The Stray bus pulled into our hostel on the edge of Fiordland National Park just after 4:00 on Sunday afternoon. I immediately knew that Gunn’s Camp was my kind of place. I’d love to be able to stay longer than one night but the next bus isn’t until Wednesday and if I wait that long I won’t catch my flight from Auckland to Sydney on February 18. I rarely feel that I’m being rushed while on the Stray bus but today was definitely one of those days.
The appeal of a rustic hunt camp in a remote area north of Milford Sound is just that – it’s no-frills accommodation in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. It doesn’t hurt that our hosts are a wisecracking jack-of-all trades kind of guy and his lovely wife who make you feel like guests in their home.
Gunn’s Camp was built during the Great Depression of the 1930s when it housed dozens of immigrant men who used pick-axe and dynamite to dig the 1.2km long Homer Tunnel that now connects Milford Sound and the outside world.
Davie Gunn owned and operated the camp until he drowned on a local river on Christmas Day 1955. His sons ran the camp for many years but since their passing it has been owned by the Hollyford Museum Charitable Trust which was set up by Davie before his death. Two couples now take turns running the operation on four-week shifts. We had the good fortune of meeting one of those couples, Mark and Debbie Fletcher.
Mark came out to the bus and told us a bit about the property before we got out of our seats. Unlike other hostel operators who have come on the bus and either “laid down the law” or teased us about their place being “dry” or having a curfew when neither was the case, Mark informed us that there was just one rule at Gunn’s Camp: “I expect the kitchen to be left as you found it. Open the doors, look in the cupboards, help yourself to anything you find, start a fire in the woodstove, or take my poles and go fishing in the river, I don’t care. Just don’t leave me dirty pots and pans.”
As he was about to get off the bus Mark turned and added, “And yes, we do have wi-fi.” A loud cheer went up. We’d been warned that Gunn’s Camp was “rustic” so this came as a pleasant surprise. Mark got to the bottom step on the bus when he turned and pointed to a large tree in the middle of the yard. With perfect comedic timing he added, “Last week I spotted two of them up there building a nest.”
There’s a perfectly good reason why there’s no wi-fi at Gunn’s Camp: There’s no telephone. There’s no cable or satellite either. In fact there’s no electricity for about 40 km in any direction. They’re proudly “off the grid” and have been for over 80 years.
On the plus side they do have a diesel generator. “The power will come on when I start the generator at 6:00 p.m. It goes out at 10:00 when I shut off the generator and go to bed. You kids can stay up as late as you want but there won’t be any lights after 10:00. I suggest you start a fire in your stove, brush your teeth and go to bed at 9:30.”
Mark isn’t the first operator of this camp to possess a quirky sense of humour. I asked what relation he was to the camp’s founder, Davey Gunn, who over the years erected dozens of funny signs and even founded a museum to house his vast collection of antique oddities. “No relation,” he replied. “I’m not a Gunn. I’m not even a son of a Gunn. I just work here every second month.”
I was assigned to the north half of Cabin #10 along with a middle-aged woman from Milan and a girl of about 25 from Berlin. We had yet to meet on the bus so we opened a bottle of wine and got into Hostel Introductions for Dummies: “Where are you from; where have you been; how long are you travelling; are you working along the way; where are you going next?”
When I told Gina that I was from Canada, she asked if I’d start a fire in the wood stove. At the risk of killing her vision of every Canadian living in a log cabin in the Rocky Mountains, I said that I’d see what I could do. And after I took stock of the fire making materials on hand, I was afraid that we’d probably freeze to death before I got a fire going. We had been provided with a dozen large logs, and an old sardine can containing two wooden matches and a single piece of kindling wood which was about the size of my thumb. As I rummaged through my backpack hoping against all odds to find a scrap paper there was a sharp, no-nonsense knock at the door. I turned to find Mark standing in the doorway.
“Need a hand with the fire, mate?”
Before I could embarrass myself by asking how he planned to ignite two logs without paper or something small and dry, Mark struck one of our two matches on his zipper and held it up to our lone piece of kindling.
“I take scraps of particleboard and soak ‘em overnight in diesel then dip ’em in paraffin wax. They burn real good,” he explained.
With the cabin warming up nicely and an hour to kill before dinner I braved the rain and paid a visit to the museum that sits adjacent to the office and camp store. The current building has some patina but in fact it was built sometime after 1990 when the original museum burned to the ground. Some of the artifacts were plucked from the ashes while others were collected over the last 25 years. One could spend a few minutes or a few hours in the one-room museum depending on your interest in traps, bits, bridles, prospectors kits, minerals, fossils, skeletons and newspaper accounts of gold strikes, accidental deaths, drownings, plane crashes, etc.
I looked through some of the old visitors books that dated back to the 1950s. Canadians have been coming here since at least 1951 when Mr. and Mrs. Fred Singleton listed Ottawa as their home address. I could have spent more time in the museum but it was time for dinner.
Rather than having 40 people each trying to prepare their own dinner in the camp kitchen, we opted for a communal dinner with just four people assigned to salad duty, three more on the grill, and the rest of us on clean up. For just $10 per person we put together a meal of grilled lamb chops, lamb steaks, lamb sausages, tossed salad, warm potato salad with crunchy corn kernels, garlic bread and local Tui beer. The same meal in a typical New Zealand restaurant would set you back at least $40 and you wouldn’t get a chance to bond with your bus mates while doing the dishes.
Before bed I made a trip to the “warsh shack.” A sign warned that the shower was hot, and unlike dozens of other signs on the property, they weren’t kidding with this one. I guess it’s bound to be hot when the shower is about 2 meters from a wood-fired boiler that glowed. The bed at Gunn’s Camp wasn’t the best but with “lights out” at 10:00 there was no excuse for being tired in the morning.
Mark opened the camp store early on Monday morning as I told him I was interested in an embroidered patch that I’ll sew on my backpack. (Patches are the only souvenirs I’m buying from each country I visit.) Dozens of Maori-carved greenstone necklaces were on display in the window. You can buy these things in every gift shop in New Zealand so I didn’t pay too much attention to them. Our Stray driver had warned us that most shop-keepers will claim that the necklaces are “locally made”, which they are, but they won’t tell you that 95% of the greenstone sold in New Zealand is imported from British Columbia and just carved locally. It’s not that there isn’t a lot of greenstone in New Zealand, its just that it’s now illegal to collect it from Crown Lands.
Hundreds of years ago the Maori people identified four types of greenstone based on colour and translucence: inaga, kawakawa, kahurangi and tangiwai. The first three are actually nephrite while tangiwai is the much rarer bowenite. The iron magnesium silicate material known as bowenite is found in just one place on earth: a fault line that runs right through the Gunn property.
According to a New Zealand government web site, “Nephrite and bowenite were formed deep in the earth, probably at depths in excess of 10km. Hot fluids caused a chemical reaction in zones where volcanic and sedimentary rocks were in contact, which produced narrow deposits of pounamu (greenstone). As the mountains of the South Island were formed over the last two million years, the narrow bands containing pounamu were lifted up to the earth’s surface. The action of rivers and glaciers released the stone from its host rock into screes, river gravel and glacial deposits. Pounamu continues to be carried into rivers and down to the sea by erosion. In the more accessible areas, any exposed pounamu has been quickly collected. Since 1947 the export of uncut greenstone has been prohibited.”
After almost an hour of Mark’s time, I felt that I should buy something. I had looked at greenstone necklances in a nearby tourist town where they were priced between $250 and $1000. I decided that I could do better once I got off the fudge trail.
“What do you need for this one, Mark?”
“Oh, that’s one of the dearer ones, Mike. I gotta have 35 for that one. But I can toss in one of my diesel sticks if ya want.”
“Deal,” I said.
I paid him the $35 in cash and hurried back to the cabin while the others were starting to board the bus. I dropped the diesel stick in the sardine can for the next group of wet and chilly backpackers. The last thing I need is to forget about that thing until it’s plucked from my backpack by a Quantas security screener.