Voices from the past  Preserving in Perpetuity

“I am acutely conscious every time I get in the hills that someone had to fight to save that experience for me.”… A 2010 opinion piece from then FMC President Richard Davies.

I am a child of the 1980s, and the first child of the 1980s to assume the Presidency of FMC. The year 1980 also marked the birth of the second National Parks Act. In section four, some beautifully crafted words capture about 200 years of thinking about the mountains and wild places of Earth. The Act’s purpose is ‘…preserving in perpetuity as national parks, for their intrinsic worth and for the benefit, use, and enjoyment of the public, areas of New Zealand that contain scenery of such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful, unique, or scientifically important that their preservation is in the national interest.’

Those words feel timeless, but they are younger than me, and only ended up in legislation because of the efforts of people who loved these places too and in many cases had finished their time in the hills before I was even born. I will never know what experiences they had under japara and canvas. They never had a choice to activate a personal locater beacon or to debate the merits of merino versus polypropylene. Yet we have trudged – and even run – across the same hills. I love the history that has soaked into the grain of our mountain clubs, and that binds my generation to the trips and experiences of earlier times.

I am acutely conscious every time I get in the hills that someone had to fight to save that experience for me. Whether I am up the tributaries of Lake Manapouri, packing a heavy swag through one of our wilderness areas, or slogging into Waitewaewae Hut on a steaming Friday night, I am walking through the history of advocacy for recreation and conservation in New Zealand.

My first tramp was to the Tauherenikau Valley in Tararua Forest Park, sometime around 1987. I was a child then, but the Department of Conservation was a newborn. Suddenly the people who cared for our land, day to day, had a mission, and legislation that let them care. There was – and is – so much promise in a Department charged with conserving our land for present and future generations. Of course I was oblivious to this fundamental change in how we look at our wild places. As I stood in the Tauherenikau Valley, entranced by the sights and smells and noises, I simply wanted to return, to look around the next bend.

But somehow I didn’t make it back into the hills until a decade later, in the shadow of Cave Creek. A bunch of mates and I walked from Arthur’s Pass to Nelson over 15 days. We had no experience, poor equipment, and not much food – but by God we had fun. Teamwork, camaraderie, laughter – and arguments – every day. We camped most nights; we didn’t even want to see huts, or people – we yearned to believe that we were the first ones there. With its tidy trails, Nelson Lakes felt civilised, but we were astonished by the unexpected beauty of Mt Richmond Forest Park and fell in love with Porters Hut. Nelson was always a pretty arbitrary goal, and we were all surprised to find ourselves walking along the Waimea highway at midnight after 15 days in the hills and 16 hours since departing our fly-camp in the Right Branch Wairoa. By the end of the trip, we felt we were getting an eye for the country. I was hooked. Again.

That trip taught me two things. Firstly, if we could put a man on the moon, then a better pack than the Mountain Mule surely must exist; and secondly, if I wanted to get to more places I’d need better skills. So at the beginning of this century I joined the Victoria University of Wellington Tramping Club (VUWTC). I’d been to their meetings before but was too shy to join. I wanted to tramp, desperately, but didn’t feel confident to join a club. I wonder how many people like that are out there today?

As well as joining VUWTC, I started recording all my trips. My diary shows that from 1 Jan 2000 (Tongariro National Park in rain) to 31 December 2009 (passing through the Rainbow Conservation Area on the only day without rain) I spent 880 days in the hills. Like everyone, I always wish I could do more.

Going in to the hills with a few maps and enough food to cover some ground and get places is my first love – just enjoying being there. The more obscure the place the better. When the founder of FMC, Arthur P Harper was poking around in South Westland with the explorer Charlie Douglas, New Zealand was a small, young country. We were short of technology and the landscape could suffocate us. But for a child of the 1980s, technology is pervasive and we could put humans – and our ice cream carts – into every corner of New Zealand if we cared to.

I can only enjoy a sense of wilderness because of careful administration and a balancing of competing interests. Some people might describe me as a back-country literature geek. Pride of place on my bookshelf is the proceedings of the 1981 Wilderness Conference, a pamphlet arguing why the Red Hills should be part of Mt Aspiring National Park, and Freedom of the Hills. It was this attraction to the work of
FMC that led me naturally onto the executive several years ago.

Statistics indicate that interest in tramping, camping and the outdoors is at an all-time high. More people than ever want their own outdoor adventure; but often quite a circumscribed adventure. It feels like more people are doing a smaller set of trips, trips defined by guidebook authors and Internet sites rather than their imagination. In many regards the private sector has supplanted the role of clubs in providing information. This has been accompanied by a steady trend towards the mercantilisation of adventure. Rather than join a club and build up skills through practice and observation, today more people than ever ‘buy’ an experience.

This passion for our parks and outdoors is welcome, even if at the end of the day there is roast lamb and a cheeky Sav rather than pemmican and peas. However, we must be careful that we don’t lose sight of the principles at the front of the National Parks Act. The more we pick out a few small tracks, and focus on ‘destination management’, and iconic sites the more we impose our human values on the mountains. We stop looking after these places in the interests of leaving them alone, and start loving them to death.

As we elevate some places within parks because they are icons in their own right, we also open the way for the meme of low-value land. We’ve heard this before. When FMC was set up, they called it ‘wasteland’, and at that time it was contrasted with Milford and Mount Cook, which were ‘iconic’ and ‘good for tourism’. Limiting access to both could be justified because the country needed the money.

More prosaically for FMC, the mercantilisation of adventure has seen SPARC cease funding FMC, because advocating for and supporting volunteers to get out there is no longer seen as important as funding fee-paying or professional recreation. The loss of SPARC money, while not crippling, is significant to FMC. But putting naked self interest to one side, it surely marks a low water mark for outdoor recreation in the country that has produced some of the greatest amateur adventurers in the world. No wonder they no longer call it the Hillary Commission.

SPARC has spoken: grabbing some friends and getting out there is not worthy of their support. But of course we know it is. One only has to pick up one of the excellent club newsletters or journals to understand what buzz there is around tramping and climbing. FMC members, and our friends from other recreational groups, are out every day of the week, tramping, climbing, hunting, paddling, cycling and running through the hills. New Zealanders enjoying their place.

I’m committed to harnessing that energy, as others have before me for the last 80 years. Because it is that energy and passion for our wild places that will show others why the Mokihinui, the Hurunui, the beech terraces of the Inangahua and the Morgan gorge, to name but a few, are worth far more alive than dead.

(This opinion piece was first published in the FMC Bulletin – August 2010)

Wilderlife