The Celebrated New Zealand botanist Leonard Cockayne was one of the first to preach the benefits of swinging a boot in the Great Outdoors. “Mountains are the noblest recreation ground, the finest school for physical and moral training, a source of perfect health to those who visit them, and the place of all places for enlarging our minds by the study of nature in Nature’s greatest laboratory", he wrote in 1900.
More than a century on, few would deny the reality of what might be called ‘the wilderness dividend’. Or of New Zealand’s unrivalled qualities as a trampers’ paradise. It has spectacular scenery, the world’s best hut and track network, easy access, an absence of dangerous wildlife, and no population pressure. And, unlike the European Alps or the Himalayas, New Zealand’s mountains have no inns and few alpine settlements. This, along with a challenging topography and unpredictable weather, forces a defining self-reliance.
That list is courtesy of Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean, whose book Tramping: A New Zealand History charts the evolution of backcountry recreation. Drawing on personal experience, published accounts, notebooks and the photographs and recollections of fellow enthusiasts, Barnett and Maclean trace our growing love affair with wild New Zealand, beginning with the adventurous treks of the Anglican missionary William Colenso in the 1840s and culminating in the opening in 2011 of Te Araroa, a 3000-kilometre walking trail that stretches from Cape Reinga to Bluff.
It was inevitable, in such a young country, that missionaries, explorers, surveyors and fortune-hunters would kick off the whole enterprise by “walking with a purpose”— to borrow one of Tramping’s section headings. Among the best of them were the indomitable Charlie Douglas, whose knowledge of Westland was unsurpassed, and fellow explorer Arthur Harper. Both found time for fun—Douglas recording his pleasure at climbing an outlier of Mt Ragan in socks (his boots were not up to the job) and naming the prominence Stocking Peak, Harper noting the satisfaction both men got when, delayed by fog, they passed the time by dislodging large boulders and sending them crashing down the slopes. Pioneer Work in the Alps of New Zealand, Harper’s 1896 account of his exploits with Douglas, is considered the country’s first tramping book.
Many 20th-century trampers—prime ministers and labourers alike—saw themselves as successors to the early settlers: individuals as competent and at ease in the bush and mountains as they were at the beach. But it was nevertheless some time before tramping as a leisure pursuit was widely accepted. Perhaps this had to do with its apparent aimlessness, compared with activities such as exploring or hunting. Undoubtedly, it was also due to the appearance of the trampers themselves. As Tararua Tramping Club’s Tony Nolan wryly noted, “their hobnail boots clattered and struck up sparks from the pavements, while their waterproof ‘slickers’ stank of linseed oil and stale woodsmoke... Tramping men were disdained as members of ‘The Great Unwashed’, while females were viewed with open suspicion, snubbed and given a wide berth on public transport.”
In the 1950s and 60s, tramping entered a golden age, reflected in the writings of John Pascoe, Geoffrey Orbell and the Dunedin publisher Alfred Reed, whose walking tours on “Maoriland byways” were related in a series of popular books. The number of national parks quickly grew from four to 10 within a few years of the passing of the National Parks Act (1952), and the New Zealand Forest Service entered the game in 1954 with the first of many State Forest Parks—Tararua. During these years, access to the wilderness became more affordable and the government embarked on a massive programme of hut building, track cutting and footbridge construction. In 1960 alone, the Forest Service built an average of one backcountry hut a week, for the use of both deer cullers and trampers. Between 1957 and 1972, it chalked up 680 huts and shelters, 166 footbridges and cableways, and 4000 kilometres of tramping tracks.
Such was the success of all this activity that purists began to call for restraint, warning that the wildness of remote New Zealand was being tamed by over-development. The answer to what the New Zealand Alpine Journal called “the imperceptible whittling away of solitude” was the creation of ‘Wilderness Areas’, places free of huts and other amenities, without tracks or bridges or even the possibility of a helicopter drop.
Today, we have what the Americans call a ‘Recreation Opportunity Spectrum’— choices for experiencing the backcountry tailored to every need and ability, from fully formed paths to unmarked mountain routes. Cockayne’s noble recreation ground, great laboratory and training school has never been more accessible—or, given our increasingly urban and sedentary lives, more necessary.