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

Huts, by Mark Pickering [1]

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 [2]). 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 [3].

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 [4]. There’s also a forum discussion [5] 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.