Book Review: Across the Pass – A Collection of New Zealand Tramping Writing

Selected by Shaun Barnett

Across the Pass is like a lolly scramble. It takes you in lots of directions and it’s sweet as. The focus is narrow, sure, but there’s a wide range of voices and genres, including, but not limited to, poetry, prose, song lyrics, diaries, articles, columns and a fair bit of humour. There are 100 pieces all up, and they span close to 200 years.

Shaun Barnett is a noted outdoor writer and photographer, but you don’t have to be a fan of his work, or of tracks, blisters and hut bunks to appreciate Across the Pass. As well as adventuring, it’s full of fascinating history, peppered with universal themes like companionship and empathy, and packed with exceptional writing. I found a lot to love, but here are a few of my favourites.

Blanche Baughan’s ‘The Finest Walk in the World’ (1916), a stone-cold classic account of walking the Milford Track. Famously, the editor of London’s Spectator added the title to Blanche’s work, which went on to become a catchphrase for the track that is still used today. Whatever. The woman could write. She compares foxgloves to “milky ox-lips”, for goodness’ sake.

Charles Heaphy’s 1847 account of traversing the coastal section of what later became the Heaphy Track with (and fully dependent on) the guides Kehu and Tau. It sounds bloody awful. At one point they get trapped between a cliff and a swollen river for two days, something Heaphy describes as “at once unpleasant and exciting”.

Rosemary McLeod’s Dominion Post column, in which her assertion that “at Armageddon one of the special tortures will be eating goat” sums up her feelings about tramping, and the outdoors, nicely.

Sam Hunt’s ‘A White Gentian’, one of the best break-up poems ever written. “Remember Ruapehu?” I’m not crying, you’re crying.