Story: The New Zealand bush

A strange one

A strange one

Warden Michele Ayres enjoys the sun on the deck at Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. But one evening an unusual visitor disturbed the calm.

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Contributed by Michele Ayres of Christchurch.

On most days in the summer season the Sealy range is a great place to explore. To discover Mt Cook lilies in the late snow is a bonus. To ascend Hilary’s first summit, Mt Ollivier, is entirely feasible.

On any day Mueller Hut is a great place to stay, but some days prove more interesting than others. On this day our jokes and laughter ricochet round the empty hut – welcome space left by scurrying climbers descending 1,100 metres to Mt Cook village through sleet. So at 4 p.m., surrounded by swirling mist and thick rain, I contemplate an early nosh of bacon and eggs, a serious read, and reduced warden duties.

Ah, the delights of peace and relative solitude – though don’t get me wrong: it’s great meeting people and sharing stories. But this peace is welcome after the Christmas holiday rush. I joke some more with Steve, my fellow warden, recalling ‘The shining’, a film with Jack Nicholson as caretaker at a mountain hotel during winter – sans guests, family only. He goes crazy, creatively wielding an axe. The wet snow and gloom outside Mueller mirrors the film’s isolated hotel scenery – anything could happen …

As I glance outside, a shadow flits past. We stare. There is a thunderous bang at the rear bunkroom. Air blasts through our cosiness, accompanied by a strident figure splaying droplets and shouting ‘Crikey!’ A thin plastered shirt, cotton trousers, sandals and a plastic bag of biscuits circle pooling water on wooden boards.

Jumping to, we offer commiserations, ‘Poor weather huh?’

No answer, maybe he didn’t hear, hmm.

‘Did you walk up from the village?’

No answer, hmm, deaf?

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

His pupils flicker − irritated, staring straight through me.

Steve rushes off to the wardens’ quarters, muttering ‘… hot tea – hypothermia …’. Warning prickles ¬shoot up my back − please don’t leave me alone with him. This, whoever this is, is not suffering from hypothermia. This – he doesn’t want us here … didn’t expect to find wardens at Mueller. Ha ha, too much scary film talk, now see where it’s got you.

I persevere, but he sits behind me, munching rapidly, incisors working crumbs. Cold malevolence seeps along my back: hurry up, Steve. On cue he returns with a steaming mug.

‘Cuppa tea, mate … get that down you.’

No reply … stare, stare.

I watch this surreal play − maybe he doesn’t like females. But no, Steve gets the same treatment. Intrigued, I wait for Steve’s next move. He remains standing, concerned, eventually meeting my eyes. I try to convey my discomfort, purse my lips and shake my head: yes, now you’ve got it.

Wordlessly we assess this figure who wants no part of a homely hut world. He rises, shooting crumbs, spraying drops and ignoring tea. Heaves his shoulders and stomps through the back to a slick, darkening mountainside and a destination unrealised.

Our pleas are ignored. How do you help someone who refuses? What to do…? We radio base, alert them to a lone figure descending in severe conditions poorly dressed − what more to do?

There are no subsequent reports, no sightings. A strange one indeed.

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How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'The New Zealand bush - Interesting encounters', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2022)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Sep 2007