Mourning the loss of a colourful outdoor character

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Monday, 23rd December 2013 Written by Shaun Barnett
In December the outdoors community lost one of its most colourful characters when Tony Gates died.

An avid tramper, skier, hunter, fisher and climber, Tony packed several lifetimes of activity into his 54 years, and provided inspiration to all who knew him. Born in Wellington into an outdoors family, Tony grew up tramping and skiing, setting a pattern he was to continue for the rest of his life. His parents, John and Edith Gates, had four children, Tony, Peter, Jenny and Sue. They bought a hut, Shalimar, in the Orongorongo Valley, and Tony had many formative outdoor experiences there, a place he loved – so much so that he and friends made a red flag with ‘Orongorongo’ written on it in huge letters, which they flew on trips further afield.

After completing a science degree in Palmerston North during the 1980s, Tony continued to live in the city, and there worked for the regional council, and later the Nature Heritage Fund. He also joined the Palmerston North Tramping and Mountaineering Club (PNT&MC), and quickly became one of its most active members. When the club granted him life membership in 2013, fellow member Terry Crippen recalled: ‘Occasionally we would have to rein in Tony’s enthusiasm!’

His favourite stamping grounds were the Rimutaka, Kaweka, Ruahine and Tararua Ranges, but he also tramped, climbed, rafted and hunted widely around New Zealand. In addition, he developed a strong affection for the mountains and people of Argentina, which he visited several times.

Perhaps Tony’s unquenchable enthusiasm for the outdoors can best be illustrated by a winter trip in the Lake Sumner area. Geoff Spearpoint and I had arranged to meet Tony at Hurunui Hut. He arrived by mountain bike, laden with food for several days and gear that included cross-country skis, a rifle and tramping pack. The following day, we climbed up an overgrown track onto the snowy tops of Macs Knob. Tony lugged both his rifle and skis, and became probably the first person to ski the very limited tops. And he’ll probably be the last. I doubt anyone else will have sufficient passion to overcome the poor effort-to-enjoyment ratio required for those few minutes of skiing. I also remember great days tramping the Sawtooth Ridge, tubing the Otaki River, and crossing the Bracken Snowfield.

Tough and resilient, Tony loved challenges, and would not shirk hard work, bad weather or rough going when an adventure loomed. In this vein, he strongly identified with the sub-alpine shrub leatherwood. Many other trampers find this plant abhorrent, but Tony admired its ability to cope in a harsh environment. Little wonder he labelled his photographs with the by-line ‘Leatherwood Lenz’.

As well as being a real character, Tony was a loyal friend and generous man. He always brought gifts when visiting me, including venison steaks and relish, or sweet treats and merino beanies for the children. In a hut, he was constantly stoking the fire, making brews, cutting firewood, or sharing a range of goodies for which he had amusing names. Pistachio nuts were ‘yum yums’, wholegrain mustard was ‘goose shit’ and once he offered a waking tramper a handful of dried pineapple with the words ‘have some arseholes’. Tony’s pet names extended to localities, and included ‘Bullet Basin’ (a good place for deer in the Ruahines), ‘Customer Ridge’ (a Whitcombe spur known for thar), ‘Devastation Boulevard’ (a large slip in West Coast’s Wanganui Valley) and ‘Underpants Rapid’ (an exciting cascade in the Tararuas).

Tony’s interest in the outdoors extended to history, which led him to research the lives of his outdoor heroes Mavis Davidson, Norman Elder and William Howlett. He painstakingly transcribed hundreds of pages of hut book entries, from which he also compiled a collection of bush poetry and mountain verse. Aside from Shalimar, Tony’s favourite hut was undoubtedly Howletts in the Ruahines. As well as researching its history, Tony had a beautifully engraved metal hut book holder made, and installed it in the hut himself.

Some of his trip accounts, photographs and research found their way into articles he penned for newspapers, Wilderness, the New Zealand Alpine Journal and the FMC Bulletin. Despite his own writing ambitions, Tony willingly shared information with other outdoor authors. You only had to ask, and a great wad of photocopied pages would arrive in the mail. In this way Tony contributed to books like Mark Pickering’s Huts, Julia Bradshaw’s biography of Davey Gunn and my own Shelter from the Storm (co-authored with Rob Brown and Geoff Spearpoint).

Tony’s colourful personality was matched by an equally vibrant fashion sense. Who can forget the bright yellow nylon basketball shorts, the multi-coloured fleece top, the fluoro-orange camouflage Swanndri, or an assortment of brightly coloured headbands?

After he got sick in 2011, when a mystery illness impaired the function of his heart, Tony’s generosity remained undiminished. Although he could rarely get into the hills himself, he welcomed hearing about the trips of others. As friend Rob Brown commented, ‘In the last couple of years as he struggled with a heart that was big and strong on human warmth, but was letting him down in a mechanical sense, I never once heard him feel sorry for himself. Whenever I ran into him he would just be full of encouragement for all his mates to just get out and enjoy their time in the hills as much as possible because “you never know what’s around the corner”. It’s no easy thing to have that level of grace when something outside your control has taken away something that you love.’

Greatly supported by his loving wife Yvonne, Tony used his time of ill health to typically good purpose. He continued to edit the PNT&MC newsletter, which was always full of interesting historical snippets. And he published his outdoors memoir, Worn Out Boots, in which he wrote: ‘You may know the lovely pools of Kahurangi and Raukumara rivers, the snow capped peaks of the Tararuas and Ruahines, or mountains of the Southern Alps. On good weather days, there are no better places to be.’ At the book’s end, he paid tribute to lost friends, valuing their contribution to his life.

In November Tony had a heart transplant, in the hope of gaining a better quality of life. Despite the best efforts of Auckland Hospital medical staff, this was not successful, and complications resulted in his condition deteriorating seriously. In his last few weeks, he was in a coma, but did respond to certain things, as when someone mentioned the Orongorongo Valley. He died peacefully on December 18, surrounded by family. His brother Peter said Tony looked like he was dreaming of snoozing on the tussock tops.

Tony was an incredibly accomplished outdoorsman and a valued friend. I feel privileged to have known him. As friend Chris Maclean noted, ‘Inspiring his diverse activities was a person of singular originality. Tony showed how enthusiasm and energy can make a rewarding life. His passion was infectious and will be greatly missed – as will the friendship he gave to so many.’

Happy hunting in the great beyond Tony.
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