Huts: Untold stories from back-country New Zealand, by Mark Pickering (review)

Huts, by Mark Pickering

This is the second book I’ve read by Mark Pickering, the first having been A Tramper’s Journey, which I liked (the review is here). He’s written many books, and this is a topic that Mark Pickering is especially suited to, having a strong interest in huts and having visited over 1000 back-country huts already. His latest book was released in time for Christmas 2010. Huts: Untold stories from back-country New Zealand retails for $50, or $49.99 if you take the effort to shop around.

Production quality is generally nice, with good authoring and editing, although see my comment below about printing. This book is very heavy. It’s a paperback, but don’t let that fool you. It’s 384 big pages on good, glossy paper. Large numbers of photographs, often using half a page at a time, ensure the text isn’t too dense and the reading remains quite easy. Reading one or more chapters in a short sitting is very feasible. The weight and dimensions mean it’s not the sort of book that would typically be stuffed into a pack for weekend reading, except by people who like to show off.

Background

The title suggests that this is a book about huts. It is, but it’s even more-so a book about the history of the back-country, and how all of the 1000—1500 back-country huts (the exact number depends on one’s criteria for counting) came to be. The blurb on the back of the book begins with “If huts could talk, they could tell the whole history of the back-country”, and this is a good summary of what you’ll find inside. It’s a history built around the structures which, today, are mostly used for recreation.

It’s a book about what huts can tell us about history, about the people who built huts, who lived in them, and who left them behind. It’s about the circumstances in which they lived their lives, and the events that resulted in them exploring, building and using huts in the back-country. From my own perspective, Mark Pickering has shown things in a much more rich and complex way than I’d previously considered.

Structure

With fifteen chapters, the author has chosen fifteen types of hut, categorised by their histories. Each chapter takes its name from a representative hut within the set, but the text then varies on just how much attention is given to that particular hut. On most occasions, a much wider history is given which covers both that hut, but also surrounding huts and (often) geographically distant huts that shared similar roles.

Not all huts discussed are on public conservation land, but they’re all huts for which recreational access can be arranged, typically by contacting a land-owner. Each chapter concludes with a list of additional representative huts for the category with brief details of how to find them, as well as a map that shows the location of the representative hut, and finally a list of references.

Mark Pickering has arranged the book so that less current topics, such as boundary keepers, gold digging and rabbiting are in the earlier chapters. Hunting makes an appearance mid-way through, and huts purpose built for recreations that are currently popular, namely climbing, tramping, skiing and (eventually) tourism, are pushed into the final four chapters of the book, though the tourism chapter seems unusual as a final chapter because it barely refers to modern tourism at all, focusing almost entirely on events in Fiordland before 1950.

Naturally I always tend to think I’m most interested in tramping stories, which is what gets my attention. In beginning I saw this structure as a way to encourage me to read through the entire book to reach the parts I was most interested in. It worked, too, and I’m glad for it because I’ve found every one of the earlier chapters a thoroughly interesting read.

Possible criticisms

As usual I don’t wish to over-stress anything bad, but it probably wouldn’t be a fair review if I didn’t try to be reasonably critical. For the record, if the book was truly bad, I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it. A couple of things that stood out to me, however, are as follows.

Something I found odd was the recurring inclusion of a map at the end of each chapter to indicate the location of that chapter’s featured hut. On initial impressions this seems reasonable, but the book has been written such that the “featured hut” after which the chapter was named is sometimes relegated to a comparably minor role within that chapter. At the very least, many of these featured huts were described on equal terms, and with equal attention to other huts and stories that shared similar backgrounds. On several occasions I found it confusing to be suddenly given a map that focused on one particular hut, but none of the others that had been presented on equal terms. By the end of the book, I was thinking the maps were superfluous, and perhaps the space could have been saved or used for additional photographs.

Another thing I must highlight, and this may be because I was simply unlucky, is that this is the first book I’ve owned which I’ve returned to the bookshop for a replacement. The reason is that having hauled it around with me for opportunistic reading over a couple of weeks (inside a sealed zip-lock bag for protection) the ink wasn’t completely sticking to many of the pages. Pages with photographs, especially those with dark colours, had left mucky impressions on their facing pages. The white card of the inside of the covers became a dirty grey. I don’t know enough about book production to understand how common this is, but I’m wondering if they were maybe rushed from the printers too quickly.

Overall impression

For people such as myself whose visits to the back-country tend to be geographically biased, it offers a window on different types of huts that exist in places less visited. I discovered many things reading this book, and it caused me to think about what I already knew in more detail.

For example, having read about how an entire collection of huts around Banks Peninsula have ties to Germany’s Wandervogel movement of promoting people to get outdoors and go walking (chapter 10), I now wonder if this German influence might relate to the popularity of the word “tramping” in New Zealand, given how Germany is one of the few other places in the world where “tramping” is recognised with a similar meaning.

Another interesting point noted by the author (chapter 13) is that the small club created by William Howlett in 1893, with a primary goal of recreation, predates the formation of the Tararua Tramping Club (and therefore the idea of creating a club for recreation in the mountains) by decades, and is comparable in time with the 1892 formation of the NZ Alpine Club.

The author barely touches current breed of modern huts being built by the Department of Conservation, many of which can appear sterilised when compared with the diverse range of historic huts that shower New Zealand’s landscape. I presume this is because these huts are not history so much as current events. By the end of this book, though, it may seem more apparent that the latest batch of recreational hut building by the currently responsible branch of the government could be merely another phase in history, which will eventually be recognised as such by future users of New Zealand’s back-country and the structures within.

To conclude

For books about New Zealand’s outdoor history, this one’s really a must read. It’s easy reading, but there’s a lot of information to soak in. I’ll be leaving this book on my bookshelf for future reference.

If you’d like another perspective, this book is due to be reviewed in the March 2011 issue of the Federated Mountain Clubs Bulletin, which will eventually be distributed to all members of affiliated clubs, and also downloadable from the FMC website. There’s also a forum discussion occuring about the book over on the NZ Tramper website.

Finally, here’s a chapter-by-chapter summary of what you’ll find in this book.

  • Introduction. A five page introduction gives a crash course in the state of huts in New Zealand’s back-country, both historically and in the present.
  • Chapter 1: Sutherlands Hut (South Canterbury); shepherds and boundary keepers. Sutherlands Hut is one of the oldest huts in New Zealand, a Boundary Keepers’ hut from the mid-19th century, when high country stations needed to prevent their stock from wandering, and hiring a group of boundary keepers was cheaper and easier than building hundreds of kilometres of fencing.
  • Chapter 2: Carrick Range Water Race Huts (Central Otago); water-racemen. This chapter focuses the water races that were built to supply some of the remote gold fields with water, predominantly around Otago. It describes the lives of the “racemen” who were tasked with maintaining the water races, and who mostly lived in huts spaced evenly along the channels, scouting their section every day to ensure it was well kept and clear of obstacles. The chapter examines how water races were built and maintained, and explores stories of many Chinese immigrants who were attracted by by the gold rushes.
  • Chapter 3: Shutes Hut (Hawke’s Bay); rabbiters. This chapter examines the rabbiting culture and industry, which grew from an explosive plague of rabbit populations following an ill-considered introduction of the species that had no native predators. It considers absurd conflicts that existed for many years between farmers trying to run sheep next door to those trying to farm rabbits, as well as the eventual introduction of stoats to New Zealand in an attempt to control rabbits. The chapter eventually settles on Shutes Hut in the northern Ruahines, piecing together the life and personality of Alex Shute, who lived in the hut as a rabbitter for about 30 years.
  • Chapter 4: Comyns Hut (South Canterbury); musterers and packies. Musterers were the workers who lived on high country stations, being employed to locate and capture the wandering sheep. Musterers tended to live in huts spaced throughout a station, while packies would bring in the supplies, and often be responsible for cooking and cleaning. Musterers Huts were built in an age when corrugated iron had just become popular as a new, miracle building material that allowed new structures to be built quickly, which the author examines some of the history of. He also examines the immigration of the Comyns family, on a disease-stricken Lancashire Witch, on which 28 people died during the voyage, including Alfred Comyn’s mother. An older Alfred became a musterer, and being an adventurer he eventually managed to spark the building of a road over Mathias Pass, later known as Dobson’s Track after the man who finally built it. The route impractical and a failure, but being convinced of an idea, Comys still drove 2000 sheep over the road into the Hokitika River, all of which starved and froze due to lack of food.
  • Chapter 5: Potters Hut (Central Otago); goldminers. The chapter begins with an introduction of John Potter, a man who lived to 97 and enjoyed telling tall stories about his mining days. The author looks at the story surrounding Potter’s migration to New Zealand, and the difficult and often dangerous lives that surrounded those who staked high-risk claims on gold-fields, including the great storm of 1863. The latter part of the chapter describes the author’s expedition to visit Potters Goldfield in Central Otago, and several of the huts en-route. He emphasises the danger and the importance of huts in such places through his own experience of a sudden storm during which he might have died if the dice rolled a different way.
  • Chapter 6: Avoca Homestead (Mid-Canterbury); settlers and farmers. The author begins with the history of the Avoca Homestead, of the former Avoca Station which has since become part of the Conservation Estate. The homestead has a history of 10 owners in 150 years while managed as a sheep farm, likely due to its low profitability thanks to its remoteness. A significant portion of the text comments on the ownership of Jack Kidd between 1926 and 1948, who apparently stood out because he didn’t appear to try to make a profit so much as relax and enjoy his surroundings, allegedly while his wife did disproportionate amounts of manual labour. The chapter continues to examine the general history of high country stations, offering a lengthy telling of the tale of “Big Mick”, aka Nicolo Radove, who found himself fully owning Birch Hill, a high country station under the slopes of Mt Cook. This was a fortune that would have been unbelievable in his birth-place of Sicily. Radove was a well liked character, and was one of the first people to explore some of the higher slopes of the mountains, largely due to his run-holding duties.
  • Chapter 7: Blowfly Hut (South Wesland); roadmen. There are few huts that remain from the days when men were employed to live alongside the roads, perpetually maintaining their stretch and ensuring the road could remain open and able to be followed. As the author points out, this is often because these huts were typically built so close to the roads, frequently on road reserve. They were also often built with the intent of speedy disassembly and reassembly at alternative locations. Blowfly Hut is an exception. It lies on the route of the Haast-Paringa track, a road that became largely obsolete for vehicles at the completion of the Haast Pass road in 1960. The chapter examines the early history of road-building in New Zealand, focusing on the story of the Haast-Paringa track, and briefly at the life of Joe Driscoll, perhaps one of the last roadmen in New Zealand who worked on the track until its demise. The latter half of the chapter looks at Jacks Hut, and other huts near Arthur’s Pass, and the history of the coach road and building of the railway line.
  • Chapter 8: Rogers Hut (Te Urewera National Park); deer cullers. This chapter looks at the hundreds of 2 bunk, 4 bunk and 6 bunk huts that were dropped into New Zealand Forest Parks between the 1950s and 1980s, as a consequence of the government’s attempts to control soaring deer populations by employing and facilitating large numbers of deer cullers. Several ironies are examined, one being how the helicoptering in of many deer culling huts demonstrated that hunting by helicopter was actually far more effective. Another irony existed within the New Zealand Forest Service itself, which on one hand was busy felling parts of the forest parks, and on the other hand was attempting to preserve them, initially to protect erosion around the water catchments and eventually for recreation. One activity often funded the other. The author fills the chapter with stories about deer cullers in South Westland, and a description of reaching Rogers Hut in Te Urewera National Park, including brief discussions on the tension around local land ownership.
  • Chapter 9: Homestead Hunters Hut (Stewart Island); hunters. Contrary to the previous chapter, the author now looks at huts predominantly designed and built for recreational hunting. The chapter begins with stories about extensive recreational hunting on Stewart Island, and efforts during the 1990s by the Rakiura Hunter Camp Trust to clean up junk left behind, and then to help manage the sport for the future by building a network of small huts. The bulk of the chapter focuses on these Stewart Island hunting stories, but there’s a brief foray into New Zealand’s national hunting culture, and a significant number of example recreational hunters’ huts and photographs at the end of the chapter.
  • Chapter 10: Monument Hut (Banks Peninsula); health and welfare. The text examines a collection of huts on Banks Peninsula, out of Christchurch, built around the 1930s to establish walking circuits to promote health and wellbeing. Beyond this, however, is a far more detailed history of what was originally the Sunlight League of New Zealand, and eventually became the Youth Hostel Association. The ideas of its main founder, Cora Wilding, were largely influenced by health trends in Europe, particularly Germany, and especially the Wandervogel movement. Mark Pickering doesn’t bypass some parts of this movement to be less envious of, notably principles to do with “racial value” and “racial improvement”, even as written into the organisation’s founding documents. He does, however, credit Cora Wilding and the movement as being far ahead of its time in other areas, especially with ideas like promoting good diets, exercise and healthy attitudes that weren’t constrained by existing convention. The second part of the chapter examines the efforts of Bill Parry, as Minister of Internal Affairs in the late 1930s, to establish huts that would encourage physical welfare and recreation, notably with a new track over Harper Pass, although the route didn’t actually become popular until 30 years later.
  • Chapter 11: Dynamo Hut (Skippers Canyon); packers. Dymamo Hut is one of very few huts that has its background in engineering. The main part of this chapter looks at the building of a hydro-electric power plant to power stampers for crunching rocks at what became the barely profitible Bullendale gold mine during the late 1800s, and until 1905. It was a highly risky experiment at a time when little was known about electricity, but George Bullen and Fred Evans recognised the potential gains that could be possible by using electricity to transfer energy over distance rather than employing large mechanical contraptions. The chapter, however, leads into an examination of the work and lives of packers—those tasked with packing and delivering supplies between settlements, and in particular (in this case) the complex delivery of dynamos in 1885, including 2 parts weighing 1.5 tonnes each, for building a hydro-electric power plant. The new Skippers Road was built to help service the area, including a giant new bridge, but the road was only just completed when the mine closed.
  • Chapter 12: Sefton Biv (Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park); climbers. After a brief look at some of the differences with risk taken by climbers, and an examination of the methods of building alpine huts—typically by having labourers carry building materials to sites—the chapter then considers some of the tension that existed between guided climbs and members of the young New Zealand Alpine Club, and the belief by some in the 1930s that the Hermitage below Mt Cook was treating the area as its own private domain.
  • Chapter 13: Howletts Hut (Hawke’s Bay); trampers. Despite being subtitled as a chapter about trampers, this chapter is dominated by tramping clubs, which makes perfect sense because nearly all tramping-related huts have been built with a club affiliation. The first part of the chapter examines the Tararua Range, on which a large number of active clubs converged in the from the 1920s onwards, with club convention dictating that each club needed to have its own hut. Consequently, as the author notes, every hut in the Tararua Range as recently as 1960 was affiliated with a tramping club. This isn’t the case today, however, with the Department of Conservation having taken over maintenance of most in all but name, which is why the second half of the chapter shifts north to the Ruahines for a closer look at Howlett’s Hut, originally built in a joint effort inspired by the Ruahine Tramping Club, but with help from the Manawatu and the Heretaunga Tramping clubs, the latter of which still maintains close ties to the hut. There’s an interesting history over several pages that begins with describing the life of William Howlett and his efforts to build Daphne Hut, initially in the modern hut’s current location but eventually dismantling it and carrying it up to the current location of Howletts.
  • Chapter 14: Glacier Hut (Tongariro National Park); skiers. The chapter begins with the author’s own surreal experiences of the 1970s Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club, with members having a snowball fight outside Ruapehu’s Chateau Hotel at 2am whilst others struggle to make running repairs to under-sized snow chains for the rented bus. This is an introduction to a lengthy history that began when ski clubs grew from enthusiasm around a sport that few people knew anything about at the time, but which sounded exciting. Huts were built to support amateur club ski-fields, but gradually began to be overtaken and made obsolete by commercial ventures. The author focuses in particular on efforts of clubs in the lower north island to develop skifields in the Tararuas and Ruahines, particularly around Kime Hut, Powell Hut and Rangiwahia Hut. Several pages is then used to describe the impressive efforts of the Otago Ski Club to create a skifield on top of the Rock and Pillar Range. The author then examines Allans Hut, a smaller (2 bunk) hut that was built independently in Mid-Canterbury, attempting to take advantage of the Broken River basin, at the time of World War 2.
  • Chapter 15: Freeman Burn Hut (Fiordland); tourists. The entirety of this chapter is spent on describing the Murrell family, which over many generations has promoted and manged tourism in Doubtful Sound. Les Murrell in particular was instrumental in promoting the Doubtful Sound Track (made obsolete with the Manapouri Power Station) after the First World War, renovating huts that had been built by his father, and then arranging guided tour groups. The author has noted the ongoing competition with the Milford Track for attracting tourists, including the entrepreneurial (but unsuccessful) idea of creating a loop track, so tourists could return along a different route.
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