A spot of tea provides a nice break from trail

Posted March 26, 2009, at 7:22 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:37 a.m.

I’m hiking uphill and rain is sliding down my face. My boots are wet and heavy with mud; I am sore, wet and tired. Then suddenly, as if it had been placed there just for me, it comes into view: a small cabin or “hut” — a New Zealand hiker’s shelter.

Pushing the door open, I find myself in a large, open room. Bunks for a dozen people line one wall, and a warm, lit wood stove fire pumps out heat from the middle of the room. Hiking gear is drying everywhere, hanging over and placed around the stove. Two people play cards at the rough-hewn wooden table in the corner. One of the cardplayers looks up and says to me, in a thick Kiwi accent, “Hullo. You want some tea?”

I have arrived, it seems, in heaven.

New Zealand is a mecca for hikers. The country has guarded its natural beauty wisely; more than a third of the land has been set aside as parkland or wilderness. Best yet, this carefully preserved wilderness is still very accessible: New Zealand is criss-crossed with gorgeous trails (or “tracks,” as the New Zealanders call them), and furnished with more than 800 huts just like this one. These basic huts are maintained by the Department of Conservation, and staying in them is easy and cheap — so long as you can hike through the backcountry to get to them.

Hiking, or “tramping” as New Zealanders call it, is a major national pastime, and it shows in the care Kiwis have put into these huts along their extensive trail systems. At the end of a long day, these shelters are just what you need. Some are heated with wood stoves, others are not, but all have four walls and a roof, offering a dry, sheltered haven. As we gather inside, getting out our cooking stoves and water bottles, I see the other perk of these huts: In addition to providing basic shelter, more often than not they also provide the camaraderie of fellow trampers.

“Where are you coming from?” I am asked as I shake the rain from my wet jacket. The group already seated around the table has traveled down from the North Island to hike this route; composed of several couples, all middle-aged, they look like a very outdoorsy bridge club. I hang my raincoat over the stove and smile at them.

“We’ve just hiked up from Sabine Hut — about eight hours from here.”

“Oh, how was climbing over the pass?”

“Fine — though awfully rainy and windy today! Even with the bad weather, though, the views were still amazing. You just had to keep both feet on the ground during the gusts.”

“Have you got a mug?” one of the men asks me kindly. “We’ve just brewed up some tea.”

I ease onto a bench, stretch my boots out toward the stove, and sigh with happiness. This is a quintessentially New Zealand activity: drinking tea in a backcountry hut. Probably because of its British heritage, New Zealanders takes their tea seriously. Kiwis also take hiking seriously — making lugging around heavy teapots seem like no challenge at all. Burly New Zealanders easily outhike me, climbing over ridges and alpine tracks with the alacrity of people who have grown up with such scenery. They’ll puff up a scree slope in the rain, arrive at a shelter ahead of me, and then pull out an iron teakettle (or “billy”) from their pack, and a milk jug to boot. “Is it true that you Americans even saw off your toothbrush handles to save weight?” one Kiwi asked me, laughing. “That’s so silly.”

Kiwis hike the New Zealand equivalent of a standard British tea service into the backcountry, milk, sugar, mugs and all.

This is a small, rainy country, with the kind of capricious weather that can be found only on a mountainous island. I can’t begrudge the rain, though, when it brings so much vibrancy to this verdant country. And if the cloudbursts are frequent and unpredictable, they serve to make these mugs of tea drunk in these backcountry huts all the sweeter. Rain may fall into swollen, raging streams that tumble down the steep mountainsides to the sea, but so long as the firewood and the food hold out, I’m happy.

The next morning the sun breaks, glittering on the wet grass and the beech leaves strewn across the trail. Much of my clothing has dried during the night. I repack my backpack, put on my gaiters and set back off on the trail, ready to climb the next mountain and discover what’s beyond the next valley.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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