Life of a Hut Warden - Angelus

Angelus Hut in the Nelson Lakes National Park was the first NZ back-country hut I stayed at, and it holds a special place in my heart.

At the tail end of winter 2015 I ventured from St Arnaud south along the rocky ridges, finally cresting the saddle which reveals the hanging valley holding Lake Angelus and its eponymous hut. Strangely for Angelus, I was the only person there and had the mountains to myself. Up at 1650m and with a small, uncontaminated water catchment, the flora in the bowl and nutrient poor tarn is exceptional. Remnants of snow still smothered some grasses but the vegetable sheep were poking through and breathing in the spring air. Vegetable sheep are boulder-like plants, which feed on their own decaying plant matter which then forms a peat-like substance inside  the structure. They look much like lichen clad rocks and dot the scree slopes surrounding the tarn. After a quick dip I split some firewood (flown in by helicopter at the beginning of each season) and settled down for the night by the fireside.

After an isolated two days in the mountains, I returned back to civilisation and decided I wanted to be a volunteer hut warden at this magical place. Fast forward a few months to New Years Eve and I’m walking back to the hut armed with a weeks worth of food to look after the place. In contrast to last time all 32 beds are full, and the place has an electric buzz about it. Some French friends decided to take a break from their round-the-world tandem adventures to come and see in the New Year from my wardens quarters. Naturally they brought wine and champagne and we had a blast.  

My duties as warden were simple - to be a welcoming face to visitors, check their bookings (as one of the more popular huts, Angelus is on a booking system throughout the busy season), and provide updated weather forecasts and advice on the different routes and tracks. After cleaning the toilets and hut in the morning I was free to explore the mountains myself for the day. As a trail runner I was in heaven. Angelus has singletrack trails in every direction, summitting mountains, descending through steep woodland to Lake Rotora and Rotoiti, and rocky ridgeline scrambles. 

Everyday was a new adventure and made me better at my job of sharing trail conditions and terrain difficulty. Back at the hut I read up on the local geology and wildlife, Craig Potton’s 1984 ‘Story of the Nelson Lakes’ being a personal favourite. A few months later Lucie gave me a copy she found in an op shop and to this day it is one of my favourite books on my bookshelf.  

As always with New Zealand, there were plenty of rainy days, when the hut seemed the most magical refuge from the elements. One day instead of continuing on their journeys, the few trampers that had slept in the hut stayed for the morning and I made a big batch of pancakes - the warden’s quarters had some surprising supplies including dehydrated pancake mix. One of the pancake-eating trampers happened to be a saxophonist in a ska band and the day I left Angelus I found myself at a surreal concert listening to him and ‘Newtown Rocksteady’.  With willows draped over a log cabin by a lake, Dharma bums club is possibly the best venue I’ve experienced.  

A few months later I returned to Angelus again, this time with my parents and Lucie on a 3 day trip via Speargrass hut. Unfortunately by this time the only film I had left was an expired roll of Elite Chrome that I had salvaged from a camera in an op shop, giving the whole roll a monochromatic pink wash. Fortunately Lucie took some beautiful photos including this one below, showing Angelus Peak, Lake and Hut.

Angelus Hut is one of those places that I could visit again and again, it has a pull on me that I will no doubt give in to at least once more.