Polity by Rob Salmond


Leaving only footprints

I went tramping this past weekend. A quick overnight jaunt with a friend up an ill-frequented Tararua river valley. In a sunny summer weekend, we saw only four people in two days.

We got lost a few times, shared a hut with a French fisherman and a couple of world-class snorers, bathed in a butt-numbing river, and aired our views on politicians from Judith Collins to Donald Trump, movies from Avatar to The Road, Lego sets from 80s fire stations to 21st century Darth Vaders, to and a host of our other obsessions, too.

I went away earlier in the year, too, camping at the back of a farm, using a stream as an automatic beer-chiller, and following a sparsely marked creek-bed track up the Rimutakas’ only mountain, all within 25 kms of downtown Wellington.

I wish I could do it more.

Tramping is one of the great bits about living here again. For me, it’s something that makes New Zealand feel like a home. When I lived in the US, I tried to explain “tramping” to my friends a couple of times. From the name, they thought it was a euphemism for seeking out prostitutes. From there, the pitch was assuredly doomed.

It’s such a New Zealand thing to do, tramping. Even though plenty of countries have hills and tracks and people blundering around on them, the tramping culture around New Zealand, especially the etiquette around shared huts, is very much our own.

For quite a few Kiwi kids, it’s also a place of great bonding with their parents. It’s a place where Mum or Dad start to become friends and mortals, rather than authority figures.

Some of my best adolescent moments with my Dad came in the backcountry.

Dad will admit he’s never been a gourmet cook. But, out and about, he tried to teach me backcountry haute cuisine. Often it involved a lot of potato flakes, Hutton’s Double Cheese Sizzlers, or freeze-dried lamb and peas, but sometimes we got a bit adventurous.

Our showoff specialty was the “River-Chilled Sara Lee,” which involved carefully balancing a packet-mix cheesecake inside a dry bag, moored in a suitable a chilly stream. The success rate was only about a quarter, but when we got it right we were the envy of the hut.

Another time Dad tried to teach me how to cook mussels, which was a great idea except he had no idea how to cook mussels. We paddled around the shore in Pelorus Sound gathering the biggest, oldest mussels we could find. Because they’re bigger! That was mistake 1. Then we steamed then until they opened. Then we threw the mussels in with some Continental Pasta and Sauce – Al Fredo if I’m not mistaken – and simmered them for 10 minutes. Mistakes 2 and 3. Mistake 2: Cheese and shellfish. Mistake 3: Drastic overcooking!

The next day we decided to marinate the mussels in some scotch. Because maybe that’s why they were tough the previous day. Mistake! They went even more horribly tough. In disgust, we threw them out onto the ground.

Soon, a weka came by and ate one. He got instantly, utterly drunk. He tried to run away, but he couldn’t away– he just kept running at a bank and tumbling over backwards. Poor weka. Soon he was asleep in the middle of the campsite, and stayed there until we went to bed. When we woke the next day he was gone, hopefully on the walk of weka shame home.

Not all our trips revolved around murdering cuisine. We ranged more widely than that. But across the twenty or so tramping trips I’ve done with my Dad, I learned much of what I know about him. Not as “my Dad,” but as “him.” It’s such a formative thing.

One of my own goals as a Dad is to get my girls enthused about the backcountry. Every time I take Miss-The-Elder for a walk, it’s “practice tramping.” I’m hopeful she’ll come to share my passion, and Miss-the-Younger will get into it, too. 

It does worry me a bit that all the urbanization and automation and technological brilliance in our society could dull our kids’ enthusiasm for their national backyard and its simple pleasures. It’s so special, and it deserves to be both enjoyed and protected.

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