HIDDEN FIORDLAND HUTS

Fiordland is located on the south west of the South Island and covers an area of 12,042.36 square km(4,649.58 sq mi). This makes it five times larger than Luxembourg. As of June 2021, despite the vast area, it has an estimated population of just 100 people. Almost the entire population live at Milford Sound Village.  There are few places in Fiordland suitable for establishing settlements because it is an area of impenetrable forests, deep valleys and soaring mountain peaks. However, the area is better known world-wide for the spectacular fiords, especially Milford Sound which is regarded as one of the world’s top tourist destinations. There are twelve fiords, some stretching up to 40 kilometres (25 mi) inland, with two inlets leading to three more fiords.

I have visited Fiordland over a dozen times. I have even spent two nights onboard a research vessel floating in Dusky Sound while making a documentary tracing the footsteps of James Cook who visited the area in 1773. One of the few places where humans can actually step ashore in Fiordland is now called Astronomer’s Point. This is where Cook’s team set up an observatory to plot New Zealand’s position on his map. I have been to this spot and it was amazing to find it hasn’t changed since his visit because a tree that extended out over the water was captured in a painting made at the time. This tree is still untouched today (or was when I saw it quite a few years ago). While researching for this blog, I was amazed to come across lakes I have never heard of. It just goes to show how isolated this area of the country is and how little is still known about it.

LAKE HANKINSON HUT

Lake Hankinson Hut (DoC)

Named after early settler, Donald Hankinson who discovered the lake in 1877, Lake Hankinson is aptly called ‘the secret lake’ for obvious reasons. Surrounded by misty mountains and dense native bush, the little hut near the lake is the oldest in Fiordland. Built in 1928, it is one of the remotest accommodations in the world. Before the introduction of a water taxi, it took 4 days of tramping through dense fern forests to reach this modest hut. Like most parts of Fiordland, few humans have set foot here. Why was the hut built in such a remote location you may ask. Good question! I’m guessing it was put there for intrepid deer hunters. Located on the challenging 17.8km (11.06miles) George Sound Track, the basic hut was expanded in the 1950s and now sleeps 11 people. A pot belly stove warms the interior and also helps dry out wet clothing. Those who have been to this little-known area of New Zealand say it is true escapism and gave them a real feeling of stepping back in time and experiencing life the way it used to be.

LOCH MAREE HUT

This is another hut I have never heard of although I have been to this part of Fiordland on a few occasions over the years. Loch Maree is at the head of Dusky Sound and was formed after an 1826 earthquake caused an enormous landslide to block the Seaforth River. In the process, the loch swallowed a substantial stand of beech trees that can still be seen today, half-submerged and giving the loch an eerie feel and its popular name, ‘Mysterious Loch Maree’. Dense bush backs onto the hut which is perched just above the loch at the junction of the Dusky and Supper Cove tracks. In 1903, when New Zealand was in the middle of a recession, a group of 50 West Coast miners were sent to carve a track from Lake Manapouri to Supper Cove. Their tools are still where they abandoned them next to Loch Maree making them a curious attraction for those visiting this particular hut.

WESTIES HUT

Possibly the most unusually located hut in New Zealand sits tucked into a large uplifted sea cave just 15metres (49ft) from the high tide line at Fiordland’s Prices Harbour, an inhospitable part of the southern coastline which is frequently bashed by violent storms and drenched by driving rain.

Owen Westy (better known as ‘Westy’) was a fisherman when he literally jumped ship here in 1986. A hunter out on the Fiordland coast watched with bated breath as the mature Kiwi swam ashore in heavy surf.  Westy had been skippering an Australian-owned fishing boat which had to carry a mandatory kiwi skipper. On his last trip, while sailing off Puysegur Point, he got into a raging argument with the seven Australian crew members that only got worse as they sailed on. Westy threatened to quit, knowing that action would immediately cancel the boat’s license. Eventually, with no end to the bickering, he just told them all to “get stuffed” and jumped overboard in just the clothes he was wearing. A strong swimmer, he negotiated the heavy swells for over a kilometre before hitting the breakers and body surfing into shore. After drying out on the beach Westy made his way along the coast to shelter in a sea cave he had heard about at Prices Harbour. The huge cave acted as shelter to a rudimentary structure built by Southland fisherman ‘Slack’ Dawson, who used to shelter there when he wasn’t hand-hauling cray pots into his boat along this section of the coast. Some of the parts he used were significant, like the main door, salvaged off the fishing boat Rebel, which got wrecked along the coast here in 1986. 

Westy liked the isolation of the place and lived there from 1989 to 1997. ‘Westies Hut’ is actually two separate buildings – the main hut contains a single bed, table, sink bench, gas cooker and coal range, while the second dubbed ‘the ‘Bunkroom’ contains a sofa and two bunks. The main hut is the only hut in New Zealand to be wallpapered. Over the decade Westy lived in the hut, he developed relationships with local helicopter pilots who supplied him with provisions. Whenever he wanted a lift to Invercargill, he would place a large blue tarpaulin over a nearby bush with the word ‘LIFT’ written on it. He would wait until a chopper passed by and seeing his request, would land on the beach and pick him up. A helicopter flying from Invercargill to that part of Fiordland would return him to his hut for free.

Isolation and solitude have always attracted the Kiwi loner and the harsh conditions of Fiordland have certainly provided challenges for those who have experienced time alone in this spectacular, but dangerous part of the world.

Ceidrik Heward