We started at Catchpool Valley carpark walking the easy-going 2.5 hours to the braided Orongorongo Valley River. We had not been to the Tararua tramping club (TTC) hut, Waeranga hut, since our bushcraft course in March. The braided river was higher, calve deep as oppose to ankle-deep and some of the more precious of the group even crossed without boots on. I decided wiser and put my faith in a mild night to dry out my boots. While we were to enjoy some gourmet eating and frivolities at the hut we were also doing as tramping clubs do. The plan was to see as many huts as possible over the weekend hiking along the Valley floor. Unknown to most, the Orongorongo Valley is home to over 50 huts most of which are privately owned. Back in the heyday of the 1920’s the Wellington Water Board started leasing land in the Orongorongo valley for a pound a year. Most people built simple structures from what they could get to the valley floor at the time. The valley became a recreational and hunting area and the huts a simple refuge from the elements.
The situation has become contentious now that the current managers of the land, DOC, have set a clause where all lease agreements in the Orongorongo valley will expire by 2050 with no opportunity for renewal. Furthermore in the event that the current leasee passes away, all land, including the hut will return to DOC. Why? well the land is public. The lease to private owners goes against current legislation and does not sit well with the New Zealand egalitarian view. Many private hut leasees express concerns over the lack of funding that DOC receives and the possibility that the huts will be forgotten and undermined. Their pessimistic outlook is not unfounded as DOC simply does not have the funding needed to maintain the extensive inventory of huts, most of which are aging and succumbing to the elements. One of the first huts we encountered was Mac’s Hut, once owned by TTC it is now in DOC hands. It sits unused and unloved. Most people do not even know its location.
The Orongorongo Club, a group of private hut owners, strongly advocates for the transfer of leases to other family members and hut users. That said the hut owners aren’t exactly sharing their huts with the general public. In fact nearly all of the huts in the valley are locked albeit from Baine-Iti hut, the oldest hut in the valley. The private hut leasees clearly don’t like to share their entitlements freely but nor does DOC. DOC huts, of which there are 6 in the valley, are accessible by pre booking only and often this means booking the entire hut, an expensive option. While the Orongorongo valley is an oasis from the nearby city it is also one of the closest recreational areas to a road end meaning that vandalism can be an issue. Case and point Ruahine Range hut, Cone Hut and Mavora Lakes huts all of which were vandalised in 2015. Continual vandalism threatens the future of many huts evident in the recent closure of Ngapotiki hut near Cape Palliser. So while DOC and private hut leasees have good reason to be overprecautious this means the general public has limited options when planning overnight journeys to the valley.
The DOC clause is one concern but elements are another. Our very own TTC Waeranga hut is perched in its current position after the hut was compromised in 2005 by heavy flooding in the region. But now as the nearby stream carves out a new braid it seems the superhuman effort to move the hut to higher ground may be futile. Hiking up browns stream we pass Kiwi and Kia ora huts as well as DOC hut Raukawa. The only used hut is Raukawa where a family has booked the hut for the weekend. Even they are surprised to learn after chatting with us that there are so many huts in the valley. We leave them with directions to a few huts to explore.
On the other side of Browns Stream we make our way to Taihoa hut. The leasee is now in her late 60’s and unable to walk into the valley anymore but it is evident that care of the hut is continued by family members. We were able to access this hut as a member of our tramping party is a relative. We looked through photos albums at the hut showing its immense history and people’s love for this simple and beautiful abode. The hard work and determination was evident in photos of people hiking in cane chairs, the ones we now sit on infront of the fireplace. Nearby to Taihoa hut sits the sites of former huts including Shamrock hut which succumbed to fire and Oaks hut which was dismantled by DOC. Little remains apart from a ghostly slabs of concrete, a dark reminder that the remaining huts are in constant threat of a similar fate.
We saw a total of 19 huts that weekend. Not even half of the huts that dot the valley. Other huts we saw included Johnstones, Jans, Tahoa, Mahoe, Xanadu, Lofty Lodge, Rovers Return, Tijuana, Baine-iti, Haurangi, Manuka Amber Inn and Fern Lodge. All beautiful in their own way and collectively they share a majestic nature. While some huts show architectural pride and resilience others are nothing more than four walls and a roof. The relics that they housed included gas electrolux fridges (some even had beer for the next adventure!) and ACME washing rollers. The huts assert a sense of adventure during a time forgotten by most but remembered by many. Although the huts futures may seem uncertain I hope they survive and are enjoyed by the public, not merely as a passing curiosity but for their original intention, the shelter for which an adventurer needs.