Volunteering on the Heaphy track

Department of Conservation —  26/04/2016

By Anja Scholz, Volunteer Hut Warden

My trip into Kahurangi National Park to volunteer as a hut warden nearly didn’t happen, as the previous night’s rain had caused enough flooding to put the bus trip in question – but in the end we made it with a few hours’ delay.

I shouldered my fairly substantial pack for the nine day stint as ‘Volunteer Assistant Hut Warden’, and tramped the 17 kilometres uphill to Perry Saddle Hut in good time.

Anja crossing a bridge on the Heaphy Track.

On the move

Hut warden Henriette welcomed me with a hot drink – I would be spending the first four days with her on the eastern sector of the track, moving between Perry Saddle and Saxon Huts.

My first night was very relaxed, consisting of settling into the flash new warden’s quarters (hot showers!), having dinner, and talking about the programme for the next few days. That very night (as on most nights afterwards) we heard kiwi calling!

The next few days were very informative and included a lot of walking. The two eastern sector wardens (working week on/week off) look after three huts, monitor and re-bait seven trap lines in the Gouland Downs area, and do track work and other maintenance work around huts and tracks.

Anja cleaning the outside of a hut on the Heaphy Track.

Anja hard at work!

I was shown the various technical bits in and around the huts such as water lines and intakes, sewage workings, and the gas system, and helped with cleaning the huts, doing trap lines, stock take and doing monthly checks.

Additionally, we talked to trampers while on the track, and Henriette did the evening booking checks and ‘question time’ at the huts.

Walking between the huts, and along the trap lines, I seriously questioned my fitness, but conceded that after a whole season on the track I, too, might not be feeling the long days as much.

Evenings concluded with hot Milo and stories about the many things that happen on the track, from flooding to hut fee dodgers, burst water pipes to kiwi spotting and amazing sunsets. It became obvious that a well stacked tool shed and ‘number 8 wire’ ingenuity are a must for wardens to keep huts and tracks in working order throughout the season and some inclement weather!

The huts and campsites were fully booked over the Easter weekend, so interacting with trampers was a large part of the work on those days – the majority of trampers being Kiwis, and several playing Easter bunny for us wardens, leaving us chocolate eggs.

Anja assists fellow hut warden Richard.

Anja assists fellow hut warden Richard

On day five it was ‘handover day’, and because Henriette had another trap line to do while en route back to Perry Saddle, I offered to do the Saxon Hut clean before moving on to the western sector. There I was to meet hut warden Richard and spend the remainder of my track days under his tutelage.

The western wardens look after Mackay, Lewis and Heaphy huts, as well as doing the track work on this sector. Instead of trap lines, they have an extensive lawn area to mow at the Heaphy Hut, and spend far more time wiping down window ledges – sandfly country!

I spent a couple of nights at the Mackay staff hut, helping with track work and a thorough clean of the trampers’ hut, and being woken by the resident ‘Mackay gang’ of five kea which were a delight to watch but a nuisance to behold as they had discovered the fun of destroying water pipe lagging.

Moving on to Lewis Hut for a night, and then to Heaphy Hut for my last night on the track, we spotted many more of the bird species already encountered previously, plus some new ones: weka, pīwakawaka, miromiro, tītīpounamu, korimako, toutouwai, tūī, kea, kereru, kāruhiruhi, and various seagulls. At the huts I again helped with giving them a good thorough clean, and at Lewis Hut, finding the water tanks empty, we had to fix a water line problem and carried water up from the river for the hut users.

A kea visiting a hut along the Heaphy Track.

One of the ‘Mackay’ gang

While kiwi were again heard but not seen that night and the next, we spotted eels and some giant spiders. We finally spent the last day with another good cleaning effort at Heaphy Hut, and checking and rebaiting rat traps, and the last night at the staff hut with warden Pat. Brilliant views, impressive ocean, lovely bush, good food and calling kiwi were only offset by a good supply of namu – sandflies.

And then came ‘walk out day’ with an early start – two toilets to clean on the way – to catch the return bus to Nelson from the Kohaihai Shelter. Time to say good-bye to the track and wardens – thank you Henriette and Richard for having me stay in your staff quarters, showing me the tricks of the trade/track, sharing food, pictures and stories. Thanks to DOC for providing the volunteer opportunity and organizing the trip for me. It won’t have been my last time on this Great Walk!