Endeavour and Adventure

An interview with Shaun Barnett

For almost 20 years Shaun Barnett has made his living from writing and photographing New Zealand’s wild places, a career built on his own love of the bush and mountains. He has written best-selling tramping guides, an introduction to New Zealand’s natural history and, together with Rob Brown and Geoff Spearpoint, a history of backcountry huts.

We asked him a few questions about a life spent outdoors.

How did you get started in tramping?

I did my first tramp in 1983, into the Ruahine Range, with a high-school friend, Michael Bennett, and his father, Arthur. We only walked 30 minutes or so into Triplex Hut, but I loved being there overnight, and wondered where the tracks beyond the hut led to. The following year another school friend, Daryl Ball, invited me on a youth group tramp to Kaweka Flats. It was a frosty winter night, and I remember sitting around the sparking fire underneath the Milky Way, yakking about life, the universe and everything. We were camped out under a large tent fly, and Daryl couldn’t find his sleeping bag, which meant he had a pretty shivery fitful sleep. In the morning, much to everyone’s hilarity, we found another guy had been accidently using it for his pillow. However, an Outdoor Pursuits Centre course in my sixth form year (1985) was probably the key moment when I decided that I wanted to lead an outdoor life, and began regular tramping with a few like-minded friends.

Being inexperienced, we made lots of mistakes, sometimes really fundamental stuff. Like being over-ambitious on how far we could get in a weekend, going terribly under-equipped, and at times not having much safety margin. But we learnt fast. Getting caught out in winter with no shelter, no sleeping mat, no billy or burner (all Kaweka Huts had billys then, and we always cooked on the wood stove) was one of those learning experiences. On another occasion, we learnt that pumping up your tyre tubes before getting to the river was not a great idea. We’d thought we’d been smart by avoiding the need to carry a pump, but on the tramp in the tyres got caught between the trees, and only half of them stayed inflated. Plans to tube down the river had to be shelved.

Writing can be a difficult way of paying the bills in New Zealand, yet I understand you’ve been doing it fulltime for over a decade now. Can you tell us about the decision to quit the day job to work fulltime as an outdoors writer and photographer?

For several years in the early to mid-1990s, I worked for the Department of Conservation, firstly doing fur seal and kiwi surveys on the West Coast, then doing possum control in the Waikato. At the same time, I’d begun selling a few photographs to Craig Potton Publishing calendars, Macpac catalogues and also had a few pictures accepted into Colin Monteath’s Hedgehog House photo library. By 1996, this has turned into a small but regular extra income to supplement my modest DOC salary. I had plans to travel with my partner (now wife) Tania, but when she got her first full-time job, we decided to delay the trip for a year. I’d had enough of killing possums, and was finding it too hard to manage full-time work as well as my other interests, so decided to use some of my savings to take a year off to develop my photography and writing.

It was a naïve and possibly foolhardy decision; I had no idea how hard it would be, but really at the time I had nothing to lose. We lived very inexpensively, flatting with others in Hamilton; I had some savings, and on the strength of having two articles accepted for publication, decided I’d become a full-time writer/photographer. One of these was a tramping article for Wilderness, and the other one I co-wrote with a DOC colleague on kaka for New Zealand Geographic.

After spending eight months travelling in Alaska, Canada and South America in 1997/98, we returned to New Zealand, where Tania got a job in Wellington. We’ve lived here ever since, sharing roles working and, since 2001, parenting. Being self-employed, and working from home means good flexibility (with the exception of deadlines) so I’ve been able to adjust my work from part-time to full-time as need arises to fit in with Tania’s work and the arrival of our three children (Tom, Lee and Lexi).

Altogether, I’ve been lucky enough to scrape together an OK living out of it, helped by a few lucky breaks such as getting offered the job to edit Wilderness in late 1999 (which I did for 42 issues) and writing my first book, with Rob Brown, that same year. Classic Tramping was Rob’s inspired idea, following on from Craig Potton’s successful Classic Walks. After a stint working at Macpac, Rob was by then a sales rep for Craig Potton Publishing, and it was also him who also came up with the idea for North Island Weekend Tramps. Rob and I have shared many projects and it’s been a highly rewarding and creative friendship. We did a lot of tramping together in the mid-1990s, including to some wild, little-known places like Ivory Lake, Ice Lake and the Dragon’s Teeth. Despite doing similar work, we’ve always tended towards a co-operative model rather than a competitive one.

Financially, it’s been a struggle at times, but I’ve only thought about quitting once in 18 years, when New Zealand Geographic went bust (temporarily as it turned out), owing me $5000 for a story I’d spent weeks on. The liquidators took 99% of the money they could squeeze out, leaving nothing for the printer and contributors like me. This came on top of a repeat situation with Geo Australasia for about $1500. As this money was a significant part of my income that year, it was the low-point in my career. But Rob Brown and Colin Monteath sent me a package stuffed full of film with a card telling me keep at it. It was one of kindest and most encouraging things they could have done.

I get paid to edit the Federated Mountain Club’s quarterly Bulletin, which is a regular source of income, then there are articles for newspapers and magazine, plus book royalties and photo library sales. You have to be diverse.

You’ve been involved in some books about New Zealand’s tramping and outdoor heritage such as Shelter from the Storm about backcountry huts. Can you tell us why you think it’s important to document this side of the outdoors?

I think the most important thing about Shelter from the Storm was that it placed our huts in a national context. You can’t fully understand what is important, from a historical point of view, without a national overview. Lots of people within DOC have great regional knowledge, leading to some fantastic restoration work, but it’s not often someone has taken a bigger perspective. For example, we identified that the tent camp in the Cobb Valley was one of the very few remaining in the country, with the somewhat provocative caption that it badly needed restoration. Since then, a great DOC ranger from Golden Bay, John Taylor, has been planning full restoration of the tent camp. The thing about huts is that they are living, working examples of our backcountry heritage, they harbour so many of the great stories of past endeavour and adventure – as well as providing ongoing shelter to current generations of trampers, mountaineers, hunters and fishers.

When I first starting tramping I was largely ignorant of the history of the places I went to; like many young men I yearned simply for physical challenges, adventure and the comradeship of being in the hills with like-minded people. Now, I find my experiences deeply enriched by knowing some of the history. That’s a big motivation for recording stories in books like Shelter.

The tramping history I’m currently working on with Chris Maclean has given us opportunity to celebrate the pioneering efforts of people like Arthur Harper, Norman Elder, Mavis Davidson, Willie Field, Fred Vosseler and Les Molloy, all of whom shaped tramping’s development in the 20th century.

You’ve also been doing research for the TV show, First Crossings. How did you go about researching that?

Again, this is another thing that Rob Brown got me involved in. Rob was approached by Eyeworks director Greg Heathcote, who wanted to do a ‘Reality’ TV show on New Zealand adventures, but one with a bit more depth than usual: one that told of historic adventures and showed off the country’s wilder places. Jamie Fitzgerald and Kevin Biggar got the role of presenters with their background as adventurers. Rob called in a great group of people including Geoff Spearpoint, Phil Penney, Olly Clifton and Mark Watson to work as guides, and used Geoff and I as a sounding board for story ideas. My direct involvement has been with four of the more than 20 episodes; on the 1919 Motu River descent, as fixer for an episode about the 1933 Sutch Search in the Tararuas, and recently on two nineteenth century shipwrecks in the subantarctic Auckland Islands.

We’ve been incredibly lucky with weather and conditions for most of the episodes, and at times it even felt like Huey was playing the game so we could tell these stories. For example, when filming in the Tararuas last November, we had brilliantly fine weather for filming the part about the Sutch party’s tramp over the tops, but when we were later that afternoon filming a scene about traversing the Broken Axe Pinnacles, the weather turned suddenly, with hail, heavy rain and dropping temperatures – which was an almost perfect parallel to that experienced by the original Sutch party. By tracing their route, and examining their decisions, we were able to refute many of those who made unjustified criticisms against them in the 1930s. They did incredibly well to survive their two-week ordeal in the Waiohine River gorges, but the fact they made the first traverse down the river got lost in the controversy over the search. Never have I learned more forcefully that you have to understand the landscape to understand what a tramping or climbing party went through.

You’ve also written a number of tramping guides. What’s your favourite track or part of the country?

If I had to name my tramping turangawaewae, there would be three: the Kaweka and Ruahine Ranges, where I first fell in love with the bush and mountains, and the backcountry of Nelson, where I lived for several summers, and have spent countless other holidays. But then again, I love Tongariro, Rakiura, the West Coast, the Aspiring country and Whirinaki/Te Urewera. Almost impossible to name a favourite trail, but perhaps the good old Orongorongo Track, for its wonderfully diverse bush, and the fact it’s been a place I’ve done so much tramping with Tania and the kids.

I understand you’re now working on a history of tramping in New Zealand?

Chris Maclean and I have finished the text, which has been edited and are now at the exciting phase of design and photograph selection. It’s due out late this year. Both of us were surprised at what a huge topic it was, partly as we’ve taken a very broad view, delving back into the nineteenth century to see how Maori, surveyors, explorers and prospectors laid the groundwork for what would become twentieth century tramping practices and tracks. Historian friends Graham Langton and Jock Phillips have been hugely helpful.

Researching it has been fascinating, but it was a real challenge to weave a strong narrative through such a great span of decades and topics. We were overwhelmed at times by the depth of material, and had to leave lots of things out, but we’re confident we’ve produced a very readable history that should have wide appeal. Trampers have contributed a great deal to New Zealand culture, ranging from mapping to exploring, hut-building and track-cutting, fighting for the establishment of national parks and also acting as watchdogs against exploiting our wild places. We trampers should be proud of this heritage, and celebrate the way it has evolved into a distinctive sub-culture of New Zealand.

Any ideas what the next project down the track might be?

Medium-term: I’m halfway through a history of forest parks, which has been on the backburner while working on Shelter and the tramping history. Long-term: I have a few other books planned, including one about traversing the Southern Alps. I’ve also been working on a children’s novel, set in a futuristic Wellington. Writing fiction has been wonderfully liberating; it’s just me and the keyboard, not boxes of research notes and piles of books and pernickety pedants teetering over my subconscious.


Hi - I'm interested in knowing more and perhaps accessing some of the film footage of the expedition into the Tararuas to follow the extraordinary expedition the Sutch party made in the 1930's down the Waiohine River - I've read a few accounts of the story and have tramped in some areas of the park that the Sutch party travelled through. Can you please advise where film footage or recent accounts of travels can be obtained

Hi Peter, I've forwarded your message on to Shaun. Cheers.

The filming we did for the Sutch Search will appear in the TV documentary First Crossings later this year - probably July or August. If you don't know the show, here's a link. http://tvnz.co.nz/first-crossings/index-group-4941278 The other sources of information about it are in Chris Maclean's book Tararua, The Story of a Mountain Range (1994). Wellington tramper Mike McGavin also researched all the newspaper articles on the search and collated them on his blogsite Windy Hilltops. http://www.windy.gen.nz/index.php/archives/498 Hope that's helpful, Cheers, Shaun Barnett