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The 1100 or so students at Otago in the 1920s were an energetic bunch and a number of sports thrived, notably athletics, rugby, tennis, netball (then called basketball), hockey and boxing. The 1920s also witnessed the birth of one of the most enduringly popular clubs on campus: the Otago University Tramping Club. Tramping was just taking off in New Zealand in the 1920s. Walking for recreation had been popular for many years and climbing also had its devotees, but tramping, involving more energetic walks, often in the wilderness, was something new. Wellington’s Tararua Tramping Club was the country’s first, founded in 1919, and eight more clubs emerged during the 1920s, including the Otago Tramping Club in 1923 and the Otago University Tramping Club in 1927.

A group of energetic 1920s students with the summit of Mt Park in the background. From the Otago University Review, September 1925.

A group of energetic 1920s students with the summit of Mt Park in the background. From the Otago University Review, September 1925.

Groups of Otago students had already been out exploring the southern wilderness before the club began. The Grave Talbot Pass in the Darran Mountains is named in honour of two Otago graduates, William Grave and Arthur Talbot, who pioneered this link from Lake Wakatipu to Milford Sound in the 1910s. The pass would prove too strenuous for most tourists, but the valleys leading up to it on both sides were made more accessible by groups of students who formed the tracks, working over the summers between 1914 and 1925. An article in the September 1925 Review recounts their adventures of the last two summers, including life in campsites, on the track, and scaling mountains. They named a lake after George Thompson (French lecturer and chair of the professorial board) and a mountain after James Park (head of the School of Mines). Another mountain became Students Peak. An ascent of Mt Christina took four days, with the day they reached the summit fuelled by ‘an excellent breakfast of cocoa, porridge, and cold boiled kea’. Many will relate to their ‘perpetual war with the innumerable army of sandflies’! A newspaper article names those who scaled Mt Christina and Mt Park that summer as Kenneth Roberts, William Grave, George Moir, RSM Sinclair and Henry Slater, all former Otago students. Those who worked on the track in 1920 are named in another newspaper article as Merville Harris, David Jennings and Stewart Crawford, all medical students, and dental student Joseph Tanner.

These were strictly all-male adventures, but one of the joys of the tramping club was its accessibility to both men and women, with romance sometimes flourishing in the great outdoors or at the club’s social gatherings. The earliest reports I’ve found of the club are from 1929, when it was in its third season. The new committee elected late that year included Mr W.M. Stothart (the president, who sadly died over the summer), Miss E. Labes, Miss W. Fairbairn, Miss B. Dash, Mr B.C. Bellhouse and Mr Russell. That year ‘every holiday has seen happy parties of enthusiastic walkers out in the open country, which so fortunately forms the environment of Dunedin’. Some students might find mountaineering too much but could, as the 1930 report noted, ‘appreciate the joy of a brisk tramp, with its accompaniments of wood-fires and billy-teas’. Among the ‘scenic resorts’ explored by university trampers in 1930 were Harbour Cone, the Spit, Red Hut, Mount Charles, Tomahawk Creek and Chain Hills Tarn. Many of these were day outings, but some trips went further afield. In 1938 the club had ‘over thirty enthusiastic members’ who took part in day trips, two weekend trips (Mt Misery and Silver Peaks via Evansdale) plus a five-day excursion ‘to the various places of interest about Lake Wakatipu’.

Numbers waxed and waned, with some years finding more dedicated trampers than others; the club was always keen to recruit new members. ‘A good outing, providing both exercise and glorious scenery is assured’, stated a report in Critic in 1931. The club’s aims were stated in the front of its trip diary, started in 1940. It wanted to ‘foster tramping activities’ and ‘break down the barrier of interfaculty isolation’. It was also keen to ‘inculcate in members the canons of good tramping’. These included ‘a love of natural beauty and the outdoors; a respect for private property; a scrupulous care regarding fires; an idea of what is adequate in the matter of equipment and food; a sense of obedience to one and only one leader; and a realisation that a party must always keep together’.

A 1929 Critic notice provided advice for beginners on how to ‘dress for the occasion’. A ‘haversack is far preferable to a young suit case. On the longer trips women will find skirts rather a hindrance and are strongly advised to wear “strides”. Then again boots or shoes should be stout, comfortable and nailed; and of course do not wear a collar and tie, because it simply is not done in the best circles’. Clearly practicality was important, and the trip diary for the first tramp of the year in 1940 comments that over lunch there was ‘some amusement … at the President’s expense – in connection with his bootiful hat – a blue velvet beret’.

A club outing in the Mihiwaka Hills, 1946. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, from an Otago University Tramping Club album, 96-063-36, S15-592b.

A club outing at Mihiwaka, 1946. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, from an Otago University Tramping Club album, 96-063-36, S15-592b.

In appealing to potential members, the club had a few prejudices to overcome. A 1947 report emphasised that it was not all about extreme fitness: ‘We are convinced that the only thing which keeps our membership below the 100-mark is the popular illusion that a tramper is one who steams round the landscape at a steady 20 miles per hour, bowed to earth by a Bergan of the size and shape of a young bungalow. This is false – such a figure is only to be met with in the vulgar and more pushing clubs, such as the Tararuas. We prefer to stroll gently along with fitting dignity, stopping for the regulation ten minutes in every half-hour. Of course we have a large number of young “keen types” in our membership, but many of us are completely decrepit.’

Over the years many people have been introduced to the joys of tramping and to the beauties of the natural world around Dunedin and further afield through the Otago University Tramping Club. There has been the occasional tragedy along the way, but for most it has been a positive experience. This post has concentrated on its early years – to anybody wanting to learn of its later history I recommend the highly entertaining book 45 Years of Antics: Adventures and Escapades of the Otago University Tramping Club, published by the club in 2006. This is a compilation of articles from its magazine, produced annually (with a few gaps) from 1960; editor Kevin Lloyd also tracked down a club trip diary from 1934 to include.