Bully beef for breakfast, dinner, and tea.
The old Hermitage at Mt Cook/Mt Aoraki
Since the 1800s, visitors to New Zealand have been drawn to the Mackenzie, where they can gaze at the sun going down on a magical yet barren landscape, where the sky is blue, the air is clean and one can see almost into eternity. It’s true, I kid you not.
That original site for the first Hermitage was at Foliage Hill, where it fought several battles with Mother Nature, in the form of floods and fire, eventually succumbing after almost thirty years.
Construction of another Hotel was mooted. History of this project is officially recorded, although what is not recorded or seldom talked about, except in family circles, is an incident during the rebuilding of that second Hermitage.
It all began as a result of a fire that damaged part of the Hotel. Owned by the Government at the time, they engaged a contractor from outside the district, to make repairs.
At the time, there was a desperate shortage of skilled and unskilled labour, therefore all personnel employed in the National Park, whether they were guides, cooks, or handymen, were required to help with the rebuild.
One of those men was Stanley (Stan) Guthrie, who worked as a guide. He grew up in Burkes Pass about fifty miles to the east. There, his Scottish-born parents established the Aries sheep station, so named after their home in County Ayrshire, back in Scotland.
Stan loved the outdoors and had grown up as a musterer, regularly mustering sheep along the steep slopes of the lowland Southern Alps. As a guide, he accompanied tourists around the Mt Cook National Park and cooking for them in a camp oven in those outlying huts, became second nature.
Labouring for a building contractor on this project was one thing, but being well fed by the contractor was another. All workers were treated to the same meagre meal each day. Of course, the contractor was claiming maximum expenses from the Government by way of a substantial meal allowance. Perhaps the contractor, to make the finances stretch, had moved into the realms of deceit. Tinned bully beef provided by the contractor was supposed to sustain the workers for breakfast. Of course, there was bully beef for lunch and you’ve guessed it, tinned bully beef for the evening meal.
Eventually, mutinous thoughts began to float around the camp. Those thoughts began to take on a more colourful aspect, when workers heard of an up and coming inspection by the Clerk of Works and several Government VIPs’ all from Wellington, arriving for an official visit.
In a last ditch stand to improve their lot at the meal table, several of the disgruntled workers hatched a cunning plan for survival. And yes their plan would coincide with inspection day.
Eventually, that day came, and with inspection in full swing, several workers had dressed in tidy clothes and appeared on site with what appeared to be a coffin. Someone had obviously died and a primitive service for the departed was underway.
At the head of a small column of mourners was number one rascal, Stan Guthrie playing a lament on his bagpipes. The coffin was suitably draped with a large black cloth, topped with several bunches of the Mt Cook Lily, a flower recognised as a native to this part of the world. Many other workers trooped along behind the casket, their eyes downcast.
Those VIPs stood at attention, removing their hats as this spectacle passed. Then, as it was only proper and respectful, they joined the procession to where a grave had previously been dug on an adjoining piece of land. As those VIPs and workers gathered around the gravesite, pallbearers held the casket steady.
One of the workers had been elected to speak on behalf of the dearly departed. Stepping forward, he mumbled a few unintelligible but solemn words before the casket could be lowered into the ground.
As the casket reached the ground level the black cloth was whipped off, to expose dozens of tins of bully beef all stacked together on a shaped base of planks made to the shape of a coffin. As the planks and bully beef slid slowly into the empty hole, there was total silence for several minutes. It was so quiet; you could hear a 'kea' pass wind at twenty paces.
That little prank worked like a dream. Obviously, some explanation was called for and red faces were abounding amongst management and government circles. Never had management expected such a well thought out performance. They were never able to discuss reprisals, for, with the location and the labour shortage of those times, meals took on a new look, a more delicate aroma and a much better taste.