Shelter from the Storm: The Story of NZ's Backcountry Huts - review

by gabeatkinson / 24 January, 2013
Those backcountry huts didn’t just build themselves, you know.
Chancellor hut

Many New Zealanders know the blessing of a backcountry hut in zero weather – the howling darkness outside and the huddled group inside, safe around the fire. But even on a sunny afternoon, the mere gaining of this end-of-day shelter after a long tramp in the hills has a satisfaction all its own.

For such people, the hut is a locus of love, and they’ll find Shelter from the Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts thrilling. Three of our best-known tramping authors have laid out the scattered history of the huts by way of essays and wonderful selections of historic photos. They’ve also singled out 90 existing huts, written their more specific histories and, lensmen all, they’ve capped each one with stupendous photographs.

Many other people will respond to the book for the insight it gives into a broader history. Sooner or later, the New Zealand backcountry touches most lives and the story of its hut network has become one of this country’s all-embracing sagas. As well as outlining the contributions of trampers and mountaineers, the book’s 10 essays detail the parts played by pastoralists, miners, deer cullers and, importantly, employees of various government departments who have debouched into the wilderness – from the Tourist Department of 1901 and the Department of Internal Affairs, the National Park Boards, Lands and Survey, the New Zealand Forest Service to, finally, from 1987, the more finely attuned Department of Conservation.

Government participation notwithstanding, the hut story is often an elusive folk tale of disobedient structures. In the wrong hands, the pictures and the story could have reduced to one of those Kiwiana books: the  tin shed as Kiwi icon, the laugh-aloud contrast of its vernacular construction with its sublime setting. Happily, the three authors head up a tramping culture that has always given due respect to those, mainly men, who hammered together these timber, tin and malthoid shelters deep in the hills. Page by page, the book names those who built or repaired the huts, and those who’ve used them. It’s full of anecdotes and includes a solemn accounting of some who’ve died as gales blew them, hut and all, over a mountain abyss, or whose riverside sanctuary was overwhelmed by flash flood.

At 2.7kg, this is a coffee-table book, but something more: a standout publication by  three committed authors who’ve researched over many years and produced a book that does justice to the energy, improvisation and dedication that has gone on for so long out there to make the hills safe.

SHELTER FROM THE STORM: THE STORY OF NEW ZEALAND’S BACKCOUNTRY HUTS, by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown and Geo Spearpoint (Craig Potton Publishing, $79.99).

Geoff Chapple is author of A Walking Guide to New Zealand’s Long Trail: Te Araroa. He is the Ursula Bethell Fellow at the University of Canterbury for the first half of 2013.
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