Saddle Dunny

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs

In the high country and a dunny on a saddle.

Submitted: September 10, 2018

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Submitted: September 10, 2018






Not all mountains are snow-covered with craggy outcrops of dark and foreboding rock. At the top of many of New Zealand’s mountain ranges, snow tussock waves gracefully in the wind like some mystical golden sea.  My dog-eared plant books, say that vegetation on mountain slopes is in layers defined by altitude, they classify plants as being coastal, lowland, montane, subalpine and alpine, but that’s the big picture. The myriad of species grow where they are because of micro-climates. The bushline may be approximately one thousand metres above sea level, but that means, when it’s too cold for tree species to thrive, they give way to hardier, more adapted species.

On a calm, sunny day there’s no better place to be than in the ‘tops’, which is the name given to those tussock-covered areas above the bushline. But the weather can change quickly and dramatically! The pack on your back may be the only shelter available to you, and that’s usually not sustainable. Hypothermia is the big risk, and thinking back, we didn’t dress adequately, so took risks. Anyway, during our training we were sent into the mountains to cut access tracks and erect huts to increase the chances of survival for people caught out in wild weather.  Tramping and tourism wasn’t much of a thing at that time, so the tracks and accommodation were mainly for government hunters whose job it was to control deer and other feral animal populations. Sure, there were dedicated recreational hunters and trampers, there always have been, but their numbers were few.

Jack, the guy supervising our area didn’t like the recreation people coming into ‘his’ patch and he had no intention of helping weekend hunters or trampers! We’d been sent out by a bigger, more important authority, and were keen to work, so like it or not, Jack had to make the best of it. Now, any decent walking track crosses contours moderately so it isn’t too steep, but Jack had that huge chip on his shoulder and didn’t want to make it easy for anyone. His orders were to cut the tracks straight up and down the slope no matter how steep! His attitude was that government hunters should be fit enough to climb straight up, and bugger the rest! Well, we were fit enough, and we knew Jack had it wrong, however we were but trainees and regularly told: the boss may not be always right, but he’s still the boss.

There were three of us working and camping together, my fellow trainees were Mitch and Gordie. We were camped in a four-bunked corrugated iron hut built on a little flat that had been chipped out of the hillside. The area around was steep, with bush below and the bush behind the hut provided some shelter, its door opened to a spectacular view of golden tops for as far as the eye could see. Golden tops above dark green forest and a clear blue sky – stunning!

In our vernacular, a dunny is a toilet, any sort of toilet!  Even in those days we tried to keep the high country pristine! A landform saddle is a bridge often steep-sided between two high points with a depression in the middle like a… saddle. There was a saddle about fifty meters to the west of the hut and perched on top of that narrow saddle sat our dunny. There was a tin inside that had to be carried away and emptied when it was half full. Over half and you might be in trouble because the carry was over rough terrain and the contents were easily spilt! And we quickly learned, it was best not to pee in there!

Like the hut, the dunny was made from corrugated iron, rusty corrugated iron and there was no door. Why would you need a door where there was such a spectacular view? The dark green, bush-clad valley swept down steeply to a sparkling river far, far below. Anyway, there wasn’t much to protect in there! The dunny was battered and rickety because powerful winds had blown it off the saddle a few times, each time it had been retrieved and rebuilt but gradually it was deteriorating! Waratahs, steel posts, had been driven into the rock and wires were attached in an attempt to hold the dunny down. Rocks had been lifted onto the roof too, but really the little out-house sat in a precarious position!  

We’d been expecting an airdrop of food for the past fortnight and were fast running out!  Helicopter were seldom seen so we relied on fixed wing aircraft to drop small crates of food and other items by parachute on a semi-regular basis, but they hadn’t arrived. When they did turn up, sometimes the parachutes were off target and it took days to locate them and to pack the goods back to the camp. We still had a supply of flour and cans of sweetcorn, sliced green beans and asparagus, but not much else.

We’d done our six days on the trot, so were entitled to a day off the next day, but we couldn’t go far, it was just a rest day. It was my turn to cook, so I fried up a batch of not-so-yummy corn fritters, and I boiled the billy to make a brew. We took our mugs outside to watch the sunset, enjoying daylight before we would have to light the candles to read or play cards by. Across the orange tinted sky were lines of long, flattened, red-tipped clouds, a sure sign we were in for a blow!

We played poker for an hour after dark, using asparagus to bet with and as usual, I lost! They say that hard physical work is a good sleeping pill, but sleep was sporadic, our hut began to be hit by flying debris and shook to the tune of the gale!  But sometimes gales can blow themselves out quickly and by four thirty or five o’clock the wind was gone. I made my usual brew just before six and took a cup to my mates who were still tucked up in their cots. Only Gordie wasn’t! Thinking he’d gone for an early morning dump, Mitch and I sat supping our tea, discussing how we would fill in our day. Our mugs were drained, but still there was no Gordie.

We hollered from the hut door, thinking he’d gone to sleep on the dunny, but the dunny wasn’t there! The wind had taken it and we could see it down in the gulley below. Gordie must’ve been inside when it took off… We put on our boots and headed down! It was steep and stoney underfoot, most of the scrub was too light to hang onto but we bashed our way down there as fast as we could. It took better than an hour, and although we’d passed our first aid certificates, we were a bit concerned about what we might find, and about what we might have to do! He wasn’t there! Could he be lying injured after flying out of the doorless dunny?

It took us almost two hours to clamber back up the slope! But we used the time to develop a plan. There was another hut with a radio setup across a few ridges, some five hours solid march away! We decided to go there and radio for help. We discussed the idea of splitting up in case Gordie somehow made his way back to the hut, but the first rule of the bush in an emergency, is not to split up. Back at the hut we packed some essentials and hoped there would be food at the other hut. Mitch had his pack on and I’d just picked up mine when there was a crash against the wall of the hut! Out we rushed to find Gordie standing there grinning expansively! He had the hind quarters of a deer still around his shoulders!

‘I was sick and tired of your bloody corn fritters,’ he grinned, ‘so I went for an early morning hunt!’  



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