I LIft Up My Eyes to The Hills

What nuclear disarmament was to the Sixties, and AIDS was the Eighties, so environmentalism is to today; the morally-invested issue du jour. And although this may be the Green Edition of the Fernie Fix, I’m afraid that don’t have anything particularly fresh or insightful to add to the mix. Now it’s not that I’m a climate change denier or anything, but sometimes I feel that so worn-out and alarmist is discussion on the issue that one ends up either (a) unbearably preachy and smugly superior, describing how one dresses in hessian weave and lives in a wattle and daub house to reduce one’s carbon footprint, or (b) feeling so overwhelmed that, to cite JP Auclair in All.I.Can, the only course of action remaining to prevent imminent global catastrophe appears to be to “basically stop doing everything I’m doing and stay home and try not to breathe too much”.

So! Rather than writing a worthy but dull reflection on carbon neutrality and eco-sustainability, I’m instead going to sing the virtues of New Zealand’s network of backcountry huts, the slightly tenuous link being that tramping (as hiking is called in NZ) is the environmentally low-impact activity par excellence.

Managed by DoC (the Department of Conservation), there are approximately 950 backcountry huts across New Zealand. They vary in standard and size, ranging from the Great Walk huts (the Great Walks being a series of nine iconic multi-day walks, of which the Milford Track is perhaps being the most famous) which can sleep up to fifty people, and which can require booking months in advance if you want to stay there during the peak summer season. The Great Walk huts are the Ritz-Carltons of backcountry huts, decked out as they are with running water, solar lighting and gas stoves, though trampers still have to carry their own cutlery and cookware. At the other end of the scale are small two-bunk bivvies, which can require some serious bush-bashing to get to, and which can most charitably be described as “rustic”. Most huts fall somewhere between these two extremes, most typically having bunk platforms and mattresses, thereby saving trampers from having to haul sleeping mats along the trail, drop toilets, a rain-water tank for drinking from, and “mood lighting” supplied by candles (caution is required on this point: barely a season goes by without some hut somewhere catching fire).

I am absolutely evangelical about staying in huts since a camping trip last autumn on which three of us were crammed into a leaking tent for fourteen hours of darkness and incessant rain. (In the middle of the night, miserable and sodden and sleepless, I resorted to the only reasonable course of action remaining to me: I took a slug of Baileys from a hipflask stashed deep in my pack, handed the hipflask around the tent, then picked all the chocolate out of my trail mix and ate it.) Tramping, after all, should be about enjoyment not endurance, and nothing quite lifts the heart like seeing a hut come into view after a long day in adverse conditions, as evinced by a recent trip some friends and I took to Mueller Hut, situated high in the alpine of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. The weather was less than optimal as we set out in the wind and driving rain, trudging up the leg-burningly steep trail with hoods pulled around our faces. Having reached the snowline, we then negotiated our way through a snowy boulder field and scrambled up a scree slope, carefully kicking steps into the 15cm of fresh that had fallen the night before, before navigating along the ridge-line in near white-out conditions. By the time we got to the hut (which we didn’t even see until we were about 50 metres away from it), to a man we were soaked to the skin. Once within, however, we simply changed into dry clothes and down booties, snuggled under our sleeping bags and toasted the trip with some New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that had been decanted into a Platypus drinking pack, accompanied by crackers and brie. Perhaps I adopt an excessively Falstaffian attitude towards outdoor pursuits, but that’s my kind of environmental activism.