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May 22, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Going Bush: Journeys Beyond Scene

“Their hobnail boots clattered and struck up sparks from the pavement, while their waterproof ‘slickers’ stank of linseed oil and stale woodsmoke… Tramping men were disdained as members of the ‘The Great Unwashed’, while females were viewed with open suspicion, snubbed, and given a wide berth on public transport.”

— Tony Nolan, Tararua Tramping Club


“When Barth came to account for the dearth of ritual … or of any rooted belief — he concluded that the journey itself was the ritual, that the road to summer uplands was the Way, and that the pitching and dismantling of tents were prayers more meaningful than any in the mosque.”

— Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines


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There was one entry that stood out. The date was December 24; the location was Penn Creek Hut, some five hours into Tararua Forest Park. It was a party of one. In the Visitors’ Book under ‘Purpose of Trip’ were just two words: “Avoiding Christmas.”

Our party was four. We’d left Wellington on Saturday morning, headed north up the coast to Otaki, putting along in a small brown van.

I flicked through the pages of the hut’s Visitors’ Book. It was a small building, painted green like the bush in which it sat, on a river flat in the fog, its roof and chimney red, corrugated iron, and a fire that wouldn’t start. It felt remote, miles from civilisation. What was our purpose? I wrote: “Tramping.”


There are more than 950 backcountry huts in New Zealand, the legacy of years of people going outdoors, leaving the towns and cities, and heading for the bush. Not all have been avoiding Christmas — but avoidance is part of the mix.

Tramping, as New Zealanders use it, means “a recreational activity involving walking over rough country.” It began with the early settlers, born of necessity and in often inhospitable terrain — “walking with purpose” as Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean describe it in their book, Tramping: A New Zealand History. Of course, there were those before them, but one suspects that for Māori the forest and hills had different significance, not the obstacles feared and fought by those of Victorian England, but as a part of them: home.


Back at Otaki Forks the car park was full. There’d been a number of different groups on the trail — parents and their two kids, a tourist couple, four more like us, and a lone figure in gators, powering past as we looked at the view, out for a night in the wild. For most their destination was Kime Hut — first come, first served, as so many backcountry huts are — built in 2014, with 20 beds. Good odds, but we were after something different.


In other countries, “tramp” was a put down, an insult derived of capital: those who don’t have. “Tramps” had emerged in the early days of industrialisation, born of casual labour and the marginalisation that came with it — they were known euphemistically in England and Wales as “gentlemen of the road.” But not every transient wanted work. The word’s origin was Germanic, from trampen: to walk heavily, to stamp. There was a philosophic component, romanticism beyond economics.

By the 1920s “tramping” had entered the New Zealand lexicon and was in common usage, appearing in a number of different publications, its preference over the British “rambling” or America’s “hiking” perhaps a clue as to its purpose. In the reduction of life to its simplicities was a reconnection: to a deeper time than that which haunted the cities in the late 1800s — the wave of settlement that followed the land wars eradicating much of the lowland forest, and the bush that remained suddenly all the more precious.

In both Otaki and Greytown separate committees were established, their goal that of access to the Tararua Ranges, for the purpose of “scenery and aesthetic appreciation.”


As we wound our way up and away from the river, the bush started to close in. It was almost still pasture in the lowlands, small pockets of replanting, regenerating bush on the edge of the forest, mānuka and mamaku, tree ferns and scrub, some small kahikatea, and a broad gravel path. We looked back down to Otaki Forks, the meeting of two rivers where the track begins, rewarewa reaching above the canopy, the sun high and hot.

First officially protected in 1954, Tararua Forest Park is billed as “the largest conservation park managed by DOC in the North Island.” Its peaks and gullies straddle the land between Horowhenua-Kapiti and the Wairarapa, a remarkable swathe of bush and high tops, huts and mud tracks — but a playground it is not. The range acts as a magnet for heavy weather and is notorious for the speed at which conditions can change, often with deadly effect.

We talked about what you’d do, the need to get down out of the weather, to stick together, to have been prepared. How hard it was to stay calm in moments of stress, the clusterfuck of poor planning and bad luck that produced “survival situations.” How easy it was to make the wrong choice.


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The idea of landscape as “scenery” was a new one, imported at the time of settlement and soon elevated to identity. New Zealand had “the most beautiful scenery in the world,” a constant source of pride and the basis for what has become our biggest industry.

But as Geoff Park writes, it wasn’t always this way. Such thought takes a distant view of nature, spiritually detached — there as painting, now photos — something of which you aren’t a part. The “picturesque scene” provides the means by which to subsume nature, the roads that take us in always there for our return: exit but not escape.


Field Hut appeared and we stopped for a break, the relentless uphill taking its toll and there still a long way to go. Built in 1924 by the Tararua Tramping Club, Field Hut “is the oldest surviving recreational hut in the Tararua Ranges.” Named after its benefactor, Willie Field MP, representative for Otaki for more than 35 years and “a tireless advocate” for opening up the mountains, the hut is rumoured to be haunted by a ghost called Cecil, one of those lost to the snow.

A boy in a fleece t-shirt stood on the porch outside, sawing branches for the fire. “How’s it going?” I asked. “Yeah, good,” he said, sawing away. “Not too many people round.”

We passed him in the bush up the path, pulling another branch out of the undergrowth. Stocking up firewood was one of the rules. You never knew who’d have to use it.

Guy asked him if he knew what the track was like towards Penn Creek. He looked up, “Ah dunno — I mostly just go round these ways.” Round these ways. His answer stuck in my head, turning over and over as we walked, us of the restless nature, the search for new.


More than 680 huts and shelters were built in the years between 1957 and 1972, with more than 4,000 kilometres of tracks joining them. For some it was too much. The New Zealand Alpine Journal complained of “the imperceptible whittling away of solitude”; and, several years later, New Zealand’s “Wilderness Areas” were created — not a single hut or built track among them. It was part of what Americans call the “recreation opportunity spectrum.” There were a few spectrums involved.

The years of World War II had been a boon for New Zealand’s introduced deer, and by its end their numbers and the impact they were having on the bush was sufficiently high to justify a large-scale eradication project. It was to this end that many of our backcountry huts were built, the idea of parks as places without people failing, and the scene they preserved at risk again.


On we walked, the moss thick and hanging, the air ever colder. I thought about the ritual of being in bush, the connection that had built these paths, these huts and those that had returned to them, time after time. How there was a paradox at play in conservation, a division received and recreated: the wilderness and us, humanity as distinct from nature. The scene.

I thought about hunters and the world they worked in, killing to preserve the bush. How erosion of wilderness in its empty sense actually helped save it. The work they had done so I of city-birth could walk and know these hills, the tight packed forest and its hanging moss, the cold wet air and all it whispered.

There’s no pulling us from the world.

We passed a dead tree, decaying on top of itself in the gloom, like our elders, gone but still giving. I thought about the bird life that used to exist, the huia that had flown in these hills, the last one spotted in 1903. The flocks of more than a thousand kererū that had once chased the autumn berries, 1080 and DOC’s programme to boost kākā numbers, how death gives way to life.


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Down at the hut someone had left a tonic bottle half full of wine. There was a note: “Didn’t finish my wine, maybe you can use it — Andre.”

“I hate people who leave shit in huts,” said Guy, “just take it with you!”

It was different story later. Dinner was done and our goon sack lay empty, Andre’s gift welcomed and us all admitting that perhaps it was okay he’d left it, even if we did get his trash.

Fog sat heavy around the hut, a half moon casting eerie shadows as I pissed in the wet air. The valley was quiet. We’d got what we wanted: no one else at the hut, fantasies of terra nullius left undisturbed. I thought about the things we’d inherited, both here and in my head, the networks of huts and track, the legislative framework that preserved them, notions of “wilderness” and who it had removed. How, as Geoff Park writes, “nature-as-scenery is the domain of the visitor.” How the best kaitiaki are of a place.

I breathed deep, thought of those who’d built these tracks, the hours they must have spent, the hours people still spent, volunteering and trapping and tramping, what their sweat and commitment meant. The peace you got from bush. Down here, the scene seemed far away.

The river sang in the dark. It sounded like rain.


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