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Cooking gas to be removed from some Tararua Huts

I realise there will be concerns about the Department of Conservation’s Wairarapa Conservancy deciding to remove cooking gas from several huts on the Wairarapa side of the Tararuas [1]. DoC’s current Wairarapa Alerts page [2] lists three of the affected huts as Mitre Flats, Totara Flats and Tutuwai. I’d guess Powell Hut and Jumbo Hut will also be targets, but can’t find this officially stated. The reasoning for the removal of cooking gas is that budgets are tight, and providing cooking gas for these serviced huts is quite an expensive operation.

Personally I’m not concerned about this move. To me it seems that cooking gas (if required to cook one’s chosen meals) is something that should really be carried by a party already, even if they expect to find cooking facilities at a hut, simply for self-sufficiency. If you happen to fall over or otherwise get stuck part way to an intended hut, and don’t have the necessary equipment to cook your meal, you could very well be going hungry and find yourself in danger.

The Dominion Post article quotes a manager of the Kuranui Outdoor Education Academy as saying that loss of cooking gas could be a safety issue because he might need hut gas to heat up a brew for students, and that carrying their own cooking equipment will make students’ loads heavier. If it’s an accurate quote, however, I have serious trouble accepting this reasoning. Children or not, if the party isn’t carrying self-sufficient cooking facilities on the way to a destination, it’s a safety issue already.

Furthermore, I certainly think there are occasions when provision of cooking gas at huts merely encourages free riders, especially in more accessible huts nearest to roads, where gas is most often flown in. I’ve often seen it used very gratuitously by hut patrons, as if it’s free. I’ve also arrived at huts to discover that previous visitors have left the gas taps open for who knows how long. Cooking gas in huts is a luxury, which is nice to have and can make some activities more convenient, but it remains a luxury.

Huts are usually luxuries, too. Personally I can (and do [3]) use the same reasoning to argue that parties should always be carrying sufficient portable shelter, because there’s never a guarantee that you’ll reach an intended hut or be able to stay inside upon reaching it. So why not just remove huts? In my own opinion, at least, having a nice, dry place at the end of a walk through heavily-hydrated weather (as so often occurs in New Zealand) is of a much higher benefit than being able to choose to cook with a hut stove rather than a portable stove. Huts provide genuinely easier access to otherwise difficult-to-reach places, even when carrying portable shelter. With all the people who visit and leave an impression through the years, back-country huts also tend to quickly gather rich histories [4] and become places of historic significance that link to the past for those who visit the area.

I can’t say I’ve ever really felt the same way about a gas cooker as I do about back-country huts. The kiwi back-country hut network is an awesome thing which would be irreplaceable if it were lost, but cooking gas is just an extra facility stapled to the side that could come and go with budgets and political persuasion. If it were free it’d be nice to have it all (within reason), but if something has to go, I’d much rather it were the provision of cooking gas than huts themselves. If you’re already doing everything needed for safety reasons, it’s just not that important in the scheme of things.

I surveyed around twitter for others’ reactions on this. One point [5] was that part of what we’re seeing is DoC’s tendency to not consult very well on local matters. Current consultation techniques, according to DoC’s guidelines, tend to be built on a presumption that structured recreational clubs and groups represent the bulk of back-country users.

DoC consultations will often pass through the local Huts and Track Committees, which typically have representatives from local tramping and other recreational clubs as a way of gauging important matters for park users. There’s a presumption that significant information will filter through those committees to club members, that that any concerns will filter back upwards for submission. Consultation often goes no further, however, which means that people who have no affiliation with clubs will never hear of it. Furthermore, clubs themselves are sometimes not good at communicating such information to their members, either due to disorganisation or not meeting frequently enough, so club members will also not hear of it. The end result is that DoC’s consultation practices often reach very few people. A change such as this, which may be minor on a national scale, but significant on a local scale, can be sprung on many back-country users completely out of the blue, without having had any opportunity to provide feedback or suggest alternatives before the change occur. This results in surprise and frustration.

Another point raised has been that these huts are still to be priced as ‘serviced’ huts ($15 or 3 tickets per night), even though the only guaranteed difference between a $15 serviced hut and a $5 standard hut is hand washing facilities, fuel for heating (DoC will continue to provide firewood where appropriate), and the possible provision of cooking facilities and fuel. Out of these, the only significant difference is the fuel. One suggestion was that [6], thanks to the lack of enforcement of hut fee payment [7], some who visit these huts might reduce how much they pay, either to a single ticket or to $0, in particular if they decide to stay there without actually using the firewood for heating.

I sympathise that some users really appreciate the provision of gas for cooking in huts, and I realise it’ll be missed in various circles. In the scheme of things, though, I don’t think it’s such a great loss. In what is presently a dubious political environment for the conservation estate, where the Department of Conservation is being crunched to cut as much as possible, there are some far more serious and less reversible ways that money might be (and is) sucked from the system, whether it’s of DoC’s recreational role or its conservation role. Cooking gas in huts is not irreversible, and could quite easily return without serious effort in an easier environment, if enough people want it at the right time.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Cooking gas to be removed from some Tararua Huts"

#1 Comment By Craig On 19 July, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

I can recall a very serious SAR operation a few years ago when a member of the public was used to having cooking facilities in the eastern Tararuas and was surprised by the lack of them on the western side. Of course when things went wrong people were quick to criticise. However, I do remember thinking at the time that here were people criticising her for eating dry pasta but didn’t offer a billy of boiling water?

That case does make me think that there may well be safety improvements from greater consistency of what services are available at huts. It does raise a significant question around how huts a graded as Basic/Standard/Serviced with such services being removed and I am a bit surprised that these were not answered at the same time as announcing the removal of the gas facilities. And also what the long-term position on this will be. e.g. will it reduce to Backcountry Huts and Great Walk Hut$?

As for the consultation issues with DOC that keeps coming up on the interwebs. I am not sure people should be criticising it with such venom. On major issues like the 2004 recreational opportunities review. On less far reaching stuff I think targeted consultation is not only efficient, but is actually desirable when considering purely operational matters. I am not aware of independent trampers unaffiliated with tramping or hunting clubs performing any volunteer work parties to build or maintain huts. If you want to be consulted with on granular level issues then you should be contributing to the relevant community. (But, I do note unaffiliated volunteers are very common on mountain bike trails with co-ordination by groups like the Wellington Trails Alliance).

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 20 July, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

Hi Craig. Thanks for the comments. In the first paragraph I take it you’re referring to the Jan 2005 incident that was summarised in the back-country accidents section from page 18 [14], and yeah I see your point about consistency. I guess huts will always be different from each other, but something like gas cooking facilities stands out because their provision encourages people to rely on being given something which they should really be bringing with them anyway for safety reasons. Beyond that if everyone’s already bringing their own (which I know they aren’t), it’s really up to individuals to decide how much cooking-gas-in-huts actually adds to the experience. I know it doesn’t add much for me, but if it did then I still think it’s a small thing that’s not automatically permanent compared with some of the other maybe-disturbing things occurring.

For as little as I mind about removing cooking gas from those huts, I do find it a little weird that, on the one hand, the Wairarapa Conservancy is pulling various facilities (cooking in huts, and now four tracks to no longer be maintained, etc), yet on another hand they’re [15] because “they’re so popular“. I do wonder if the conservancy is trying to do this because, at a ground level, it’s a more reliable way to siphon income from its facilities directly to the conservancy instead of having all that money disappear into a national cloud to then be divvied up. As in, a bigger cut for the conservancy can possibly be had from bookings made directly for Jumbo/Powell/Atiwhakatu huts than what might be proportioned out from the hut pass/ticket system which is far more vague as to exactly which facilities people are paying for. Bizarrely this now creates an incentive for local conservancies with bookable facilities to start aggressively improving and marketing for people to book, pay for and use those specific facilities at the expense of bothering with everything else, whether that’s happening just yet or not. Kind of like a localised version of Great Walks.

On the consultation, I do know independent trampers who go out and maintain tracks and things, often below the radar because it can be tough and very bureaucratic to get official DoC clearance to do that sort of thing without organisational backing (and even with organisational backing). I sympathise even with those who are regular users though. Some of the frustration I’ve encountered is merely from people who use the system and (like everyone else) they pay for DoC to manage the land, and then they get surprised when DoC “suddenly” decides to do something which affects them, only to find that there was consultation but they weren’t considered important enough to be informed as was a committee which might have less direct experience or interest. I don’t think wide compulsory consultation of everyone on everything is an answer to this for the operational reasons you noted, but I’m also not convinced the existing model, which either presumes Hut and Track committees are representative of all users, or decides that people don’t matter if they’re not actively helping on the record, is always the best.

#3 Comment By Mike McGavin On 21 July, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

Kind of like a localised version of Great Walks.

Heh. I’m amused I said that now in retrospect, after [16] that the Holdsworth/Jumbo loop could ever be a great walk. 🙂

#4 Comment By Craig On 22 July, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

Well, at least H-J would meet an important for Great Walks. It can be walked in day so as to avoid paying $51.10 a night for the huts thus making it compatible with my visa card.

#5 Comment By Adrian On 21 July, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

Hi Mike, I tend to agree with your safety angle. I too carry gas, mattress, bivvy bag, tarp etc and don’t think i’m guaranteed a spot when I arrive at a hut. People become ‘complacent’ and rely on facilities being available. I’ve been more than happy to left someone use my gas when in need.

#6 Comment By Mike McGavin On 21 July, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

Hi Adrian. Yeah, thanks for the comment. 🙂

#7 Comment By Kerry On 10 September, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

From a safety point of view, people should be carrying some shelter and some way to make fire/heat water, at an absolute minimum. I am a little surprised anyone heading out overnight would consider anything otherwise acceptable?

Nice site, btw… 🙂

#8 Comment By Mike McGavin On 8 October, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

Thanks Kerry, and yes I definitely agree with what you’ve said. Not being prepared to not reach your intended destination is asking for trouble. (I [3] a couple of years ago.)

#9 Comment By Mel On 25 July, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

As always well put Mike.
Given that during the summer at least Powell and Jumbo are bookable huts, that require an additional per group booking fee to be paid, I hope that they wont be taking the gas out, but it wouldnt surprise me.

I also think they need to re-tidy up the basic / standard / serviced thing – I think they largely got rid of standard and bumped prices up last year to all be serviced if they werent basic? – so that when you see that a hut is listed as “serviced” on the DoC website, you know exactly what that means. Its especially frustrating when you are visiting multiple huts and you have to click into each serviced one to see what it includes!

I do always take gas with me on trips as well, but if I know a hut provides gas for cooking, I often tend to take an emptier cannister as a back-up, rather than taking and starting another new one.

#10 Comment By Mike McGavin On 31 July, 2012 @ 7:59 pm

Thanks. In honesty I’m not clear on Powell and Jumbo huts. The DomPost/Stuff article stated 5 huts, but the Wairarapa alerts only refer to 3, and that’s still the case upon checking it a week later. I’d ask but I think the staff are probably getting sick of me asking about that sort of thing. 🙂

#11 Comment By gazza On 25 July, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

I never rely on gas being available at a hut, even if its supposed to be there. It can run out after all…that being said if I was going to a hut with gas cookers supplied I may or may not take my own, a lot will depend on the difficulty of the trip, the terrain and perhaps the time of year. However if I choose to leave my cooker at home I will take matches and also some firelighting material, I can always cook over an open fire if I need to.

Always take emergency shelter though.

#12 Comment By Paddy Janes On 25 July, 2012 @ 9:23 pm

From a users(tramp/hunter) point of view there shoudnt be a problem if there is no gas at any hut, wherever you go.When i first started tramping /hunting we relied on open fires, then when a few bob came along we bought primuses.Its not rocket science to have to put a gas cooker and canister or alternatively a primus white spirit burner in your pack.Take the gas out but ensure that the tracks, structures , and access roads are up to scratch. At the present the access road to Kaitoke top carpark(not Kiwi Ranch), Waiohine Road from the cattlestop to Walls Whare and the Holdsworth road from the cattlestop to the carpark are in a shocking state and will cost plenty to fix.
The Eastern Tararuas is not an area that has huge amounts of visitors,although it gets a fair number in summer.It cannot compare with the South Island Great Walks where visitor numbers are in the thousands,and Tongariro is much the same.
Compliance is also a factor,which has been a looming problem since the current management threw out a perfectly good Hut Wardening system and is only now realising some system is needed to collect tickets/fees.
I will be surprised if management can get anywhere near enough revenue to offset wardens costs, and that at the end of the day is what management is trying to do….there is just not the numbers of users to pay for the luxury of gas, firewood,helicopter time ,hut inspections, repairs and maintenance and dead time spent in an office.

#13 Comment By Mike McGavin On 14 August, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

I for one will be impressed to encounter a warden in a Tararua Hut. That’s only ever happened once for me, and it was a volunteer. (Being stuck overseas for now, I haven’t had much chance to get into the Tararuas for a couple of years and see the recent changes.) 🙁