There’s a secret place off the main Orongorongo Track known only to those with a long connection to the valley. The hidden path meanders through crown ferns and over tree roots to reach a clearing surrounding by towering beech trees. Dappled sunlight filters through their branches and cornflake leaves. A small brown hut of NZ Forest Service design is perched on the corner of the clearing. It looks a little forlorn and neglected but it’s got character and a great story to tell.
The little brown hut is Mark II of one of the earliest huts to be built in the Orongorongo Valley. The huts owners were well known locals with connections to the Tararua Tramping Club, New Zealand’s mountaineering and hunting circles and the NZ Forest Service.
Big Mac - Sam McIntosh
The original Mac’s Hut was a basic structure built from beech poles and flattened benzine tins. The hut was completed in 1922 by friends Sam McIntosh and Bill Gibbs.
Historian Chris Maclean wrote about the pair in his book Tararua and the Orongorongo Valley Built Heritage Study report.
“From the early 1920s, enterprising groups also began to build huts in the valley, adding to those built by hunters. The first of these, Mac’s Hut, resulted from the energy and enthusiasm of two young civil servants in the Customs Department, Bill Gibbs and Sam McIntosh.
At the time, the public service recruited school leavers from throughout the country and brought them to Wellington. Many of these young people came from country areas and at first found the city a strange, sometimes lonely place. Some stayed at St John’s Hostel in Willis Street, where they formed enduring friendships. Others met through their work in various government departments. Bill Gibbs, from Sumner, who had spent his youth chasing rabbits on the Port Hills behind Christchurch, found himself opening mail at the Census and Statistics Department. As a result of reading circulars from the Tararua Tramping Club to senior staff such as K.S. Bargh, J.W. Butcher and D.J. Cruickshank (all foundation members of the club) he became interested in tramping. He and Sam McIntosh, another recent recruit to the department, began by exploring the Orongorongo Valley, which was easy to reach and a cheap way to spend the weekend. All that was needed was the price of a return ticket on the harbour ferry, the Cobar, and ‘a loaf of bread, some butter and a pound of sausages’.
The trip to the popular valley soon became a regular ritual and the pair decided to build a hut there. They collected used benzene tins from the Public Service garage in Wellington, flattened them, then nailed them to a beech pole frame. Mac’s Hut, as it became known on its completion in 1922, soon became a meeting place for many young people keen to escape their sedentary life during the week in government departments. Sited on a high point above the Orongorongo River at the end of the Five Mile Track, Mac’s Hut also provided an ideal base for those keen to explore the valley and beyond.”
Mac’s Hut was heavily used by the Tararua Tramping Club until it’s own club hut Waerenga, was built in 1933.
During World War II, Mac’s Hut fell into disrepair. Tararua Tramping Club member and Forest Service Biologist, Mavis Davidson took over the hut in the 1950s making the necessary repairs. Despite constant vandalism, Mavis agreed to keep it as an emergency shelter after a river fatality, to provide an alternative to crossing the river when it was in flood.
Mavis achieved more than most over her lifetime. She was a respected climber making history by leading the first all women accent of Mt Cook in 1953.
In her work life, she became an expert in deer biology, publishing 12 scientific papers on the habits of Sika deer for the NZ Forest Service. She went on to receive an OBE for her work in 1992.
Many of the valley’s visitors were grateful to Mavis for keeping the hut open as an emergency shelter.
Don Bruce shared his memories of using Mac’s Hut during bad weather in a 1987 letter to historian Ross Kerr:
“I stayed here twice in dire circumstances. First in 1951. I came through the Five Mile with “the usuals” including Don Dement on that Friday night. Sad History. We carried him out next day. Stretcher party organised by WCC Ranger Jack Scott. No breakfast and soaked by river and southerly rain. Finally made the road utterly exhausted and cold to the marrow and no provision for feed or brew. It was back again late pm in state of near exhaustion. But a group were at Mac’s – called us in, and it was tea, sausages – more tea – bread and warmth. Back to Manuka, but much more buoyant. I think that event showed the solidarity of the Orongorongos. A mate was killed, his mates took him out, and, I guess, his mates still remember him”.
“The next occasion was the flash flood December 1962. My mate, Frank Ratcliffe and self went in to select an adjacent site for Manuka 3. The sky opened up when we reached Jacksons and we crossed the Catchpole with real difficulty. Then it got worse. Frank was washed off his feet while crossing at those small creeks along the Five Mile and we elected to look in at Mac’s...We were son joined by two lads on way out who had to return – no sleeping bags nor food. But – good old bush style we were able to share with them – a night of yarn even if cold.”
In 1971 Mavis transferred the hut to her Forest Service colleague Lynn Harris.
Lynn erected a new hut in 1972 loosely based on the Forest Service 4-bunk design - the little brown hut that still stands today.
Lynn worked with Mavis in the Forest Service Animal Research Unit for many years. Like Mavis, Lynn made a significant contribution to New Zealand’s knowledge of deer habits as well as our hunting culture. His work is best described in his book ‘Guns and Game’.
Sadly since Mac’s Hut was transferred to DOC, it has become forgotten and at risk of demolition - but it’s location and history makes it a special place with stories worthy of sharing with all visitors to the valley.