Dan Murphy gets together with a group of old school mates each year and heads into the wilderness. This year they explored the recently created Saint James Conservation Park.
“Yep, I think we will pretty much have the place to ourselves this weekend, after all it is June now, we’re into winter!” I said this between mouthfuls of a delicious home-made bacon and egg pie. I got up to help myself to another slice just as a couple of trampers appeared around the bend. They were closely followed by a few more, and a few more, until we stopped counting at around 15. “Where are you guys going?” I asked. None of them seemed to have any idea, and made mutterings that we would have to ask their ‘leader’. One of the crew, with a very purposeful stride, said they were off to Lake Guyon Hut, but they had tents. Tents were something that had been overlooked on our packing list; our packs were heavy enough with all the home baking, bottles of single malt, and a 3 litre cask of Velluto Rosso to go into the obligatory mulled wine. With at least twenty people bound for the four bunk Lake Guyon hut, and rain starting to blow over from the west, we pack up and hope there will be at least some floor space in the hut tonight.
Later in the evening, as the drizzle sets in outside, the Lake Guyon hut is pretty cosy with our party of 5 plus a couple of French mountain bikers. The tramping club have set up a tent village outside and seem very content with their lakeside camping spot. OB, aka Joe Blossom (the musician) has cooked us a fine meal – Thai chicken curry with plenty of fresh veg. Like any true chef, he has got stressed out and come close to throwing a wobbly a couple of times because the facilities are not up to his required standard, but the end result is fantastic. OB is quick to congratulate himself for his work, cooking over an open fire in the drizzle while swatting sandflies.
Tullamore Dew, our chosen night cap last night, is also an accurate description of the weather today. Low clouds obscure the majestic tops, fog hangs in the valleys, the lake is flat and calm, barely disturbed by the fine drizzle. Wandering up and over a low ridge we look down on the Waiau Valley and across to the Ada homestead and up the Ada Valley towards Christopher Hut, tonight’s destination. Raincoats are soon discarded and the sun breaks through and burns off the remaining fog. Our two hunters have their eagle eyes on, scanning sunny clearings on the slopes above the valley. The only animals we see this afternoon are the Saint James horses peacefully grazing the Ada flats.
Christopher hut is soaking up the afternoon sun and we arrive right on lunch time. Mid afternoon rolls around and the hunters decide its time they do some hunting, and the remaining three of us (Chook, OB and I) decide we better do something as well. We decide to see if we can make the bush line on the true right of the valley before dark. It’s a steep haul up through thick damp groves of beech forest but after an hour or so we start to spot daylight up ahead. The weather has cleared completely now and it feels good to have a steep climb after all the flat valley walking. However over a muesli bar we decide it would be prudent to turn back, as we are running out of daylight and OB has turned the colour of a beetroot and is starting to get a bit stroppy.
Just as we hit the valley floor three shots ring out, we exchange excited glances – could it be venison for dinner? We pop out of the bush and just make out Brendon in the fading light; he is galloping like a Saint James colt back towards the hut. We call out and he gives us big thumbs up! Excited banter breaks out between us – we will be having venison for dinner! Back legs, fillets, and back steaks are removed from the stag and under a starlit sky we cross the Ada River and return to the hut. The fire is soon roaring and juicy slices of fillet are sizzling in the pan. We all know it will taste better when it’s had a few days to hang but no one is complaining as we all tuck in heartily to some free range organic Saint James venison. Food miles?… about one we reckon. We spend a pleasant evening supping on mulled wine and some fine scotch. There are a few hunting yarns being spun, well actually just one hunting yarn, but it is retold a few times!
The next morning sees us retracing our steps back to Lake Guyon and towards Fowler Pass to a sweet little camping spot I noticed on the way in. While taking a break and munching on some of Chook’s fine home-made “Ruahine biscuits”, some wild pigs are spotted on the hillside. Shots ring out in the valley, but the pigs don’t seem too worried and they trot unharmed into some scrubby cover and disappear. The day is turning into a cracker, not a cloud in the sky. Approaching the old Stanley Vale homestead, a stand of Rowan trees with their bright red berries create a splash of vibrant colour against the golden hues of tussock waving in the gentle breeze. OB, Chook and I head over to check out the homestead while Phil and Brendon try their luck with one final hunt up a side valley. Smoke coming from the chimney suggests someone is home, and sure enough as we approach, the wiry figure of a possum trapper appears at the door. His name is Sean and he has been coming in for the winters for a few years now trapping possums, for fur and skins. Sean kindly makes us a cup of tea and talks of life as a possum trapper, he has just a few traps out at the moment as the fur does not really thicken up until after the shortest day, and it’s then that plucking and skinning really becomes worthwhile. It sounds like a tough life but kind of appealing at the same time. Looking around the hut you would almost think he was a Buddhist monk. He has very few possessions, no clutter and everything is tidy; a bag of flour, rolled oats, tea leaves and an old battered and blackened teapot sits on the grate above the smoky fire. A couple of old books sit on a shelf. Sean says he will go out and shoot a deer soon, he‘ll hang it in the tree and the meat will not spoil before he has eaten all of it – the winters here are so cold and dry. He does eat the odd possum or hare too for a bit of variety. Conscious that we still have a fair bit of ground to cover before dark we say our goodbyes and set off.
Our campsite tonight couldn’t be more ideal, on a nice flat terrace above the stream, in a sheltered stand of beech trees with heaps of dry wood. We soon have a roaring fire going; Chook is preparing some wine and spices to “mull” over the embers while Brendon is slicing off pieces of back steak to cook in the pan. The steak goes down a treat before we tuck into “the last supper”, an old favourite – Pesto Pasta, with plenty of chorizo, fat juicy olives, sundried tomatoes and feta cheese. After dinner, staring into the flickering flames, we reflect on what a great few days it’s been, and what a fantastic area Saint James is. There is some talk of future trips, places we could go, but it’s not long before we are getting into our sleeping bags. None of us are too worried that we don’t have a tent fly to sleep under as the stars are out and there’s no sign of rain. The ground is just right, flat and no annoying tree roots sticking into your back. Chook reads us something quite profound from a book of his that I cannot remember. Brendon is already snoring quietly so misses out on a little bit of harmonica playing, also from Chook.
Four hours later I try to make sense of the drops of moisture I can feel on my face, opening one eye I can still see the stars above, the wind has got up a bit, I close my eye and hope if I go back to sleep it will go away. I snatch another half hours sleep but now the moisture is more like rain drops, there is no sign of any stars, and I can hear a bit of grumbling around me. A quick conference and we decide we may as well pack up and walk out over Fowler Pass; we needed an early start anyway. By the time we are packed the rain is set in, won’t be any stunning sunrises on this walk out!
A couple of hours later we are back at our vehicle and brewing up coffee in the old hut. Brendon whips up some cheesecakes and we scoff those down while we wait for daylight outside. An hour later it is flat whites all round at the Power House café in Hanmer, closely followed by a soak in the hot pools. The new aqua therapy pools prove to be the perfect finish to a few days in the hills!