AUTHOR: Tony Caudwell
So, how did I come to spend two days in the bush with some great characters doing up a an ironically named Mansion Hut? The hut’s name is ironic because before the work we did, the little two bunk hut was anything but a Mansion – tired, dark and cramped hut would have been a more accurate name.
It all started from reading the Remote Huts articles in NZ Hunter magazine, where I learned about a group called Permolat, a volunteer organisation who maintains backcountry huts and tracks for future generations. Then, co-incidentally, Greg and John from Permolat Southland contacted me to get some Back Country Cuisine meals for hut survey trips and I said, “put me on your email list”.
Sure enough they did, and before Christmas 2021 I received an email saying Permolat Southland need volunteers on the 8th and 9th of January to upgrade Mansion Hut situated next to Irthing Stream in Southland's Eyre Mountains. The work to be undertaken was putting in a skylight, removing and relocating the bunks, adding a table, fire insert, new wood shed, a toilet and painting everything. A chopper would be taking in packs and materials while the rest of us enjoyed an easy 2 hour walk in. So I said, “sure, I can help out that weekend”.
Then one of our friends said, "hey, we should all go camping at the Irthing Valley Picnic Area after new year", so I talked about it with my wife and two daughters and agreed it would be a great way to start the new year and a great place to spend a night with our friends. We could also walk up to the Mansion Hut for lunch so we could all see where I was spending next weekend. We had two glorious days of weather, which involved lots of swimming in the river, camping, cooking over an open fire, playing cards and walking to and from Mansion Hut.
Three days of work at Back Country Cuisine flew by and it was time to go. I’d packed everything I’d need during the week:
So, I finished work on Friday at 5pm, went home and had dinner with my wife and daughters, popped my gear in the ute around 7pm and headed for the Irthing Valley Picnic Area an hour and twenty minutes from home. When I got there Greg, Alistair and Paul were already there and John turned up soon after. What I didn’t realise then was it was Greg’s birthday and that we also had another party member Annabel. We did the introductions to each other, all had a bit of chat and then set our tents up for the night.
The night was quite cold compared to the great weather we’d been having and 6am seemed to roll around quite quickly for the chopper to fly the gear in at 7am. So we all had breakfast, packed our gear into our packs for the weekend and then proceeded to unpack all the materials from Greg’s truck for chopper. Once we’d got that done John, Paul and I headed up the track for Mansion Hut. It was a novelty walking up the track without a pack as I normally end up carrying, even on day walks, all of the family gear. As we walked, we chatted away getting to know a bit about each other until I spotted six deer playing on the stream bed about half way to the hut 100m from us.
John, having been a professional hunter and mid conversation with Paul on the merits of various types of predator traps, directed me to sneak up and take a photo of the deer on my cell phone. As instructed, I snuck up the track and in behind the roots of a tree that had fallen over the stream. Holding the cell phone above my head I managed to get a few grainy pics of the deer who were 20m from me. I then stood up to the surprise of the deer and waited for the guys to catch me up. After another hour of walking, we made it to Mansion Hut and I took a photo of the two spritely 70+ year olds I’d been walking with.
It was a nice walk to the hut without a pack, the only problem was we had no food or insect repellent on arrival. So, with no sound of a chopper in the valley we decided to start scouting the location for the toilet which had to be between 20m and 100m from the hut. As the hut is on an old bend of the stream, we were all worried about finding a suitable spot that didn’t involve excavating the old riverbed. We grabbed the hut shovel and started seeing if we could dig in likely looking spots. The first few sites we tried weren’t promising hitting large stones straight away and then Paul found the needle in the haystack, a depression with soft soil!
So we made a start on digging until we heard the sound of a chopper heading up the valley. There’s something exciting about choppers taking off, landing or dropping gear, even if you’re not hopping in for a flight. Maybe it’s the noise, the downdraft, the load dangling underneath or that trips that start with a chopper tend to be great trips. After a couple of circles around the hut the chopper dropped what was to be the first of three loads between the hut and the stream and we got busy on unpacking so the pilot could land a bit downstream and run up the track for the net.
After we had all the gear on the ground and the rest of the team arrived, we were divided into teams to start on the work:
Then the chaos started, imagine a reality TV building show where everyone is in one room; well that was us in a clearing in the bush. There was stuff everywhere, people all over the place and suddenly those tool double ups weren’t double ups anymore! Although we were outside, which was much better than the TV building shows, at times there were three of us working in the small hut and the other thing was the sandflies. Normally you can escape them in the bush by moving or going in the hut; well when you need to be working in one place you can’t, and it’s you’re like a buffet for the little beggars.
Day two dawned nice and early again bringing with it another deadline – the chopper’s arrival at 5pm to pick the gear up. So, after breakfast the race started to get the following done, already knowing there was no way we’d get to painting:
We all worked flat out until lunch time, when Annabel surprised us all with a billy cake she cooked up to celebrate Greg’s birthday the day before. I don’t know how she found the time to do that with all the work she was doing but it tasted so good! By 3pm when half the team needed to head back so they could meet the chopper in the carpark, we had everything except filling the gaps around the toilet base and backfilling with earth done – phew!
Annabel, John and I were determined to get the loo working, deciding that we could successfully screw a few ply offcuts around the bottom of the loo braced against the waratahs holding the base in place, which would allow us to backfill with earth and get the loo operational. So after another hour of work, we no longer had just a toilet, we had a fully operational thunder box!
We still had an hour before the chopper arrived so we emptied all the snacks we had in our packs and had a late afternoon tea while waiting to hear that familiar sound of the chopper coming up the valley. 5pm rolled around and the chopper circled above before flying downstream and dropping a crew member off to hook the rather large load on, which by the way we were very worried was too heavy. Our chopper man on the ground also one look at it and said, “I don’t think the chopper will lift that, but he’ll try” - he did, and it wouldn’t – bugger! The chopper landed down the valley again so we could get another net and we got to splitting the load in two quick smart.
Once the chopper got underway Annabel, John and I then began the walk out with the sound of the chopper dropping the gear in the distance. It was nice to be stretching the legs after being on hands and knees working on the ground for the last two days and we had a great conversation flowing as we headed down the river valley. Three quarters of the way back the rain started, so we increased our pace finally arriving back at the carpark at 7pm soaked and happy to make the trip home for dinner and our own beds.
Although it was a full on weekend, the team were great, the work was fun and rewarding. So if you’d like to get involved in looking after huts and tracks, get in touch with your local Permolat group.
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