Over the past few months, I've been party to several discussions about huts in the outdoors and their use by members of the public keen on tramping and/or hunting.
Christmas-New Year and Auckland Anniversary Weekend were spent wandering round various parts of the Tongariro National Park – one of my favourite places in this country – and at Easter, four of us had a great few days meandering across parts of the lower Coromandel Range behind Thames. Great country there, too.
By and large, the Department of Conservation does a good job both in providing the huts and in looking after them in public-access locations. But apart from Tongariro National Park, perhaps the South Island does somewhat better in its DOC-hut allocation that we do here in the north. That may be something of an enigma, because at least half of the nation's population lives north of Taupo and probably would be keen to use good hut facilities if they were available in this neck of the woods. We also get our fair share of international visitors: a friend who has knowledge of the subject told me recently that at least 70 per cent of all overseas visitors at some point during their time here make a visit to some area of the DOC-administered estates. I'm sure some of them spend time in the Waikato – there were plenty on the Coromandel at Easter.
That aside, in the past few years there has been some well-thought-out consultation between DOC and various outdoor groups likely to be the principal users of such huts. This has resulted in the design of what is fondly referred to as a "DOC standard" hut, a building placed in a good location in the wilderness and that has a number of practical features built into it to make it comfortable and pleasant to stay in, even if sometimes it may be cramped because lots of people want to be there.
But here in the greater Waikato, we're a bit skinny on such adequate accommodation. Perhaps our most heavily used hut is that at the Pinnacles, at the head of the Kauaeranga Valley behind Thames. It's a fairly substantial structure, capable of sleeping 80. And, says DOC, for almost the entire summer it's packed almost every night. When we visited the Kauaeranga Valley at Easter, both Friday and Saturday nights the hut was full-house, and probably the rest of the long weekend was likewise. The eight camping grounds in the valley were seriously packed, too.
The variety of visitors streaming down from their overnight stay at the Pinnacles hut on the Saturday as we climbed the track was substantial: family groups with small school-age children, knots of young adults, international tourists, older folk and serious, power-house trampers.
That's been the theme in the huts sprinkled around the Tongariro National Park all through this past summer, too. Bookings, of course, are essential during the summer season for such lodgings, and some of the huts have spill-over camping pads specially constructed nearby so late arrivals have somewhere to set up if they can't get a bunk in the hut. The pads are often swamped, too.
But between Tongariro and the Coromandel, there's little in the way of adequate DOC hut accommodation.
There are three huts in the Pureora Forest Park, two of them four and six bunks respectively and labelled as "standard" (but considerably less quality than the "DOC standard") – i.e. a roof, a floor, bunks, maybe a fireplace, and devil take the hindmost; and the third listed as a two-bunk "bivvy" – not much better than a dog-box, really, but probably quite acceptable in a howling gale.
There's another bivvy in the Cowan Wildlife Refuge, a 10-bunk standard hut in the Waihaha Scenic Reserve, a 16-bunk standard hut in the Whareorino Forest Conservation Area, and up on Mt Pirongia, a pathetic six-bunk standard hut. It's been there since about 1980. Yet the mountain has about 60km of tracks across it, most of which eventually lead to the unfortunately meagre Pahautea hut. Hamilton, 40km away, has 140,000 people.
The only decent-sized hut in the Waikato is the serviced Pinnacles hut at the head of the Kauaeranga Valley. It's almost a lodge, really, with a resident caretaker for much of the year, excellent cooking and bench facilities, good toilets and great surroundings – rather like many of the South Island's huts, in fact.
And I don't for one second begrudge the South Island having as many good huts as they can get.
But how come we can't get a few more of these better-quality huts here in the Waikato? I know DOC has had a seriously bad time from the MPs of successive governments, few of whom ever get off carpeted floors and have no understanding of how much joy, fun and personal development schoolchildren and others get from spending time in bush and mountain environments.
The department has been pathetically underfunded for decades and what funds it has have apparently largely gone south for development there.
Well, give us a break up here in the north, please. Mt Pirongia Forest Park would be a really good starting place.
Pirongia is a maunga that dominates the Waikato horizon and has been revered by Maori for centuries. For many late-comer Pakeha, me included, it has long been a place "to raise my eyes, from whence cometh my help" – in my case, a great deal of my inspiration to write.
There is, of course, the Pirongia Lodge, an excellent facility that caters for hundreds of schoolchildren and adults each year. But it is located right at the eastern edge of the park. Within the park proper, there is only the little Pahautea hut sited just below the mountain's 960m summit.
It is a totally inadequate facility for the numbers of people who do – or would like to – scale the mountain and spend a night on the summit.
There are perhaps 250,000 residents in the Waikato and there's some seriously active tramping and outdoor organisations among that quarter-million people.
We get thousands of tourists passing through here, too.
Within 90 minutes' drive of Pirongia, there are almost 90 secondary schools – maybe 75,000 to 100,000 teenage pupils in total, most of whom, at some stage in their schooling, are given the chance to spend a night or several in the "bush" as part of their outdoor education curriculum.
Even if just 5 per cent of those children, perhaps between 3000 and 5000, have the opportunity to get into the outdoors each year, where do they go? In many instances, anywhere round Tongariro is too expensive to get to and they won't all fit into the Pinnacles in the course of a school year.
Rumour has it that a 20-bunk standard DOC hut is proposed to replace the almost-useless Pahautea hut on Pirongia, and if that's true, let's lean on DOC authorities to get on with it.
Already the pressure on the present hut is extreme – a couple of weekends ago, 27 people fronted up there hoping for a bunk.
It was either wondrously cosy in the hut that evening, or most people slept outside on some of the nine camping pads provided. Recently, 30 people spent the night there.
Someone in DOC, with some good forward-planning, has already installed toilet and ablution facilities on the site capable of handling at least 20 people at the hut.
It is also understood a survey of some high schools in the region indicates almost all are keen to use the facility if it is expanded to cater to 20 people. Some schools would use it every term for their required outdoor education.
Imagine the huge enjoyment – and education – provided if a thousand kids spent a night or two up there during the year.
I also know there are parents with intermediate and primary school-age children who would love to take their youngsters up on Pirongia for a night or two, but there is no guarantee they can get adequate shelter when they get up there. Carrying tents isn't an option – they'd already be laden with additional gear for the kids. So they don't go, and the kids miss out.
Government has a duty to provide our ever-growing urban population of young people with the opportunity to experience the enormous benefits provided by the outdoor wilderness of bush, mountains and wild country this country has, right there, just three hours' walk off the tarseal. Plenty of adults are keen to enjoy it as well.
A meagre $300,000 would provide a fully workable 20-bunk hut on the Pahautea site on Pirongia. That's about afternoon tea money for Parliament when the House isn't sitting.
And – just like the South Island ones – such a hut may be worth a bundle to the country in tourism revenue, too.