Hot dates and roaring stags

IMG_1661 I woke up to my alarm at the ungodly hour of 6:00AM on a Saturday.  This only reminds me of my time as a struggling student, having to wake up for the early morning shift at Moore Wilsons.  Nevertheless I put on my tramping gear and threw my pack over and ventured into the early weekend darkness.

My second trip with the WTMC was to some place called Roaring Stag Hut (aka Lodge) in the Northern Tararuas.  The map called for a leisurely stroll up and over a ridge of approximately 300-350m in elevation.  The DOC website had a little picture of Roaring Stag Hut and it looked quite lovely, a spacious little building with a nice veranda alongside a stream in a neat little valley.

Eleven of us piled into the official WTMC Ford Transit van, which was to be our chauffeured limo for the weekend.  We were two miles out of Carterton when the promised early morning caffeine break was confirmed and soon realised.  Not being a breakfast person or a coffee-on-a-tramp person, I opted for a Glaceau Vitamin Water™.  The Dragonfruit flavoured concoction purported to be enriched with Iron and other vitamins and minerals, and a savoury muffin which, as discussed during breakfast, has all the major food groups – meats, dairy, fats, veges.  Who was I to argue?

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Pete was the driver and trip leader, some lightheartedly referred to him as “Grumpy Pete” but I don’t think this was necessarily accurate.  After all, hardly any of us are morning people, particularly those involved in the intricate affairs of the public service.  Where the weekend is often our only salvation and escape from the black clad running shoe to work wearing masses of our fellow government workers.  After breakfast at the Wild Oats cafe it was safe to say that not only Pete’s, but all of our outlooks improved.

The roadend in Putara is in the scenic Mangatainoka valley.  I inquired whether we could visit the Mangatainoka institution that is the Tui brewery on the way back, only to be dismissively told by “Grumpy Pete” – “You’re walking sunshine”.  The gravel road made the almost fully laden van rock and squirm towards its destination, at one point the van willed itself to travel sideways on the foot deep gravel, but Pete got it under control before we spread out our tramping gear all over the Mangatainoka valley.

At the road end, Pete gave us a team talk and went over the route, adding that if this were an Easy trip we would go right at the junction to Herepai Hut, however because this was Easy/Medium we were off to the “much harder” left hand fork towards Roaring Stag hut.  I lead the pace for the first bit, however my gusto and enthusiasm was proved to be short lived as I was soon having a guts full getting up a fairly gruelling climb.

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But first, we encountered a swing bridge.  A fairly standard cable supported DOC swing bridge.  The group coped quite well with it, with some remarking it was a bit of a wobbly one.  This was mere appetiser however compared to a swing bridge of about 50m long over a much higher drop into a rocky creek below.  The bridge had some of the side supporting cables cut or torn, which added to its unstableness and some of the cross ties had come loose, adding to its general sense of dread and fear.  Nevertheless the whole group made it through fine.

In between the two swing bridges we saw a father and daughter walking out.  He told us he helped lead a group of kids  from the local college to camp near Roaring Stag and we would encounter the main bunch in about an hour.  Oh what luck! 18 kids plus 11 trampers hanging around the hut would not have proved  a very enjoyable weekend! Further down the trail, a quick conversation followed between me and Dave about how its important to get kids outdoors so they can learn the meaning of tramping.  “Well,” I asked, “what is the meaning of tramping?” “Oh, it’s well… getting outdoors, a bit of exercise and solitude.”  “Solitude?” I asked, “like you mean going to a hut with 11 people?”. Well perhaps not solitude, but you know, getting away from it all, getting away from technology. “Right” I added “which is why we brought along our Ipods and Kindles and everything?”  A decent chuckled followed, but this is something I have reflected on since.  What is the meaning of tramping? Why would someone in good conscience leave the comforts of home to carry a heavy pack into the inhospitable New Zealand bush, to walk until their feet ached, to sweat profusely, to then share close quarters with like minded people, but who are nevertheless almost complete strangers? I leave this question with you, the reader.

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Following the second swing bridge it was at this point that the track turned sharply and headed up the hill.  On the topo map it looked like a gentle rise, but in person it proved to be a likely misread and a pretty gruelling climb.  Beech roots had formed rough, but not yet slippery steps, which sometimes felt like they were waist high.  The track went directly up the hill, with no turns, switchbacks or little flat bits to catch your breath.  My enthusiasm for the tramp waned at that point and I found the group in front of me disappearing further and further up hill and into the bush.  This too added to my general misery of having to scramble up the hill, pouring sweat like a prizefighter entering the eighth round or a basketball player midway through the fourth quarter. You know it gets real when you see raindrops of sweat drip form the tip of your nose.  Maybe the rise actually wasn’t that bad, but for some reason I was having an absolute dog of a time on it.

About an hour into the tramp we saw the first of the kids descending down the hill.  Some of the kids with light packs and running shoes on were positively flying down the hill.  Some of the group attributed this to the footwear the kids were wearing, light running shoes compared to heavy tramping boots, but I think this was down more to that bulletproof feeling and the audacity of youth.  Most of the kids were friendly enough, and gave me a quick hello or asked me how I was going.  However one kid with a blue dyed fringe asked me where I was going – “Roaring Stag hut” was my reply, “Haha you’re not even halfway there yet” was the response.  “Oh really?” I ask somewhat surprised by the frank nature of the conversation. “Yes really” was the kid’s response as he continued his jaunt down the hill.  Not wanting to feel even more discouraged at that point I chose to believe the kid referred to the overall distance to Roaring Stag hut itself and not the distance up to the junction at the top of the climb.  In hindsight the kid’s quip proved true, I was at that point not even half way to the hut, but mercifully the climb was about to end.

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The track evened out and soon I saw the junction with the more fit members of the group already with their packs off, settling down for lunch.  This was an opportunity for the group to have a proper chat and a proper yarn to another and many conversations flowed.  I was ready to bite down into a Snickers, my go-to snack on tramps.  A delicious morsel of peanuts, caramel, nougat and chocolate that is quick eating and satisfying.  All owing to the fact that the Snickers bar was the first western chocolate bar available in the post-Soviet Union Russia and therefore holds a special place in my childhood memory.  I remember running to the local import store to put down 110 roubles for one, and they still taste great after all these years.  Someone remarked this would be a good Snickers commercial.  I agree.  Snickers – the taste of the post-Soviet generation.

Getting down the ridge proved much more straight forward if a little bit time consuming.  We went across the top of the ridge and saw some typical wind-broken beech and quasi-goblin forest for just a little bit, before steadily descending down the ridge towards the river.  We heard the river from quite some distance away but could never really get a good look at it.  A short (unsanctioned?) stop by a little stream followed a sharp descent towards the stones of the wash of the river.  While descending down a little downhill we suddenly saw the red roof of Roaring Stag hut.  Like a lot of other New Zealand huts, this one also has a habit of suddenly appearing from the bush.  We had been walking for 3.5-4 hours at this point.  Salvation, rest and dinner were soon to be at hand, but a part of me was already thinking about the march up the ridge again in the morning.

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We found the hut stove already going on a balmy autumn afternoon, as three local boys from around Eketahuna had set up residence.  The boys looked to be in their early 20s, were pretty burly looking but otherwise quite welcoming.  Turns out one of their parents has a farm close by and they use the hut as a holiday home of sorts.  The boys have brought seemingly the kitchen sink with them, a tonne of different kinds of food, a windup radio, gumboots but yet somehow neglected bringing along a cooker – necessitating use of the hut stove or a campfire outside.

We dropped our packs and examined the inside of the hut.  Sure enough, quite spacious with a cast iron woodstove and a large dining area.  Two platforms were set up with 6 mattresses per platform.  Pete had mentioned on the pre-trip info that he was keen to check out a “lake”, about 40 minutes upriver from the hut.  Now on the map it looked like a tarn at best and some speculated whether in fact it was just a little puddle, but Pete insisted, this after all was only one of two lakes in the entire Tararuas!

Most of us respectfully declined Pete’s offer of adventure and instead took to making ourselves comfortable and claiming bunks.  Pete told us to start making dinner if he was not back by 4:30, as the time rolled around we thought about firing up dinner only for Pete and Bernie to emerge.  True to the claims, the “lake” was a bit of a puddle, but Pete seemed content in seeing only one of two lakes in the Tararuas.  I offered to name it “Grumpy Pete’s Lake” in his honour, but Pete respectfully declined because that honour should go to the one who told him about it. 

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Whilst waiting for Pete and Bernie to get back we encountered two hunters coming out of the bush bedecked in safety orange.  The hunters explained that they heard the roar of the stag while they were up the ridge near the junction and dropped straight down in pursuit.  The hunters came back empty handed (there is locker at the back of the hut, which is NOT an outhouse, but is presumably to hang deer carcass) and lamented that it was still early days in The Roar.  Despite being a keen venison aficionado, I somehow admired the young buck outwitting its two mortal pursuers.

Pete was back in time for cooking dinner, so crisis averted.  Pretty soon we had all billies and the fearsomely roaring white spirit stove cranking with two hot pots of field chilli, which quickly went into the bowls of some hungry trampers.

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The trip schedule called for hot dates for dessert.  Carrie and Tania started cooking up some dates stewed in orange juice and topped with almond flakes.  The hot dates prompted many double entendres around the dinner table, which were generally quite crude and without much creativity, but they nevertheless amused us greatly.  While I’m not a fan of dates in general, I make exception for hot ones! Whoa after a long hard day of tramping all we need is some hot dates.  Ah yes, you begin to get the picture.  I can see why they are in the club recipe book, perhaps not so much for the flavour but rather for the morale boosting effect that only hot dates can deliver.  It was at this point I suggested that the title of the trip report be “Hot dates and roaring stags”, and then I was promptly informed by Pete that I had just volunteered to write it.  In the morning it was still good enough for one last joke as somebody remarked that the hot dates looked quite different in the cold light of the morning.

The three boys caught an eel for dinner.  Despite their best efforts, deploying no less than three baited lines, the lazy eel was caught with a swift hand under its belly and being thrown onto the shore for its swift execution.  An undignified end, surely, for someone who had once travelled from somewhere near Tonga as an elver to end up in a stream in the Northern Tararuas, but the circle of life continues.  The aforementioned lack of a cooker necessitated the eel be cooked in foil, with brown sugar, pepper and spices, in the hot coals of an outdoor fire.  The campfire smoke wafted through with the aroma of cooking eel, giving the hut a primordial connection, something the Maori and the first settlers must have all experienced at one point in common.  The coals still proved warm enough for a quick campfire at dusk. 

Getting my Les Stroud on, I manage to get some twigs going with the assistance of Garth and some expertly applied tissue paper.  A camp fire is an essential element of the outdoors in my opinion.  It gives us 9-5ers something to do when the sun goes down, keeps the sandflies away, and makes your clothes smell rich and satisfying long after its gone out and into the next day.  Carrie joined me in conversation, which I could best recall as a loose disjointed rant on my part about politics, the stars, travel, child welfare, poverty, music and more politics.  Lo and behold, meanwhile everyone else had dispatched themselves to bed in the end at 9:30, a whole half hour after “hiker midnight”, it was probably time to call it a night.

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Being a bit of a newcomer to sleeping in DOC huts, they are still an odd experience for me.  Best described as “sleeping on a train”.  For those who have slept on overnight trains, know exactly the experience of waking up to strange noises every couple of hours and sometimes not being able to settle back to sleep.  Maybe I didn’t walk far enough, so I wasn’t sufficiently tired, but the night ended up being slept through in 1-2 hour intervals being awoken by various hut sounds, and snoring (of which it must be said, I have been allegedly guilty of in the past).  The weather did not help at all.  Cool southerlies were forecast but instead a warm humid pall fell on the hut and the valley.  At least the hut wasn’t moving or being shunted around!

The post daylight savings dawn came through at 6:30 or 7:30, which depends on whose watch you asked.  I had enough of trying to get some sleep, so I grabbed my pieces of technology which I was supposed to get away from for the weekend and read on my Kindle some stories of mountaineering and other adventure while listening to classic rock on my Ipod.  Within the hour others had began to rise, and just like dominoes, the hut was soon awake and its inhabitants soon were casual, but with real steady purpose making themselves some dinner.

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We were soon ready to go, asking one of the three boys to take a last team photo, and allowing them to return to their peace and quiet.  Maybe they would get the hut to themselves finally!  The steady climb up the ridge proved a lot easier than I anticipated and actually quite relaxing.  On the way up the ridge we heard the guttural roars of young stags that give the hut its name.  We heard it in the same place described by the hunters the night before, so it was likely the same elusive beast.  The track got chilly as we neared the junction and when we stopped for elevenses we layered up.  The descent proved relatively quick and robust.  Luckily I still have the spry knees of a twenty-something so I was able to clamber down quite quickly, but even then I could be no match for the local kids who we saw the day before.  The wobbly bridges added in some last excitement, but like a previously conquered foe presented no real threat or challenge.  We soon made the roadend and congratulated ourselves and our leader Pete on a successful trip.

We hit Wild Oats cafe on the way back and found it jam packed with locals frittering away their Sunday afternoon in drizzly Wairarapa.  After a quick bite and a coffee we soon piled back into the van and into the drizzle, but coming over the Rimutakas we managed to somehow beat the bad weather coming into Wellington.  The van pulled into the train station and then it was time to disembark and say goodbye to what was a very enjoyable weekend full of good cheer, good food and good company.

So there it is, Roaring stag hut. A tidy twelve bunk hut in the northern Tararuas. Involves a cumulative climb of 1-2 Mt Victorias. 3-4 hours from the road end to the hut at easy/medium pace. Track wide and well formed. Hot dates optional, and yet essential.

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