspected my rapidly ballooning ankle, ate cold porridge for dinner (because it’s all I had the energy to do), and had a long hard think. Was I an idiot to head on for four days into the bush with a busted ankle?
I can’t describe how arse tinglingly rubb-ash it was to sit there that night alone. I’m not bad at making decisions, but generally I like to talk them through. I wanted to call my Mum. I wanted someone I knew to give me a virtual or literal hug and to tell me it was all going to be okay. But I had no way of seeking counsel. In contrast to making me even more upset this actually brought a deep sense of calm. This was it, this was me, on my tod sorting my sh*t out. I’d come on this trip in search of my limits after all, and today I’d been right to the edge of them. I pulled on my leggings of wonderment and drifted off to sleep – telling myself that tomorrow I would wake stronger
than I’d been today.
Until il next week campers, adieu.
McNuff xx
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The Leggins of wonderment - scientifically proven to cure bad ankles

The Leggings of wonderment – scientifically proven to cure bad ankles