Smoke But No Fire on the St James Cycleway

by Dave Mitchell

Cherie from Ground Effect had stood us up. She was drawn away by trucks and earth moving equipment with her Dad on a driveway-repair mission at the new house. It would have been bad form to head off biking with your mates for the weekend.

With yet another perfect weather pattern in the misty mountains, Ditte and I abandoned Cherie to her driveway and headed for the high country via - the Culverden Bakery for the customary pre-ride consumption of possibly the best pies in the entire galaxy. The full stomachs did not help our cause on the shaded climb up Fowlers Pass on a hoar-frosted track surface. The sun rapidly warmed the tussocks at the saddle and followed us down the newly upgraded downhill. Adjacent to us, Mt Seymour and Blue Mountain had already caught an early winter snow fall. We dived into the shaded valley below them, with the cold biting through our damp attire. We soon popped back out into the limelight, finding more new track that roams down the ever expanding valley, crossing Smyths Stream every chance it got.

 We followed the Stanley River out to Stanley Vale, skirted the old historic hut and dropped down the 4wd track to Lake Guyon. Shorts and t-shirt weather greeted us at lake's edge, along with a noisy gaggle of exiting geese. First lunch was assembled as we basked in the sun. The lake soon returned to perfecting its reflection. This body of water is classically in the right place at the right time. It's sheltered and catches plenty of sun, with a commanding view of Mt Una and the snow clad Spencer Mountains. It’s a happy lake and it shows. We peddled around the shadowy north side through snatches of beech forest, over white frost and puddles of ice, before dropping into the Waiau River Valley and the St James Cycleway.

The river was low with a slippery bottom. Hmmmm. Cycling it would have sent us ass over kite so we legged it cautiously. Ducking around the old Ada homestead, we headed up the 4wd track on the true right of the Ada Valley. The track climbs gradually up a vast open terrace heading for the St James Walkway. Forgotten horses with their big feet and flowing manes paraded the riverbank. We finally crossed the river as the track swung left and the Christopher Hut loomed large. The hut hides at the edge of a wave of beech forest that is slowly marching down from above to reclaim its past. We unceremoniously dumped our heavy gear and tore off on singletrack up the valley like moths  towards the late afternoon sun. As it melted below the ridge-top we turned and raced the lengthening shadows back home.

We arrived unannounced at the hut as dusk descended, bringing a ghostly chill to the very foundations of all things warm-blooded. First priority was to shut the doors and light the fire. This DOC hut had obviously entered the paperless office era, requiring the judicious application of candle wax on fine kindling to start the party. The small amount of smoke emitted into the hut was tolerated with the door slightly ajar to encourage a gale-force draft. More kindling was added to the burgeoning inferno. We closed the door and killed the fire. It soon revived once the door was open again, but rapidly began belching smoke into the hut. After a few more failed attempts to chaperone the smoke up the chimney, it proceeded to swamp the hut and billow out the front door, emergency exit and every open window. The hordes of resident mice had fled, no doubt expecting to see Thunderbird Two coming to our rescue with a monsoon bucket. Or the little critters were heading for their marshmallow store in anticipation of a glowing charcoal base later that night.

We promptly gave up on the principle of natural convection. We busily erected our emergency kitset OSH regulation scaffolding with the help of a couple of origami-certified scaffolders so we could get onto the roof. We had already placed a few hundred reflective cones around the danger zone and enough signage to sink any sort of common sense. I did not climb on Ditte's back and haul myself up onto the roof. With my full harness and safety lanyard attached to an anchor point on the roof, I donned my high temperature gloves and removed the chimneys upper stack. A length of clean galvanised water pipe lounging beside the hut warden's quarters was the perfect improvised flue brush. Two major blockages were forcibly overcome on its epic journey down into the fire box. A sticky tar covered pipe was gingerly hauled back up from the offending orifice. One slip would have spelt disaster with no simple method of extraction. We survived to tell the tale but were ignobly tarred and feathered. Note that by law only 'German Federation of Chimney Sweeps' affiliates can clean a chimney. That’s why we only unblocked this one.

All was goodness and light. The fire roared the smoke dissipated bristol-fashion. We closed all that had been open and had dinner cheerfully cooking atop the fire. Further investigation in the annals of the hut book revealed the smoking gun saga had started three years previously. Complaints flowed thick and fast, but action was thin and slow. We can only assume that unlike our foolish selves, no one else bothers to carry the required safety equipment needed for such a massive job.

Sunday was a carbon copy of Saturday, with a lot less smoke. And actually no carbon either. We back tracked to the Stanley Vale Hut for a brew and chat to Shaun Jamerson, who had ridden his black and white horse named Trigger over Fowlers Pass. He was wintering over for the forth year in a row - catching possums, shooting pigs, fixing the hut and doing a spot of track maintenance on his frequent travel up and down the valley and out to Hanmer. What a wealth of information, gossip and innuendo he proved to be and a thoroughly nice chap to boot. His dated charcoal lines beside the weathered and wrinkled front door marked the maximum snow depth of winters' past. Books lined the smokey shelves and autumn colours surrounded the hut. We lunched and chatted, joined by Trigger  who was more interested in our food than polite conversation.

The return up to Fowlers Pass was hot, steep and technical, but the downhill is always a magic carpet ride out to the Rainbow Road end. Reality and Monday followed.