Daly’s Clearing Hut is a standard hut in the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park, one step down from our usual selection of a serviced hut or, mostly recently, a Great Walk Hut. What it lacks in amenities, it makes up for in charm. It’s painted an inviting combination of pale blue and red and lovingly cared for by volunteers from an Auckland tramping club. It was the first hut we ever attempted as a family of four and served as the gateway to the kids’ first two night tramp.

Sadie was one month shy of turning two the first time we walked into the hut. We parked the car at the Franklin Road end and made our way up Dean’s Track through farmland, then forest towards the hut. They next day we headed out via the Waitawheta tramline along the Waitawheta River, completing the loop in a counterclockwise direction. Here's link to the topo map and elevation profile, though in the opposite direction. 

We happened to catch Sadie at the “all-by-myself” stage, so whenever she was offered a ride in the child-carrier, she replied, “No. Walk.” The only words she spoke more often on this trip were "chocolate" and "peepee." We probably shouldn't have started potty training just before we left.

At 4-1/2-years-old, Dan had no problem walking the whole track with his little backpack on. It was a good thing, too, because carrying him was not an option. Jack’s pack was completely filled with 4 sleeping bags and our gear. I carried some of the food and the child-carrier, with Sadie inside, though she only agreed to get in twice over the 10 kilometre trip. First on the first day, when the grass was over her head and second on the second day after she tumbled head over heals down the slick muddy track. After the fall, she fell asleep in the pack and didn’t wake up again until we were nearly back at the car.

Nearly 18 months later, we returned again. This time with two of Sadie’s 3-1/2-year-old friends, one of Dan’s friends (almost 6), and their families. Together we faced the un-bookable hut dilemma. With 11 people and a 16-bed hut, we couldn’t count on getting a bunk for everyone as, at our pace, we’d likely be the last to arrive. Jack was in marathon training mode at the time, so we decided that if we arrived at the hut only to find it full, he would fun the 4.8 kilometres back to the car to get our tent and camping mats, then run back into the hut again with the gear. No sweat. Another, perhaps more sensible family, decided to bring the tent, just in case.

Along the way, the kids alternated between sprinting and painfully slow meditative walking. They carefully collected special sticks, special rocks, and special leaves. They uncovered brightly coloured mushrooms, which caused the six adults to shriek in unison, "Don't touch that!" They jumped off rocks and logs, and there was the odd 3-year-old meltdown thrown in for good measure.

When we joyfully emerged in the clearing, a team of volunteers greeted us at the hut. They were part of the group that had adopted the hut and were spending the weekend doing maintenance. The hut was in fine shape having just been spring cleaned and the group squished themselves into one of the two bunk rooms so there was space for us. Our friends with the back up tent elected to use it.

We were contented parents watching our bush children amuse themselves for much of the afternoon, singing, running, exploring the land, and joining hands for Ring around the Rosy. A whole lot of adorable and so much to be grateful for. Dan was thrilled to find a pig skull to take home as a souvenir of the trip.

Fires aren’t normally allowed at the hut, but as part of their clean up the crew was burning a few things so we made the most of the bonfire and roasted marshmallows. The children were proud to prepare extra marshmallows to share with the volunteers.

It would be another year before we visited the hut again for what would be Dan (7) and Sadie’s (4.5) very first two-night tramp. Inga, Leigh (8), and Melanie (5) joined us for a Mums and kids adventure. We took the same route as always, 4.8 kilometres on Dean’s Track through farmland and bush to Daly's Clearing Hut. We were elated to find that, not only was there space for us in the un-bookable hut, we had the hut to ourselves! There was a group of high school girls camped in the clearing outside. We arrived with just enough time to heat up our beans, brush our teeth, play some Go Fish, and then listened to the teenagers singing pleasantly as we nodded off to sleep at 7pm.

The next day we slopped through the mud, threw rocks in the Waitawheta River, and skipped over bridges until we reached the 26-bed, serviced Waitawheta Hut 7.7 kilometres and 7 hours later. The Waitawheta Hut must be pre-booked so we didn’t need to worry about securing a spot in the hut and didn’t have to hurry. Here we met another Mum and her three children, but had one of the bunk rooms to ourselves. Together the children whittled sticks for roasting marshmallows before we all headed down to the riverbank to see the glow worms with their light-up bums in gross imitation of the night sky. We concluded the day with reminiscing, accolades, and a pep talk, conscious that our last day would be 9.4 kilometres and we'd need to pick up the pace to ensure we reached the car before night fall.

On our third day of walking, Dan and Sadie found the energy to make it back to the car in 4 hours. They held hands, chatting together for the last 2 kilometres. There are always some major highlights and some struggles when tramping, without or without children, at some points along the way. Tramping is like that – it’s got all the highs and lows of life condensed in a short period of time. Everything can change with a few footsteps. We call it keeping it real. I think that’s why we like it so.