The hut nestles amidst scrubby sub-alpine vegetation. As you emerge from the trees onto a rocky hillside, you see it across the valley. Dark beech forest laps at the hut on one side, and cliffs rise on the other. A kea calls. A stream rushes far below. You are not the first at the hut—a thin wisp of smoke rises from the chimney. You smile and look forward to warming your hands and drying your socks by the fire.
As each hiker arrives at the hut, they are greeted by those already resident.
“G’day. Did you come of from Sharplin Falls this morning?”
“Going to Woolshed Hut tomorrow, or all the way out?”
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, you’re from Southbridge. My mother lives there. Do you know her?”
“Is this your first visit to New Zealand?”
“Do you do much tramping?”
As afternoon wears on, the hut fills up. Locals, tourists, couples, solo hikers, and families with kids. A dozen or more strangers bunking together, cooking and eating together. There are no cell phones to divide you. You are all present in this place together. You share matches, hot water, chocolate, and reading material. As the evening wears on, a bottle of scotch might be passed around. You talk about your homes, previous travels, and your current aches and injuries. You tell stories. You laugh. You wish each other good night.
In the morning, some carry on downhill while you toil up Others, you know you will see again at the next hut. You bid them all a cheerful farewell, feeling like old friends.
When I first came to New Zealand, I found the idea of backcountry huts a bit odd. I didn’t have to hike with a tent? I’d just bunk with other hikers in a hut provided at just the right spot? I was used to hiking in the US, and for me backpacking (tramping) meant getting away from other people and setting up my tent in a place of complete solitude. I was dubious.
Twelve years and many backcountry huts later, I’m sold on the hut system. Not only is it lovely to not have to carry a tent, I’ve come to enjoy the social aspect of the hut experience.
That’s not to say I enjoy listening to half a dozen strangers snore next to me all night, or that I don’t sometimes wish my hut mates were less talkative, but on the whole, the people I’ve met and the things I’ve learned—about other places, other cultures, and sometimes even about my own neighbours—far outweigh the negatives.