Shelter from the Storm: book review part two

Book review continued:

Shelter From The Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts

(Part two of a two part book review)

2012, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, NZ.

Text and most photographs by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown, and Geoff Spearpoint.

For part one of this review click here.  Following are some fascinating themes and stories that are skillfully elaborated in Shelter from the Storm, about New Zealand Backcountry Huts.

This book tells the story of how a geographically remote island nation came to create a robust international outdoor culture, and how a disparate collection of huts built for other purposes – I like the phrase infrastructure lying in wait — came to form the backbone of the world’s largest hut system.

This began in the form of pastoral huts built by sheep farmers (e.g. boundary keepers huts in the days before wire fences, and mustering huts to round ‘em up for shearing), mining huts (a succession of gold rushes, quartz, asbestos, etc.), and “culling” huts.  A fascinating aspect of NZ’s history is how self-inflicted ecological damage — in this case the introduction of deer, rabbits, pigs, and other non-native species — probably did more to foster NZ hut culture than any subsequent club or government actions.  In a nutshell, it became necessary to mount huge programs for culling (ideally exterminating) non-native invasive species to prevent further environmental destruction and competition with agriculture (10 rabbits eat as much grass as 1 sheep).  The cullers needed shelter and hundreds of huts were built all over the country by various government agencies.  Simultaneously, New Zealanders were developing a serious culture of tramping (what we call hiking and backpacking).  Many of the private pastoral huts and government owned “cullers” huts were left unlocked and trampers were welcome to use them.

How did this robust tramping culture originate?  The British introduced mountaineering to their colony in 1882 as part of an international movement to develop mountain recreation. They later created mountaineering clubs.  Initially these clubs were for men only and perpetrated the hierarchies and class distinctions of British society.  But NZ was a colony that gradually threw off the traces of Empire and moved beyond the British obsession with class to create an egalitarian culture.  Tramping clubs flourished beginning in the 1930’s with egalitarian values, an emphasis on making the sport affordable to all, and, like the Sierra Club and Appalachian Mountain Clubs in USA, broad conservation objectives:

“The encouragement of tramping, skiing, mountaineering, and camping in NZ, the fostering and developing generally of a greater love of the outdoors, the creation of an interest in the protection of the flora, fauna, and natural features of our country. (Mission of Taraura Tramping Club, 1919, Wellington, the first tramping club in NZ).”

As in other parts of the world, the number of hikers and hiking clubs expanded greatly in NZ the during the first half of the 20th century.  Working folks began to have access to public transportation, purchase cars, and work shorter weeks.  Women played an important part in starting and operating tramping clubs in NZ.  Clubs developed their own trips and began building their own huts.  The strong ethos of volunteerism engendered by these clubs has matured into a robust national volunteer network in support of National Parks, trail and hut maintenance, and the support of outdoor culture in NZ today.

Government policies in areas such as agriculture, mining, economics, land tenure, railroad development, and depression-era employment programs also played roles in nurturing the growth of tramping and hut culture.

Two policy arenas greatly impacting hut development were tourism and conservation.  NZ quickly realized that one of its most important assets is stunning natural beauty and a wide range of ecosystems contained in a relatively small area.  But it took six weeks for visitors to get there from Europe by steamer, they wanted to stay a while, and they needed support to experience scenic areas.  The establishment of a tourism department in 1901 was inspired by the success of spa towns and mountaineering destinations in Europe.  This was paired with inspiration from the establishment in the USA of the world’s first National Parks.  NZ’s first national park, Tongarrio, established in 1894, was the fourth in the world.  The government began laying out walking “tracks” and developing tourist facilities in the mountains that would allow visitors to walk on glaciers, scale peaks, and visit areas of remarkable scenic beauty.  The first track — the Milford Track (1889) — was quickly branded the “world’s finest walk”.  At about the same time, one of the first huts built for tourism by the government was Ball Hut above the Tasman Glacier.   International tourism grew from 5,333 visitors in 1903 to 20,000 by 1938.  Today NZ is a major international destination with 3.2 million international visitors in 2014.   It now has 9 “great walk” tracks plus thousands of kilometers of additional tracks criss-crossing the nation.   Today 70% of the trampers on the great walks are from foreign countries.  And NZ’s incredible network of tracks is dotted with 1,000 well-maintained backcountry huts.

One of the great pleasures in reading Shelter from the Storm is to learn how this early NZ impulse to international tourism gradually culminated in this remarkable hut system.  Over the course of a century it was shaped by citizen movements, government policies, the economic vicissitudes of the nation and the world, a wide range of social, political and cultural currents, and the creation of a wildly disparate collection of hut infrastructure lying in wait to be shaped into a system.

Located in Mt. Aspiring National Park, originally built by Otago Section of NZ Alpine Club, 1946-1949.

The culmination of these various, unrelated causes and conditions was the creation in 1987 of the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC).  Put in charge of 1/3 of the nation’s lands, and its forestry, tracks, 1,000 huts, bridges, lodges, etc., the DOC systematically set about creating the world’s largest coordinated hut and track system.  Despite limited funding and setbacks, such as the tragic Cave Creek platform collapse which killed 15 people, the DOC persevered.  With widespread support from environmentalists, trampers and their various clubs and organizations, but not without controversy, the DOC:

  • inventoried and assessed the condition of the huts (and other structures) it inherited,
  • gathered public input on major policy decisions,
  • repaired, replaced, or removed huts according to need,
  • re-branded eight high use tracks as Great Walks and added an ninth,
  • developed new safety standards, and increased emphasis on meeting (or introducing sensible flexibility if need be) existing building codes, fire codes, health and safety regulations, and gradually developed a “Code for Backcountry Huts”,
  • implemented improved management of huts, including hut inspections and hut maintenance plans,
  • developed five categories of huts (by number of bunks) and criteria for hut location, design, colors, size, and environmental impact,
  • developed simple and cost-effective national hut designs,
  • utilized new materials and construction techniques to address deficiencies,
  • built 100 new huts, mostly to replace existing huts, and
  • created a program of hut conservation and hut historians to document this rich history.

My appetite was whetted for more detail on the inevitable conflicts to resolve in unifying the pieces into a coherent system on public lands.  And the footnotes will lead me to other sources about how the DOC worked with concessionaires and the tramping community to resolve conflicts involving matters such as:

  • charging fees for huts and hiking,
  • the extent to which private interests can profit from use of public lands,
  • mitigating the environmental impact of huts and tramping,
  • the essential tension between providing access to the backcountry and preserving true Wilderness, and
  • the freedom of average citizens to walk on tracks managed by private companies (I really want to visit the sites of the Milford Track Freedom Walkers and Mintaro huts).
New Zealand Huts

Mintaro Hut, Associated with the historic 1966-67 Freedom Walks on Milford Track

Another theme is what these huts have come to mean to New Zealanders.  First and foremost, they are literally “shelter from the storm”: essential infrastructure in a maritime nation with a wide range of climate conditions, including frequently heavy and persistent rainfall in many parts of the country.  Beyond this, what strikes me is that this unique system of tracks and huts is reminiscent of the original vision that Benton MacKaye had for the Appalachian Trail: the creation of educational and cultural infrastructure for average folks to use in re-connecting with the natural world.  It has certainly done that for New Zealanders and for many international visitors. The huts have become destinations for re-creation for urban and rural folk alike.  They are places of convivial cooking, eating, resting, and visiting.  They are places where class distinctions do not matter and people mix easily.

While European huts resemble mountain hostels or hotels, most NZ huts are small, self-service, rustic backcountry accommodations.   You bring your own sleeping bag and food, and cook your own meals.   Their scale, design, operation and amenities are emblematic of the nation’s rugged outdoor culture.  In the NZ rural lexicon the term “No. 8 wire” (referring to the formerly ubiquitous fencing wire) signifies a cultural ingenuity that allows Kiwis to solve problems with limited resources, relying on their inventiveness and readily available materials.  Shelter from the Storm is a delightful, in-depth look at how NZ created its world-class hut and track system with No. 8 wire and lots of love.

To repeat: while conditions vary greatly among nations, most are working towards evolving sustainable recreation models for making accessible to the average citizen.  Few will or should try to replicate the NZ model; each nation evolve its recreation opportunities according to its own values and conditions.  But we travel, physically and intellectually, to better see and understand ourselves.  In the arena of recreation planning many countries can learn something about themselves from knowing about NZ’s story of:

  • egalitarian ingenuity in the utilization of infrastructure lying in wait,
  • creating an outdoor club culture strongly rooted in volunteerism and environmental values, and
  • blending these with tourism, recreation and conservation policies focused on environmental education and protection.

Through this review I am hoping to help bring this story to an American audience.  If you got this far in reading it and find the story compelling, recommend Shelter from the Storm to your library and/or buy a copy for a friend or for yourself!