He Tangata: Graham Parker
As told to Elisabeth Easther
I'm originally from Putaruru, raised in the shadow of Maungatautari. In the 1970s, I went to Massey University and joined the tramping club, which fostered my love for mountains. We'd tramp in the Tararuas, or in Mt Aspiring National Park. We'd go away for 10 days, and tell our parents we'd ring when we got out. Back then we used to eat a thing called TVP, Texturised Vegetable Protein and it was ghastly. You certainly didn't go tramping for the food.
I didn't do an OE but I worked in Papua New Guinea when I was in my 20s with a Foreign Affairs aid programme, helping farmers develop coffee and cocoa gardens. There was a good expat community — mainly Aussies and Kiwis — and we lived in a compound surrounded by barbed wire. Many of us were keen walkers, and we'd drive up into the bush and pay a man to guard our cars. We'd see snakes and cassowaries, and the birds were amazing.
I've been to the Himalayas, to Everest Base Camp. The hardest thing is the altitude, you can be really fit and still get knocked around. Each day you walk for about six to eight hours but the paths are well maintained and guides carry your gear. We were 11 on that trip, and we started with 32 horses. There was an older guy whose sole job was to carry the eggs, dozens of them. We had a great cook; it's amazing what you can do with a camp oven. We drank water from creeks, which we boiled, and we slept in tents. It was quite cold at night, down to -6C but we had good sleeping bags, down jackets and a couple of layers of merino. That's such wonderful stuff.
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I'd always wanted to go to Bhutan, so I went for 15 days last November. It's one of those places that hasn't been wrecked by tourists. You can't go as a backpacker, you have to be guided, and you're required to spend at least $377 a day but that covers guiding, food, transport, accommodation. The mountains are as beautiful as anywhere in Himalayas, there's lots of birdlife and it's not at all crowded. The people are charming and very friendly and one of their measures of success is Gross National Happiness. They have pretty good English — education is a real priority — and you don't see much litter because the people are so proud of their country.
Another more recent trek was walking the Coast To Coast. It goes across northern England from the Lake District through the Pennines, through the Yorkshire moors to Whitby. We walked 300km over 15 days. But that's really luxurious, and you stay in pubs and B&Bs. I went with a group and we called ourselves The Pudding Club, because we had all these things traditional English puddings including spotted dick. That's the only walk where I've put on weight.
We're so lucky in New Zealand. I think our cycleways are some of the best in the world but the trail that resonates the most for me is The Alps2Ocean, from Aoraki/Mt Cook to Ōamaru. You start off flying by helicopter across the Tasman River, then bike for a couple of days through the Upper Mackenzie Country, round Twizel, up to Lake Ōhau through to Ōmaramara, then down to the Waitaki River before arriving in Ōamaru.
When I worked for the National Bank, we did a volunteer day on Maungatautari. At 3400ha, it's the largest pest-free enclosure in the world with 47km of fencing. Because Maungatautari is always looking for volunteers, I started doing a monthly bait line. Every 100m we put out cards baited with fish, chocolate and peanut butter and they attract any rats, mice or stoats that might have snuck on to the mountain. We are fenced but if a tree falls, that can create a bridge for all sorts of critters, including wild cats. When we go back to collect the cards, if any pest has left footprints, that's the signal for anther group to lay poison.
My bait lining eventually morphed into guiding. I love people's reactions when they see a takahē up close, or a tuatara, a robin, or a kākā. We even have kōkako. I was lucky to be part of a translocation. We brought 40 on to the mountain over the past three years. I think that being part of the translocation has made them extra special to me.
There are so many different jobs here, if you want to volunteer. You can just tramp round in the bush and do your own thing, or be part of the maintenance team and play with all the toys. There are a lot of old farmers who enjoy themselves up here. To make this place run smoothly, we have between 200-300 volunteers and, if it weren't for them, it wouldn't be the special place that it is.
Graham Parker is a guide at Maungatautari Sanctuary Mountain