by Malcolm Fisher

(.... who has now regrettably joined the ATC's South Island membership - Ed. Read below to find out what a chore that is .... !)

In early February I took up a week's voluntary work as hut warden at Angelus Hut, Nelson Lakes National Park. This was not a job I would have readily applied for, thinking it would confine me to a small area with a hint of officiousness. However when my son-in-law, Corey Mosen, told me DOC needed someone urgently, I thought I would give it a go. It turned out to be anything but unpleasant. I had plenty of time to explore and found the hut users and campers friendly and helpful.

The hardest part was the hot afternoon tramp along Roberts Ridge to the hut with a week's supply of food. At the start of the track, Jake, my convivial DOC overseer, farewelled me with a cheery message "The main thing is to have fun!" And fun, I certainly had. Interestingly, Jake, who knows the Park backwards, remembers several ATC hut volunteers, going back over the decades.

The track seemed interminable so it was a relief to enter the warden's two-bunk quarters at about 7pm. I found my room to be ideal, attached to a corner of the hut with private deck, lovely view, gas cooker, sink and shower. After a quick recovery it was time to perform my first duty, the nightly talk about hut etiquette, features of the area, and checking bookings. Unexpectedly this last task was enjoyable, hearing something of the visitors activities and their homelands.

The morning work involved cleaning the 28 bunk hut and toilets, and again the job was enhanced with social contact. Campsites also needed checking and on one of the two drizzly days I spent several hours trimming tussock back from the tracks and pumping water from the lake to replenish the near-empty tanks.

On the good days, after morning chores, it was time for active fun under the afternoon sun with six hours available before evening duties. I enjoyed trips to Angelus summit and Hopeless valley underneath, Sabine Hut beside Lake Rotoroa, Travers Valley to the east, and Speargrass Hut, with a return along the ridge to the west. I was well-equipped for these outings with DOC-supplied radio, PLB and first aid kit. It was wonderful to wander over the hinterland with a nice hut and food to come back to, and I had only seen Angelus once before, fleetingly, 35 years ago on a trip out from Sabine.

Amongst documents in the hut were questionnaires asking park users for their views on charging overseas visitors higher fees. Jake hadn't mentioned this survey but I thought I would (impartially) encourage people to respond. DOC was doing a trial in some parks, charging overseas visitors twice as much as New Zealand citizens. I was very pleased this process did not include Nelson Lakes, where eighty per cent of the people using Angelus were non-residents.

Personally I do not like the idea of a two-tier charging system. I believe all hut users face the same challenges, resulting in a sense of camaraderie and it seems inappropriate that non-citizens, bonded with locals through their outdoor experiences, should pay twice as much. Also, on my trips in European mountains, I was not aware of paying a higher hut charge than a local hiker. I contend that visitors pay a higher arrival tax, but not in the hills, where there should be a sense of equality. At the end of my stay I had quite a few completed forms to take out.

The trip out on the seventh day was a breeze with a light pack and an enjoyable encounter with the new warden on her way in. Jake met me at the carpark and after debriefing, refreshment and arranging reimbursement of my food costs, I set off to Nelson through rolls of smoke from the forest fire.

Having really enjoyed my experience, I hope I can do more wardening next season. I expect a lot of ATC members would enjoy volunteering too.

Since Alwyn and I moved into our daughter and son-in-law's sleepout we have been busy with their 16-month old twins and exploring the Nelson area on bike and foot. Thanks to Sarah and Corey's DOC work I have enjoyed several bird-searching trips.

Corey and Ajax at camp under False Peak

One journey involved a helicopter ride to and from a temporary hut on Grange Ridge above Karamea Valley. From here Corey, his kea-trained dog Ajax, and colleague Tristan spent four days checking rock wren nests. On the second night we camped under False Peak not far beyond sizable Lake Jewel.

View along Grange Ridge to False Peak

It was wonderful to be in this environment where, many years ago, one-time Wanderlust editor Paul Richardson and I surveyed this broken, rocky, rarely visited wilderness from False Peak on our way south from Lake Aorere. From our lofty Lake Jewel viewpoint some smaller lakes and the jumbled terrain was quite inviting, but with deteriorating weather, we reluctantly chose the easier option of descending to Beautiful River. Now, 32 years later, I was here, but wishing I still had the mobility of old, as Corey and Tristan made light work of the rock and scrub. Rock wren nests are hard to locate and require alert patience in often cold, difficult situations and rock climbing skills are essential. The trip left me most impressed with the dedication people like Corey and Tristan give to their work.

This commitment to work was also evident on a recent five-day kea monitoring trip in the Doubtful Valley, south of Lewis Pass. On this occasion I joined a party of 10, made up of Kea Conservation Trust volunteers and DOC workers. We divided into groups of two and headed to various points on the tops where it was hoped kea could be captured. This exercise involved bush crashing up and down ridges, camping in unfavourable places and traversing some awkward terrain. Lures and snares were set up before dawn, removed at 9am, then put up at another site at 6pm and removed once it was dark. This procedure meant long days and radio contact between the teams occurred twice a day.

Sarah and Malcolm above Amuri Pass

I was with Sarah and after one night on the tops above Doubtful Hut we headed up to Amuri Pass on the Main Divide for night two. Here, like the night before we only saw a single kea and the bird showed no interest in our paraphernalia.

Day three was an easy day involving several hours climbing through scrub and tussock to some lovely tarns south of the pass. Our tents were put up at lunch time allowing time to climb a nearby peak. When does work stop and fun begin? We were still looking out for kea while admiring everything else!

Lake Man with Doubtful valley beyond

Day four started without interest from kea, the other parties also finding the birds elusive. For me this was the most enjoyable day, with a lovely scramble along the Doubtful Range to Mt Lakeman. We then descended past the lake to the bivvy from where we heard the great news that one party had come across a group of kea feasting on silver beech seed and had managed to catch two of them.

This party elected to camp on the steep ground under these trees in the hope of more success next day. And their dedication paid off, with another couple of birds receiving blood tests and transmitters in the morning.

So we all came out on day five feeling very pleased, with more kea now monitored to safeguard the species. And I was especially happy to have had a fulfilling trip with my daughter in lovely tramping country that I hadn't seen before.

This area warrants another visit!