After seven decades of tramping, Val Latimer still has plans for more.
If 86-year-old Val Latimer has a small beef with the mountains she loves so much, it’s a bit of an abstract one.
“As I get older, they get higher,” she says. “Or they seem to. The challenge to get to the top gets harder.”
But that minor quibble doesn’t stop Latimer getting out with her tramping club as much as possible. She lives in sunny Nelson and has just returned from a rainy trip to Golden Bay. “We cut the trip short,” she says. “It was wet but still lovely. That’s the gamble you take with tramping.”
Latimer was born in London and emigrated to New Zealand as a two-year-old, growing up in Wellington and beginning tramping at the age of 17. Her travels have taken her around the world, from hiking in Spain to the Grand Canyon, Canada, the Swiss Alps and to Great Britain, climbing Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and hiking the Cotswolds. At the age of 69, she went to Nepal and walked for 11 days to Annapurna Base Camp (4130m).
After 70 years, each new trip in the bush is as fresh as the first winter snow on Mt Arthur. She’s frugal, compassionate, considerate, a realist, and speaks with clarity and conviction about her life and her simple love of landscapes, a love that will never diminish with age.
Life’s a bit like that: when you stop finding beauty in the things you love you start to wither. Stop walking up hills and you’ll find yourself going downhill. Latimer has seen so many friends deteriorate in rest homes and it makes her sad. What makes her happy is staying active and meeting new people at the Waimea Tramping Club.
“The club has been wonderful,” she says. “They’re considerate and supportive. I feel very privileged. But I don’t want to hold anyone up.”
She needn’t worry about that, says club president Julian Edmonds. “She’s often up the front, with us young’uns struggling to keep up behind her!” And that’s not a platitude, either. Edmonds recalls a recent trip to the former United Mine, a copper mine near Richmond above the Roding River, where Latimer forged her way up the steep scree slope leaving the rest of the group in her wake. “She’s climbing up this trail of debris without a worry in the world and looking back as if to say, ‘what’s keeping you all?’.”
Latimer is the oldest member of the club and a much-loved person-ality. Club tramping is a social calling, and that’s one aspect that Latimer is drawn to.
“Val talks to everyone,” says Edmonds, “and takes a genuine interest in people’s lives, especially the newbies on their first trip. And at the end of each trip she always thanks the organisers in front of everyone. That simple gesture means so much.”
Latimer says that the Cobb Valley in Kahurangi National Park is one of her favourite places. “Fenella Hut is very special to me. It’s a memorial to a young woman (Fenella Druce) who was killed in a tramping accident.”
With no arthritis, and free of any hip or knee issues, Latimer has no plans to give up tramping any time soon. When not tramping or playing table tennis, she keeps her mind alert by doing crosswords and Sudoku puzzles. Her daughter Christine says that doing all these activities is the secret to living a long, healthy life. “Mum does everything, she’s quite amazing. Most of my friends’ parents are gone, but Mum has things worked out. People say she’s an inspiration. I just think she’s amazing.”
As for what’s next, Latimer has plans aplenty. “I’d like to go to Iceland, but the chances are looking pretty remote right now. So I’m thinking of the Chatham Islands. That’s one place in New Zealand I haven’t seen. I always said I’d save the last bits of New Zealand for when I couldn’t travel overseas. Well, now might be the time.”