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January 2022 Issue
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Writings from the wild

Photo: Peter Laurenson

Tramping legend Shaun Barnett shares the inspiration behind his new book Across the Pass – an anthological collection of tramping literature.

What was your goal in collecting tramping writing into an anthology?

It was to show the diversity of the tramping experience and the ways people have expressed that diversity. Even if someone isn’t into tramping, I hope they would read the book and at least understand why people might want to do it. There’s that great comment from Geoff Spearpoint about it seeming like a purposeless eccentricity, so I guess I’m trying to answer that in some ways.

It’s a new book, but is it something you’ve been working on forever?

It’s really the book I wanted to have when I was starting to tramp as a teenager in the mountains of Hawke’s Bay. I really craved to read about other trampers’ experiences, but I couldn’t find any. I gradually realised that was out of ignorance, and there was a lot of stuff out there – I just didn’t know about it. When Chris Maclean and I wrote the tramping history (Leading the Way), we were quoting lots of trampers, but it was only a sentence here or paragraph at most, and I felt it screamed out that we needed fuller passages of people’s own words, because it showed the huge diversity of ways that people have described the experience, from explorers to modern times.

You’ve included works of historical explorers – how do you feel reading their accounts?

I feel a connection. Some people might question whether Māori tramping over Ka Tiritiri-o-te-Moana, the Southern Alps, in search of pounamu, or Arthur P. Harper exploring with Charlie Douglas on the West Coast, is tramping, but they had the same experiences confronting wild environments. They faced the same challenges. If you go off track as a tramper, in lots of ways the experience hasn’t changed. You might have a map, but on the ground, that counts for little when you’re trying to work out whether it’s best to go down to the river and fight enormous boulders or struggle through the bush. The problems of carrying weight, navigation and weather are all very similar experiences, so I think there is a really strong connection with those pioneers. 

Has writing about the outdoors changed the way you enjoy or experience it?

Profoundly. I think understanding the history of how people have travelled through landscapes, where they have travelled and the challenges they faced, really connects you to a place in a way that being completely ignorant of that doesn’t. I love reading about the history of these places and what’s happened. I find it an enriching experience. 

The book closes with your fictional story about an AI tramping companion. Is dependence on technology in the outdoors something that worries you?

Part of me worries that new technology will change the experience, but another part of me actually doesn’t worry about that at all. When PLBs first came out, I was sceptical, thinking it’s just another piece of junk you had to carry but I’m now a complete convert. We owe it to those who risk their lives and put in the volunteer time to search for us, to have that piece of equipment in our pack. And that’s morphing into InReach devices, where you can actually send messages. At one time that would have horrified me, but now I think if you’re going to be overdue, it gives you so many more options. So I certainly don’t think technology’s all bad.

Shaun Barnett is Wilderness magazine’s roving editor and Across the Pass can be purchased here. Subscribers receive a 10% discount.