By Masha Oliver
“But how come you don’t get bored?” asks one of the trampers.
We’re sitting on the deck of the Ghost Lake Hut. The morning has been polished to a high shine by the cool summer’s night and the vastness of beauty around us is almost unbearable. My eyes travel from the Lewis Pass tops in the south all the way to the 1000 Acres Plateau in the west. It feels like I’ve just rolled my soul across heaven. From where we sit, we can see the flowering gentians, adorning the edge of the lake like a lai, and hear the muffled sounds of the breakfast hour from the kitchen behind us. I let the crisp alpine air fill my body. How could I ever get bored of this?
I have been hut wardening at the Ghost Lake Hut on the Old Ghost Road in Kahurangi National Park for a few days now. This is my first experience hut wardening. It’s only a few days in, but I absolutely love it. I love every second of it. Even though the routine is not my forte, days up on the mountain seem to unfold in a sort of a ritual, a natural rhythm that allows enough time for everything – work, rest, solitude, social interactions and nature.
I refuse to spend my phone battery on the alarm clock, so I wake up whenever I wake up. My tiny hut is hidden away above the main hut and is just perfect, 2m x 2m with a bunk bed and a small bench. It enforces simplicity, which I love. This is where I make my morning coffee and watch the birth of a new day as the sun straddles the mountains in view. Then I get ready, very slowly, for my daily chores. Sometimes the hut is quiet and empty by the time I get there, some days there are still a few people lingering around. This is the quiet time of the day. I tidy and clean the hut, brush the floor, put away the dishes, wipe down the kitchen area and tables, brush out the sleeping nooks, and sing a song. I stop for a second morning coffee and celebrate the views that I have all to myself at this time of the day. People start to trickle in just before noon and often stop for lunch. Sometimes I stop and chat with them, sometimes I let them enjoy the quiet.
The afternoon is for tidying up the sleep-outs, composting toilets, random fixing jobs and taking the review of the stock. The two sleep-outs at the Ghost Lake Hut have spectacular views – Tor, nodding across to Mt Owen, and Murch, gazing down towards the grand lights of Murchison, as one tramper described it. Looking at them from the bottom of the rock that they sit on, they remind me of tiny pagodas somewhere in the Japanese mountains. But what most people rave about are the composting toilets. Filled with fresh sawdust they are the nicest smelling toilets I’ve ever been in. It is a pleasure and fun taking care of facilities that have been designed thoughtfully, built recently and operate sustainably and practically.
Work up here hardly feels like work. I can organise it the way I want to. Every day I find something else to fix or fiddle with. There’s a special excitement when I know it’s time for the tools to come out. But there’s something else about it as well. I feel there is hardly any barrier between me and the environment. All I touch is wood, stone, water. No screens, no flashing signs, no noise, hardly any plastic. When I’m tidying up the sleep-outs, my gaze travels through the window and gets lost in the distance. There seems no line between me, huts and nature around me. Taking care of one means taking care of the other.
Late afternoon calls for a siesta. Sometimes I snooze in my little bach or read Farley Mowat. It’s hot and I can hear cicadas and a random fly outside, but there’s a pleasant breeze and if I keep my doors open it’s just perfect. I check the bookings, weather forecast and report to the office every day around 6 pm: about the levels of water, gas, wood, stock, and state of things. I let them know that I am OK. Phil and Rimu from the office are my support crew and they help me navigate my way through facilities maintenance jobs and patiently reply to the plethora of my questions. I appreciate their knowledge and support. Even though there are miles between us and I’ve only met Rimu briefly, it feels like I have a team I can always rely on.
But I am not a lone ranger up here. Halfway through my stay, the track workers arrive to work on the track. Their hut is next to mine but much bigger and comfortable. They have a fridge, an oven and a hot shower and I get an invite to dinner the first night. I bring the beers, they feed me delicious fried rice. We hit it off straight away. They entertain me with their stories from the mountains and the bush, yarns about building tracks on the West Coast. The rest of the time, we talk quality rubbish.
Hut gets livelier and fuller towards the evening. It’s a good time to be present, make yourself known, mingle, chat with people. The Old Ghost Road attracts all kinds and huts work as connecting nests, where meetings and pollination of ideas happen. It’s great to watch, listen and be part of this. I get a chance to talk to people from all across the country and many walks of life: teenage girls on bikes from Nelson, hardcore West Coast senior trail runners, an environmentalist who just returned from Alaska, a farmer from Wanaka, a software designer from Auckland, an artist from the Banks Peninsula, and an older couple from up north exploring the country in their van …
The variety of people I meet makes me wonder how vital connection with nature is for us humans, for all of us. And how crucial it is, now more than ever, to look after the environment, to protect it and care for it. There’s generally a good understanding, respect and companionship among people on track and in the hut. Even though this is not hardcore backcountry, most people are clued up and respectful of a hut etiquette and the basics of the environmental code, which makes my work much easier. Out of my 10-day stint, only one night brings on a party, with the party crew occupying almost the entire hut and running out of steam just before 11 pm.
Slant evening light lures me out for a walk and I usually spend this time checking the trail or wandering off. Ghost Lake is the highest point on the track, an alpine environment, where mountain beech and neinei give way to the alpine tussock and flowers. It is the most fragile habitat on the entire track and enormously rich in biodiversity: every time I walk past it, I notice a shrub, a grass, a herb, a bog plant or a moss that’s new to me.
Towards the end of my stay, I climb to the top above the hut. I stop at the track worker’s hut and drag Seth along. The sky above us is like an ever-changing canvas of coral and orange. On Earth, the evening light turns everything into gold. We can hear the frogs down by the lake announcing the turn of the day with their serenade that echoes around the basin, across the lake, the hut, the Skyline Ridge, the entire Kahurangi. Once on top, we watch the river of clouds below us, some are slowly crawling down the slopes, others are pouring into the valleys.
I think of everything that lies beneath the clouds, the Denniston Plateau, the rising Tasman sea, the ancient tannin-filled rivers – dammed and not yet dammed, the burning coal, the ever-expanding dairy fields, the nesting pair of long-tailed bats, tāiko, still returning. We sit there for a long time, watching the gift of nature in front of us, around us, and talk, until our words become too tiny and sink into the endless sea of clouds below.
How could I ever get bored of this? How could I not look after this?