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1930s Tramping Memories

I spent some time a few years ago researching the tramping history of the valley. I came across Ross Kerr’s files in the National Library and what a find! Ross is the author of the Chronology of the Remutaka and Tararua Ranges and in collating the chronology Ross gathered some fantastic material detailing the valley’s history. A number of valley stalwarts wrote to Ross with their memoirs including the late Tony Nolan. Tony's letter details the clothing and equipment used in the 1930s which makes you appreciate the comfortable gear we have today!

29 August 1991

Dear Ross,

Wellington in the mid-1930s was still little more than a big colonial town, its tallest building only seven stories high, its dwellings heated by coal fires, and horses and carts still mingling with the electric trams and the few motor vehicles. The country’s population was only one and a half million, less than half of today’s. Trampers were far from numerous and still (especially the women) viewed with some suspicion. To a colonial people, hunters, although just as smelly and unsightly and Sabbath-breaking, were understandable but tramping was idle and had no point. Moreover it was whispered that women and men slept in the same tents and huts – well!

The country was still very hard-up. By 1935 the worst of the great Slump was over and the dismal queues with billies and sugarbags at the soup kitchens had almost faded away, but jobs were still hard to find and everybody was still poor. Savings had all been spent on survival, and New Zealand’s gross national product, the measure of a nation’s wealth, was only $270 million, at $180 per head of population, less than one-fortieth of what it is today. Prices were low, but so was the basic wage of around $4 per week. In relation to wages, most things were actually more expensive then.

The shortage of money placed two big limitations of tramping and hunting, namely, in respect of transportation and equipment. Motor cars were available but very few could afford them. Take for example the dance and picnic held at Wainuiomta after the trampers’ annual football and hockey matches in 1935. At this major social function of the two largest tramping clubs, plus local population, there arrived four motor cars (two of them [had] babies), two taxies, one motor-cycle, and one motor lorry. Compare this with the sight at the Catchpole on a fine summer weekend today.

Access to the hills was therefore difficult. The tramping club’s did sometimes hire Railway buses or motor lorries but most people had to walk all the way from the nearest Ferry Wharf, or rail or bus terminus. This tended to limit tramping to the older and fitter and the very enthusiastic.

Many people had to make their own packs, tents and sleeping bags or sleep in a blanket, for the cost of proper equipment was beyond them. Billies were frequently treacle tins fitted with wire handles. For clothing, the men usually wore old flannel shirts and football jerseys, with old patched trousers, cut-down slacks or football shorts. In 1935 you could still see advertisements for “Ladies’ tramping breeches” but in fact, although some women wore knickerbockers, most by then had adopted shorts, sometimes under cover of gym skirts.

For storm protection, many hunters and trampers used voluminous waterproof capes and later a few parka-like garments appeared, but for years the standard items were the sailor’s sou-wester hat with neck and ear flaps and the short oilskin coast called a slicker.

Slickers, sou-westers, groundsheets, sleeping bag covers, and waterproof food bags, all had to be re-oiled frequently with linseed oil, usually with whale oil or neetsfoot oil, the trampers of those days emitted a distinctly oily odour.

Packs were almost without exception of the frameless “kidney-rotter” kind. Like many others, my first was made of sacking sewn up on a sewing machine, my second being also home-made but of oiled japara. Proper canvas kidney-rotters could be bought at Hutcheson and Wilson’s for about $2.50. Bergan frame packs were available at a higher price but being designed for Scandinavian skiing and climbing they were too small for weekend trips.

Tramping boots, which cost about $1.50, were always of leather, with thick soles studded with triple hobnails, often with the winged climbing nails called “clinkers” around the edges. For the hard-up, the more usual footwear was the cheap Japanese tennis shoes costing about 15 cents. Proper tramping socks were available bur ordinary working or football socks were more commonly seen. In those needy days, boots, shoes and socks were worn to disintegration, sot that road-ends and track-sides were often littered with them.

Tramping food, because more suitable items were either unavailable or too expensive, was usually rather boring. Typically, breakfast would be oatmeal or macaroni and cheese. Dinner was trampers’ stew or rice and raisons. Fried chops or sausages were also common, but mainly as a wet day pastime. Ordinary white bread or the more durable Bell’s bricks were carried but for the longer trips the hard ships’ biscuits were recommended. Many camps and huts had an iron camp oven for baking bread. The only milk was condensed milk in tins and the only coffee was the sickly canned coffee and milk. Blowflies seemed to be much more prevalent in the bush in those days and all meat and clothing had to be constantly guarded against them.

Tony Nolan

Early trampers in the valley, 1922 (Ian Baine Collection)

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