Tararua Love Song

Reading The Tararua Book

I once saw a news story about up and coming creative types that referred to them using the word ‘slashies.’ It was supposed to be a shorthand for people self-labelled as photographers/writers/designers, that sort of thing. But these cultural jacks of all trades are nothing new as the late John Rundle’s biography proves. As well as writing books, he was a professional photographer for many years and a water colourist. But his talents went beyond the visual arts. He taught himself the guitar and performed folksongs at Wellington’s bohemian Monde Marie coffee bar.

All of these skills he brought to his most famous creation, The Tararua Book. The text and photographs are his, and he brought a painter’s eye to his descriptions of those mountains: ‘Various tones of olive-green, with a hint of burnt sienna and the occasional splash of red.’ It is also a love song of sorts, a ballad for the Tararuas. And like the best songs, there’s a note of the blues. Rundle is honest about their faults, admitting that these aren’t necessary the best mountains in the country, just the ones he’s come to know best. He admits they can be ‘scruffy’, even ‘a green hell’ to some. The photographs aren’t postcard pristine, but of rugged and raw nature. In the telling he also reveals some of his own idiosyncrasies, his grudge against track building comes up on several pages, see for example page 24: ‘Nowadays these ridges have good tracks on them and the mystery is gone.’

But before he was a photographer, painter or singer, Rundle was a tramper. ‘A man who belonged to the mountains,’ writes Geoff Spearpoint in an obituary. As a result the book shows the variety of landscape and experience to be found in those 3,168 square kilometres of bush: misty bush, the wind stunted forest near the tops, a man in a holey jersey reading a paperback western in a hut. After thirty years of tramping Rundle knew the Tararua Ranges so well, that now, another thirty years after it was written, his book is still the next best thing to going there.