A Trampers Journey by Mark Pickering (my notes)

Several years ago I picked up this book by Mark Pickering titled A Tramper’s Journey, subtitled Stories from the back country of New Zealand, and noticed the entire opening section was all about the author’s 1970s experience in Tongue & Meats, also known as the Wellington Tramping & Mountaineering Club. (Its slang name was adopted from a local butchery in the early days that had the same initials.) With this being a club I’d recently joined, I bought it and began rushing through the early pages, keen to pick out any names I might recognise. Before long the author began to venture into other parts of his experience which I hadn’t been able to relate to very well, and at that time my interest was distracted by other things. Recently I re-discovered it on my bookshelf, read through the entire thing, and noticed many more aspects of this book that now resonate.

The book was published in 2004 and as far as I know hasn’t been reprinted, so it’s now 6 years old. I do still see it on occasion being sold in bookshops as a new book, so I think it’s still available, or should at the very least be easily found in most New Zealand libraries. [Edit 25-Mar-2012: An electronic PDF copy of the entire book is now available for download from the author’s website.] It totals just under 200 pages of relatively easy reading that’s divided into so many distinct sections that it’s easy to pick up and put down for short stints. My paperback copy is on good quality paper. I thought it was heavier than it looked as if it should have been when I took it tramping a couple of weeks ago.

This is a tribute book to tramping more than anything else. Unlike similar books on the shelves, this one isn’t about climbing or mountaineering, and it’s not about hunting. Mark Pickering himself commented that while there are a plethora of journals and newsletters and several guide-books that include elements of story telling, there are very few books specifically devoted to tramping stories. What he’s produced is a semi-autobiographical combination of stories that mostly, but not exclusively relate to his experiences of tramping all over New Zealand. Over 30 years between 1974 and 2004, he tallied visits to about 900 distinct huts, and learned a lot of history and stories to go with his experience.

The book is structured into a combination of stories, trivia, and both anecdotes and larger explanations of tramping history. The author is a self-confessed history buff. All these elements are structured between eight chapters that group related topics, and with each chapter clearly divided into several sections. Sometimes the association of the section with the chapter is generous. Mark Pickering’s story about his discovery of a gold mine of old maps seems to be affiliated with his chapter about tramping in the Canterbury back-country on the thin premise that the second hand bookshop with the maps happened to be in Christchurch. It doesn’t really matter though, because that’s exactly what this book is — a journey of loosely connected anecdotes and stories laid out in a way for the reader to flow between, to gather an appreciation of why people go tramping, what’s important, and how things work in the back-country.

The bad:

I’ll start with the bad, and there isn’t much. I had very occasional petty annoyances that hardly deserve mention.

In one instance when discussing the night sky, the author gives some scientific explanations for things which are ambiguous, but it mostly stood out to me because of my previous life in amateur astronomy (presently taking a break with all the tramping). I also noticed that in the opening Foreward section, where Mark Pickering introduces the word “tramping” and its historic origin, he generally focused on the gold rush days and people moving between the hills, but not clearly tracing it to what might be a German origin, which I think has some merit. (Side note: There’s a more comprehensive discussion thread on this topic in the comments section of a post titled “What is a tramper?” over at Markus Baumann’s Skylark Productions blog.) Neither of these annoyances are anything to worry about, but I’m into semantics so it’s hard to avoid mentioning them.

There’s also an undertone in chapter 7 where the author expresses thoughts that people who tramp solo typically make more dangerous decisions, claiming it as a consequence of having less people to bounce ideas off and notice danger, and therefore an impaired sense of risk. I’m not personally convinced that this is always the case from my own experiences, and when reading it I found myself wondering if an alternative perspective had been missed. Introspectively I think I take far fewer chances when I’m by myself, sometimes even regretting it, precisely because I’m not with anyone else from whom to gain encouragement if I have doubts.

The good:

With the negative notes out of the way, several parts of this book made it something I especially appreciate besides being able to discover more about WTMC. I found the chapter on tracks (chapter 3) to be especially interesting, in which Mark Pickering gets into the history of how tracks have been made, built and dug throughout New Zealand, and what now remains of some of New Zealand’s past. The Fools Creek story at the end of chapter 1, in which a very risky decision was made to cross a river, strongly emphasised just how easily groups can justify what they want in irrationally put themselves into very dangerous situations. Chapter 4 contains a brief but useful history of mapping in New Zealand.

Chapter 5 has many good sections. It begins with Wilderness in which the author discusses how the word’s meaning has changed from the 1850s, when it was typically a synonym in New Zealand for “wasteland”, to the present day in which it’s more associated with ideas such as “natural” and “untrampled”. The author comments on inevitable conflicts between development and enhanced access to allow more people to experience the wilderness, but reducing its appeal as a consequence. In the section titled Storm, the author researches the history of “Hughie” (aka “Huey” and “Hughey”), the name of a tongue-in-cheek tramping weather god, finding its earliest New Zealand use in the Tararua Tramping Club’s journal in 1945, but then traces it further back to an Australian colloquialism first noticed in 1912.

Still in chapter 5, Garden of Eden reproduces an account from one member of a party that became trapped in a storm on the Garden of Eden ice plateau in 1982. One of the tents was lost under the weight of the snow, and with people’s packs (and food) also buried, six people became trapped inside a three person tent for several days with restricted movement, little air, almost nothing to eat, freezing conditions and a battering storm outside. With their emergency contact not having reported them missing, two people eventually walked out during a break in the weather and the rest were finally airlifted by helicopter, seven days overdue and eleven days after the storm first struck.

Chapter 6 is a good and thoughtful presentation of the history of New Zealand’s back-country hut network. It begins with the proliferation of High Country Huts which began as structures for shepherds and mustering gangs of the high country sheep stations, and continues into the new wave of building huts for recreation, beginning with climbing huts at Aoraki Mt Cook, and continuing with the club-funded tramping huts established in the Tararua Range. The chapter then devotes a full section to celebrate the New Zealand Forestry Service, and how its attempts at deer culling programmes and rather gratuitous allocation of funds (especially from the 1950s to the 1970s during which time over 600 huts and bivs were built) led to massive numbers of access tracks and huts being built throughout parts of New Zealand’s back-country. The author reminisces on the simple and practical designs, and how they’ve yet to be beaten in many respects. The chapter winds up with thoughts about the current state of huts, what makes good huts and bad huts, and a variety of interesting statistics.

So what’s in this book? Well, here’s a more detailed chapter listing:

  • Chapter 1: Billy and Pack Club tramping in the 1970s, reminiscent of the author’s own experiences.
    • Tongue and Meats — Stories about the author’s introductory experiences with Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club, becoming familiar with terms and slang, and being accidentally left behind.
    • Ill Met by Moonlight — Thoughts about night tramping, apparently a mostly Wellington peculiarity, including some stories of getting lost in the dark in the Tararuas.
    • Christmas in the Hills — Reflections on Christmas trips, and getting away for two weeks at a time, organising major food drops (and distressing when they didn’t happen as planned).
    • Fools Creek — Memories of a very risky river crossing, during which the party had been entirely motivated by a quick exit but justified it all the same.
  • Chapter 2: High Country A collection of stories about the “extreme back country”.
    • No Exit to Erewhon — Exchanges with farmers, characters often encountered when arranging access.
    • In Pursuit of Sergeant Garvey — An investigation of the naming of an obscure feature, Sergeant Garveys Cairn, and a re-telling of the story of how a man who made a bad decision in 1863 and valiantly charged the wrong way into a storm to his death, came to be remembered as a hero.
    • The Swaggers — Stories about the mobile labourers who, into the early parts of the 20th century, used to walk up and down the length of the country and working for the station owners.
    • The Mouse — A short remembered anacdote about feeding a mouse as it visited the author alone in an old musterers’ hut.
  • Chapter 3: Making Tracks A collection of stories about the history of tracks, and the making of them, throughout New Zealand’s back-country.
    • Harper Pass: An 800-year-old Track — Notes about the lengthy 800 year history of people making their way over Harper Pass, including its Maori history and some of the route-marking techniques that were used, gold prospectors, road surveying, railways, and even a possible health resort, and its eventual fall into obscurity before a revival as a promoted tramping track.
    • Pick and Shovel — The origin of pack tracks throughout the 1800s, built to accommodate pack animals many of which still exist in an overgrown form but are rarely marked, and are occasionally stumbled upon.
    • Bush Bashing — An examination of off-track travel, and the satisfaction people gain in creating new and efficient routes from one place to another.
    • Lake Grave — The reproduced day-by-day journal and memory of one of a group that innovated a new track through part of Fiordland.
    • Salmon Creek Biv — A very short section that quotes the hut book entry of a couple of people who regularly maintain the track to Salmon Creek Biv on their own initiative.
  • Chapter 4: Canterbury Greywacke A chapter about experiences in Canterbury.
    • Well Trained — Memories of the railcar that used to travel through Arthur’s Pass until the 1980s, its popularity with trampers wanting to get into the hills for the weekend, and the casually helpful attitudes of New Zealand Railways employees.
    • Up the Waimak — Recollections of the Waimakariri River, and common place to visit within Canterbury.
    • A Tragic Tale — An amusing story about how a highly anticipated trip went very wrong from the moment it started (in an amusing sense), and just kept getting worse.
    • The Imperial Treasures of Smith’s Emporium — A short explanation of how mapping developed in New Zealand, eventually through the Department of Lands and Survey using aerial photography, told through the context of the author’s experience in finding a treasure trove of old maps in a second hand bookshop.
    • Avalanche! — The reproduced account of one of a party of four climbers who were caught in an avalanche on Mt Rolleston (above the Bealey River) during 1989.
  • Chapter 5: Elements Aspects of the outdoors, and stories that describe what attracts people.
    • Wilderness — Thoughts about the word “wilderness” and how its meaning has changed from the 1850s, and humorous exchanges with a helicopter pilot during an attempt to get to the wilderness.
    • Days and Nights in the Forest — Memories of a visit to Gunns Camp in 1983, the collecting of historic notes, and the re-telling of a story about Davy Gunn’s rescue run in 1936 to report a plane crash (90 km in 20 hours including 40 km of tramping in the dark), and insights from the author’s nearby walk in the forest.
    • Fire — Miscellaneous thoughts about fire and its association with the hills. The author speculates that in time, open-air fires will be banned from New Zealand’s mountains.
    • Tussock, Rock and Snow — A description of a Christmas Trip for which the author’s party were under-prepared, and comments about how people once funded tramping interests with student allowances.
    • Starlight — Comments about the extra clarity of the stars and the night sky when seen from the wilderness, away from most light pollution.
    • Storm — Notes about storms, including a narrative of two anonymous trampers who wait out a storm whilst in a hut, followed by a discussion of Huey, the tramping weather god, and thoughts about some of the rainiest parts of New Zealand.
    • Garden of Eden — The reproduction of an account of a party that became trapped in a tent during a storm on an ice plateau.
  • Chapter 6: Huts A chapter all about Huts in New Zealand’s back-country, their origin and use.
    • Home on the Range — The origins and continuance of hut building, beginning with the proliferation of High Country Huts and through to the building of dedicated recreation huts.
    • NZFS — A celebration of the New Zealand Forestry Service, and how its deer culling programmes resulted in hundreds of huts and tracks making the back-country more accessible.
    • A Prevalence of Huts — The current state of huts, and interesting statistics to match.
    • Break-In — The author describes an experience in the Orongorongo Valley in which he became trapped ill-equipped in a storm, near hypothermic, and was forced to break into one of the private batches.
  • Chapter 7: Solo A collection of stories and insights about solo experiences.
    • A Voice in the Mountains — The author recollects coincidentally meeting an old friend in the wilderness who was taking part in a solo experience. The is a precursor to a revelation that the same friend later died on a following solo expedition.
    • Nerves — Insights into sudden and seemingly irrational attacks of nerves for no clear reason.
    • Patupaiarehe — Alone in the night, accompaynied by the Maori spirits that inhabit the deep forest and the mountain tops.
    • The Ghost of Whariwharangi Bay — Spooky sounds from upstairs in an old hut.
  • Chapter 8: Breathing Easy Leaving work and busy life behind.
    • The Red Hills — A satisfying week long journey .
    • Stepping on a Million Stones — Philosophical recollections of tramping with a friend who later died on a glacier, and reflections on why people go tramping.

Mark Pickering states near the end of the book that he thinks he wrote it to answer the question of why people go tramping, and this is the essence of the final section of the book’s final chapter. Probably his answer, however, is one that will never be fully appreciated and understood except by people who already do go tramping. It’s a book that does a very good job in artistically expressing what many people probably think, and will appeal most to those who have spent at least a little time in New Zealand’s back-country. If this isn’t you then I wouldn’t add it to the top of my list. On the other hand if you have spent some time outdoors, you might find this book a good read if you haven’t already picked it up. For me, I think it’s become a book that I’ll appreciate for a long time to come.

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