|Pen sketch by Honora of Big Tops Hut (yes, that's a vacuum cleaner)|
I first found my way into the Koropuku valley and visited Big Tops Hut in 1993.
The hut, and the valley, were sadly neglected and lucky to see a single visitor in a year. Access to the hut was completely overgrown and even 50 metres away it was impossible to tell you were close.
The Department of Conservation was quite clear that they wanted to remove it, and would do so as soon as they had funding for the task. The fact the hut was in near perfect condition had no bearing on it.
View of Mt Alexander and Lake Kaurapataka en route to Big Tops in the Koropuku valley
I couldn't believe if people that loved the wilderness knew what it was like there that they wouldn't want to go there. I wanted to save Big Tops to make sure it remained a possibility for other people.
This brought me to a complete change in attitude. Before this I'd been one of the many that reflexively complained about DoC not doing this or not doing that. But I knew if Big Tops Hut was to be saved it was up to me to do it.
To start I cut back the vegetation, cleared the access, cleaned the hut up and carried out the rubbish of an earlier generation of trampers.
Next I set to publicising Big Tops to try to get people going in there again. And interest really did increase and the increase in visitors showed in the hut book within a relatively short time.
|In the Koropuku access gully|
But I didn't want to just leave it at that. I believed then that individual efforts weren't enough. I hoped one of the local tramping clubs would informally adopt Big Tops to keep access to it open and use their influence to put its case to DoC. So in 1996 I wrote a short piece for the Christchurch Tramping Club newsletter, referring to the club's past connection to the hut. However I hadn't realised there was strong opposition among older members to club involvement in such commitments, and I was treading on toes without knowing it. Such errors as are made in a spirit of enthusiasm and the best of intentions.
This is what I wrote:
Big Tops Hut & the CTC
Christchurch Tramping Club’s connection with the Big Tops Hut in the Koropuku valley goes back a long way.
At one time there was only a tiny Big Tops Biv at the head of the Koropuku Stream. Then when that great tramping benefactor, the New Zealand Forest Service, decided a hut was needed it fell to Ray Forsyth to select a suitable site for it. The condition of Big Tops today is proof that Ray was good at his job. Ray is now a member of the club and spends his time in the hills for pleasure.
The new hut became a Mecca for the more adventurous CTC members. There was even a suggestion at one time that it be renamed “McSweeney Manor” in honour of the frequent visits by then keen young CTC tramper Jerry McSweeney.
Official club trips didn’t go there though. There was even a deliberate move to keep people out. A note in the hut book in 1973 advised people to “…keep it unknown by not talking too much about its position.”
Over the next few years the hut book was dominated by the names of CTC notables of the time: McSweeney, Jones, Visser, Lassche, Rainsbury, Sheppard, Lewis, Hay, Cox, Dephoff, Caldwell, Saggers.
However it seems they all obeyed their instructions and kept quiet about the place. And this had a downside. As the hardier CTC trampers of that era began to focus on other life interests, the appearance of club names in the hut book came to an end. The trampers who moved to the forefront of CTC activities had a blind spot for Big Tops, rather than a soft spot. For ten years not a single name associated with the club was written in the hut book.
Even visits by non CTC trampers dwindled. There was one year when not a single name appeared in the hut book. The ribbonwood and harakeke grew taller, kiwis whistled at night unheard and the deer rubbed their velvet off against the corner of the hut undisturbed.
Rumours circulated among trampers that the track had grown over entirely and access was no longer possible. In discussions Big Tops seemed to acquire an almost mythical lost to the world aura. This was helped by reports that even DoC didn’t know where it was.
A story did the rounds that DoC, eager to claim any revenue due from their great NZ Forest Service inheritance, sent in two parties of workers to put a sign in the hut advising of the fees that were now payable. Neither party could find the place and eventually a helicopter was used to do the job. The signs duly arrived by air and were affixed to the wall but I’m not sure what return DoC hoped for to cover their costs.
Whatever, this incident increased the rumour that Big Tops had been reclaimed by the wilderness and that a journey to it involved major difficulty.
So what is the truth?
Well, a lot of people in the CTC know it now. Since my first trip in there in 1993 thirty-five people have been to Big Tops with me, on five different trips. Seven have been more than once. This club once again has the expertise on the area.
Routefinding into the valley can be a real difficulty. The descent down the access gully would intimidate some. The alternative bush route is fine but requires good bush navigation skills. Then when you get to within 50 metres of the hut, if you’re not confident using your map, you could still spend a night out (like many others) and come out with a story that you’d rather not tell.
|Been to Big Tops: Susan, Honora, Ilan, Mike & Kerrie|
As a postscript, what I actually learned from this experience was that individuals just getting in and doing things have a powerful effect. They actually inspire others all over the place to get involved too. And even more people take up the baton arguing in support.