Seven Days in Heaven

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 13 minutes

A week in a hut with no electricity or running water surrounded by knee-high snow might sound like a trial to some, but volunteer hut rangers can’t get enough of it and keep coming back year after year. Alina Suchanski writes about her own experience as a voluntary hut ranger.

When my neighbour, Ken Bradley asked if I wanted to be a voluntary ranger at Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. I enjoy tramping and love walking up Mt Luxmore, but the hut ranger idea sounded too much like hard work to me. “What do I have to do?” I wanted to know.

“Nothing much,” he said reassuringly. “Just keep the place tidy and make sure everyone has a hut ticket.”

That didn’t sound too bad.

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 13 minutes

A week in a hut with no electricity or running water surrounded by knee-high snow might sound like a trial to some, but volunteer hut rangers can’t get enough of it and keep coming back year after year. Alina Suchanski writes about her own experience as a voluntary hut ranger.

When my neighbour, Ken Bradley asked if I wanted to be a voluntary ranger at Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. I enjoy tramping and love walking up Mt Luxmore, but the hut ranger idea sounded too much like hard work to me. “What do I have to do?” I wanted to know.

“Nothing much,” he said reassuringly. “Just keep the place tidy and make sure everyone has a hut ticket.”

That didn’t sound too bad.

At the time, Ken was a Department of Conservation (DOC) Ranger in charge of organising an army of volunteers engaged by the Te Anau DOC office.

DOC is increasingly relying on volunteers for help with the mundane aspects of looking after National Parks, such as track and hut maintenance, predator control, species protection, habitat restoration and weed control. Voluntary hut rangers were introduced at the Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track in winter 2014 for the winter season. Because of its success, the idea has been continued and is now in its eighth season.

The Kepler Track is one of DOC’s ten Great Walks. These provide unique experiences in New Zealand’s most beautiful and remote scenery. Since DOC spends a lot of money maintaining these tracks to a high standard and promoting them internationally, they are very popular amongst local and overseas hikers alike. However, rather than pay a fee for sharing the huts with a multilingual crowd, many locals prefer to walk these tracks in the off-season, when the huts are quieter and the bunks much cheaper.

This is one of the main reasons for introducing voluntary hut rangers in winter. DOC records show that prior to 2014, Luxmore Hut had a lot of off-season use. Without someone overseeing it on a daily basis, the hut was often left messy, and the firewood provided by DOC was used up too quickly, even if the weather didn’t justify it. Hut fee compliance was another motive for having a ranger, as some people stayed in the hut without paying for it.

For 25 weeks between the beginning of May and the day after Labour Weekend, volunteers are flown in by helicopter to look after the Luxmore Hut for a week at a time. The hut ranger lodgings are rather spartan, with no running water (to save the pipes bursting in a frost) or electricity, but with a wood burner, a gas stove, and a generator to top up batteries or charge a laptop. Yet DOC has had no problems filling the available 25 slots.

According to Ken the system has worked very well. “With 1,500 visitors staying at Luxmore during the winter season, DOC made $15,000 extra revenue from sales of hut tickets by voluntary hut rangers. Also the saving in firewood usage was considerable with 5.2 tonnes used last winter (2014), compared to 9-12 tonnes used in the past without distribution control,” he said.

When Ken Bradley retired in 2017, Pania Dalley, DOC Supervisor, Recreation/Historic, took over the Luxmore voluntary hut ranger project. She has seen a few changes since then. The number of people staying at the hut has dropped considerably due to Covid putting a stop to overseas tourists coming to this country.

“These days it’s mostly New Zealanders and the majority, about 90%, have season’s passes, so there is only about 10% who come without a ticket hoping that there’d be nobody there to check,” she says. “Having hut rangers up there makes sure the place is tidy. Prior to 2014, there was damage from trampers over the winter months such as chairs broken and used as firewood, locked doors kicked in, and rubbish left behind.”

Other districts run similar programmes. The Welcome Flats Hut on the Copland Track has introduced volunteer hut rangers, as have the Rakiura Circuit and the Abel Tasman Track.

Pania says that most people come back year after year to take up their post. “I have a waiting list and this year we had two new lots, who had to wait two years for those places to become available,” she declares.

So, what price did I have to pay for a week at the highest backpacker accommodation in Fiordland with a million-dollar view?

I sure had to work for that view. The day before I arrived, it snowed on Mt Luxmore.

A helicopter dropped me and the 200kg load of firewood at the hut. My first job was to stack the wood in the storage area under the hut. If this didn’t warm me up sufficiently, my next job certainly did. I had to shovel snow off the boardwalks around the hut. During my week there I had to do this three times, as there were heavy snowfalls on Mt Luxmore at that time.

Each morning, the weather report was radioed in, which I had to write down and relay to the trampers. Then, after I’d had breakfast and most people had departed, I would go to the communal kitchen and dining area to tidy it up if necessary.

I was shocked to discover that cleaning and unblocking the toilet was also on my list of duties. During the winter there was no running water inside the hut and the flushing toilets were closed. There was only one long-drop toilet inside the building – which used to block frequently. The first time it happened I radioed for a plumber, but the DOC radio operator laughed and told me to use a stick provided and flush with a bucket of warm water. I found it revolting at first, but then it became just another chore.

Part of my job was to control the use of the firewood, to ensure that the supplies lasted for the week. This involved chopping up kindling and taking a load of wood to the hut each night.

Finally, in the evening after all visitors had settled in and finished their dinner, I had to check the hut tickets and sell them to those who didn’t have one.

In my spare time I read, wrote, talked to the hikers, walked up Mt Luxmore whenever I could and took loads of photos.

The weather threw everything at me – heavy snow, rain, gale-force wind, sunshine, thunder and lightning. Sometimes the hut creaked and groaned, battered by the weather and I wondered if it would hold together. Later it turned out that what I thought was a particularly vicious gust of wind, was actually an earthquake.

The hut uses solar batteries to power the lights, but I had to use a portable generator the size of a vacuum cleaner, standing outside my door to charge my laptop and phone. One day the generator wheel fell off and I found the screw right next to it. After a moment’s puzzlement, I noticed tell-tale footprints of a bird in the snowdrift on the deck and remembered seeing a kea eyeing up the brightly coloured generator.

Keas at Luxmore Hut

Despite the tumultuous weather and some unpleasant duties, I loved my stay at Luxmore Hut. Just the view from the window more than compensated for the minor inconveniencies I had to put up with. Apart from the views, the highlights for me were watching the keas play on the roof of the hut; having friends come for an overnight visit; and walking up Mt Luxmore in knee-high snow.

New Zealand has a strong tramping culture, which includes wearing the right hiking attire, following hut etiquette, and maintaining environmental awareness. The weather in the mountains is unpredictable and can change within minutes, therefore one must be prepared for all conditions and carry appropriate clothing including sturdy boots, gaiters, hats, gloves, waterproof overtrousers, and warm, preferably woollen tops under a waterproof parka. Walking poles are also useful in snow or when crossing rivers. A good idea is to have a complete change of clothes for the hut, in case your walking gear gets wet. New Zealanders love to wear shorts when hiking, sometimes worn over leggings.

It is advised to keep your boots on when crossing rivers for safety and time saving reasons, particularly when there are several unbridged river crossings along the way. Our rivers and streams are usually full of (sometimes slippery) rocks, so by keeping our boots on we reduce the risk of hurting our feet or twisting an ankle.

The hut etiquette involves leaving the hut clean, keeping quiet after dark, and replacing the firewood we have used by collecting some from the bush (this does not apply to the Great Walks, where firewood is provided by DOC). We know to collect dead wood only, rather than cutting down living trees or breaking their branches. Leaving rubbish behind, such as used packaging, empty bottles, or cans, is a definite ‘no-no’. The mantra ‘take only photos, leave only footprints’ is generally observed.

The most memorable walk in my voluntary hut ranger stint, was with a family of four from Wanaka. Rach and Dave Cassaidy were both PE teachers at Mt Aspiring College. Their kids, Aden and Kaia (11 and 9 at the time) had been tramping with their parents since they could walk. They looked like scaled-down versions of adult trampers, complete with gaiters, proper hiking boots, hats and gloves. Aden, a tough little guy, was wearing shorts, as were his mum and dad. I admired the way Rach and Dave brought up their children: no fuss, matter-of-fact, but with obvious care and affection. They taught them love and respect for the outdoors. We walked together all the way to the Forest Burn shelter where we stopped for a snack and a rest before they carried on to the Iris Burn Hut while I turned back to the Luxmore Hut.

During my week at Luxmore, there were times when I was scared, tired, and cold; but never bored. I was on a natural high for weeks after my seven days in heaven, worth every minute of the experience.

Photos: Alina Suchanski

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