Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Volunteer Hut Warden at Packhorse Hut: 26-28th January 2018

Volunteering as a DOC hut warden...

  I've been wanting to volunteer as a summer hut warden for the Department of Conservation for some time now. I recently happened upon an on-line advertisement for volunteer hut wardens for Packhorse Hut on Banks Peninsula. This is a new initiative as the number of trampers using the local tracks and Packhorse Hut have significantly increased since the commissioning of Rod Donald Hut.

Jon outside Packhorse Hut on the Saturday

This last weekend I spent three days acting as the hut warden at that locale.

To Packhorse Hut via Kaituna Valley

I brought my daughter Georgia along with me on this trip, this is the first of hopefully many tramping trips with her. We set off from the car-park at Kaituna Valley at around 2.30pm, I needed to be at the hut by 6 pm to check hut tickets and the condition of the hut.

Georgia at the start of the Kaituna Valley Track

Packhorse Hut Track: Georgia and track sign .....lets go!

This was my 10th visit to Packhorse Hut, I love this old lady perched high above Lyttleton Harbour. That's one of the reasons I put my name forward. I have visited from all four possible approaches now and always enjoy the fantastic views of Lyttleton Harbour and the Port Hills. We were following the shortest route, the Kaituna-Packhorse Hut Track.

Packhorse Hut Track: Crossing the farm paddocks near the start

The deepest stream crossing on the Packhorse Hut track

Packhorse Hut Track:start of the uphill sections, Kaituna Valley

It is about 4.5 kilometres from the car-park to Packhorse Hut, almost all of which is uphill. It usually takes me about 1.5-2 hours to reach the hut, 45 minutes to return. From Packhorse you can access tracks to Mt Herbert, the Orton Bradley Estate and Gebbies Pass.

Topo map of Kaituna-Packhorse Hut Track
Most of the Packhorse Hut Track follows an old farm track that starts at the valley floor and goes right up to the hut. This is the route DOC use when they need to transport consumables or building materials to the hut. It is very easy walking, if a little steep in places.

Packhorse Hut Track: most of the track is an old farm road

Track sign on the Packhorse Hut Track:there are a multitude of tracks up here...

The only hazards along this track are the Ongaonga, cattle and three minor stream crossings. The streams are only dangerous in very heavy rain, they look benign in these photos but I have seen a photo on another blog where they are waist deep so bear this in mind if visiting in a rain storm.

Packhorse Hut Track: the last of three streams you cross

Watch out for this stuff...Ongaonga. It is a type of native thistle but has a powerful neuron-toxin in its nettles which causes excruciating pain and if stung by enough thorns death through paralysis. Here is an wiki article about Tree nettle (Utica ferox) or Ongaonga.

There was a lot of ongaonga  in the Kaituna Valley and around the new biv so we were especially careful around it.

This stuff is seriously bad ju-ju...stay well away from it!

Native Tree Nettle (Ultica ferox) or Ongaonga

Steepest part of the track is a section of clay with a 35-40 degree slope to it, before and after this point the track is easy to walk along. 

Georgia on the uphill slog along the Packhorse Hut Track

Jon grinding uphill on the Packhorse Hut Track

The upper sections of the track run through some upland paddocks...this area is exposed to the sun so make sure you have a hat and sunscreen with you. UV light is a real killer in New Zealand, we have the second highest rate of melanoma in the world so protect yourself from it.

Climbing through the paddocks along the Packhorse Hut Track

The locals check us out while on the Packhorse Hut Track

The views down to the Kaituna Valley and the Pacific Ocean at Birdlings Flat are beautiful from high on these hills.

View down to Kaituna Valley and Birdlings Flat from the Packhorse Hut Track
After about an hour and a half the hut comes into view perched on Kaituna Saddle between Mt Bradley and Pt. 570. Parkinsons Scenic Reserve is the bush you can see in the bottom right of the image, this is the location of the new wardens biv.

First view of Kaituna Saddle, Packhorse Hut from the Packhorse Hut Track

The new hut warden quarters at Kaituna Saddle

The new hut wardens bivouac is located on the edge of Parkinsons Scenic Reserve in a nice sunny clearing. It was built by construction students from Ara (the local polytechnic) and donated to DOC in 2016. It is quite a neat little one person biv with a single bunk, shelves, a small table and plenty of space for hanging gear inside. 

DOC Packhorse hut warden biv (2017) at Parkinsons Scenic Reserve

The hut has a rainwater tank but no toilet yet, my understanding is that this is being considered for the summer of 2018/2019. 

Another view of the new wardens biv in Parkinsons Scenic Reserve
The hut was very recently installed (so it could be used this summer), eventually the local DOC office plan to add an outside bench, sink and some kind of lean to around the entrance so wet gear can be stored outside.

It will be a great asset for the volunteer hut warden programme and DOC staff working in the area.

The area surrounding the Parkinson's Reserve wardens biv
They even have a cooker for you to use, a classic Gasmate 1103 which is the same type DOC use throughout the country, on the Antipodes and in Antarctica. It is awesome to be able to leave my pot, cooker and gas bottle behind.

Unfortunately it was replaced with about 2 kgs of gear DOC wanted taken to the hut....

Classic DOC Model 1103 Gasmate 2 burner cooker

Locked tool box and water point on the new Packhorse wardens biv

The biv is about 100 metres downhill from Packhorse Hut, close enough to be useful but far enough away for a degree of privacy.

View up towards Packhorse hut from the new wardens biv

Packhorse Hut is up there in the centre of the fog...

Sign on the outside of the new Packhorse wardens biv, Parkinson's Scenic Reserve

Georgia and I were the first people to stay in the hut, there were still wood shavings on the floor from when it was installed...

Visiting Packhorse hut with Georgia

 Georgia and I visited the main Packhorse Hut about 4-5 times a day usually in the morning, early afternoon and at last light. The volunteer wardens don't have a lot of jobs to do but one of them is to check the hut booking details and tickets/passes of the people staying over night.

The hut was full with family groups both nights....

Georgia in front of Packhorse Hut

Packhorse Hut (1916), Kaituna Saddle in 2018

View of Mt Bradley from in front of Packhorse Hut

Port Hills and Lyttleton Harbour from Packhorse Hut area

Another view of Lyttleton from near the Packhorse Hut

Native bush regenerating in the gullies in front of Packhorse Hut

Jon in front of Packhorse Hut

Packhorse Hut (1916) on Kaituna Saddle

Jon in front of the Packhorse Hut entrance

Packhorse Hut: the view out of one of the windows

Packhorse Hut: the bunkroom...9 bunks on two levels

Old candle ledge in Packhorse Hut

Georgia in the Packhorse Hut

Classic DOC hut candle holder in Packhorse Hut

The dining area in Packhorse Hut in 2015

Other tasks the wardens undertake are the maintenance and cleaning of the hut and hut toilets. Most people are good and tidy up after themselves but a quick wipe of the benches and a sweep of the floor never goes amiss. 

We also spent some time cutting both firewood splits and kindling for the hut, not a prescribed job but something I like to do. Georgia had a blast chopping up a pile of firewood.

Georgia chopping some wood outside Packhorse Hut
Georgia splitting some wood outside the Packhorse Hut woodshed

There are great views of the surrounding area from the hut site, you can see Kaituna Valley, Lyttleton Harbour, the Port Hills and out over the Canterbury Plains.

View of Parkinson's Reserve and the Kaituna Valley from near Packhorse Hut

The wood burner inside Packhorse Hut

Close-up view of the Packhorse Hut wood burner

Packhorse Hut door
Here is a portion of the firewood we chopped for the hut...

Some of the wood Georgia cut for Packhorse Hut

A side trip to Mt Herbert didn't happen despite our best intentions. Both days it was either foggy/cloudy or 30 degrees neither of which you want when negotiating that hairy track around the back of Mt Bradley.

Georgia and I will go walk Te Ara Pataka sometime this year so she will get to visit Mt Herbert as well as Rod Donald Hut and the track down to Gebbies Pass.

Chilling in the hut wardens bivy

 When we weren't otherwise occupied we spent most of our time around the biv. It was a bit hot so we stayed inside for most of the day reading etc. The hut is shaded by some larger trees and well insulated so you didn't notice the heat inside, only when sitting outside. 

I'm going to donate a light tarp on my next visit so people can rig up a bit of shade while staying in the biv.

Georgia chilling inside the Packhorse/Parkinson's Reserve biv

The stove set up and cooking our dinner on the first night, the Packhorse/Parkinsons's Reserve biv

The hut has a nice ambience to it, we had a candle going but there was also a LED light in the hut as well as our headlamps.

Packhorse/Parkinson's Reserve biv: some night-time ambience courtesy of a candle

Plenty of shelving space in the biv for your gear, clothing and food.

Table and shelf unit inside the Packhorse/Parkinson's Reserve biv

The clearing around the biv is undeveloped so I spent most of an afternoon clearing the brush and long grass away from the cooking area and washing line. At the moment there is bare earth in front of the hut but DOC have chucked out some grass seed to provide a nicer surface around the biv.

Packhorse Wardens Biv: high grass around the cooking area

Packhorse Hut wardens quarters: your comfortable seating

Packhorse Hut wardens quarters: well hidden from view
DOC have stocked the hut with some basic equipment to make the life of the volunteers a bit easier. There is a set of cutlery, some plates, bowls and a cup...they also provide a cooker, camp seat, chilly bin and cooking pots. This is great as it allows you to concentrate on just carrying the food you need for your stay.

We had soup, sausages and mash with gravy the first night and pancakes the first morning then it was back to more basic fare...freeze dry!

Eating some soup inside the Packhorse Hut/Parkinson's Reserve biv

Georgia tucking into her soup, inside the Packhorse/Parkinson's Reserve biv

Awesome biv they have there, a decent wee home for a couple of days or weeks.

Checking the Robertson Bush trap lines

  The Department of Conservation have a predator trapping programme in place in Parkinson's Scenic Reserve which is the name of the bush which surrounds the wardens biv. It is a small remnant of mature native forest, with the full three stories from undergrowth right through to mature Matai and Totora trees. 

Parkinson's Scenic Reserve from the Packhorse Hut Track in 2013

Parkinson's Scenic Reserve as marked with red line

The Department is trying to stop predators destroying the native birds who have made this bush their home. The most common predators are possums, rats and stouts all of which are disastrous to native birds in this country.

Common Brushtail Possum AKA the "Drop Bear"

 There are specific traps which need to be used for each of these predators, specifically the DOC 200 ground trap for stouts, the Trapinator possum trap and the PCR rat bait tunnel. All of these are kinetic traps...they have a sprung bar or lever which kills its prey using a crushing action.  

 PCR rat bait tunnel and Victor trap

The highly portable PCR rat tunnel...
  The PCR is a light plastic cardboard tunnel with a baited trap inside. They are very light so a lot can be carried at one time when setting up a trap line. They need to be pegged to the ground so they cannot be dragged away.

The trap they use is the classic Victor rat trap, made in New Zealand for at least the last 100 years. Old school but very effective...these are baited with peanut butter.

...contains one of these Victor rat traps!

 DOC 200

The DOC 200 is the most common trap you will see in the New Zealand bush. They are aimed at rats, stouts, weasels and ferrets but also catch mice and hedgehogs on occasion. All of these pest species predate the eggs and chicks of native birds so a lot of effort is expended in trying to remove them from our forests.

DOC 200 predator trap: for rats/stouts/weasels etc
 These traps will be baited with eggs for the most part although a new long lasting bait has been developed as eggs eventual rot and crack. The trap is very effective, every DOC 200 Georgia and I opened had caught something while the PCR traps had a 50% success rate.

Resetting one of the DOC 200 traps that belong to the trapline

  Trapinator Possum Trap

  The last trap used in the reserve is the Trapinator which is specifically designed to catch possums. Possums destroy both trees and chicks and are prolific in our bush. 

These are the easiest of the traps to check and reset, they are baited with a 'cookie dough' mixture which smells strongly of Aniseed. Supposedly a possum can smell this bait from two kilometres away. I don't know about that but every trap we checked had a possum carcass in it.

A Trapinator possum trap, note the trap on the left is set

Instructions on the outside of a Trapinator

Trapinator trap set in a South Island beech forest (photo DOC)

Possum caught in a Trapinator trap in Parkinson's Reserve

Georgia came with me around the trap line and acted as scribe noting the catch, and if traps had been reset or not. She was o.k. with the experience except for the smell which was a bit rank given the hot weather recently. 

We actually had a good time doing this task, I will certainly continue the job when I am next at the hut.

Georgia acting as scribe while checking the trap-line
Just as an aside...don't mess around with any trap you see in the bush unless you know what you are doing. All of these traps can crush a hand or chop off a finger if misused. Additionally,  DOC use cyanide in some of their traps and if it doesn't kill you it will make you so sick you will wish it had... 

Homeward bound.....

On the Sunday we set off back to the car-park after a leisurely morning at the biv site. We had planned to climb Pt. 570 but it was so foggy you couldn't see more than 10 metres so it would have been pointless.

Georgia packed and ready to go outside the Packhorse Hut Wardens biv

Jon packed and ready to go outside the Packhorse Hut Wardens biv 15 year old daughter is nearly the same height as me....I'm 6'3" by the way...

The Packhorse/Parkinson's Reserve biv closed and locked!
We tidied up the biv, locked all of the gear inside and gave the general hut site a good once over. Then we hoisted packs and beat our feet for home...

Last view of the Packhorse Hut/Parkinson's Reserve Biv tucked away in the bush

I was a bit loaded down with the trapping kit, DOC radio and PLB as well as a sleeping bag one of the family groups had left behind in the hut. Regardless, the trip back down to the car park is a lot easier than heading up to the hut.

Looking down into Kaituna Valley from the track to Packhorse Hut

The cloud started to dissipate about 10 minutes after we left the biv site so the walk down to the car was hot and sunny...typical!

Kaituna Valley from half way back to the car-park

Loaded up like Marius's mule and heading for the Kaituna Valley car park

Georgia resting on the way down the Packhorse Hut Track

Steep clay track on the way to the KaitunaValley

Jon takes out the trash...for 5 kilometres!

Jon got to carry the rubbish bag on the way to the Kaituna Valley car park

All in it was an enjoyable weekend spent with Georgia., we both had an opportunity to try multiple things neither of us had ever tried before. I am back at Packhorse Hut over the weekend of the 23-26th February and I am really looking forward to the experience. 

The 'Silver Surfer' still safe at the car-park at Kaituna Valley

Love the trapping, it is interesting work. I have my name down to assist Forest and Bird with a trapping programme they are running from their Boyle Base Camp up near Lewis Pass so it will be fun to see how they operate.