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Ironing Out the Wrinkles and Struggles

Tramper and writer RICHARD THOMSON reviews three very different books on tramping and the outdoors.

9781877257537.jpg Tramping, according to Shaun Barnett is ‘often rough, frequently wet, but regularly inspiring’. Non-trampers will probably be inclined to agree with the first two parts of that description, and it can sometimes seem that for trampers themselves enduring the privations of a trip into the hills brings as much satisfaction as the inspiration to be gained from the countryside.

The Land of Doing Without; Davey Gunn of the Hollyford, by Julia Bradshaw Canterbury University Press (RRP$29.50)
Gourmet Tramping in New Zealand by John Sawyer and Liz Bake Canterbury University Press (RRP$29.50)
Tramping in New Zealand; 40 great New Zealand tramping trips by Shaun Barnett, maps by GeographX, Craig Potton Publishing (RRP$35)

New Zealand’s first tramping club was formed in 1919 in Wellington – the Tararua Tramping Club – and ever since, to go tramping has had a particular New Zealand meaning, encompassing self-sufficiency and independence from authorities or commercial enterprise.

Yet tramping has also tended to be a relatively well-heeled, urban pastime. Many of the Tararua Trampers were – and still are – recruited from the ranks of the capital’s public service and intelligentsia. William Sutch, for example, belonged, as did his first wife Morva Williams.
A little book from 1927, The Gentle Art of Tramping, though published in Britain, has quite a bit to teach us about trampers. ‘What a relief to cease to be identified by one’s salary or one’s golf handicap,’ smiles the author Steven Graham. ‘It is undoubtedly a delicious moment when Miles the gardener seeing you come along in tramping rig omits to touch his hat as you pass.’

It’s probably also worth noting in passing (and tending to confirm Barnett’s opinion of tramping) that chapter 13 of Graham’s book is called ‘Drying after rain’.

Visiting trampers, the brainier the better, were a highlight of the 30 years Davey Gunn spent trying to wrestle a living out of the Hollyford valley in Fiordland. His son Murray, who took over the tourist camp in the Hollyford after his father drowned in 1955, later said: ‘when somebody came along from the professions he livened up straight away and was all over them and they were all over him. He had different things to discuss with them that he couldn’t discuss with the people around him. He kept very aloof if you were working here. Well-educated people he enjoyed better than anything.’

Had he been born into a different world, it’s possible that Davey Gunn might have been happy to be a tramper himself. But he grew up on high country runs in central Otago – his father, a shepherd, ended up managing Galloway Station near Alexandra – and after a short stint behind a desk with a stock and station agency he married Ethel Willets, a red-haired confectioner from Waimate who enjoyed tennis and dancing.

In any case, there was clearly something about rural life in eastern Otago that didn’t suit Gunn’s temperament. In 1926, now with three children (Murray, the youngest, was six months old) he decided to sell the farm and move to the Hollyford. His family refused to join him.

Had he had the choice of a government job and the intellectual stimulation that Wellington could offer, occasional weekends in the misty Tararuas, and two weeks each year for a ‘Christmas trip’ (lengthy tramps on scarce rations that the Tararuas mount into remote regions of the Southern Alps each summer), would Gunn’s subsequent life have been as happy?

Whether consciously or not, he chose to identify with the pioneering work of nineteenth century settlers that, even by the time of his childhood, had largely passed into myth. And in the vast forested tracts that became his home, rougher and wilder by far than almost any of country that his pioneering role models had broken in, Gunn acquired the status of a legend himself.

The Hollyford River rises near the Homer Tunnel, not far from Milford Sound, amidst some of the steepest, most spectacular mountain scenery in New Zealand. The Milford, Greenstone and Routeburn tramps are close by, and the track down the Hollyford valley itself is now also very popular. The first three are part of eight designated Great Walks – a management tool invented by the Department of Conservation which, among its other effects, has channelled the growing numbers of overseas tourists into a finite number of destinations.

This part of the country has the greatest concentration of Great Walks, a belated justification for Davey Gunn’s unrealised ambitions to make the region a tourist mecca.

But Gunn spent much of his time in the Hollyford chasing half wild cattle through the bush. The highlight of Julia Bradshaw’s book about Gunn, The Land of Doing Without, is the chapter that describes the annual cattle muster when Gunn, with his men and dogs, would take to the bush for a couple of months.

‘The procedure was simply to set the dogs alight into the bush every now and then in the hope that they’d find something. Davey Gunn’s dogs became particularly good at this. He would simply say “Seek!” and away they’d go,’ one companion recalled.

Once the beasts had been ‘spooked’ out of the bush, they’d walk all the way to the saleyards in Invercargill, around 300 kilometres away.
Then, on Christmas Day 1955, his horse stumbled and fell crossing the river and Davey Gunn was swept away by the strong current. His body was never found.

His son Murray, who took over running the tourist operation, told Bradshaw:
‘What he’d gone through and the way he’d been treated, he had nothing to look forward to in life, the drowning was a blessing in some ways. I felt sorry for him. He lived in a dream world. He thought he could open up the Olivine for cattle and it was impossible. Everything was let go, all the huts had been let go and they weren’t suitable for the modern age.’
There’s a kind of mad, glorious, bittersweet, doomed quality to much of this story; a struggle for survival that seems alien and – yes – perhaps even pointless from a modern perspective.

Bradshaw’s account of Gunn’s life is well-researched and referenced, and shows a good deal of affection for the man and the place. As you’d expect, she has filled her pages with superb anecdotes – such as the tale of the death of John Murtagh. It took three days to carry his body out to the road and the weather was hot, so ‘by the time they had got the body down to Lake Alabaster it had blown up and Davey had had to make some cuts in the body to release gas from the abdomen’.

This was not mentioned in the inquest report, the author notes.
Today, Davey Gunn’s dream of making the Hollyford a tourism destination has been realised. It’s worth noting that for Gunn, it was tourists not trampers that he sought to attract – people who would pay to be guided and cooked for and stay in his huts. It’s a distinction that is now argued over zealously in tramping circles, as those who come from the self-sufficient local tradition find themselves outnumbered on the popular tracks by earnest German backpackers.

All the same, Gunn’s idea of what tramping was all about would come as a shock to many modern-day trampers. Bradshaw ends her book by quoting a tramper who says: ‘I feel very privileged in retrospect to have seen the wild unspoilt Fiordland forest . . . before eco-tourism got hold of it and ironed out all the wrinkles and struggles’.

The Hollyford track was promoted with phrases such as: ‘a measure of uncertainty should add to your enjoyment’ and guide Ed Cotter recalled his distress at having to show tourists the fern bunks in the huts.

‘I remember the kids asking me for more to eat,’ he said. ʻProbably all they had was porridge or bread for breakfast . . . Davey Gunn’s favourite saying to anyone who was hungry was, “We should eat to live, not live to eat.” It didn’t go down very well with a load of fourth formers.’

gourmet_tramping_big.jpgThis is not a sentiment that would be shared by John Sawyer and Liz Baker, who have written a book called Gourmet Tramping in New Zealand.
ʻFor us, tramping is partially about exertion but mostly about indulgence,’ they enthuse, claiming that nowadays ‘even at the most remote back-country huts you will find gourmet cooking of the highest standard’.

Sawyer and Baker do their best to remove as much uncertainty as possible from the enjoyment they prescribe on 14 short tramps around the country, describing the routes, the recipes, a suggested accompanying wine, and even where to do the shopping.

If you find yourself lost at any time they suggest that you ‘Stay calm, and be thankful that you have gourmet food for your supper. At least if you die it will be on a full stomach. . . . Your emergency survival kit will undoubtedly contain copious amounts of chocolate. If you have filled in an intentions book, eventually the alarm will be raised and people will come to the rescue. Stay calm.’

Despite a nagging feeling that anyone who actually buys this book intending to follow the routes and the recipes to the letter is displaying a certain lack of imagination, it’s certainly true that for many trampers, the idea of eating good food in the hills has yet to penetrate their consciousness.

Also leaving little to the imagination are what the back cover of Shaun Barnett’s Tramping in New Zealand; 40 great New Zealand tramping trips calls ‘the latest generation of “bird’s eye” computer generated maps. These completely accurate panoramic overviews offer a superb way of showing a tramping route in three dimensions, which cannot be done with a conventional topographical map.’

trampingcoverjpg.jpgThis may be overstating things a little, but anyone who has ever enjoyed poring over a map will find plenty to look at in these maps, created by Wellington mapping company GeographX. And while they are, in truth, no more three-dimensional than any other sheet of paper you’ve ever looked at, the oblique views are strangely compulsive in the same way that other pixelated virtual reality scenarios are. Before too long there’s bound to be a DVD where you can virtually ‘fly-over’ the tramping routes.

Alongside the maps, Barnett’s text is a model of precise and compact information, clearly presented and accompanied by his evocative and excellently reproduced photographs. Although he modestly suggests that this is a personal selection of ‘the creme de la creme of the country’s easier tramps’, the very fact that he has walked them all gives his choice some weight, and together they more than satisfy his aim of showcasing the diversity of New Zealand tramping.

You might wonder, after reading what Barnett, Sawyer and Baker have to say about tramping today, and admiring the scenery that’s showcased in their photographs, how much it still has in common with the porridge and fern bunks of Davey Gunn’s day. All three call themselves trampers, not tourists, but in some ways their books are a substitute for the old-school method of learning to tramp by joining a club.

Bill Brown was 10 years old when he first went to the Hollyford in the summer of 1944. At 12, Davey Gunn entrusted a party of Hawkes Bay students to his care. Whether tourists or trampers, that fact, as much as anything, tells us that the old days are gone forever.

Richard Thomson is a Wellington writer and reviewer.