Tramping is the New Zealand term for hiking, trekking, rambling or bush-walking, and was common in print and speech by the 1920s. It is seen as a typically New Zealand activity – even though many cultures have much longer traditions of hill walking.
Enthusiasts walk along, or off, tracks in back-country settings, carrying food and gear in backpacks. Unlike mountaineering and hunting, the journey is at the centre of the tramping experience. Most trampers stay in huts, while some carry tents. A typical trip, or tramp, takes two to five days, with some lasting over a week. A tramp not involving an overnight stay is referred to as a ‘day trip’.
Māori were the country’s first trampers, although they made trips mainly for food-gathering, trade in pounamu (greenstone or New Zealand jade), and warfare. They wore woven flax sandals, and carried backpacks of woven flax with wooden frames and wide shoulder straps.
Don’t mention hikers
In outdoor recreation, as in most pursuits, names and terms are important:
‘[A] tramper is apt to shudder at being referred to as a “hiker”, for in this country the word “hiker” refers only to the hitchhiker who roams the road and thumbs a ride from passing motorists.’ 1
The first Europeans to take to the backcountry were explorers, missionaries, surveyors, botanists, geologists and prospectors. In many places they followed Māori paths. European pioneers who needed to get somewhere would often walk, especially in rough terrain that horses could not traverse. It is difficult to say when this was first seen as recreation. Romantic notions of sublime nature, popular in England in the 1800s, are common in the journals of these early travellers, and in the 20th century this love of wild landscapes gave rise to many tramping clubs.
The introduction of deer and trout in the late 19th century attracted hunters and anglers to the hills, and mountaineers began to look to the high peaks. For others, the experience of being in the hills was enough, and friends would band together for excursions.
It was natural that tramping clubs soon formed. The first was the Tararua Tramping Club, established in 1919 in Wellington. Others sprang up. Members built huts, cut tracks and organised group trips. Clubs fostered leadership and camaraderie, and taught skills such as navigating, putting up tents and making fires. A few people in one club occasionally tramped naked. Some clubs were also political, lobbying for access to wild lands and their conservation.
The golden age of tramping clubs lasted from the 1940s to the 1970s. By the 2000s many had ageing and declining memberships. Increasing numbers of tourists were taking to the bush, especially on the well-known tracks.
Tramping has its own words, including:
- scroggin – a mix usually of nuts, raisins and chocolate, for an energy boost. The term is also used by Australian bushwalkers
- the tops – the land above the bushline
- billy – a light pot for cooking over an open fire or cooker.
Taking time off
Tramping takes time. A trip lasting a week or more can be referred to as an ‘epic’ if it is difficult, dangerous, or requires endurance. Traditionally Christmas and Easter offered the chance of extended trips. North Islanders have for decades used the term ‘Christmas trip’ for a South Island sojourn of 10–16 days (using statutory holidays and annual leave). With flexible work patterns and more annual leave, people can now make longer trips at any time of the year.
Weekend trips are available to those who live close enough to the hills. Before cars were affordable, Aucklanders mainly tramped in the Waitakeres. Wellingtonians headed for the Tararuas, Cantabrians for Arthur’s Pass and Dunedinites for the Silver Peaks. While these are still popular destinations, today people are willing to drive for many hours before they start tramping.
Trampers vs planners
Trampers and climbers played a big part in the setting aside of land for conservation. This verse, sung in the 1960s to the tune of ‘God defend New Zealand’, was aimed at government dam builders:
Flood the Wilkin, damn the Rees,
Will their planning never cease?
We must learn where danger lurks,
Vandals of the public works. 2
Spending time in the bush offers a counterpoint to everyday urban life, and an escape from work, phones, and emails. Seeing new landscapes or revisiting old haunts is revitalising, and for some it is a spiritual or philosophical experience. Trampers return better able to deal with the world and its worries, which seem trivial where the preoccupations are primary – food, shelter and warmth. For those interested in the landscape and natural history, tramping is the only way to see vast swathes of New Zealand’s backcountry.