Shelter from the Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts
Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown, Geoff Spearpoint, Craig Potton Publishing
Reviewed by Malcolm Wood
What did I do when I first picked up Shelter from the Storm? I did exactly as you might expect: I looked for the huts I knew. Empress Hut (page 111) at Mount Cook, into which I once stumbled, drunk with tiredness, with a climbing partner out of a gathering nor’west storm; Fenella Hut (page 309) with its stained glass window in the loo; and Gouland Downs Hut (which is absent), in which I not so long back steamed dry before the fire during a very wet mountain-biking trip across the Heaphy Track.
I don’t think I am unrepresentative. A vast number of New Zealanders have overnighted in what is, as the preface to Shelter from the Storm puts it, the “most extensive collection of simple public huts” in the world, and it is understandable – if a bit ego-driven – to look for where you have been.
But Shelter from the Storm offers much more than this. In format, this 364-plus-page door slab of a book may look like a coffee table book, but to call it that would be an injustice. It may have requisite production values and glossy photographs, but it also runs to 150,000 words of text, including 7000 words of captions, and while it is ostensibly all about huts it turns out to be just as much about New Zealand’s social and economic history.
From New Zealand’s more than 1000 huts, the authors have chosen to profile 90. They are arranged according to a typology of origin and purpose. Pastoral huts, for example, constitute one category, as do mining huts, huts for tourism and climbing, club huts and New Zealand Forest Service huts. There is even a small category of huts as monuments (Fenella Hut is one of these).
Each category begins with an essay followed by a series of (usually) double-page photo-and-text spreads about the stories of the individual huts that fall within it. It is an eclectic approach. At one moment you are with Samuel Butler on a 19th-century high country station, at the next experiencing the trials of a city dweller dispatched into the wilderness to mine for gold on a government pittance during the depression years of the 1930s.
If nothing else, the book gives you an appreciation of the labour that went into building many of these huts and the comparative ease in which most of us now live. A simple construction of corrugated iron takes on a different complexion when you realise that each of its elements was once laboriously carried in on someone’s back from a distant road end.
Rob Brown and Shaun Barnett are alumni of Massey and the Massey University Alpine Club (which is still going strong). They, their fellow author Geoff Spearpoint and Craig Potton Publishing are to be congratulated on a book that is monumental in more than one sense.