Page 1: Biography
Davidson, Mavis Melville
Biologist, mountaineer, tramper, field ecologist
This biography, written by Rebekah White, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.
Mavis Davidson was a significant New Zealand mountaineer, a field ecologist and an international authority on sika deer. She made several notable ascents, leading the first all-women ascent of Aoraki/Mount Cook in 1953, at a time when women were excluded from many club expeditions. Davidson excelled throughout her life in male-dominated fields, in both her scientific research career and her personal interests, and was an enthusiastic tramper, skier, trout-fisher, hunter, and canoeist.
Mavis Melville Gedye was born on 10 February 1910 at Te Karaka, Poverty Bay, the seventh of nine children of farmer Thomas James Gedye and his wife, Dagmar Martha Melville Hansen. Her mother’s forebears were Norwegian, while her father’s came from Cornwall in the United Kingdom. Mavis was educated at Tokomaru Bay and later at Wairoa District High School. In 1925 she spent a year studying shorthand, typewriting and bookkeeping at Brain’s Commercial College in Auckland, after which she commenced a professional career as a typist and secretary.
On 3 April 1930, in Auckland, Mavis Gedye married Lewis Welton Hunt, a 24-year-old motor salesman. The couple moved to Wellington in the early 1930s, where Mavis joined the Tararua Tramping Club. She had very little tramping experience – her first weekend tramp was in the southern Tararua Range in 1934 – but became an immediate devotee. ‘I was bitten,’ she recalled. ‘Up through the bush, crossing rivers, sleeping under the stars, rushing into the tent if it rained – marvellous.’1 Soon she was participating in demanding club trips, part of a group of capable women mountaineers in the club. Her marriage to Lewis Hunt ended in the late 1930s, and on 25 August 1939, in Wellington, she married public servant William Ernest (Bill) Davidson, the Tararua Tramping Club’s chief guide.
Davidson’s secretarial career failed to provide the intellectual stimulation she desired, and she worked to channel her passion for the natural world into scientific study. She became a founding member of the Wellington Botanical Society in 1939, and the following year took up studies in botany and zoology at Victoria University College. In 1942, however, she set aside her studies to join the war effort. She joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, moving up the ranks to lieutenant, second in charge at Palmer Head, a gun battery guarding the entrance to Wellington Harbour.
Trampers’ activities were hampered by wartime petrol rationing, but Bill and Mavis found they could cram their gear onto their motorcycle, which was cheap and efficient. Mavis’s pack went in the pannier while Bill’s was balanced on the petrol tank. Both served in the country’s coastal defences, and on the rare occasions they were on leave at the same time they headed for the hills. Davidson later wrote that most of her wartime tramping was solo, sometimes with a rifle on her back.
Women trampers and climbers
Women trampers and climbers were relatively rare before the Second World War, due to concerns that women were physically unsuited to these rigorous activities, along with fears about young unmarried people socialising in remote and unchaperoned settings. Some tramping clubs banned women altogether, and the leadership of all was dominated by men. The war created leadership opportunities for women, with Davidson taking the position of treasurer in the Tararua Tramping Club. In 1942, she became the first woman to lead a club working party – clearing tracks to Field Hut and Waitewaewae Hut – and participated in the rescue of an injured tramper, which she documented for the club in a series of photographs.
These advances did not outlast the war, however, with leadership positions reverting to male trampers as they returned from military service. Despite her service to the club Davidson was repeatedly denied life membership, on the grounds that she was a divorcee. The honour was extended only to her husband Bill. Other frustrations followed. In 1946, Davidson signed up for a Tararua Tramping Club trip to the Hopkins Valley in Canterbury over the Christmas holidays, only to be told by the trip’s leaders, two returned servicemen, that she could not join them because ‘there might be some climbing’.2 Undeterred, Davidson instead made an attempt on Aoraki/Mount Cook later that summer, and traversed the Garden of Eden, a nine-kilometre-long ice plateau. The following Christmas, she led a 12-person tramping trip up the Rees Valley, north of Lake Wakatipu.
Davidson tramped extensively during the 1950s, co-authoring with Rod Hewitt two mountaineering guidebooks which also featured her photography. By that time she was recognised as one of New Zealand’s top climbers, but rarely joined Tararua Tramping Club climbing trips. At one point she considered forming a Women’s Alpine Club, but was persuaded instead to join the New Zealand Alpine Club, which had been open to women members since its inception in 1891. She organised many of her own trips, most notably the first women-only ascent of Aoraki/Mount Cook on 6 January 1953 with Doreen Pickens and Sheila MacMurray. In 1959, she led all-women parties to summit Tititea/Mount Aspiring and Mount Avalanche. At a welcome-home party for four Tararua Tramping Club members who had returned from a successful Himalayan expedition in 1953, she publicly asked why no women had been considered for the trip. She eventually trekked to Everest Base Camp in 1971 but was unimpressed by the experience. The area was too developed for her tastes. ‘I had thought Everest would be in really wild country,’ she said, ‘but native settlements exist up to 17,000 feet, and stone dwellings, not even tents. I’d rather tramp in the Southern Alps any time.’3
Sika deer research
Resuming her studies after the war, Davidson began work as a junior lecturer at Victoria University College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in science in 1946 and a master’s degree in zoology in 1950. She wrote her thesis on New Zealand mudfish. Davidson was finally able to give up secretarial work completely in 1958 when she joined the New Zealand Forest Service as a biologist, on the recommendation of Lucy Moore. She believed that she would not have been appointed without her strong tramping and climbing background. The same year, her husband Bill was seriously injured in a car accident. She cared for him until his death in 1990, nursing him through Alzheimer’s disease in his final years.
Davidson joined the Animal Research Section of the Forest Research Institute, the Forest Service’s scientific research arm, where she initially studied animal pests, conducting research on the use of the new poison 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate) in controlling possums. She joined a study looking at damage by red deer to the forest in the Tararua Ranges. When this study shifted to the South Island in 1962, she submitted a proposal to study sika deer, a pest species introduced in 1905. She would research sika for the rest of her life.
Davidson set out to learn the characteristics of sika deer: how they lived, how far they roamed, their impact on vegetation, and how they might be controlled. She spent long stints in sika territory, the Kaimanawa and Kaweka Ranges in the central North Island, mostly at a tiny hut in the Ōamaru Valley. By then she was in her mid-50s, a time when most of her colleagues were angling for more sedate laboratory work. Instead, she frequently spent 10 days a month in the field – up to three weeks during the rutting season – returning to Wellington between stints to check on Bill. She sought advice from deer cullers and wrote a booklet on sika biology with hunter Don Kiddie.
To study the dispersal of sika herds, Davidson used snares to attach plaited nylon collars of various colours to the deer. She encouraged hunters who shot collared deer to send her the collars, as well as notes about where and when the deer was found, thus assembling a picture of where the animals travelled. She set 12,000 snares over a 12-year period, and around 100 collars were returned to her with the appropriate information attached.
Davidson found life in the hills simpler and less constrained by the conventions and gender-based divisions of urban life. She found herself ‘distanced from my colleagues by chauvinistic pride and the practicalities of accommodation. While it raised no comment if I shared a tent with my hunters, I was banished to some accommodation elsewhere (even driving to and fro in a 3-ton truck on one occasion) when I attended a conference’.4
Davidson retired in 1975, but continued publishing papers and articles on sika deer both in New Zealand and overseas until the age of 85. In 1983, she and Bill moved to Leigh, a small coastal community near Warkworth. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1992 for services to science and mountaineering, and in 2000 was finally made a life member of the Tararua Tramping Club. The hills never lost their appeal, and she continued to tramp in her eighties in areas as rugged as Fiordland. ‘When you’re up in the mountains you’re dying for a hot bath and comfort,’ she once said, ‘but after a few days away from them, you’re pining to be back.’5
In about 1999, Davidson lost her mobility and independence when she had a leg amputated above the knee. Neighbours rallied to create a roster for delivering meals to her home in Leigh. In 2004, her other leg began giving her trouble and a second amputation was suggested. She died before this could occur, in Warkworth on 27 May 2004, aged 94.
As well as being a skilled outdoorswoman, Mavis Davidson had extraordinary energy for all aspects of life, forging personal and professional friendships which she maintained until her death, and engaging in extensive volunteer work. In retirement she joined the Warkworth Beautifying Society, the Warkworth Business and Professional Women’s Club, and the Leigh and District Ex-Service Club, volunteered at Warkworth Museum, acted on the advisory committee for Kaweka Forest Park, and assisted the New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association with its own study of sika deer. She sent Christmas cards to around 300 people each year, and the handwriting on her last cards, in 2003, was still firm.