Thursday, March 14, 2019

When the volunteer job comes with it's own hot pools!

In April last year I walked in to Welcome Flat Hut on the Copland Track with my friend Emma. We stayed two nights with the plan to walk up to the next hut further up the valley, but in the end just lazed away the day in the hot pools. Emma had done a gig there as a volunteer warden and I thought that sounded like a nice idea, so a few weeks later I sent in an application to volunteer during Spring 2018. I never heard back from them.

Then out of the blue last week I received an email asking if I, or anyone I knew, was available to volunteer for a week at short notice. I had nothing planned after the Hidden Lake tramp, so I replied I could do it, and then rang them from the top of the St Bathans Ranges to get the rest of the details.

I passed through Wanaka for a couple of days and then drove to Fox Glacier for the night before receiving a short orientation the next morning and then being driven to the carpark for the 6-7 hour walk in. I must be getting fit, because the walk only took me five hours....

At Welcome Flat I met the full time summer warden, Duncan, who finished my orientation and then walked out the next morning. I was relieving him for seven days, as Duncan works 10 days on, 5 off. There's a little overlap to cover orientation and time spent walking in and out. Someone still has to clean the hut on the changeover days.

The volunteer Hut warden's job isn't very onerous. There's a radio report to be made each morning back to Haast DOC office, informing them of hut numbers and what your plans for the day are, the hut needs to be swept clean and kitchen areas wiped down, and the two toilets need cleaning. Then at 4pm another radio call in, when the weather forecast is given, and I'm told the numbers booked at the hut for that evening. Then about 6pm I do a short hut talk regarding fire safety and hut etiquette to the walkers who have arrived, and check their booking slips.

Most huts in New Zealand work on a first in basis, except for The Great Walks Huts where bookings are mandatory. Then there are a handful of other huts which have become so popular that they were getting overcrowded. DOC's solution has been to institute a booking system to control the numbers, which stops these places being overused. It's actually a better solution than building bigger huts, at least for the environment, if not for the tourists!!

Welcome Flats is popular because of the hot pools, though I'm yet to be convinced that walking up a so so river valley for 5-6 hours each way is actually worth it. Most people only stay the one night, it really seems a lot of effort.....

Over the week I am there we are full on a few nights, mostly weekends, but some nights there are only a handful of people. One day the track gets closed due to high rainfall, a not uncommon occurrence on the west coast where torrential rain can quickly make side creeks far too dangerous to cross. I meet a wonderful mix of local Kiwis and international tourists, and even a very brave Swiss couple who took the mountaineering route over from Hooker Glacier. They said the route was terrifying, as the rock on the exposed moraine just kept moving under them!!! (Back in the 70s the Copland Track from Mt Cook to the west coast was a fairly easy tramp, but these days, as the glaciers have retreated, it is only for highly experienced, perhaps slightly crazy, mountaineers)...

The Hut Warden has their own private quarters down a path from the main hut. I have access to a gas hot water system so can have hot showers. But the gas califont decided to pack up after a couple of days! Thankfully there was also a wetback so I simply needed to stoke up the fire and turn the water system over so it used the wetback to warm my water. Coal is flown in by helicopter to service the hut and quarters, but dry wood is hard to come by, so we restrict fires in the main hut to cold rainy days to conserve meagre supplies.

On a fine sunny day I at last manage to walk further up the valley to Douglas Rock Hut, which sits just below the treeline surrounded by glaciers and waterfalls. Unfortunately I only had time for a hurried lunch before having to head back down to my warden duties that evening.

And often, late at night, when all the walkers were asleep, I'd go and sit in the hot pools and look up at the milky way. I really could have stayed there longer.....

But soon my time was over and I had to walk back out. I met Duncan en route and gave him a quick handover, then it was on to the carpark, Fox Glacier village for the night, then back to Wanaka to see Harry for an eye checkup.

Then off to Te Anau for a packrafting course!

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