Permolat and dogbox bivs, Hannah McGregor

Tramping: A New Zealand History
Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean
Craig Potton, $70.00,
ISBN 9781927213230

Tramping: A New Zealand History travels lightly through terrain which will feel familiar to many of its readers, the extended family of woollen-sock wearing, pack-hauling, bushwhackers. These people exist in sufficient numbers in this country to ensure this history will eventually become a collectors’ item. To obtain it, it will become necessary to tramp well into the back shelves of second-hand bookshops.

I always understood tramping to be sufficiently distinctive from trekking, hiking, bushwalking, or rambling, as walking outdoors in nature is known in other countries. The history explains the whys and whatfors about those many things which are culturally distinctive about the home-made New Zealand version. For example, in England it is considered odd to go more than two hours without wetting one’s whistle at a pub. In New Zealand, two hours without wet from rain is akin to witchcraft.

Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean have been involved in a generous serve of recent tramping publications, so, as might be expected, there is good coverage of the evolution of all the essentials: clubs, gear, weather, safety, access, scroggin (snack food), permolat (markers made from venetian blinds), billy tea (tea made in a billy) and dogbox bivs (trampers’ kennels). Although, if you think dogbox bivs are the most fascinating thing here, you might want to swap this for 2012’s Shelter From The Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts (of which Barnett is also an author).

The history dedicates considerable space to the growth of the network of parks, huts and tracks which exist today, and the political advocacy of the trampers and their allies which secured them. The message is that these things should not be taken for granted. There is a section on the particular challenges of wilderness, which became about the protection of values, once planes and helicopters could leap in a single bound what remains several days’ worth of walking.

Although there is plenty of history, Barnett and Maclean do not lose sight of one of the unifying mysteries; how it is possible to get cold, wet, dirty and hungry and still have an enjoyable time (at least in hindsight, when writing the trip report). This thread links the early explorers munching on kakapo to the university students in stripey polypropylene. The authors illustrate their point with extracts from journals and trip reports, talking of the privations side by side with the rewards.

The history neatly deals with the definitional problem of “tramping” in this same way. It describes how the early explorers were often also inspired by the wilderness they encountered and how, well into the 20th century, members of tramping clubs were spending their holidays filling in the blank spaces on the park maps. There are many common themes, but walking as discovery of places, plants or self is a recurring one.

There is a sense here that the history of tramping in New Zealand is synonymous with the history of tramping clubs. I believe this is accurate. The infrastructure offered by clubs (human and gas-powered) was necessary to access New Zealand’s more remote places and also served to pass on tramping culture. The history provides a reminder as to how recently the private motor car and the modern map arrived. There is a strong Wellington flavour. I would argue this was unavoidable, given the strange breeding effect of the Tararua Range – where a taste for misery grew large and formative clubs – and the importance of decisions made in offices that look up the valley towards these same peaks (or, more correctly, the cloud where they might be).

The occasional section is awkward. The authors know their way around their own territory blind, regardless of how thick and damp the clag, but when they stray into other subject areas, there is sometimes an air of casual generalisation. I am not sure, for example, it is possible to mention the Te Heuheu Tukino tuku (or gift) involved in the establishment of Tongariro National Park, without also mentioning the recent Waitangi Tribunal observations on that gesture, including some considerable conflicts with recreation.

One specific item I would have done away with is the section called “Women’s Tramping”, as the history already does a good job of explaining where a women’s history of tramping is different from men’s. In the general narrative, there are numerous insights into the cultural expectations of earlier eras, such as the scandals of mixed membership trips, shared bunk-rooms and trousers. What the authors have also made evident throughout is that there have always been plenty of women out and about in the hills. If they still felt they needed to balance things up a bit, why not include Emma Richardson’s superlatively determined adventures in the section highlighting solo tramping? The Mana Wahine trip could similarly serve as an example of the phenomenon of walking as fundraising, or how to live off the emergency food in huts, which is a different kind of phenomenon.

It would take a reviewer with a longer lens than mine to tell if there are any obvious omissions. At 2.5 kilograms, the book weighs as much as a pumpkin or small sack of potatoes. No tramper reviewing the book will be able to avoid mentioning its heft. The size is mostly to accommodate the generous and well-chosen illustrations and photos. However, because there is nothing else out there that remotely compares with this history, and it is such a thorough and engaging read, it is likely to have at least as long a life as 2.5 kilograms of Tararua Biscuits (a type of baked oat “treat”).

Hannah McGregor is a former member of the Victoria University of Wellington Tramping Club, which greatly prolonged her time at university, but not her academic qualifications.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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