Mountains are especially beauteous creations. I don’t like to use the word objects because they are far from inanimate. Whether towering peaks or those with easily ascendable summits, each mountain is a carefully sculpted formation: unique, richly imbued with history, and with a personal story to share.
So, as you can probably guess, I was delighted to pick up a copy of Our Mountains: Journeys to New Zealand’s High places by Paul Hersey and Mark Watson. This was an opportunity to revisit some of my “friends” and make some new ones along the way, and all from the comfort of my living room. A light-weight adventure indeed.
For most New Zealanders, the mountains of our country are never far away, physically and also in the mind’s eye. Whether we live in the metropolis or out further afield, their constant presence continues to define us. The authors of this Kiwi travelogue/photo-journalism venture claim, and correctly so in my opinion, that the mountains contribute to our collective psyche as New Zealanders, continuously moulding and forming our national identity.
Starting near the top of the North Island, Hersey and Watson, both dedicated climbers, began what was intended to be a twelve month project: to profile some of the most significant mountains across the country, showcasing the breadth of diversity while also highlighting each mountain’s “geographical, historical, cultural and social significance.” A lofty ambition indeed, and perhaps one that is only partially successful given the limited time and space to fulfil such a mammoth task.
Completed in fourteen months, the project included a sample of some of the most famous (to New Zealanders and tourists alike) peaks of Aotearoa, such as Mount Ruapehu and Aoraki Mount Cook; but also others, such as the Pirongia Mountain and Mount Anglem/Hahanui, who, for some of us, are waiting patiently to forge a new friendship.
Together, Hersey and Watson make a brilliant team. The former’s background in newspaper journalism is evident. Sharp, evocative and liberally dotted with personal anecdotes throughout, the mini-essays are very well written, while the magnificent accompanying photographs speak volumes.
Occasionally, it does seem that certain histories of the mountains are only sketchily outlined. Often, the local histories, especially those related to Māori, are relegated to “storytelling” and “folklore.” This is disappointing, as it somewhat contradicts Hersey and Watson’s powerful affirmation that these sacred mountains continue to offer a living testimony to the peoples of this land. More research and time spent with the local iwi could have offered a far more complex and insightful perspective on the various histories that surround these living landmarks.
However, with that exception, this collection is largely a success. Both its author and photographer are astute observers and the strength of their work lies largely in the personal: the ability to write and capture moments of elusive beauty, and then to share them with the rest of us. Together, they have created a window of opportunity (pun intended) for all those who wish to gain a glimpse of the beauty of Our Mountains, a glimpse that is sure to leave readers mesmerised by their majesty.