09 November 2008

Ngamoko hut

A small waterfall below Ngamoko hut

As the light fades, the sound of the wind mingles with the rush of the rapids, the soft rattle of toetoe, the creak of an old dead branch somewhere up the track behind the hut. Overhead scraps of cloud tinged with pink race across the sky from West to East and a little later the first star appears. Then another, and soon they're everywhere, revealed then hidden then revealed again as the ragged clouds speed past. A wild night, and you're alone there, far from reminders of the 21st century, far from wars and elections and grasping consumerism, far from Das Man and the mindless mediocrity of pop culture; you could be the last human alive on the planet.
Then a whio whistles, right in front of you, from the big pool.
It's a long walk by any route to Ngamoko. Most visitors come down the Pohangina from Leon Kinvig hut. Just a few hours of wading and boulder-hopping; in summer maybe a couple of pack-floats Gorge in the Pohangina between Leon Kinvig and Ngamokothrough the deepest pools if you're that way inclined. But you have to get to Kinvig first.
From the other direction it's a couple of hours or so up the river from mid Pohangina hut, which is in turn 3–4 hours or more from the road. A few keen souls come from the Hawkes Bay via Apiti Saddle and occasionally someone crosses over from Piripiri Stream, as I once did, years ago.
The other main route—my preferred one if the weather permits—is over the Ngamoko Range from Limestone Road. Up Shorts Track, South along the tops, then the steep drop down the track to the hut, first through dense, thigh-deep snowgrass and leatherwood with enough speargrass to keep you alert, then into the kaikawaka and finally down through gnarled beech. You might startle a deer here, and it's always worth listening for the high- frequency tzeep of a titipounamu [1], our smallest bird (but not our least feisty). If you're reasonably fit, this route should take only 4–6 hours, but when the weather's foul—which it often is, up there on the open tops—you need to know how to look after yourself and how to navigate accurately when you can see only a hundred metres or so. It's harder than it sounds.
In short, the only easy way in is by helicopter.[2]
The rewards are worth it, though. Mostly, I think it's that sense of remoteness, of solitude; just the wind and the river, the purr of the stove as water heats in the billy, maybe a miromiro [3] or a small flock of popokatea [4] gleaning insects Ngamoko hut, Pohangina Riverin the tangle of shrubbery behind the hut. The smell of cold ash and woodsmoke, sunwarmed wood, and damp socks. When the water boils you make a brew and take it outside onto the little verandah where you hang your socks to dry slowly in the afternoon sun and wind. You sit with your back to the wall, legs stretched out in the sun, and you sip your tea, eat a few fly cemeteries [5] and read the hut book, wondering how many names you'll recognise. You find your own written there, just a few pages separating the entries spanning several years. Other than a few recent visitors, no one's been here since early April. All winter—half the year—Ngamoko has remained silent, the door unopened, the fire unlit, the patient spiders undisturbed. Over summer you might find someone else here on a weekend, but come during the week or at any time over winter and you're almost certain to have the place to yourself. It's a good feeling.
You see other names you know. Robb, who had to abort his exit over the tops because of vile weather—a good call. RHS, who seems to be in all the Ruahine hut books, regularly in some. I've never met RHS in person, but hope to one day. Pohangina river below Ngamoko hutThe inimitable Mr Gates, keeper of arcane knowledge of secret tracks and hidden huts and gear caches, provider of gourmet surprises like avocado, pistachios, and goose shit.[6] The DOC guys from the Pohangina Field Centre.
You tip back the last of the tea and go inside because your bum's numb from sitting on the wooden decking and besides, the sun's gone from the verandah so you're getting cold. It's warm inside the hut, though.
As you cut up a bier stick for the couscous you think about what this hut represents. Huts like Ngamoko are more than just shelter, more than just stage markers on a journey. They represent histories—personal histories, collective histories, cultural histories. Personal because you, the person standing at the bench cutting up salami and keeping an eye on the billy, have created a history here; your successive visits become part of the hut's history and the hut has become part of yours. You form a connection; the hut comes alive in your thoughts even when you're far away, part of that other world. You wonder whether the hut and its place might reciprocate; whether it might remember you in some strange, non-human way. Rational, western thought would sneer at the idea, but other cultures would be less quick to scoff. Moreover, it was rational, western thought that led Berkeley to argue that things exist only insofar as they're perceived [7], and, weird as that idea seems, rational western thought has not only failed to show it's wrong but now seems to support it.[8]
Collective because these huts appear in the histories of tramping clubs (you note the PNTMC [9] trip here not long ago); of the mid twentieth century deer cullers (for whom many of the huts were erected) and their successors, the DOC workers who maintain the huts and tracks; of the parties from the NZDA [10]; of schools who organise class trips to places like Daphne; the list goes on. Looking down the Pohangina from below Ngamoko hutIndividuals come and go, but these organisations have a kind of collective consciousness in which a hut like Ngamoko (where you now peer out the grimy window at the wind-whipped forest) maintains a presence, an identity.
And cultural because Ngamoko, like other mountain huts, has a literature and art of its own; it appears in magazine articles, newsletters, photos, and in less public form, emails, private letters, journals, conversations, perhaps some works of art; it appears as prose and poems—of diverse quality—and images. And, of course, Ngamoko has its collection of hut books which, although the literary quality might be disputed, make fascinating reading and are cultural artefacts every bit as important as old bones and well-groomed historic buildings in cities.
You spoon out the couscous onto an old, battered, aluminium frying pan that belonged to your father, the same pan he used on trips into the hills before you were born, and as you eat, another thought comes. Yes, Ngamoko occupies a cultural space most strongly in the histories of the trampers, hunters, and others who've been here, but it also belongs in the cultures of people who have never visited it and almost certainly never will. (You who read this now, many of you on the other side of the world, I think of you now.)
As long as Ngamoko hut remains, its contribution to this diffuse and diverse cultural space continues to grow; if the hut is destroyed, the space it occupies Whio and chicks in the Waikamaka Riverwithin these cultures is diminished [11] although if the hut is replaced, that space will continue to grow. The old hut at Ruahine Corner has been replaced by a more modern version, many of the Ruahine huts have been relined and their fireplaces replaced with woodburning cookers. But Ruahine Corner is still Ruahine Corner; the revamped huts retain their names and their histories grow. The axe with the handle replaced three times and head twice is still the same axe; Varanasi, occupied for 3000 years or more, is still Varanasi; Moscow, burned to the ground in one conflagration or many over the last 800 years or so, is still Moscow. Ngamoko hut, despite the addition of the verandah, its new cooker, and its relined walls, is still Ngamoko hut. The building changes and its cultural space expands.
You take the billy, the old frying pan/plate, and your utensils down to the river and wash them with coarse sand and rushing, icy water. Already the light's faded enough to send the sandflies [12] to roost, letting you linger. You look up at the sky, the first star, theSwift water not far upstream from Ngamoko hut clouds racing. It's cold but you're well rugged up and the hut's just up there on the little terrace, out of sight in its clearing, and it'll still have the day's warmth in it when you return. You linger, not yet ready to leave behind the brisk cold.
Huts like these should be valued not according to the number of visitors per year, but on what they mean—to individuals, organisations, cultures. The value of Chomolungma [13] (other than its intrinsic value) resides not in the number of people who attempt to climb it, but because, to greater or lesser degrees, it's part of the history of everyone who's ever heard of it (meaning almost everyone on earth) and occupies a cultural space far greater than that of any other mountain. The same can be said about many of the world's great wilderness areas—Antarctica, the Amazon, the Siberian taiga, and others. Ngamoko hut may not be in the same league as Chomolungma or the Amazon, but the principle's the same. Some of us have personal histories that include Ngamoko; it in turn incorporates us into its history; individually and collectively we provide the cultural space within which Ngamoko exists, and we are the richer for it.
You think about these things as you linger in the cold by the river, under the stars and the racing clouds.
Then a whio whistles, right in front of you, in the big pool.

Whio at Ngamoko hut

The rifleman, Acanthisitta chloris. 
2. An option taken up each autumn by at least one party of hunters. It's why I stay out of the hills during the roar (the rutting season for red deer).
The tomtit, Petroica macrocephala.
4.The whitehead, Mohoua albicilla.
5.The colloquial term for Griffin's Golden Fruits, which look like badly disguised patties of squashed housefly but taste very much better (I imagine).
6. His name for grainy mustard. 
7. Flage, D. E. 2006. George Berkeley (1685–1753). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
8. Brooks, M. 2007. Reality check.
New Scientist 2609: 30–33. (23 June 2007). [“To track down a theory of everything, we might have to accept that the universe only exists when we're looking at it”].

9. The Palmerston North Tramping and Mountaineering Club

10. The New Zealand Deerstalkers' Association.

11. However, the cultural space occupied by a mountain hut could only be destroyed completely if all records, traces and memories—conscious or not—of the hut were also to be destroyed irretrievably: a process unlikely to be completed within even a few human generations. Nevertheless, even the diminishing of such a cultural space seems poignant at best, tragic at worst.

12. In Aotearoa we call them sandflies, but elsewhere they're better known as blackflies—Simuliidae.

13. More widely known internationally as Everest. Chomolungma is the Tibetan name; in Nepali it's Sagarmatha.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. A low waterfall — more like a natural weir, in fact — in the Pohangina directly below Ngamoko hut.
2. The small gorge in the Pohangina between Leon Kinvig and Ngamoko. If you're game, you can pack-float it; otherwise, an overgrown track climbs steeply through the bush on the true left before descending just as steeply to the riverbed, the exact spot of the photograph.
3. Ngamoko hut, November 2007.
4. River detail below Ngamoko hut.
5. The Pohangina river looking downstream from below Ngamoko hut.
6. Whio and chicks in the Waikamaka river about 20 minutes downstream from Wakelings hut; December 2007.
7. Swift water on a brilliant March day in the Pohangina, not far upstream from Ngamoko hut.
8. Whio in the big pool directly below Ngamoko hut, March 2008.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
Beautifully written and photos that bring the Ruahines to life for me, I just sit here smiling. I was one of the first to come across the remodled Ngamoko back in 2005, and as you refer to, ended up staying an extra night and heading out via Mid Pohangina. The voices of the past spoke very clearly and succintly to me on that trip, in the hut books, and just in the air. It is a very unique and special place, as is the entire Pohangina valley, as are the Ruahines. Thank you for bringing it back to the forefront of so many memories of the Ruahines.
I visited Parks Peak this past winter, a place I have been often. Only to find the old and cold forest service hut, the old cranky Corker, the old creaking bunks, gone. Replaced by a new modern insulated hut with all the amenities. I felt very strange, almost disloyal staying there gazing out upon where the hut used to be, warm with the new stove lit and insulated walls. Yet returning there a few days later and staying the night again in a snowstorm, I came to realize this was still Parks Peak, and this is another layer to my relationship with it. And I am definitely the richer for it. Another great post Pete, cheers.

Relatively Retiring said...

In a previous posting I was guilty of making a comment about the 'Englishness' of a fragment of New Zealand landscape. This amazing description makes it clear that this is a very different and beautiful world. I almost feel that I've been there - well, for the first ten miles or so! Thank you for this wonderful walk.

But...'the axe with the handle replaced three times and the head twice is still the same axe,' raises a philosophical dilemma similar to that posed by Evesclin's Gun-Rust Theory (Rutherford and Soddy, as quoted by J. Van Strabismus.)

Bob McKerrow said...

Thanks Pete for taking me to Ngamoko hut and environs; I will be back in the South Island next Thursday so look forward to seeing our beloved land again.
Coping with a new Govt ?



Zhoen said...

Terry Pratchett talks about that axe in Thud.

Greg Brave said...

Great post Pete,
Couldn't stop reading till the end of it!
But there is one thing that I'd like to mention... You write in the beginning of your post about how far away from the 21st century you are when staying at Ngamoko hut. But I have this permanent dilemma - even though everything seems so distant but you are still wearing modern clothes, your favorite high-tech hiking boots, perhaps using a flashlight and some other 21st century "gadgets"... so it turns out that civilization is not that bad... but from the other side there is a huge desire to run far away from it all if only for a short moment... Sometimes I think that only living in our modern world can we fully appreciate the wilderness of the nature.

mm said...

I've just looked up the location of the Pohangina valley on a map, to locate the physical whereabouts in my mind's eye. Don't know why I haven't done so before .....

Beautiful, meditative post.

pohanginapete said...

Robb, Parks Peak hut would have been an excellent example for the post. I haven't been there since the new hut was installed (maybe one day, although it's a long journey by car to the road end), and I suspect I'd initially miss the old hut the way you did. I guess it's more incentive to get out there — change happens and histories develop whether we're there or not, and if we want to be part of those histories, sitting at home is much less effective than spending time at those huts.

RR, well, for some strange reason I hadn't come across Evesclin's Gun-Rust Theory. You must enlighten me some time ;^)

Bob — don't mention the new Government! They're already gearing up to gut the RMA and Rodney Hide's doing his damnedest to get the Emissions Trading Scheme axed (of course, in his view, anthropogenic climate change is a myth. Tax cuts are far more important). If you're up this way while you're back, get in touch. BTW, I've drawn a blank on info about Maurice Field; the fount of all valley history didn't recognise the name. I'll keep hunting about, though.

Zhoen, it appears there as well? It seems to have multiple, simultaneous manifestations as well as multiple identities.

Greg, point taken. (Mind you, not a lot of my gear is 21st century, the notable exception being the camera and lenses.) However, when you stand at the river's edge below Ngamoko, the only thing you see that's unequivocally 21st century is the DOC sign. Every other reminder requires a deliberate act of memory, even if it's only remembering what's in your pack back in the hut.

Thanks MM. You can actually see Ngamoko hut quite clearly on Google maps. Now that's definitely 21st century.

Greg Brave said...

This is one of the many huge advantages of New Zealand's nature - there are still places that remain untouched (though if only seemingly) by humans...
And, of course, I understand what you saying :) and also can fully relate to that.

Relatively Retiring said...

That Google map is amazing - and you'd better be careful what you're doing around that hut!

pohanginapete said...

Cheers Greg. And thanks for the write-up — it's hugely generous and I'm honoured. (Now, where's that wheelbarrow for my ego...)

RR, true. But it's all been family friendly so far ;^)

Jamie said...

Hi Pete,

Just stumbled upon your blog linking through from Bob who I've been following for a while.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and beautiful photos. The Ruahines are probably the biggest area of of bush that I am yet to dip my toes into in NZ, yet I feel from an hour or so grazing your blog that I have connected with them a little.



pohanginapete said...

Thanks Jamie :^) There's no substitute for getting into the Ruahine, though. I haven't managed it for a while, and I'm missing those mountains and rivers. And the whio, of course.

Duncan said...

Lovely piece of writing Pete, I possibly enjoyed it more than anything else you've written, I guess because it struck so many chords with me. Memories of hikes, camps, and huts in the mountains, experienced in my younger days, never to be seen again.

isabelita said...

Another lovely narrative ; one question. What is a "bier stick"?
Thanks for the free trip to NZ...

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Duncan, great to hear it struck such a responsive chord. Although I'm speaking primarily about a quintessentially New Zealand place, the ideas should be applicable to many places world wide, and recognisable to people who remain open to the qualities of these sorts of places — as, clearly, you are.

Isabelita — you're welcome :^) A bier stick is a small salami, a bit thicker and quite a bit longer than a finger. Best eaten with a good beer in a great environment. They're excellent food in the hills, as they're high in energy (particularly fat, which is important) and very tasty. They're great for chopping up into something like a couscous, for flavour, protein, and long-lasting fuel.

Avus said...

I read this post three times, Pete - getting more from it on each reading.
I can agree that we "solitaries" (quite different from being a "loner")can experience such feelings in our own precious places in this world.
Thanks for a lovely post.
I am now off to Google Earth to explore the Ruahine - a poor substitute for being there, but something at least from 12,000 miles away!

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Avus. It's an honour to hear the writing offers enough to encourage you to re-read it. Enjoy that exploration :^)

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

i honestly thought i'd left comments on here already - so many apologies.

What i love about these photos is how effectively you've captured the power of the water

I hope they preserve the huts for the next generation of travellers

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
This is such a great post. A real treasure to return here and elsewhere in your archives, and find that connection to the Ruahines out here in the world, even if just for a few moments. Those moments of "lingering in the cold by the river, under the stars and the racing clouds" last a lifetime.Hope you have some time in the mountains planned soon.

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixie, no need to apologise. I'm glad you enjoy visiting, and pleased you and all the other visitors are now part of what I wrote about.

Robb, I know how much the Ruahine mean to you, and it feels great to know I'm offering you a chance to enjoy those mountains and rivers and huts even when you're away from them. Kia ora, e hoa.