Lake Manapouri, Fiordland National Park, Southland – February 2022
Located at the mouth of the Freeman Burn, on the shores of beautiful Lake Manapōuri, Freeman Burn Hut has long served as a haven for boaties, kayakers, trampers, hunters and tourists. The historic hut was first built over the summer of 1928–29 by tourism pioneer Les Murrell, who had an ambitious plan to establish a tourist trail to Bradshaw Sound.
Today, the hut stands as solitary monument to Murrell’s efforts. The passage of nearly a century had however taken its toll. Vandals had also done significant damage, many of the piles needed replacing, and the windows were rotten. Additionally, the original hut structure had many deficiencies, including inadequate framing, and even most of what did exist was badly out of plumb.
Clearly the hut needed work, but how much of the old structure could be retained, and how much needed replacing? These were questions that tested consultant Simon Brackstone and Backcountry Trust manager Rob Brown during a recent rebuild/restoration of the hut. Keen members of the Southern Lakes branch of the New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association carried out the work. Here’s the story, and more about the hut’s unusual origins.
First, a tale of two Les’s.
In the late 1920s, Les Murrell, hunter and entrepreneur, engaged three workers to cut a track between Lake Manapōuri and Gaer Arm, on Kaikiekie/ Bradshaw Sound, and build four huts en route. This was to be a sort of alternative tourist hike to the famous Milford Track, and it was ambitious. The first of the huts built was the one at the mouth of the Freeman Burn, as this had boat access, and could serve a base from which to work on the rest of the enterprise. Made largely from rimu framing, with corrugated iron cladding, the hut had six bunks in the main room, and three in a smaller ‘ladies’ room. Despite a large open fire, water would often freeze solid in the hut during the winter months. (It’s a curious fact that old tourist huts often had separate men’s and women’s quarters, and that the poor women usually got the smaller room, without heating. Another example is Tongariro’s Old Waihohonu Hut).
Murrell did complete the project, but it was far from tailored for tourists. Notable were the rather hairy three-wire bridges – made literally from twisted No. 8 wire. That fact, and the rather inconvenient timing of the Great Depression of the 1930s, largely put paid to the venture ever being an economic success.
Enter the second Les. During the 1950s, Les and Olive Hutchins, also tourism entrepreneurs, bought Murrell’s venture on his death, and eventually expanded the company to become the highly successful Fiordland Travel (later Real Journeys). As part of the deal, they also got Freeman Burn Hut. But having steered the business into more lucrative waters (boat travel on the fiords), the Hutchins no longer needed the hut. So in 1958 they donated the hut, plus another at Shallow Bay, to the Fiordland National Park Board. The recently established board had been set up to manage Fiordland National Park, formed in 1952.
At some stage a verandah was added to the hut and park rangers lined the cold hut with hardboard in the 1960s. Then, in the early 1970s young rangers Mike Slater and Ken Bradley went in to paint the hut red. Mike (recently retired as DOC’s Deputy-Director General) remembers this as one of his first holiday jobs for Lands & Survey.
DOC changed the colour of the hut to more muted greens in the 1980s and the open fire was replaced with a wood burner. By the 1990s, the hut’s historic status was being recognised in the Fiordland National Park Plan, and DOC staff Ken Bradley and Rachael Egerton drew up a conservation plan.
As for many ageing structures, vandalism became a problem, and in 2019 such major damage was wrought that, as a temporary measure, the hut was lined with ply to try and preserve it. Finally, after an update of the hut conservation plan in 2021, the scene was set for a full restoration.
The Backcountry Trust was approached by the NZDA Southern Lakes Branch to take on the project. As well as core funding, another $25,000 was raised from Dulux New Zealand and the Les Hutchins Conservation Foundation (https://www.lhcf.co.nz/). Many thanks to both these organiations.
The project started in late January 2022 when Dave Rider went in and removed the windows, in preparation for restoring them. Unfortunately the old windows were too far gone to restore, so instead like-for-like replicas were made. This was the start of a familiar pattern. Once the NZDA team got into their stride, they discovered 90 percent of the timber so affected by borer that it held little more strength than sawdust alone. So with the ply removed, the weakened building started sagging 150mm to the south.
The team pushed on, and removed all the corrugated iron cladding before preparing it for restoration. As well as re-piling the hut, they built new structural components for the frame, verandah and chimney. After multiple weeks organised by NZDA branch members Sharon Salmons and Simon Brackstone, the team were in need of a break. So a group of Wānaka builders stepped in to finish the roof structure, the new floor, fit the replacement windows and original cladding sheet-by-numbered sheet.
By May 2022 the building was closed in and usable, although not before the rats had eaten at least a third of the unpainted putty in the windows. Where possible, the team used recycled native timber or locally sourced red beech from the Tūātapere mill to ensure an authentic look. The original framing and sarking techniques were also used when possible.
Altogether the NZDA Southland Branch did well over 1500 hours of effort on this project with a further 500 hours from contract builders.
Only half the painting was finished before winter, so in December 2022, Ken Bradley went in with BCT manager Rob Brown and DOC ranger Beatty Wiggenhauser to finish the painting in three perfect days of weather.
Some of the detail for this blog was gleaned from the excellent information panel created with historic information from Pania Dalley and Ken Bradley. As the panel states, ‘The Freeman Burn Hut’ […] although completely new, has been sensitively restored to reflect the era it was originally built in. The team that completed the work is proud to have helped preserve a piece of the past.’
That says it all.
It’s a fair bet both Les Hutchins and Les Murrell would thoroughly approve.