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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 [1].] 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 [2].) 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:

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.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "A Trampers Journey by Mark Pickering (my notes)"

#1 Comment By john On 20 July, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

Greetings Mike – nice new blog layout BTW.
Loved this book – right from the starting Tony Nolan song/poem/ode – to trampers –
If you stand on Lampton Quay
On Friday night then you will see
Through rain and snow the trampers go
To the Tararua Ranges…
through to the conclusion – and his assessment that now more than ever tramping could be seen as the great elixir/antidote for the crazy modern world – and how we have evolved as a civilization (some) that is happy to sit in front of the box sipping fizzy drinks watching other people do sport – Also in particular I found the solo chapter intriguing and a little spooky – on the odd solo trip I have done – I always seem to hear imaginary sounds – in particular at a Hut at night, when I have the place to myself (this doesn’t happen very often!) – I seem to hear the sounds/chatter/approach of an impending group of trampers – but alas they never seem to appear. My futile attempts to quickly tidy up my sprawling mess – are in vain – been alone is a funny thing…
I found it a great book – love to re-read it from time to time and Mark Pickering has this really nice laid back, laconic style. My copy weighs in @ 400 grams – that could seem like a lot trudging up a steep Ruahine track – but worth it if the hut is empty and there is no one to talk too.
One of my faves!
PS Another really nice (quite simplistic) tale is ‘At Home in the Hills’, by M. James Jordan – more of a book about hunting than tramping – but from the time when hunters tramped (miles) to get to where they want to be – and like Pickering’s book – there is a great chapter on been alone (Lonely Times). A lot of Jordans time is spent in the Tararua’s and Ruahine’s as a young lad gaining experience and then later as a very experienced govt deer culler.

#2 Comment By Robb On 21 July, 2010 @ 8:16 am

Kia ora Mike and John,
I have a copy of Jordan’s book upon my shelf as well. A very good book in terms of his travels in the Ruahine and Tararua’s as John points out. There a few aspects of it that do not neccessarily trip my trigger, but to each his own. He certainly got around the Ruahine and I am quite sure I have seen his name in a few hut books over the years still.
I have gone solo many times over the years, and am doing so again in a few days. I find the “hearing of approaching voices” something that tends to happen the first couple of days as we adjust our hearing to being in remote places. I reckon we tend to “justify” within ourselves that sounds we are hearing are explainable and thus man made, when in fact it most likely something around us perfectly natural. After a few days it seems to retreat. I guess in any case it is not a bad thing John, at least you must keep a pretty tidy hut. Happy tramping.

#3 Comment By Mike McGavin On 26 July, 2010 @ 10:48 am

Hi Robb & John. Thanks for your comments. My second impression of Mark’s book was completely different from the first, which I guess shows what a difference it can make to have experienced a taste of what someone’s writing about. Or maybe I’m just a shallow reader. 🙂

Thanks for the tip about Jordan’s book, I’ll add it to my list of books to look up.


#4 Comment By David On 1 October, 2010 @ 11:39 am

I love this book too. The other great book of tramping anecdotes is “45 Years of antics’ published by the Otago University Tramping Club. It’s an anthology of stories in their annual magazine. Highly recommended. I believe there are still copies for sales – see [9]

#5 Comment By Mike McGavin On 25 March, 2012 @ 11:47 am

Very awesomely, the author Mark Pickering has now made this entire out-of-print ‘A Tramper’s Journey’ book [1].