Published in Wild Magazine, November 2013

Cricket at Holly Hut, New Zealand – Ricky French

Hut culture, New Zealand vs Australia

One of my earliest pieces of writing was penned after an ordeal few ten-year olds would want to endure. The scene: a rainy winter’s night, cold, wet, hungry, in the bush five hours walk from civilisation, dripping under the roof of a decrepit and cheerless hut, watching my uncles drag in a mouldy, sodden mattress found outside on a woodpile. Rats ruled the roost all night, malicious scurryings providing a counter-beat to the incessant rain. The next day we packed up and trudged back the five hours through mud and rain. It was my first real taste of the outdoors, and I loved it every second of it.

The star of the show in my newspaper description was the hut. What a joke. I described it as the ‘smelliest, crumbiest, coldest, leakiest hut in the Tararua Ranges.’ But it was shelter. It was what we were walking towards, what kept us going during those five, dripping hours. I wasn’t disappointed upon reaching the wretched hut; at the time it was all I knew.

A couple of years after my visit, something happened that would never happen in Australia: the hut was demolished and a better one was built. The new Waitewaewae Hut (roughly pronounced and often referred to as ‘YTYY’) is architecturally-designed, spacious, has 16 (not mouldy) mattresses, gas heating, a veranda, tables, benches, a drying area. It allows natural light in, and keeps the rain and cold out. It is something that may sound completely alien to an Australian hiker when they think of a ‘hut’ but in New Zealand it is simply par for the course. New Zealand trampers (as they are famously known) have come to know huts as the jewel in the weekend trip. No one carries a tent – why would you when huts are this good and plentiful? The entire network of ‘tramps’ throughout the country is built to accommodate everyone, from the ultra-fit to the disabled to children. Good-quality, comfortable huts lie at the heart of all this.


In New Zealand the Department of Conservation (DOC) funds and maintains nearly 1000 backcountry huts, often in partnership with tramping clubs. Users pay nominal hut fees – normally in the form of pre-purchased hut tickets. While not all huts are as lavish as Waitewaewae, all serve the express purpose of providing primary accommodation to overnight trampers, hunters and other visitors to the outdoors. The huts are scattered through national parks, forest parks and anywhere that attracts visitors.

Many of the older huts were built by mountaineering or tramping clubs, beginning around the 1920s. The country already had Alpine clubs (the oldest dating from 1891) who built recreational huts to allow tourists and climbers into previously inaccessible areas, but hut-building began in earnest with the proliferation of tramping clubs. From the outset the huts were designed to serve as comfortable, reliable overnight accommodation, not just something to be used in an emergency. They also provided an unofficial bush ‘HQ’ for the clubs – something to tie them to the land, a connection to the hills. Another great wave of hut-building began in the 1950s, when the New Zealand Forest Service (NZFS) took over control of deer culling in the high-country. All over the hills planes (and later, helicopters) would roar overhead, dropping timber and building materials, the huts’ distinctive orange roofs peppering the landscape. The vigour of hut-building during this period cannot be overstated. In fewer than 20 years the NZFS built 644 huts, along with associated infrastructure such as tracks, bridges and roads. From the start an open-door policy was implemented – figuratively of course – by both the tramping clubs and the NZFS. The huts would be shared by all; a meeting place amongst strangers, a roof under which a common bond was nurtured. Thus huts became a cornerstone of New Zealand’s outdoors culture.


Hut culture (as observed in New Zealand) has never taken off in Australia. Indeed, the mere idea that a hiker would want to stay voluntarily in a hut instead of pitching a tent or unrolling a swag is often scorned upon. David Rimmer is the Tracks and Trails Specialist with Bushwalking Victoria. He’s hiked much of Australia for nearly 40 years and has rarely needed a hut. ‘Back-country huts are not very inviting,’ he says. ‘They would need to be considerably upgraded to attract bushwalkers to use them.’

The issue here is that huts aren’t going to be used unless they are upgraded to a suitable standard, and no one seems prepared to do that, not is there much demand for it. With all the (valid) concerns about development in National Parks, the idea of building new huts is fraught with bureaucratic hurdles: the danger of commercialisation, the need for associated infrastructure, deciding on a sympathetic design, provisions for the on-going management and fee-enforcement, environmental impact, and of course the elephant in the room: funding. Unlike New Zealand, Australia would effectively have to start from scratch. Who would pay? Rimmer: ‘In New Zealand and Europe the huts are good quality, maintained and well-funded, that is the big difference. The current governments are not interested in hut development and any private development is going to be opposed.’

To gauge feeling about the use of huts in Australia I asked for responses from hikers on a popular internet hiking forum. Most didn’t decry the lack of usable huts in the Australian outdoors. One person said, ‘I had a friend who did it (stayed in a hut) on the Overland Track and it was pretty horrible, with rats and rough bedding.’ And: ‘I stayed in a couple of huts some years back and they’re just dirty/cold and feel like they’re disease-ridden.’ Some named and shamed the offenders. ‘Pine Valley Hut is one of the most putrid examples – stinky, wet socks next to people’s food. Yuck.’ There was some attempt though to see things from the other side, albeit with a healthy dose of sarcasm. The same speaker: ‘There is a large proportion of people who love staying in huts and fraternising with rodents.’ Many people also brought up the apparently deplorable idea that staying in a hut means you are exposed to not just rats but other hikers.

The flip-side is the potential for environmental devastation caused by a thousand ad-hoc campsites. Open fires, litter, and trampled vegetation aren’t the only visible stains when humans spill onto campsites. One hiker I spoke to remembers turning up to a hut that was unfit for comfortable accommodation (which would be most of them) to see several years worth of hastily-dug holes and stained, used toilet paper strewn around. This, of course, was right alongside the only water-source – a small mountain stream. It’s difficult to see how this could be the future of hiking.

There is also the argument which is often made that the provision of huts attracts people into the outdoors who perhaps shouldn’t be there. People have got into trouble trying to find a hut in bad weather and having no tent as a back-up some have perished. It’s difficult to judge the worth of this argument. Anyone who goes into the outdoors is taking a risk to some degree. The general belief amongst tramping clubs in New Zealand is that huts can, and do, save lives.

There was some concern in the early days of hut-based tramping in New Zealand that activity could become focussed around the huts, and limit the will of people to venture farther afield. This view was proven wrong by the records kept by tramping clubs; in fact the opposite was found to be true.

That’s not to say that Australia doesn’t have its own love-affair with huts, it’s just that the relationship is more nostalgic. Klaus Hueneke is one of Australia’s most knowledgeable authorities on huts in the NSW and Victorian high-country. His 1982 book Huts of the High Country is considered something of a bible amongst walkers. He followed up twenty years later with Huts in the Victorian Alps and continues to write and publish many books and journals on the Australian outdoors. As well as serving to provide historical facts and autobiographical information on the huts, the books Hueneke writes give a sense of his emotional connection to the outdoors, and the huts are in a sense his spiritual home. He calls his van his ‘hut on wheels’ and you could almost say that huts are his chapels of the outdoors. Hueneke almost says it. ‘At this more spiritual level the Alps have become the eye of the needle through which my soul has passed to be integrated and born into a new reality. The huts become repositories of history, folklore and shared experiences.’ But according to Hueneke that’s not what comes first. ‘For me, huts are about survival, number one. Shelter from the cold, a place to light a fire, the basic stuff. The history is secondary.’

History, though, was a major weapon used by Hueneke and others such as the Kosciusko Huts Association in their early fights to save many huts in the Alps. ‘When we were fighting to preserve the huts the only peg we could hang the argument on was history and heritage. When I started hiking in the 70s very little was known about the huts of the high country. So we started seeking out the people would built them, and recording their oral histories because I knew the more history we had the more likely we were to able to preserve the huts.’ By 1995 Hueneke had four indexed volumes of Kosciuszko oral history at the National Library.

Natural attrition has also played a role. Bush fires in 2003 destroyed over 20 huts in NSW and 40 in Victoria. Hueneke claims this provided a catalyst for the Victorian and NSW governments, and they started to allocate funds for the restoration of huts. At Kosciuszko they put up half a million dollars to rebuild about ten of them. These days Hueneke is happy with the funding and resources dedicated to maintaining huts in the Alps. ‘Countless huts have been restored and are being continuously maintained,’ he says. ‘Personally I don’t want to see great improvement in the huts. I subscribe to the history argument – that the huts should stay the way they are.’

This view is quite surprising, given the history in the Kosciuszko area, where funding has traditionally been scarce, and huts have faced a bleak future due to past prevailing attitudes. A brief history: Huts were built throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by graziers, cattlemen, farmers, prospectors, and later by ski tourers. Most were private or had been in one family for generations. With the formation of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in 1967, control was passed to the government, and a clash of values began to emerge. NPWS didn’t recognise the value or usefulness of many of the huts, and they were lobbied by many ‘Wilderness’ groups who didn’t want any huts or other signs of human intrusion into what they thought were wilderness areas. (Cue the many arguments of what actually constitutes a wilderness area, given the hundreds and sometimes thousands of years in which humans have occupied and altered the land.) A wilderness advocate argued in the 1970s that, ‘Huts are alien to wilderness and the argument of huts for safety is spurious…if they are removed then those that enter (the bush) either survive or perish, which is what wilderness is all about.’ Many huts were subsequently removed, and in one case a ranger burned down a hut. The threat (and reality) of the huts’ removal spurned the formation of the Kosciuszko Huts Association (KHA) in 1971, a volunteer organisation to promote the preservation and heritage of the high country through conserving historical huts. The KHA locked horns with NPWS for the best part of twenty years, and when the NPWS proposed to remove most huts in the summit area and the White’s River Corridor a grand stoush went down, resulting in the majority of the huts being granted a second chance. Momentum continued throughout the 1990s with working bees to restore historic huts and the publication of many social history books by the KHA, often with memorable titles such as ‘If I Wake in the Middle of the Night,’ and ‘If That Man Comes Here I’ll Shoot Him.’ The frontier boundaries were set. (It is noteworthy that at this precise time that people were battling to save a handful relics in the NSW Alps the Forest Service in New Zealand was in the middle of building its 644 new huts.)

Slowly attitudes changed and an almost universal belief that historic huts should be left for the use and enjoyment of visitors prevailed. The KHA restored and re-built huts until the terrible fires of 2003. Work rebuilding those huts continues today. Raging infernos destroying everything in their path is one enemy New Zealand huts rarely have to contend with. The 2003 fires also saw the formation of the Victorian High Country Huts Association (VHCHA) who now do a similar job to that of the KHA. In the words of Hueneke, ‘They say that fire cleanses and that good things can rise phoenix-like from the ashes. Well, they have.’

One conclusion that can be drawn is that there is a world of difference between New Zealand and Australia when it comes to the meaning of the word ‘hut.’ The Australian’s skepticism for huts ever being used as primary accommodation is caused because they have never seen what a hut could be. The Australian hiker knows a hut as being ancient, run-down, dirty, beyond basic, a quaint peek at old-time life, a worthy piece of history deserving of respect. But asking that hiker if he or she would like more huts to be built is like asking someone who’s only ever eats Brussels sprouts if they’re excited about having lunch (no offence to lovers of Brussels sprouts, just as no offence to lovers of Australian huts – they are easy to love, but for a completely different reason). The Kiwi tramper has a higher expectation for their outdoors amenities. Warm, weather-proof huts are not just desirable, they are expected.

The fact tramping has always been a pastime that defines the New Zealand recreational spirit lies at the heart of this. There is an expectation that DOC will continue to fund and maintain these huts to a high standard. Any attempt to remove huts or cut funding to certain areas has been met with fierce opposition from the passionate, outdoors-loving public. In terms of public expectation for a government department to provide a service, you could compare DOC with the ABC in Australia. Both departments are watched by a hawk-like public, determined to see the values upheld. The department itself becomes a face, reflected in New Zealand catch-cry of ‘What’s up, DOC?’ whenever a controversial decision is made.

Back when I was ten we had used the old Waitewaewae Hut in the Australian sense of the word: as a refuge, emergency accommodation, a place slightly drier than the outside world, better than nothing. Now, when I recall my fondest memories of tramping I find they usually involve sighting a hut materialising through the mist. A place to shut the door on the storm and open the whisky. To claim your bunk and unfurl your sleeping bag; to sit and read the hut book, light the stove and build a fire. A promise of warmth, a place to spread your mess and throw your battered bodies, the world on hold, the soul at rest.


So what are the current policies of the various state governments when it comes to huts in the great outdoors? Let’s take a quick look round the grounds:

Huts in Victoria on government land are managed by either Parks Victoria or the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI). Kim Payne, media adviser for the DEPI says there are over 200 huts, of which the most significant are in the Alpine National Park. He acknowledges the work that VHCHA does in helping to maintain the huts but says, ‘there are no plans to promote use of huts as primary accommodation for hikers or to upgrade them to more than what they are.’

  • The NSW government sees huts as being for emergency shelter only and has no plans to expand the network to provide primary accommodation for hikers. There are few huts for hikers. A spokesperson did not wish to be quoted for this article.
  • Tasmania has 45 huts in the outdoors that are used by hikers. The popular Overland Track has five huts operated and maintained by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS), as well as five private ones. The Mountain Huts Preservation Society works with PWS to maintain historic huts, primarily located on the Central Plateau. Tasmania is the state closest to embracing the New Zealand model, especially with the Three Capes Track. Director of visitor services, Stuart Lennox, says, ‘We’re moving to a hut-based experience, and that’s based on market research that showed a significant preference by bushwalkers surveyed for a hut-based walk. We believe having huts for bushwalker accommodation mitigates footprint issues and assists in overall sustainability. We’re seeking to build a world-class experience and to make this experience accessible to a greater range of people who might want to have an overnight walking experience.’
  • Queensland doesn’t have the same ‘high-country’ history of the southern states, and has no existing hiker huts in any national parks. It is however leaving the door ajar for the idea, inviting public submissions to its draft Ecotourism Plan, which is, according to Anne Greentree, Director of Tourism and Visitor Services within the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, ‘Set to make the state a world leader in ecotourism by 2020.’ She adds that, ‘The future of tourism in Queensland will be guided by ecologically responsible and sustainable practices.’
  • South Australia has most of its huts concentrated on the popular Heysen Trail, although none have been built to provide primary accommodation. Most are stone or timber settlers’ cottages or old pubic buildings, while the newer ones are three-sided ‘shelters’ rather than weather-proof huts. The Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources works in partnership with groups such as the Friends of the Heysen Trail to maintain the huts. Statewide there are only about a dozen huts for bushwalkers, according to the department.