In the heart of the Tararua range some 50 years ago, 17-year-old novice deer culler Chris Peterson learnt to navigate, hunt and cook bread in a camp oven. All while living in tiny New Zealand Forest Service huts.

It’s a long way from the Masterton District Council chambers, where Chris is now a well-known councillor and environmental advocate. Bush life as a teenager left him with a deep appreciation of nature, although he didn’t recognise it then. Years later, he realised osmosis had been at play and nature had worked its magic.

Chris had very little experience in the bush before he applied to be a deer culler. He thought it would fill in a year before university. The Forest Service gave him the job straight away – out of desperation, Chris suspects. He was “pretty wet behind the ears” and his first six weeks tested him. On his first day, he was given a pack and ammunition, was dropped at the end of the road and told “see you in six weeks”.

“When I got to Cow Creek Hut, there was no one there. Right on dark, this guy appeared out of the gloom. Jim Henry was his name. He’d been in the bush a few weeks, so he was pretty wild looking.”

Chris quickly learnt how to navigate and stalk deer in the rugged terrain. Still, he became lost a few times and some incidents caused him to reconsider the job. At the end of his first stint, Chris headed out with two other cullers and found out how formidable Tararua rivers and streams could be. The Ruamāhanga was in flood and looked uncrossable. The cullers shot at a tree in the hope it would fall across the river and provide a bridge to safety.

“We shot 40 bullets into the tree but it fell into the river and [was swept] downstream.” The other hunters managed to wade across, leaving Chris to struggle through the water on his own and he felt himself losing ground. “I was lucky, one of the guys grabbed my pack strap as I went past.” There were plenty of lessons inside the huts, too. Chris mastered the art of rustling up a venison stew, though he remembers one brew being a little on the green side. After helping rescue a glider pilot, he served the rescue party the only meat he had left – it was weeks old and intended for dog tucker, but “at least it was tender”, Chris says.

Outside Arete Firks in 1967. Left to right: Noel Frazer, Chris Peterson, Derrick Field and Russel Hulme.

Venison was supplemented with tinned food which arrived once a year by helicopter. Pilots dropped in bundles of tins but not always with good aim. Bread was made in the camp oven – a task Chris perfected. Baking bread was a common wet-day activity and there were plenty of wet days in the Tararua range.

“We had a lot of days in camp. We would chop firewood, bake bread, drink billy tea and read books.” Teaching himself to touch type was another way to fill in downtime. Lugging around a portable typewriter was an easy task in his fitter days.

Rookie deer culler Chris shows off his bush hut bread, circa 1967.

Like the typewriter, hunting gear has evolved to make life easier for modern-day deer cullers. Before waterproof jackets, hunters wore oiled jackets and wool bush shirts. Packs were frameless canvas sacks with no cushioning – nicknamed “kidney-rotters”.

Despite the challenges, Chris enjoyed the simplicity of life as a deer culler. “It was a tremendous way to go from a kid to an adult – well, half an adult anyway. It was a great way to grow up.” After finishing a masters degree in zoology, Chris went back to work with the Forest Service. They asked him to run holiday programmes and work with schools. This is where he says he found his true calling.

Chris took kids off-track around the Holdsworth area and taught them how to make a fire and boil a billy. Once they “bush-bashed” from Rocky Lookout, getting tangled in blackberry and gorse on the way. Chris worried he had put them off but they loved it. “This kid comes slithering down a punga gut and he stood up and said ‘wow I’ve got half the bush in my underpants’. Bugger me, they all turned up again the next morning wanting more.”

Chris reckons they hit on a formula that worked. It was less about teaching and more about letting them ‘be’ in nature. “If kids can be in touch with nature growing up, then they’ll stay in touch with nature and have that empathy.”

Chris’s experience in the Tararua range drew him back to living at the foothills of the mighty range. He went on to similar work for the Community Action Programme and later formed the Wairarapa Outdoor Recreation Trust. At its peak, the trust ran 8-10 different activities for schools over summer. Though the trust came to a difficult end, Chris is proud of the experiences it gave Wairarapa kids.

He worries that many don’t have those experiences. “Kids need adventures. It’s part of discovering who you are and what you’re capable of.” He concedes we don’t need to send them deer culling – kids learn from just being outside and it’s vital if we want them to care for the environment, he says.


Hip Huts

Tiny houses are all the rage but we’ve had them in our Wairarapa bush for decades.

Experiencing life in a simple bush hut is a great way to engage with nature. With increasing use of technology, it’s good to have a break and get back to basics. Bush huts have no electricity and no Wi-Fi. Kids learn to light a fire to stay warm and cook without power. They learn to entertain themselves without devices and to navigate without Google Maps.

The Tararua range boasts over 40 huts. Many are 10-20 bunk DOC huts but there are still some iconic old Forest Service huts left. Thanks to Derrick Field most of these are back to their original condition.

Derrick worked with Chris Peterson as a deer culler for the Forest Service in the 60s. He now gives back to the huts that gave him shelter by restoring them to their former glory. Derrick has formed the ex-New Zealand Forest Service (exNZFS) group who look after the huts. The group has worked on 12 huts and two-person bivouacs in the Tararua, Remutaka and Aorangi forest parks.

“The orange forest service huts were iconic and very popular with trampers. Much of New Zealand’s backcountry wouldn’t see many hunters or trampers without the network of huts. Many have been modified, replaced or removed. There are now few original design huts left. Our group want to see those historic reminders of the deer culling era preserved.”

Outside Mid Waiohine. Left to right: Hans Kolinko, Chris Peterson, Paul Gush and Derrick Field.

Despite their small size, the huts were comfortable and a home away from home, as Derrick recalls: “Living in the backcountry in a warm, clean hut with plenty of food was important. Life was pretty miserable without that. The old Forest Service-type huts were most popular, they were well designed for our use, with good fireplaces. A good supply of dry wood was a priority – cooking without it was difficult. And keeping warm. They were basic but practical. They didn’t have porches to sit on when you should’ve been out hunting. They were for hunting from, cooking, sleeping and keeping out of bad weather.”

Story by Rebecca Jamieson