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 through 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 , 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.
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  or a small flock of popokatea  gleaning insects in 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  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. The 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. 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 , and, weird as that idea seems, rational western thought has not only failed to show it's wrong but now seems to support it.
Collective because these huts appear in the histories of tramping clubs (you note the PNTMC  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 ; of schools who organise class trips to places like Daphne; the list goes on. Individuals 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 within these cultures is diminished  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  to roost, letting you linger. You look up at the sky, the first star, the 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  (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.
1. 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).
3. 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