Home on the range

STEUART LAING
Last updated 13:14 20/01/2014
Sam Summers hut
Steuart Laing

HARSH LIVING: The schist hut hints at how rugged life would have been.

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A certain Queenstown house reminds STEUART LAING of how times have changed.

I turned in my luxurious bed and eyed the bedside clock. Most people would not have contemplated rising so early, especially on a holiday. But a glimpse of blue sky through the hotel window hijacked any thoughts of extra sleep. The day was too good to waste. I drew the curtains to be greeted by a magnificent view of Lake Wakatipu at rest.

A visit to Sam Summers' house topped my agenda, even though I knew Sam had died in the 1990s. I also knew that his small house hadn't been architecturally designed by luminaries such as Sir Miles Warren or Frank Lloyd Wright. Working within a limited budget, Sam had designed and built his own place.

The previous night I'd tasted pinot noir in the company of a local architect and found out about the locals. He described an $8 million, 1114 square metre house currently on his drawing board.

Unlike Sam's modest dwelling, it featured a variety of imported materials in its construction. My architect friend told me of other large houses in the Queenstown area.

The following morning I drove along the edge of Wakatipu while the TSS Earnslaw belched a picturesque cloud of black across the lake. Since my first peek out the window earlier that morning, a big chunk of time had slipped through my latte-gripping fingers and I was now on a schedule similar to that of the tourists crossing the lake en route to their high country lunch. However, a frisson spurred me on because I was going it alone carrying my lunch to Sam's place whereas they were riding to their silver service meal.

Having passed 1, 2, 5, 7, and 8 mile creeks I started from the DOC car park at 12-Mile Creek. At the first footbridge I came across a sign:

"Warning. Steep dropoffs. Please supervise children."

Luckily I had only myself to worry about. The well maintained track follows 12-Mile Creek through beech forest and provides views of snowy peaks above and sparkling rapids below. My sense of adventure heightened the further I progressed into the hinterland.

Now I was alone in the forests of West Otago like Sam Summers had been after he built a house here with his brothers in 1930. Sam mined for gold and hunted for deer to help support his sister and nine brothers during the Great Depression. He left to fight in World War II and his hut has survived as a living memorial to those tough times.

About 45 minutes along the track, the forest opened to a glade skirted by eroding cliffs. Hardy miners once sluiced 1.8 million cubic metres of rock from the cliffs in search of gold. A glance at my map showed that Sam Summers' house was near, so I hurried on.

Sam Summers' schist house, or more accurately "hut" gives one an inkling of the rugged life endured by some of our ancestors.

I sat a while listening to the river as it thundered through a defile near the hut and when I knocked and entered, I found the hut's interior cold and dark. A raised fireplace would have provided Sam the comfort of warm food when winter icicles hung in the surrounding forests. I ran my hands over the unyielding schist and thought of the $8m Queenstown home with its three electric ovens.

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A few yards from the hut, a bridge crosses Maori Gully side stream which leaps down between rock walls. Sam probably would have had to lower a pot into the torrent to get his water. The damp confines of the gorge puffed cold draughts of air upwards as if from the venting ducts of Hades.

I scrambled along the track past the hut and an hour later, with car milometre set to zero left the carpark for Queenstown. I wondered what I would find at the 12 mile mark; at the start of the rainbow.

The dashboard display clicked over to 19.3 kilometres (12 miles) outside the Franklin Hotel. So this was the spot where tough and perhaps desperate men had once stood, dreaming of the pot of gold they might find up the lake. In the 1930s, Sam would have stood here too, before setting out on his slog around the Lake shore to his home.

"Did you know this hotel is exactly twelve miles from 12 mile Creek?" I said enthusiastically over the counter. The barmaid gave me a blank look, pushing a glass of beer in my direction. "I'm from Brazil," she replied shrugging her shoulders.

- The Press

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