I sat in darkness, listening to the rain steadily increasing on the windshield as I waited for the boys to arrive, my mind filled with dread. We had a fantastic weather forecast for our trip, beside a few evening showers today, but as I drove up into the ranges I could see the night sky occasionally illuminated by a thunderstorm rolling across the Central North Island.
I had made a mental calculation and decided the storm wasn’t in our catchment, but it was close, and now possibly tracking south to our location. The thought of hauling a heavy pack for hours on end, only to find the river completely blown out from a cloud-burst, didn’t exactly fill me with joy.
We had a pretty solid plan to push up into a backcountry river, beyond where I had fished in the past, and to see what there was to see. Rumour had it that there was a ‘wee gem’ of a stream that held a small population of resident fish. The opportunity to fish new water was enough to pique my interest, but what had me wholly invested in this little adventure was the chance to finally locate a hut which until now had eluded me.
Dotted around the country, hidden deep in the bush, are many homemade huts built long ago by passionate hunters, their whereabouts kept secret, locations whispered to a select few or found only by those who happened upon them. These rustic lodgings, hidden away from the mainstream and built from materials painstakingly carried in by their creators, or from whatever they could find locally, are to me the quintessential Kiwi experience and exude the true character of the New Zealand bush.
Many years ago, I’d had a conversation with an old timer about huts built illegally on the conservation estate. He told me of one such hut, located near one of my favourite wilderness streams, and gave me a vague description of its location. The hut was close to where I had camped in the past, but despite a concerted effort on a couple of occasions over the following years, I could never locate it. The Department of Conservation has a habit of removing these huts, so I had given up hope of ever finding it.
Yet still it lingered at the back of my mind. For ten long years I had not returned to the river, but then a chance encounter with a possum trapper rekindled that flicker of hope. He’d recently been to the hut and he gave me a more detailed description of its whereabouts and showed me photos on his phone. Suddenly my heart skipped a beat and my ‘to do’ list for the upcoming season underwent a major reshuffle.
By the time the headlights rolled into the car park, heralding the arrival of my companions, the rain had ceased and the clouds had parted, revealing the full moon beyond. Karl Sawyer and Tim Angeli, weary from their journey down from Auckland were keen to stretch their legs and hit the trail. None of us had trekked under torchlight before, and so to squeeze the most out of our three day weekend we shouldered our packs and pushed on until the wee hours of the morning, camping rough by the junction of our tributary and the main river.
After an uncomfortable sleep, the day dawned to a breathless blue sky, and our stream had obviously evaded the overnight thunderstorm. Despite that, it was some time before the first trout came to hand. Missed strikes, pulled hooks and spooked fish plagued us, but once the sun had fully flooded the valley floor our fortunes changed and the fishing fired up.
A good mix of browns and rainbows had us searching every nook and riffle the river had to offer and with three pairs of seasoned eyes united in the search, the fish didn’t stand a chance, or so we led ourselves to believe.
It took a good couple of hours before Karl finally managed to get it all together and put the first rainbow in the net. It’s amazing how that first fish can lift the spirits after a losing streak.
We shared two rods between us: one rigged with a dry/dropper combo and the other a weighted nymph under an indicator. It certainly helped that all three of us were ‘righties’, and it was a fun way to fish, with each of us involved in every capture or defeat in one way or another.
We ploughed on with confidence, and the tally quickly rose as fish succumbed to a variety of nymphs and dries. If a fish didn’t accept the first offering, it was a fair bet that a change of pattern would do the trick. It was fantastic fishing, possibly even better than I remembered, but that could have been a by-product of upskilling over the years, or growing to appreciate it more.
It was my turn to fish when we spotted a reasonably sized brown, one of two fish in a magnificent bouldery run. Both were positioned behind submerged rocks on the opposite side of a seam of current, swinging freely and totally relaxed. It was pretty to watch them. I fished from where I first spotted them, not wanting to wade too far for risk of kicking a rock and spooking them. After three or four fly changes with no response I could sense a growing impatience from the gallery of onlookers. The heckling coming from the sideline was a dead giveaway.
I reluctantly took their advice and carefully waded out to a position directly downstream of the fish. I was sure I was getting a good drift before the move, but upon reflection, maybe not. On the first cast, the fish swung and a flash of white signalled it was game on. I knew I’d brought those boys for a reason. A timely reminder that a good
drag free presentation is essential.
It would have been a fairytale ending had the fish not bolted upstream, spooking his mate in the process, but soon enough the net was slipped under him and we collectively gazed in awe of another stunning backcountry brown.
Continually lifting and dropping a heavy pack all day under the summer sun was taking a toll. Fatigue was setting in, and constantly nagging at the back of my mind was the anticipation of finding the hut before the sun went down. Or not. Maybe we’d all have to squeeze under a fly again tonight. The closer we got to our reference landmark, the less effort we put in to fishing and eventually we just abandoned the river altogether and set about hunting down our bed for the night.
We dumped our packs and split up for the search, with a plan to reunite in half an hour to re-evaluate our situation. Tired legs struggled through the dense snow-damaged bush. Each energy sapping broken branch needed a seemingly herculean effort to negotiate and my legs were teetering on the brink of cramping up. The words of Dom the possum trapper echoed throughout my head, “It took a bit of finding, but it’s there…”
Despondently, the thought of abandoning the search for the day became an ever-appealing option, to continue the hunt tomorrow with fresh legs and eyes. Just then a muffled holler in the distance caught my attention…
The hut was situated on a small terrace high above the river, surrounded by ancient beech trees. The forest floor was a carpet of cornflakes and the air stood still, filled with the song of mountain forest birds. It was a picture of serenity and a welcome change from the busy chatter of the stream all day.
You could see why the creators chose this site for their hut. I could picture them sitting down on a log, contemplating building such a thing. The surrounding geographical features would create a little microclimate, and if there was even the slightest of breezes, I’m sure we would have been sheltered from it here. Out of sight, out of mind, and smack bang in the middle of Sika country. A perfect little hideaway. It felt good to finally lay eyes on it.
The hut itself was built mainly of kanuka poles and polythene with a low pitch roof and an awning over the entrance. Anything outside that looked remotely climbable by possums was wrapped in sheet aluminium to protect the polythene roof from the horrible beasties’ claws. The surrounding bushes were adorned with moss-covered antlers. There was no doubt we were in great hunting country. It almost felt like we were trespassing, carrying 5-weights and not .308s.
Inside there were four plywood bunks with mattresses leaning up against the walls, with a fireplace down the far end and dry firewood stacked neatly under the bottom bunks on both sides. The floor was lined and there was a small bench and a few shelves stocked with various implements to make camp life a little easier: water bottles, pots, pans, a saw, hearth brush and shovel. It was well appointed. A single clear PVC panel on each side of the walls allowed a little filtered forest light to enter, but it was dark inside. Cosy, but dark.
The general consensus among us was that this was a most excellent hut, and it was certainly the best home-built hut that I’d ever seen. It was going to be a comfortable stay.
There was an unmistakable upbeat mood as we busied about in the hut and made ourselves at home. Tim set about cooking dinner for us all with Karl helping with instant spuds and peas. It seemed counter-intuitive to be packing venison into the backcountry, but that’s exactly what Tim had done, much to our delight.
If the heart of a hut is its fire, then its soul is within its logbook. The stories it tells of those who have passed through over the years makes great reading. Stories of character, adversity and of good times. Hunters, trampers, trappers, conservationists — all passing through for various reasons and respite. I did find one reference to a fish somewhere, but otherwise we were completely off the radar to anglers. ‘Passing through for a night. Saw one Kiwi near hut. Deer on doorstep in the morning. Depart 10 am.’
The first few pages of entries were from the hut’s creators. I can only imagine the sense of pride and accomplishment they would have felt as they came here, to their secret place, to hunt the deer they held so closely to their hearts. I wonder if, in their wildest dreams, they ever imagined a bunch of fly fishers coming all this way to seek shelter within these walls.
We sat in the flickering lamplight on logs, sipping fine scotch and reliving the epic day we’d just had, our bellies full of venison. Above us the stars peeked through the gaps among the forest giants and the first warm breeze of the day sent a shower of beech leaves cascading down around us. We would sleep well tonight, our dreams full of the promise of a new day, new water and a new adventure.