Strange Tookish yearnings, David Round

Shelter From the Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts
Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown and Geoff Spearpoint
Craig Potton Publishing, $80.00,
ISBN 9781877517709

Our ancestors found no tropical paradise here; not even the long settled summers of the American West, where sleeping around the campfire can be a genuine practice for much of the year. Whether they traversed the roaring oceans by canoe or sailing ship, they were at once compelled to fashion rude shelters against the cold and rain. Domestic architecture has since advanced; but the mountains and wilderness are always the last refuges of the past, and in our native hills survives a glorious collection of huts, plain, simple, practical, yet full of character, built in some of the most beautiful places of the earth, and together now forming a network of backcountry accommodation and framework for adventure which must count as one of our national glories.

Their history is the history of our country. Some were built for pastoralists, musterers and rabbiters, or by miners for gold or more recondite substances; some, even in the 19th century, for tourists and climbers. Tramping clubs often built club huts. The Department of Internal Affairs built some for its deer control operations; and the New Zealand Forest Service, after it took over those operations, “embarked on the greatest hut-building programme ever undertaken in New Zealand and possibly the world”. National Park Boards and the Lands and Survey Department built huts for the people. Some huts were built for science, others as memorials to the dead. Now the Department of Conservation, established only in 1987, builds and maintains; or not, as the case might be.

This superb book does justice to our inheritance. Comparatively little has been even generally written about this area of our national life, and the histories of particular huts are clearly the fruits of an enormous amount of inquiry and research. There are wonderful old photographs as well as breath-taking new ones – hunters, deer-cullers and trampers, helicopters and packhorses. The huts stand in forest clearings and tussock basins, by lakes and rivers, amid mountains that cry out to be visited and under huge dark empty looming hills that give new meaning to the phrases “howling wilderness” and “last homely house”.

The book is in fact an anthology of the freedom and adventure that awaits us just out of town. Strange Tookish yearnings stir the heart at every page. We dream of a long valley, the wind in our faces, the paradise duck honking over the flats ahead, the dark-browed bush and the eternal mountains. How much we have seen; how much we long to see again before “our feet come down to the lowlands forever”, and we die with the vision in our eyes! The book is indeed a labour of love, for being in this country is the best thing in the world.

And perhaps paradoxically, the hut itself is integral to the experience of the country. Although Mr Explorer Douglas had only his famous batwing fly, he still insisted that comfort – a relative term, certainly – was necessary even for the explorer. Some guns profess a disdain for structures, but for most of us tents are only for necessity or pleasant weather. Huts offer not only life and warmth; they offer room to stand, not just in the literal sense but as homes in landscapes that can be demanding and daunting to body and mind.

We are creatures of the tribe and the light as well as of the wildwood. Without the hut we would not feel as much at home in the country. Outside are sandflies and rain, mud and wind; inside, the billy on the fire, comfort and friendship, talk and laughter and warm sleeping bags at the end. This cannot all be done in a tent. Neither can it be done in a hotel. That is why huts are a subject of such keen interest to their users. Bigger and newer is not necessarily better.

Tramping books are getting bigger. Once everything was the size of the still famously small Federated Mountain Clubs Bulletin – Tony Nolan’s Bush Lore, Flight Lieutenant Hildreth’s How To Survive in the Bush, on the Coast and in the Mountains of New Zealand, mountaincraft manuals and Moir’s Guides. This book, of course, is not intended for putting in a pack. Its size, though, does not mean that it can be demeaningly consigned to the coffee-table. It is an important contribution to a recognisable genre – a record and celebration, and, even more, a discovery, of our own distinct character and achievement and worth and value as a nation. The hut epitomises us: small, plain, simple, practical, ingenious, unpretentious, built for hardiness in a wonderful country.

And yet – are we like that now? The hut, like the kiwi and the swannie, may be “iconic”, but there is something chilling about that word. An icon is an image of something set apart, sacred but (in at least one sense) dead. Can anyone over the age of seven now pull a Buzzy Bee without consciousness of the cultural act?

Professor Parkinson proposed that “perfection of planned layout is only achieved by institutions on the verge of collapse”. Is this superb book the tomb and memorial of a way of life already passing as the huts themselves may be? The authors and I share membership of that glorious fraternity, open to all, who find freedom, serenity and exhilaration in the simple elemental life of bush, river and mountain. But just as native plants and animals slide swiftly or slowly towards extinction, is our human presence in their last refuges also to vanish?

Once we knew that if there were not somewhere a lake as fresh and clean as on the day of creation, then we had failed as a nation. Do we still believe that? The rhetoric may say so, but what do our actions say? What do our rivers say? What does your friend say when you tell him of your last trip into the hills? Is he envious? Or does he think you a half-comical half-crazy masochist? I pity the reader whose heart this book cannot stir; but I fear there may be many of them. Bad money drives out good; texting may yet beat tramping.

The book ends its account of the Department of Conservation’s stewardship on a cautious note, acknowledging the department’s fine record of planning, maintenance and building – over 130 new huts, usually replacing older ones – but also noting a growing focus on tourist and business involvement on our conservation lands, and a corresponding “reduction of effort in low-priority areas”. The last chapter in our huts’ story has not yet been written; the cycle of life, decay, death and rebirth continues.  The world faces hard times, and it would be foolish to suppose that anything like the present status and responsibilities of a department of state will necessarily endure.

What does the future hold? “We are they”, R A K Mason wrote, “who are doomed to raise up no monuments to outlast brass.” Our own rhetoric of change tells us the painful truth that it will be different, and uncertain. But we have choices. The continued survival of huts, like that of endangered species, depends on our own virtue. “Where [the Department] goes,” the authors sagely observe, “will depend on what New Zealanders choose to value.”

A culture is how we actually live, and cultures change. If our huts continue to live it will be not as sacred icons but because we live in them.


David Round is a former national president of Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC), who teaches environmental law at the University of Canterbury.


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Posted in Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
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