In the footsteps of Supermen

 

The DoC brochure describes the Deception River route through Arthurs Pass as a two or three day tramp, with an overnight stay at Goat Pass Hut, but the best of the Speights Coast to Coast athletes do the entire 26 kilometres in one hour 30 minutes.

I tramped up Deception. Ninety Coast to Coast runners had come through just a week before, and the trail was plain enough. Dusty indentations signalled good river crosspoints, bent branches suggested a diversion into bush.

The athletes come through this jumbled terrain at speeds that could win an international marathon, and I gazed at the worn patches, high up on the rock where the runners had sprung from boulder to boulder. Paused in brief envy as you might, watching the pow-pow ascent of monkeys up those tree branches at the zoo. Good skills, but there‚s no need to be truly envious - these animals simply belong to a different species.

I climbed upriver towards the pass. The going got steep, the grey boulders got bigger, and intent on finding footholds and handholds on the dull stone I forgot the river. Bent over from the climb, panting then recovering myself - it was with surprise that I saw before me smooth river-water scything into a pool, saw the pool populous with thousands of silver bubbles. Or, brought up short under the spout of a waterfall, I was suddenly surprised by the colour there, a blue I‚d never seen before. You don‚t easily describe colour, it just is, but I named it spirit blue. The river fell downhill through its boulders, and from around entirely blank corners offered up these small visions, dropped into a grey world seemingly from somewhere beyond, from another, and utterly pure, planet.

I ate lunch on the hut verandah at Goat Pass, then dropped down a boardwalked trail to the Mingha River, followed it down, crossed the Bealey River, and was out at Klondike Corner after nine hours. Just a kilometre up the highway was an AA sign, the yellow diamond-shaped one that warns motorists, by the appropriate black silhouette, that children might be on the road ahead, or stock might be, or as the silhouette on this sign suggested, moas might be. I went up the drive to the Bealey Hotel. Three concrete moas grazed in the yard, moa eggs sat above the bar, and beside the kitchen servery was a Press billboard. Moa Report Genuine says Freaney.

In 1993, the hotel owner Pat Freaney and some mates spotted a moa in the Craigieburn Range. The sighting was backed up by a blurry photo. Freaney was away climbing in Patagonia when I came through, but the kitchen staff were happy to consider my questions on the story‚s various loose ends and give the default answer on Paddy‚s behalf -

„Being an Irishman, I don‚t think Paddy has to explain that.‰

Next day after a short walk down from the Bealey Hotel, I turned into the metalled drive leading to Gerry McSweeney‚s up-market Wilderness Lodge, and the start there of the Cass-Lagoon Saddle two day track.

On my way in I saw twelve sheep tightly grouped and quite motionless at the edge of a grassy terrace. It was a tableau. One animal with curled horns stood proud within the group, gazing outwards. Others gazed out too, but their eyeline was lower, they were recumbent animals, their hooves draped over the lip of the terrace. Others again, perhaps seven of them, acted more or less as fill, their heads buried in the middle of this huddle, and only their grey hindquarters sticking out.

The sculptor Henry Moore once called sheep „animate stones.‰ Agreed. This solid and soft pantheon was a living social realist sculpture, heroic in its own view no doubt, and I agreed with that too. I hurried on, upwards for hours through beech forest, across tussock and huge views of Arthurs Pass, to Lagoon Saddle, then began a long descent alongside the Harper River, towards Hamilton Hut.

Sunday trampers

 

Sunday trampers came plodding uphill towards me, more than I‚d seen on any of my previous Southern trails. I did my usual vox pop and noted an Irish woman, an Englishman, 3 Israelis, 3 Australians, 12 Christchurch trampers, including a father and his two boys, five women, and Leo Spring who summed it all up - „Last night, the hut was a zoo.‰

The Hamilton Hilton

The hut at the junction of Hamilton Creek and the Harper River is known to trampers as the Hamilton Hilton. It was designed in the early 1980s by New Zealand Forest Service architects. The then Canterbury Conservator of Forests Joe Levy and the Craigieburn Forest Park Advisory Board - lay people who were passionate about this area - saw it through.

I arrived at the hut across a high walk-wire over the creek. The peaks of the Craigieburn Range were just beginning to glow above a shadowed valley, and I sat awhile on the wide verandah, looking out over river terraces at the view.

A clothes line with red and yellow plastic pegs attached looped overhead, and the clear corrugated roofing sheets allowed plenty of light through. Sandfly screens banged shut behind me as I went indoors. A huge central beam of cedar ran the length of the hut, supporting exposed rafters and skylights. The interior was warm with walls of natural wood, and dominated at its centre by a grey knobbled colossus that rose from floor to ceiling - a freestanding fireplace of riverstone, big enough to swallow whole logs. A woodburner was now installed in the hearth, its flue disappearing up into the vaster original chimney. A coal scuttle stood beside the fireplace, and suspended above it on pulleys was a clothes drying rack. On the mantlepiece lay four Readers Digests no more than 4 years old, and one Doris Lessing novel.

I inspected the kitchen and eating area - a stainless steel bench, stainless steel billy, pots, a full range of cutlery and candles. Bench seats laid with comfortable squabs addressed the four tables. A deckle-edged mirror hung on the wall and the hut was equipped with radio and a schedule for calling up weather forecasts.Then there were the 20 bunks, six of them set in tiers within the open plan living space, the rest sequestered in a separate room.

I finally got round to the hut book, leafed through it and came across a drawing that seemed somehow right for this extraordinary hut. It was titled ŒSuperWarden.‚

Alf

„How I imagine this Alf fellow,‰ the artist had written, „after reading the comments in this book.‰

Alf stood there with a fishing rod in one hand, a rifle in the other, and at his feet a container for hut fees and a box of cleaning fluids. The briefs, the body stocking, the big chest with a bold A on it, the light winking off the teeth - Alf was Marvel material, a superhero.

I leafed back through the book.

It began in January 2001. That was before the ascension, when it was still possible to voice some meagre criticisms of Alf. Gain Riddell of Scotland had written -

„The most hospitable hut in New Zealand thanks to Alf - could do without his late night possum shooting though.‰

The next contributor was more straightforward, foreshadowing more accurately what was to come -

„Alf „ he wrote simply, „is a great man.‰

„Enjoyed Alf‚s new trail through the windfalls,‰ wrote a third. „Great little walk up to the tarn.‰

So it went, all separate entries, all praising separate skills -

An American - „Fantastic stay thanks largely to ace fishing guide Alf!‰

An Irishman - „Nice relaxing stay. Boots sorted by Alf the shoerepairman.‰

A Salt Lake City tramper - „Great hospitality Alf. Loved the trout cordon bleu.‰

A Bellingham USA tramper - „Thanks for the sausage Alf‰

This from a Los Angeles woman - „Alf rocks.‰

Overseas trampers were impressed, but had they encountered simply a Kiwi good keen man? I kept flicking the pages until I could assess what the locals thought, and came to an entry from Jane Piper and Simon Round of Christchurch dated 24/02/01 -

„Impressive - the cleanest and tidiest hut we‚ve ever stayed in thanks to Alf.‰

It happens to actors, it happens in Hollywood, but it can happen in any occupation, that a person gains lustre and may suddenly cross a threshold beyond their peers, become transcendent, iconic, half-fiction, uprisen upon the approval of an admiring public. It can happen to anyone. It happened to Alf in the two days between 24/02/01 and 26/02/01. The language changed -

„Have now met the legendary Alf,‰ said an entry from an Environment Canterbury couple.

And on March 3 - „Awesome hut. Thanx Alf, you‚re a legend.‰

Then, a long silence until, on 12/05/01 Lucas Habib from Canada asked tentatively -

„Will Alf appear?‰

But Alf appeared only once more. In October he was briefly thanked, though it wasn‚t clear for what, and then he disappeared from the hut record.

I went out and explored. A hand-written sign was stuck in the ground beside a hole. The hole, said the sign, was for a new 3,000-litre toilet, and no-one was to throw rubbish in it.

The sides of the hole had slumped, and there was leaf litter in it. The sign was faded too. It all looked about a year old - Alf‚s work, of course it was.

I went back to the hut, cooked a meal and waited for some other tramper to show up. Waited instinctively perhaps, for Alf, but no-one came and I had the Hilton Hotel that night entirely to myself.