Forgotten Rainforest: MacLennon Hut

When people speak of the Catlins they talk of wild beaches, but few venture into the untamed rainforest that stretch inland across the region. These are remnants of a great Southern forest that was felled through the 19th and into the 20th century. I had been curious about the huts that hid in this forgotten rainforest and being so close the temptation to explore was too much to resist. Julia and I had a rather lazy start on Sunday, only leaving 2 hours after initially planned. On our way to the start of the track we stopped to take in the sights of Cannibal Bay, who could resist with a name like that. The beach was populated by sea lions and bogans on bikes, not exactly a great combination. Julia demonstrated her navigational prowess by leading me in jandals through a kilometre of sand dunes, even after I noted that this was a bad idea. A bit scratched up but none the worse for wear we plodded back to the car. Along the way we were harassed by the bogans on their bikes, which squealed like annoying mosquitoes. Julia reported the twits to DOC on her telephone before we contemplated doing our best undercover police impersonation. As muscular and imposing as I am, I decided that I’d let the bogans off the hook this time.

It was the early afternoon by the time we screeched to a halt on the isolated country road. My map marked this as the start of the track, but all we could see was a paddock with a couple of fences. Squinting into the distance I could just make out a collection of buildings on the edge of the forest about a kilometre away. Maybe the hut I thought hopefully. It wasn’t outside of the realm of possibility, I knew that somewhere around here there were a collection of bivs, but I didn’t expect them to be THAT close. We eventually got our act together and set off across the farmland to face our first obstacle, a stream crossing. Now for some reason I had been hoping to keep my boots dry (once you have that thought, it is never a possibility), so we examined the map. It seemed that the farm track just beelined across the creek’s winds but we could avoid most of that by doing some bushbashing through some scrub. How bad could it be?

Turns out the scrub was rather dense, soon I was doing my best sheep impression trying to force my way through the inter-woven layers of shit, much to Julia’s amusement. It probably took a good half-hour to navigate that before we were confronted with a final stream crossing before the buildings, which were indeed the bivs as I had suspected. Here Julia and I took alternative approaches. She began a bridge building exercise out of rotten timber, whilst I wandered upstream to a tree that overhung the stream. By embracing the tree I could swing myself over the river and vitally keep my socks dry. In the process of this delicate operation the tree took some souvenirs from my arm, but my feet were dry! As I made my way back to Julia I caught a glimpse of her launch herself into the air, landing tentatively on the far bank of the stream with her boot just kissing the surface of the water. Congratulating each other on a job well done we made our way up to the three bivs. These were all cute affairs, each containing two beds and a bench. There was a large decked area between them with some sort of fireplace construction off to one side.

It is still unclear to me what the bivs were doing chilling at the edge of the paddock. I assumed it was something to do with the Mohua protection program that had been underway in the adjoining forest. With all our faffing it was fast becoming apparent that perhaps we wouldn’t make it to the other hut before darkness fell. I will be the first to admit I was not particularly motivated and I do accept that it had been less than an hour of rather pathetic tramping. But hey, there was always tomorrow?

With that we cranked the stove on and began preparing our mexican feast for the night. A lot of beans later and a rather impressive effort emptying the billy we enjoyed the sound of birdsong in the fading light. As we sipped on some premium Cleanskin(TM) we were joined by a nosey ruru along with a plethora of other birds. This convinced me that the next day I should probably muster my energy to see what else was hidden by the forest.

We were in no rush in the morning, although perhaps we should have been. Our boots hit the track just before 10 and soon we were wandering up Thisbe Creek in the direction of Maclennan Hut. Being community minded as ever we cleared the track of windfall as we went, mindful that we would have to retrace this route later in the day. The bush was fascinating, somewhere between a beech forest and the rainforest that you find on the Westcoast. Julia had fun playing on the girthy vines that hung between trees, I did not dare try my extra 20kg of weight on them!

The bush was punctuated by a real mess of tracks, all part of the pest program that had been operating in the area. Even our route up the Thisbe track was lineated into parts I, II and III, seemingly for story telling purposes. We are still waiting to see if Sam and Julia’s Adventures in the Bush is going to be added to Netflix.

The track was a little hard to follow in parts, being covered over in dense fern. However, track markers were abundant so we were never too far from our rightful course. As we climbed towards the Calliope Saddle birdlife became more abundant, distracting us from our efforts to avoid bush lawyer. From the saddle the track drops steadily down to the Maclennan River. We hit this section of the track with speed, it was a miracle that Julia only ended up on her ass once! Before long we caught sight of the red canopy of the hut across the far side of the river in a clearing. Having maintained dry boots this whole time I took mine off to cross and just about lost a few toes in the process from frostbite. Julia on the other hand had already screwed up and gotten her feet wet so she just marched on through.

The hut was pocket sized, resembling a sardine tin. The outside reminded me of my flat’s shower, the outside being covered in mould (you know the one the flatmate always promises to clean?). The hutbook went back to 1996 and was filled with colourful accounts of peoples misadventures along the track. Multiple entries included lines such as “Terrible track”, “Wet in the Catlins, but then what did we expect”, and “Miracle we found this place”. But for all the moaning it seemed that everyone that had visited this place was as enchanted with it as we were. We swam in the river and lazed in the sun eating our lunch, I didn’t want to leave. Time slowed down and roar of the tannin soaked river sent me into my happy place (no I wasn’t on drugs).

Eventually the sun left the hut, signaling time to stop digesting and start moving. We flew back across the river and up to the saddle. Here the birdsong had intensified and we were witness to a host of different birds. I was especially fond of the pair of Kakariki that we saw feasting in the trees.

Our progress along the rest of the track was swift (it was so clear after all). We had missed all of our appointments for that evening but we didn’t care; we had been enveloped by the magic of this secluded rainforest. Before long we were reunited with our packs at Thisbe Bivs, which were remarkably lighter than the day before. The only event worth noting of the walk across the farmland was me initiating Julia into rodeo riding by bucking the farm gates as she tried to climb over them. She was unamused. With the car so close (and our boots already wet from multiple slips into streams/mud) we just powered through the stream that had been such an obstacle the day before.

Soon we were cruising back to Dunners along the Southern Scenic Route, jamming out to a killer playlist. Maclennan Hut truly did cast a spell over us, and I will continue to be surprised by how seldom it gets the chance to do the same to others.

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Sam Harrison

Tramper with something to say about tramps (of the walking variety).