God’s own

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I didn’t grow up tramping, and I started because of a Great Walk. Tramping had seemed like something you couldn’t learn about—you had to be initiated by someone who already knew how to do it—but the Great Walks simplified things. I picked the Routeburn because it had the nicest pictures of mountains. I thought 32 kilometres was a long way, and I didn’t know what to eat or wear or bring.

That trip taught me what I should have eaten and worn and brought. It taught me that 32 kilometres isn’t far, that walking all day in the rain isn’t bad, and that the people you meet in huts are some of the best around.

What I did grow up with was religion. As my devotion to Christianity waned, the time I spent outside grew, and looking back, I can see that they performed similar functions in my life.

I appreciated Christianity for the reminder, every Sunday, of what is essential. For the way it brought me face to face with my failings and my values. For the reminder that human connection is fundamental to life.

We don’t have a lot to remind us of what is essential, and tramping is about simplicities—only after 20 kilometres in the rain do I truly understand the worth of a cup of tea and a gingernut.

The outdoors strips you to the bones. It puts a dye trace on your failings and your values, and shows you when and how they emerge. It connects you with strangers—you can’t cross a fast creek in a rainstorm by yourself (and sometimes, you just have to wait).

In Alain de Botton’s book The Architecture of Happiness, the British philosopher writes that cultures create buildings, objects and art that capture qualities those cultures lack—light-heartedness, perhaps, or openness.

“We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them,” he writes. “We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need—but are at constant risk of forgetting we need—within.”

If we’re drawn to places because we seek to inwardly resemble them in some way, then New Zealanders need something about the outdoors. Our individualism needs a reminder of the importance of others. The artificial pace of urban life needs the human pace of walking. And we seek those reminders more often in the outdoors than in religion. Last year, more of us went on a day tramp than regularly attended church.

We don’t have Gothic cathedrals in New Zealand—structures that remind us that the scale of time far exceeds a human lifespan—but we have limestone karsts, coal seams, valleys carved by glaciers, and trees that were standing before the King James Version was translated.

According to a 2017 Sport New Zealand survey of 33,000 people, seven per cent of New Zealanders had been on an overnight tramp in the past year. That’s more than three times as many people as played rugby. It’s more than played soccer, basketball, netball, bowls or cricket. (Tramping skews male, and vastly more Pākehā take part than any other ethnic group.)

There are a lot of people who probably would like tramping, but are prevented by circumstance, or by the fact they haven’t done it before.

So I want a Great Walk on every other ridgeline. I want people going door to door asking, “Have you tried tramping?” I want Great Walks to be cheaper, and I want them to be nearer major population centres.

Two weeks before this issue went to print, I walked the southern third of what will become our tenth Great Walk. The track on the tops of the Paparoa Range isn’t finished yet—there’s only a poled route that would have daunted me a decade ago. On the tops are tawny alpine meadows covered in tussock, the ridgeline dropping away to the sea on one side, the Southern Alps on the other.

That morning, I crossed paths with photographer Neil Silverwood and his partner Lauren Kelley going the other way, returning from taking the final photographs for this issue’s story. (Lauren is on the cover.) At the end of the day, returning to Ces Clark Hut, I realised my friend and I were the only people on the range. And as the sunlight slanted low over the ocean, turning the tussock into spun gold, I felt terrifically wealthy, then greedy, that we were the only people there to see it.

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