What’s more fun than backpacking through beautiful forests or along breath-taking coastlines and having a small cabin or hut to stay in when you’ve reached your destination at the end of the day. New Zealand has over 950 backcountry huts for backpackers to stay in scattered throughout the country. They are usually located about a day’s hike from trailheads and interspersed along longer trails. Managed by the DOC (Department of Conservation), they vary in size and amenities. Reservations are generally required and the fee is usually $5/night.
Some huts particularly on the more-popular, famous tracks are large well-constructed buildings that sleep dozens of people with a ranger on duty. The larger huts often have water, toilets and bunk beds with foam pads for sleeping (bring your own sleeping bag). There is a communal kitchen sometimes with gas burners for cooking where you can meet other trampers (hikers) which is half the fun.
Here’s the Luxmore Hut and the Iris Hut where we stayed on the Kepler track when we visited the South Island.
Other huts, however, are little more than back-country shacks that sleep only two people with nothing else. And then there is everything in between.
One of our favorite hut experiences was also on our first visit to New Zealand at Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park on the South Island. We had done several longish hikes in the morning including one to the Mueller Hut which included 1810 steps before being turned back before the hut by a massive snowfield best traversed with crampons and an ice ax. In the early afternoon we were in the visitor center when we noticed that there was a empty backcountry hut (the Ball Hut) that sleeps only two located on the Tasman Glacier. Could we stay there tonight? Sure, no problem.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is part of the Southern Alps, a range of mountains that extend the length of the South Island. This rugged, beautiful park is snow-covered much of the year and full of steep trails, technical mountain climbs, snow-covered glaciers, roaring rivers and lakes all dominated by massive Mount Cook (12,218 feet), New Zealand’s tallest peak. Because of its rugged terrain, the backcountry is not to be taken lightly.
In fact, there are ledgers in the visitor center that you can read describing the circumstances of every serious incident and fatality throughout the park over the years. While many are technical climbing accidents, most often resulting in sliding hundreds of meters down glaciers, a fair number are due to avalanches and severe weather changes with resulting exposure and hypothermia. Very sobering reading. In fact, the park requires that anyone staying overnight report back when they emerge from the backcountry.
When we booked our hut, the ranger advised us, “We will go looking for you if you don’t return here, so you need to check back in. Also, there will be a radio check of all the huts at 7 PM tonight. The instructions for using the radio are inside the hut.”
After a quick lunch, we packed our backpacks in the parking lot of the visitor center and drove to the trailhead. We were tired and getting a late start.
Initially the trail crossed numerous avalanche runs where rock and snow had come hurtling down tearing huge swathes out of the mountainside. Fortunately it was late summer and there was little snow on that portion of the trail.
We saw no one. The Tasman Glacier had appeared along side us. I had expected a glistening white mass of ice, but instead it is a huge, incredibly wide dirty mass of ice covered with grey dirt and rock it had scoured as it made its way down for miles from the flanks of Mount Cook. Unless you looked closely you wouldn’t know it was ice. The Tasman Glacier is some 17 miles long, 2.5 miles wide at its widest point and up to 2000 feet thick. Unfortunately it is receding in size, becoming slightly smaller in size each year.
While walking alongside the glacier (they pronounce the word glay-see-ur in New Zealand), we heard a deep-throated, groaning sound.
“What was that?” I asked Rebecca.
“I don’t know but I heard it too.”
We waited. There it was again, this time an echoing grinding sound coming from the glacier itself. Then we realized it was the sound of the glacier itself grinding and scoring its way down the valley alongside us at a rate of around one meter/day.
After several hours we still hadn’t reached the hut. It was still light but the sun had dipped below the ridge and it had suddenly gotten very cold and very windy. Then the trail crossed a large boulder field which slowed our progress. It got colder, windier and darker.
We continued on. Did we pass the hut? Should we go back? We had started off tired from our morning hikes, had hiked around three hours and to put it mildly our moods and decision-making facilities weren’t at their best. If we went back down it would be a long hike and completely in the dark. We had already pulled out our headlamps when we crested a small rise and saw it, the Ball Hut. I have some small sense of what it must feel like when people are rescued—the surge of relief we felt was similar albeit on a smaller scale.
We took shelter in our tiny hut and just sat for long minutes fully clothed savoring the protection from the wind and cold. You could feel the wind battering at the hut from the outside. At exactly seven, the radio crackled on.
“This is Aoraki/Mount Cook DOC with weather report and hut check.” The radio announcer then proceeded to give the weather report. Next one by one, each hut in the park was contacted. Each hut was asked if they had heard and understood the weather report and then the number of people in each hut was verified. Finally it was our turn.”
“Ball Hut, do you copy?”
We gave our report. The next morning the wind had stopped and the weather was glorious. We examined our home more closely.
Rainwater from the roof of the hut was funneled into a barrel and stored for drinking water. Guy lines keep the hut from being blown over. We sat on the porch of our new home basking in the warm sunlight.