Fiordland National Park, Southland – January 2023
Sprawling alpine lakes, granite tops and the stupendous Mt Irene: the location of Robin Saddle Hut certainly takes a lot of beating. Situated in the heart of Fiordland, at the very western extent of the Murchison Mountains, this is one of the remotest huts in the country, and also one of the hardest to reach. Now over 60 years old, the hut got a comprehensive upgrade by a New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC) volunteer team led by Paul Maxim.
Robin Saddle Hut, originally built by volunteers for the Fiordland National Park Board in 1962, was initially used by hunters and takahē researchers working on the surrounding tops. It was the second hut built by the Park Board in the takahē area, after Lake Wisely Hut in 1961.
Wellington-based Maxim last visited Robin Saddle in March 2021, when he and other NZAC climbers ascended Mt Irene, the 1859-metre peak seen in such impressive profile from the hut. Among his companions were Dave Bamford, John Wild and John Cocks, all of whom decided to volunteer to undertake major work at the hut this January. They were joined by Wild’s son-in-law, builder Emerson Wyman.
The project has been a long time coming, with several groups expressing interest until various circumstances conspired against them. It really needed a builder of Maxim’s calibre and outdoor experience, plus his hard-working crew, to get the job done.
Maxim says the hut’s remoteness certainly presented a logistical challenge, requiring six chopper flights. Fortunately, four loads of the heaviest materials could be transported by barge to the Southwest Fiord of Lake Te Anau, meaning shorter and much more cost-efficient airlifts to the hut. Many thanks to Ultimate Hikes for use of their barge.
The renovation involved upgrading all the foundations with anchor piles to replace the old pipe ones. This required a considerable amount of concrete, and it’s safe to say this was the first time a concrete mixer had been observed at Robin Saddle.
The framing structure also required considerable strengthening with extra timber and ply bracing, which should help secure it against the weight of the winter snows and fierce storms such a location in Fiordland is always subject to. The team also secured a stylish red Coloursteel cladding and roof. This is the second time the hut has been re-clad and takes it back to the corrugated iron original.
Another nice touch was new shelving, which the climbers filled with a selection of mountain books generously donated from the estate of John Nankervis.
Altogether the work took 8 days, of which a remarkable 7 were fine. ‘We worked out butts off,’ said Maxim, ‘but in such a pristine, unique environment, you can’t help but be captivated by the place. It’s wilderness, pure and simple, and at 900 metres, we were well above the sandflies. We heard takahē, and very night we listened to kiwi calling.’
Most days the team worked till 8 p.m., with Dave Bamford busy keeping the hungry team fed and watered. ‘We were a hard-working but jovial crew,’ Maxim says. On the last day, it rained in the morning, so the men slept in, only waking to find their precious cans of beer (left in the stream to keep cool) had washed downstream. A scramble saved them. On the last full day, the team was still screwing on the roof at 10 p.m., the final job before flying out the following morning.
A month later, a team of Wapiti Foundation members led by Joe Taylor went in to affix some wire tie-downs.
This significant upgrade should see Robin Saddle Hut secure in this remote spot for the next 60 years. Thanks to the efforts of all involved.