Canterbury Access

Just before Covid-19 Alert Level Two and shortly after one of the party had spent a day entertaining a guest from Milan – had that been a sniffle he was suffering from, or a cold, or… ? – the Occasional Patunamu Tramping Club headed up the Hopkins Valley in the Ruataniwha Recreation Park to stretch their legs. A long, ill-kept 4WD road through farmland takes you to Memorial Hut. If the DOC signs at three gates we passed through are to be believed, the farming practices in South Canterbury are possibly unique, for they stated it was lambing season. I had never heard of lambing in March before, but then I do live in Southland. We didn’t see any lambs.

The access road was, frankly, a mess. In living memory you used to be able to (just) drive to Memorial Hut in a tightly-packed Mini. Now you need a high clearance 4WD, or you will have to spend the first day of your trip tediously walking up this road. We saw one such couple doing this, but sadly we didn’t have any spare room to offer a lift. I guess you could take a mountain-bike with you, but in fact a front-end loader and resource consent to extract some of the plentiful river gravel is all that is needed to tidy the road up and reinstate access for all. I would hate the Backcountry Trust to pay for that as DOC and the local council should ‘Nike’ it (i.e. ‘Just. Do. It!’).

Silly Signs – ‘Yeah? Nah!’

DOC staff beat us to the huts in the Hopkins Valley by a few days, to undertake priority life-critical signage work. No, they were not there to remove, or update the numerous Potassium Cyanide Poison Warning signs dated 1995, which may or may not still be in effect . . . or to check that the lambing was going well for the farmer.

Presumably under some notion that rain-driven Covid-19 aerosols could wipe out hut users in the backcountry, they had flown in to post warnings that the water in the huts was going to probably kill us and so not to drink it. The water tank stands even had icons of taps with red lines through them, which was much more intimidating than the Silly Signs inside the hut. Good grief!

A kea did once manage to make a bunch of climbers in the Cook area pretty crook, back in the early 1970s, by drowning and decomposing unnoticed in a hut water tank. Since then the newspapers have been singularly devoid of reports detailing trampers coming down with drinking-water gut-rot.

Rebecca Gray, FMC Administrator, tells me that her children were upset by seeing these ‘Boil Water’ Silly Signs at another hut. Having been told to be good little kiwis and obey all the rules and signs in the huts, the children were naturally aghast that their mother was going to break the law and in the process kill them with dangerous, unboiled tank water. How do you explain that one, guys?

Meanwhile Kerry Clapham observed a hut full of trampers in Arthurs Pass who were diligently depleting the hut’s gas supply boiling up roof rainwater to make it ‘safe’ as instructed. He was ropeable that he was doing his best to reduce his carbon footprint and here was the ‘Department of Carbon’ encouraging carbon squander. Some Facebook posters have suggested removing these signs, but DOC staff will then squander even more carbon by flying in to replace them.

I have a suggestion: we should all add a Sharpie permanent felt-tip marker to our essential tramping gear. At nine grams that is not going to break our backs, especially if it is included in the party gear. Then every time we see a Silly Sign, we are thus equipped to scrawl ‘Yeah? Nah!’ on it. The Silly Signs will remain intact and legible, so DOC won’t have to replace the signs and so save a little face and a lot of budget.

To be fair, DOC staff are (mostly) pretty embarrassed by their Silly Signs, so I can’t see them objecting. Meanwhile small children and new trampers will be heartened to learn that as ‘real trampers’ they can safely ignore these signs.


Geoff tried out a Macpac Nitro Polartec® Alpha® Pullover super-lightweight fluffy jersey on our trip. The Polartec website asserts that ‘Polartec® Alpha® was ‘invented for the U.S. special forces . . . for extreme temperature variations and the start-stop conditions of combat’. Geoff likes it and reckons that for a fibre it has good loft. It needs a windproof cover over it in the wind, but is extremely light and dries quickly. I think it would operate well as the damp layer under your parka on a wet day. The price looks right.

As I followed up in the rear, climbing a minor mountain in the Naumann Range without the assistance of such a pullover, Geoff loftily opined that ‘Pain is just weakness leaving the body’. That may be true, but what, I wondered, is going to take its place? Sometimes it is better to stick to the Devil you know. Besides, I prefer to live more for the moment.

Quarter of a Century

This column marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of UJCC. The first column appeared in FMC Bulletin in May 1995, a reprise from the University of Canterbury Tramping Club’s Trog magazine in 1980. Since 1995 there have only been two occasions when UJCC hasn’t graced this publication. I doubt anyone is much the wiser for having read UJCC; indeed, should you have read them all, I estimate that you will have instead cumulatively sacrificed a solid day’s tramping; I just hope that it was a hut day!

Mountain Locusts

While we were waiting for the oncoming Covid-19 plague, there came out of the clouds locusts upon the earth below the smoke-stained snow of the Naumann Range tahr, which are probably best described as gorgeous mountain locusts.

I have hunted tahr in the past (the strain of shooting at them at the long distances involved took its toll on my .303, to the extent that the barrel now droops), but that had been on the snowline. I hadn’t then seen the absolute havoc large herds of tahr cause in the subalpine zone and here we were seeing herds ranging from half a dozen to dozens. They seem to park up on a suitable spur and eat everything except false Spaniard (celmisia lyallii) and then they eat that, too, leaving just bare dirt and bleached twigs before moving on. The tahr seemed pretty tame and are mostly kids and nannies, setting up a minor ecological disaster given enough time.

Ka kite,

Robin McNeill

Message From the Team at FMC

As Uncle Jacko explains, since his column began in May 1995, it has since appeared in all but two issues of the Bulletin (known as Backcountry since March 2017) – that’s 104 of 106 up to this June issue! During that time Uncle Jacko has given readers countless smiles, laughs and quite a few wry insights to boot.

Robin explained to me that earlier Uncle Jacko columns usually ran to about 2,000 words, but he had to cut this back to nearer the current 1,200 or so words once he began a stint as FMC President in 2013. A quick calculation therefore indicates that readers have so far enjoyed around 184,000 words of Uncle Jacko’s wisdom – much more than enough to fill a standalone book – c’mon Uncle …

From everyone at FMC, we thank Robin McNeill for his outstanding dedication. For the sake of all Backcountry readers we also wish him and Uncle Jacko many more anniversaries to come.

This article was re-published from the June 2020 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Uncle Jacko’s Cookery Column here on Wilderlife.