Adventures in the waiting room, Garth Baker

Going the Distance – Women Outdoors in New Zealand
Tess Redgrave
Tandem Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1877298018

Seduced by the Sea 
ed Tessa Duder
HarperCollins, $29.95,
ISBN 1869504461

Te Araroa: The New Zealand Trail
Geoff Chapple
Random House, $34.95,
ISBN 186941537X

These three books are about adventures, which, by definition, are abnormal experiences: often uncomfortably scary, putting pressure on relationships, challenging our assumed place in the world, and sometimes offering personal transformation.

Going the Distance contains 10 articles about Tess Redgrave’s outdoor adventures. Most started life as Next magazine articles and, while expanded here, still have that lightness of tone and content, that relentless cheerfulness you want when waiting for the dentist.  

Most of her adventures were guided by professionals – sailing in Fiordland, sea kayaking in Stewart Island’s Port Pegasus, tramping in the Catlins; or were well-organised (and catered) – the Tora walkway, and a series of walks in the Bay of Plenty. Later, the author organised her own trips, and finally she and Becky Nunns, her photographer companion, shouldered their packs and set out, women alone. Most of the articles round out the theme of women in the outdoors by introducing the guides and linking with relevant herstory characters – Janet Frame for the Central Otago rail trail, and Sister Suzanne Aubert on the Wanganui river trip, while Wairaka, a young Maori woman of the 14th century, enlivens the Whakatane walks. The book includes contact information and gear details, which makes it a useful resource for people considering these adventures.

In Seduced by the Sea, her second anthology of nautical writing, Tessa Duder has brought together a wide variety of articles from a mixed crew of writers. Forty-one articles are grouped into sections covering sea passages, odd nautical experiences, working on the water, and dramas. Some of these engage because of their dramatic plot, such as big storms and shipwrecks, some are carried along on a flood of enthusiasm or well-trimmed adjectives, while a few are doldrums-flat.

With no over-arching plot, this is a book to dip into. As it would hold little interest for landlubbers, it could usefully live on the boat for a story or two to fill the wait for the rising tide. Perhaps the Captain could read the more harrowing tales to the crew to keep them on edge.

Geoff Chapple’s Te Araroa is subtitled The New Zealand Trail and promotes his dream of a single walkway from Cape Reinga to Bluff. It is also his personal tale of walking the proposed route. The two themes – personal adventure and promotion of a worthy idea – sometimes aren’t in step. A trail this long crosses so many people’s patches that it is a Herculean – even Sisyphean – task to organise.

Chapple talks about walking as a way to lose his “complexity”. It is when he is away from the organisational trials and out on the trail that the book becomes much more focused, more engaging. Particularly interesting landscapes and vivid experiences are tightly and astutely described, with the tedious or undramatic days thankfully left out.

With his well-honed ear for the vernacular, Chapple covers human as well as physical geography. Most of the New Zealanders he meets along the way seem likeable, usually in a laconic, Kiwi kind of way. These meetings often highlight the differences between the romantic tramper, wanting to
wander everywhere in the environment, and those wanting to hunt, farm or exploit it. Being from Auckland only makes the author an easy target for regional quips.

Chapple describes honestly the misunderstanding (over the route) between him and a Japanese tramper he teams up with for a tricky section. Though taking much longer to reach this point, Tess Redgrave also realises such interactions are all part of the journey. Initially she describes everyone as “nice” and “fascinating”, saving her more exact adjectives for scenes. It is only in the last story, when she becomes confident enough to set out on her own, that she is prepared to describe a conflict with her companion over plans or to reveal the atmosphere of places. This particular story has a different, more personal quality to it.  Human dynamics are rarely mentioned in Seduced by the Sea, with Rob Hamill’s description of interactions with his rowing partner Phil Stubbs being a notable exception.

A common and reasonable experience on any adventure – be it something new or something bigger than previously undertaken – is fear. Despite the terrifying predicaments of many of the Seduced by the Sea stories, few convey fear. On her first page, Tess Redgrave talks about her anxiety at moving out of her comfort zone, perhaps on a life-changing journey. Later she acknowledges her trepidation at making her own decisions. Describing his trip into the heart of darkness – well, into a seemingly inescapable Tararua gorge – Geoff Chapple writes, “I feel fear. It was a solid thing, like a short piece of timber lodged under my rib cage.” So real it is physical. I was relieved to read that he still managed to floss his teeth.

The titles of Seduced by the Sea and Te Araroa refer to the physical environment in which the book is set. While the sea tales don’t get much beyond describing it, the sea is clearly the main character, driving any plot development and providing the nuance of moods. Te Araroa describes Geoff Chapple’s journey through ever-changing landscape, but it is hard to sense his relationship with the land. He reports tramping hut conversations where others, often foreigners, reveal their affection for the land, but his own seems to be taken for granted.

Surprisingly, it is the lightest of the books, Going the Distance, that reveals most about how the environment affects the writer. As Tess Redgrave journeys toward what she describes as New Zealand’s most sacred place, Cape Reinga, she increasingly weaves in Maori beliefs, and develops the themes of land, belonging, and transformation. More of this would have made all these books more of an adventure to read.  These are three different books for different audiences. Reading them won’t replace getting out and having our own experiences. Gotta go.

 

Garth Baker is a Wellington tramper and occasional sailor. 

Geoff Chapple’s Te Araroa: The New Zealand Trail won the Environment section of the 2003 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

 

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