Take me there now, Garth Baker

A Tramper’s Journey
Mark Pickering
Craig Potton Publishing, $29.99,
ISBN 1877333174

Ride: The Story of Cycling in New Zealand
The Kennett Brothers
The Kennett Brothers, $39.95,
ISBN 095834907X

Just this week, someone I know who cannot bear to be more than an hour’s walk from good coffee, asked me about a multi-day tramping route. They were obviously dreaming, but it is a dream all New Zealanders, including café-bound sloths, can easily slip into. Even if you only go for city walks, even if you only think about going for walks, it is always inviting to imagine yourself uplifted from your urban entanglements and escaping to pure nature. Even if you never get off the couch, your imagination reduces your burdens to a very light pack and has you bounding up every mountain. A fellow tramper I once met in a backcountry hut described tramping as stripping life down to core business. And who isn’t attracted to this simplicity and purpose at some time? Take me there now.

Cycling, or memories of cycling, are attractive for the same reason. Four wheels bad, two wheels good. It is true, once you learn, you can always ride a bike. Even if you no longer cycle, I bet you used to. Who can forget the independence and mobility that bikes brought: one small step for mankind but one giant leap from childhood? Mark Pickering and the Kennett brothers – Jonathan, Paul and Simon – are all enthusiasts. Their curiosity may have got them started but they were soon going much further than most. In the 30 years Mark Pickering has been a “hill junkie”, he has researched and written four tramping guide books. The Kennett brothers have combined their mountain-biking zeal and entrepreneurial skills to promote the sport, particularly by researching, updating and publishing the definitive mountain-bike guide book, which has sold 35,000 copies since 1991.

All of them have followed the advice any life coach would give and turned their passion into a job. They live the dream of so many wage slaves. Over time this has given them a bulging pack of useful knowledge, hard-won experience, obscure trivia, on-the-spot insights, some tall yarns and a few scars. As well as the nose for a good story. In a fine Kiwi tradition, they’re enthusiasts who’ve become activists, who’ve become specialists. Their knowledge and experience gives their books muscle, but their infectious keenness is what really spins the wheels.

Mark Pickering’s A Tramper’s Journey is broken into chapters, each containing a number of stories around a central theme. Sifted from his many journal entries, it is roughly chronological. Starting with his first awkward outings with a club, it progresses through a range of experiences to more recent solo efforts, and includes accounts from other trampers. He covers tracks and huts, reflects on all the weather out there, recalls real danger, muses on the pleasure of maps, appreciates companions, and ponders tramping alone. Details from hundreds of trips are stripped away to essentials.

Retracing his internal journeys, he recounts scares, loss of nerves and ghosts he’s encountered. I found his description of a winter wander up the Godley Valley to be as thoughtful, and a lot more culturally and geographically relevant, than anything by Theroux. Through the book we see the eager, innocent youth, fresh from England, grow to be a man, very much at home in all parts of this country. The pictures show that his equipment becomes more modern and his legs more muscular, but the stories tell of his move to study religion and of becoming a father. The physical and the metaphysical fit snugly together in his pack.

The Kennett brothers’ history of cycling in New Zealand came out in late 2004. I heard how someone got it for Christmas and it quickly became the most popular present at the bach. All members of the large extended family sneaked it away for a good read. There are plenty of engaging pictures that prompted grandma to reminisce about her first bike, granddad to enjoy the engineering details, children to see themselves in the “growing up with bikes” chapter, and all those in between to remember previous adventures and to daydream about future excursions. This highlights the richness of the book. It is truly a popular history.

The excellent large-format photos and topical illustrations make it attractive to dabble in and easy to flick through, but it is worth going deeper into many stories. Straightforward chapters summarise the beginning of cycling in New Zealand, the golden years in the first half of last century, local cycle manufacturing, interesting women’s cycling herstory, the full range of different types of racing, and the rise of mountain biking. Amusing side-bars keep the scenery changing. And there are many race results, thoughtfully bringing up the rear. And it is up to date, with Sarah Ulmer’s gold medal ride at last year’s Olympic Games getting appropriate coverage.

Together these are stories of self-propelled mobility. Walking and cycling used to be the only way we all got about. These books remind us that getting from A to B can be so satisfying for our body and soul. Especially if we go via C, D and Z. If you don’t want to go tramping or cycling after reading them, book yourself in for a medical check-up and some counselling.

 

Garth Baker still tramps and cycles, and has the thighs to prove it.

 

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Posted in Natural History, Non-fiction, Review and Sport
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