I saw a photo of the Brewster hut on the wall of the sleepy Makarora DOC office when my friend Ellyse and I stopped for intel on the Gillespie Circuit. The picture of the little red shack perched on a plateau beneath peaks and glaciers stole my heart, and I pledged to make that my home for a night or two after finishing the Gillespie.
(Which I did, with just a quick detour to Wanaka in between for new shoes. New Zealand tracks chewed up my running shoes and spit them out in pieces. Equipped with a new pair, I returned to the Haast pass.)
The Brewster Hut track starts by crossing the Haast river just a few steps from the Fantail Falls carpark, so I didn’t even bother putting on my shiny new trail runners. From there, it’s only 5 kilometers to the hut, but DOC estimates 3-4 hours to hike there—which likely means straight-the-hell-up, challenging footing, route finding, and other features that might force you to go as slow as 1.5k/hour.
Not one to disappoint, the orange blaze marking the start of the track across the Haast pointed to a washed out step-up at about the level of my nose requiring creativity with roots, a climbing move, and some serious quad strength. While it wasn’t the steepest track I’ve hiked in New Zealand (cough, Cascade Saddle, cough), the Brewster track was pretty solid.
But oh my, it’s worth it. Upon breaking out of the beech forest, the last kilometer climbs a tussock face to deposit hikers on a rolling knife-edge ridge with your first views of Mount Brewster’s glaciated peak and waterfalls, and finally a glimpse of the little red shack in all its glory. I’m proud to report I made it in half the time of the doomsday prediction of four hours.
The Brewster hut is a recently reconstructed 12-bunk hut with one of the sweetest decks I’ve seen, built with slack-jawed scenery-gazing in mind. If you can peel yourself off the deck, there are also options to climb Mount Brewster (badass mountaineers only), head to the lakes at the foot of the Brewster Glacier, or climb Mount Armstrong. I opted for the latter.
The route(s) to the peak is sporadically littered with cairns, bursts of them followed by an alarming dearth that leaves you wondering if you’ve gotten off track, until you stumble on the next huddle of little rock piles.
The view from the top of Mount Armstrong defines the word “awesome”. The sea of mountains that make up the Southern Alps rises as far as the eye can see in every direction, clouds swelling and breaking on their peaks, with Mount Aspiring towering over them all. I’m not afraid to admit that my eyes welled with tears standing on that peak. Sometimes awe is a massive feeling to hold in your heart.
I descended the mountain to watch the breathtaking sunset from the deck with the other hut occupants, including two ultra runners who made me feel better about my running shoes vs hiking boots decision—and also blew my 2-hour hiking record to hell by at least 30 minutes—and one man hydrating from his hike with a Gatorade bottle… of wine. Turns out he’s from my very own hometown: Missoula, MT. I should have known. Montanans are the best at making sure we have all the comforts in the backcountry, be they flasks of whiskey or Gatorade bottles full of wine.
Sometimes the world seems like a very small place when you can meet someone from the same little town halfway across the planet in the middle of New Zealand wilderness. And in the backcountry, where time moves slowly and a day feels like a week feels like a month, new friends become family overnight. Then the world feels pretty magical, too.