Custard Squares

Kerry Clapham of Southland Section NZAC has an enviable reputation for campfire cuisine. I am extremely fond of custard squares; indeed, I am something of a connoisseur.

Kerry thus wins approval for his latest contribution to tramping fare, backcountry custard squares. The night before leaving home, cut out commercial pre-prepared flaky-pastry sheets to fit into Chinese takeaway trays and bake as per the instructions. The takeaway trays are used to protect the baked pastry when in your pack. In a plastic bag combine Edmonds custard mix and proportionate full-milk milk powder and sugar as per instructions, though add perhaps 20 percent more milk powder than you may expect.

Make a note on the outside as to how much water to add. In a leakproof plastic jar, mix butter and vanilla essence for the icing – the icing sugar goes in another plastic bag. Gently boil up the custard and assemble the components in situ before preparing the main dinner course in order to give the custard time to set. Kerry says it is best to apply the icing to the top layer of pastry before mounting it on the custard. The takeaway tray for the pastry is, of course, exactly the right size for the assembly platform.


Over New Year I took my 25-year-old niece, who has just got into tramping, and a friend over Cascade Saddle and down the Dart River. The keas on and around the saddle were, to be nice about it, troublesome. Rather, think of a criminal gang of hoodlum five-year- old boys armed with pocketknives and you get the idea. The little sods clearly didn’t appreciate my previous support for the Kea Conservation Club and the Kea Conservation Trust, or consider that if they woke me too often in the night that I may feel inclined to malevolently conjure up a few clauses for any Conservation law reform that would deliberately be deleterious to their wellbeing. More pertinently, they failed to realise that if my patience wore too thin, it wouldn’t be just small stones that I was biffing in their direction . . . Elly lost her cheese and a hut shoe, my tent got a couple of tears in it and one of the lifejackets (more about this later) got a hole.

When we climbed Plunket Dome the next day, we sagely first spent a happy half-hour burying our pack contents, tents and food under a pile of rocks as a protective measure against the keas – something I hadn’t done for about 40 years. Lou Sanson was camping up there a couple of days later and received similar treatment from the keas – talk about biting the hand that feeds you!


Gaz produced two two-person packrafts at the start of our Cascade Saddle trip. I can tell you that lugging ice axes, crampons, rope, tents, packrafts, paddles and life jackets up 1,100 metres from Aspiring Hut to The Pylon makes the haul up seem even further than it is. But I was later very pleased with Gaz’s contributions to the trip. We put in just below Daleys Flat and exited at Paradise five hours later. Of course, the trickiest rapids were those we started with and it would have been nice to work up the grades rather than down, but that’s okay.

I was reminded of Hugh van Noorden’s assertion that packrafters largely have the same whitewater technical maturity as kayakers 40 years ago. The best thing packrafters could do to keep themselves alive, he asserts, is learn from the kayakers. Happily for us, Gaz is an experienced whitewater kayaker and he was able to read the river and interpret it for us. I contemplated that one cubic metre of water weighs a tonne and if that presses you against a semi-submerged tree, it’s going to be difficult to push against it. Trying to get out of a ‘strainer’ (tree trunks in the river) is going to be a bit desperate.

Packraft technology has improved a lot, even in recent years. Gaz’s two-person packrafts each weighed in at about 2.5 kilograms and roughly cost $1 per gram. They each took up little more room than a tent. My previous packraft effort was on a DIY job that utilised two old truck inner-tubes, three branches and string, cost nothing and on the tramp out, after they had been burnt, weighed nothing, too. They were fine for most of the Wairaurahiri River in medium flow. I wrote them up in an UJCC in the late 1990s if you are interested. I have, however, eschewed them ever since I tried one for a very surprisingly brief period in the Shotover River while attempting a moderately serious rapid.

Danger, Will Robinson!

There is no shortage of warning signs on the Cascade Saddle track. I was previously aware of this as people do die on the track and the Coroner has made recommendations for such signage. My view is that the going isn’t technically any more difficult than a lot of advanced level tracks and the fatalities are most likely to be the result of people trying to cross flooded streams, being caught in bad weather (which is related), or having the wrong footwear for snow-travel early in the season.

Given that most of the gear carried by the people who passed us seemed very lightweight, I think I can see why these hazards could be an issue. The warning signs didn’t hint that a 1,100 metre climb followed by a longish valley slog above bushline to the nearest shelter is a helluva long way in bad weather, especially if you are not all that fit. They could simply have said, just don’t go up there when it’s raining! As it turned out, the biggest hazard we had to deal with was quicksand in the mid-Dart River, which none of the safety bumf mentions. Some of the quicksand there is voracious, as Gaz ingloriously demonstrated to us.


Until recently it had always been unclear to me what the rules are about lighting a fire in the backcountry, not that this has ever stopped anyone I know from finding firewood for a brew-up. I recently discovered that DOC now provides authoritative advice on lighting fires in the backcountry on their website, where the backcountry refers to areas that are over an hour’s walk from the nearest road end. It turns out that you can light campfires in the backcountry, but only if there is no fire ban in place and there are no notices prohibiting fires, the fire is at least three metres away from trees and anything that could catch fire, and the fire is smaller than half a metre in width and in height.

I measured our last campfire to see if these numbers make sense. Our usual cooking fire was 60 centimetres wide, 30 centimetres deep and – at its best – 40 centimetres high. I think that averages out about right and at any rate is within engineering measurement tolerances. I’m happy to keep my carbon footprint low and continue to cook with wood.

Ka kite,

Robin McNeill

This article was re-published from the March 2022 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Uncle Jacko’s Cookery Column here on Wilderlife.