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Tramping taonga no thing of beauty

In August 1959, Lester Masters along with a group of ardent tramping friends, ceremoniously delivered an old wooden door to the then Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery (now MTG Hawke’s Bay), where it was duly accessioned into the collection.

Why was this ordinary, utilitarian object accepted into the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection? It no longer had a purpose nor was it a thing of beauty, being old and battered, worn and weathered by the constant onslaught of wind, rain, sun and snow. It was not an artisan object, being roughly made of six long wooden roughly hewn planks nailed together by four batons. As well, part of it was very make-shift, having a handle of roughly carved wood on the outside, whilst the inside handle was merely a length of wire attached by two hooks.

What makes this door unique is the close association it holds with the Ruahine Range, along with the hunting and tramping fraternity that roamed the mountains. Carved in a haphazard fashion on the outside of the door is a myriad of names and accompanying dates - names of people long since passed whose escapades in the area have since slipped from memory.

The door belonged to the Ruahine Hut, built in the 1860s when James Nelson Williams and Colonel Jasper Herrick took up the huge Kereru Station. The hut, constructed of a red beech framework with slab walls, snowgrass thatched roof and rock fireplace, was nestled in a sheltered beech glade approximately 1079 metres above sea level on what is known as the second spur of the northern Ruahine Range.

The hut was built specifically to accommodate hunter shepherds during a period when wild dogs and pigs were significant pests for farmers in the Kereru district. To combat this problem, landowners hired hunter shepherds, not only to care for sheep, but also to flush out and kill the feral animals for which (in the 1880s) they were paid one shilling per snout for wild pigs and £1 per scalp for wild dogs.

In 1958, when Lester Masters gave a radio talk on 2YZ, (a transcript of which is held in the museum’s archive collection), the hut was practically a ruin having stood for over 85 years. It had undergone very little in the way for repairs, although a new door (which is the one pictured) had been installed in 1906. Throughout its lifetime, names and accompanying dates were carved all over the weather beaten door, doorposts, and interior woodwork.

One of the names Lester remembered, deeply etched on the side rail of his favourite bunk, was J H (Jack) Harris with the date 1886 alongside. Jack was the hunter shepherd of the area who had been employed by the then Kereru Station owner, Arthur Harding. A particular tale Lester recalled was that on one occasion, when Jack arrived at the station after having spent several weeks in the Ruahines, he handed over a parcel of more than 90 pig snouts. He was paid £5 and promptly left for Napier to purchase a brand new tailor made suit.

For any person, after a hard day roaming the formidable ranges, the Ruahine Hut was a welcome sight. Pushing open the door, the hut provided the weary traveller with a sense of home, a respite from the weather, a place to relax and sleep in the embrace and warmth of an open fire, over which the billy constantly boiled and the camp oven sent out mouth-watering aromas of a succulent venison stew or baking bread.

Lester eloquently recalled: “I doubt if any more pleasing sight could be found along the whole length of the range at Christmas time, than the old whare, when that most beautiful of our native flowers, the scarlet mistletoe is hanging in festoons from the sombre beeches that encircle the glade.”

The heavy, cumbersome door was laboriously carried by Jim Milligan off the Ruahine Range to the Big Hill valley - a remarkable feat on foot - then driven by tractor over Big Hill (approximately 670 metres) when it was finally loaded onto a truck and taken to Lester Master’s home at Twyford, before being given to the museum.

Even now, protected in its purpose-built crate in MTG’s collection store, wrapped snugly in a calico sheet,  the door seems caught in the timeless spell of the magnificent smoky-blue Ruahine Ranges, subsumed by happy memories of the large number of musterers, hunters, trampers and other wanderers of the ranges, to whom it once afforded shelter. For many – it is an old friend indeed.

On behalf of all of us at MTG Hawke’s Bay, we wish you and yours a wonderful fun-filled holiday season and a happy and prosperous New Year. For those lucky enough to be tramping in Aoteoroa’s magnificent back country, enjoy the welcoming sight at the end of a hard day’s exploring, of a hut, nestled amongst the bush, beckoning you in.

Published in the Hawke's Bay Today newspaper on 24 December 2022 and written by Gail Pope, Social History Curator at MTG Hawke's Bay


28 December 2022

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