Scenic Playground: author biographies and interview

Peter Alsop, Dave Bamford and Lee Davidson, authors of Scenic Playground, discuss their work with Te Papa Press

Peter Alsop is a senior executive who has worked across the public and private sectors. He is a keen collector of New Zealand art, with particular interests in tourism publicity, hand-coloured photography and mid-century New Zealand landscape paintings. He is the author and co-author of eight previous books.

Dave Bamford is now an independent tourism advisor who has worked extensively in New Zealand on regional tourism strategies, business plans and national park recreational opportunities.

Lee Davidson teaches in the Museum and Heritage Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

Ten questions with Scenic Playground authors

It’s always a big moment when a book goes to print. Are you proud of it?

PA: Errrr, ummmm, I think so! It's been a challenging project and I think I’m yet to fully gain some perspective on it.

DB: Very proud. To see vast collections of our mountain tourism images turned into a beautiful book by our book designers Gary Stewart and Peter Alsop, with considerable skill, is very satisfying.

LD: Yes, although I don’t think it will fully sink in until I am able to hold the final product in my hands!

What drew you to the topic of the history of mountain tourism in New Zealand?

PA: Mountains have been, and remain, a central feature of New Zealand’s identity. I am interested in that identity story, particularly its historic formation through the promotion and advertising of New Zealand. Having skimmed the surface in earlier books, I was interested in undertaking a deep dive on the topic, and to trial the concept of a deep dive, which I think can be applied to other slices of the identity story.

DB: As a young mountain national park ranger in the 1970s, I rapidly formed the view that people in parks were essential for the long-term protection of our special mountain lands. This led to my enduring interest in New Zealand mountaineering history and our rich history of mountain tourism.

LD: I’ve always loved history and all things mountains, so I jumped at the chance to immerse myself more deeply in these two particular passions.

The visual material is so rich. Once you started looking, was there just a treasure trove?

PA: Yes and no. To get to ‘easy’, you have to go through ‘hard’. A book (and image collection) like this looks cohesive, rich, sumptuous, tidy and much more, but behind the veneer has been a messy journey of collecting material over a number of years. I am partly motivated by seizing the moment of my own collecting, when it reaches a sufficient point of depth and variety, to make it available in an accessible form.

DB: For over 40 years I have had considerable enjoyment collecting books, pamphlets and ephemera, including wooden ice axes, and to see some of this shared is great. I am sure this book will encourage more material to be shared. So, yes, a great treasure trove is both in this book, and no doubt more will be discovered.

LD: Going into the project I knew there would be lots of wonderful material. Even then, what I discovered massively exceeded my expectations – not only the richness of the material, but also how it would contribute to my understanding of the cultural history of our mountains. And there is a lot of great material that sadly didn’t make it into the book.

It’s a monster. It’s luscious. 416 pages! Four gatefolds! What do you hope its readers will feel when they start turning the pages?

PA: Happiness that they can vicariously see and feel themselves in the pages, and are proud to live and play in New Zealand.

DB: Joy at seeing the extensive efforts by our early tourism and government officials to take our mountains to New Zealanders and to the world. The efforts by the Department of Tourism and the Railways Department, especially in the 1930s, were innovative, expansive and enthusiastic.

LD: Wonder and curiosity. I hope that seeing mountains through others’ eyes will enrich the way readers themselves look at and relate to the mountains.

But it’s not just pretty pictures. There’s a deep analysis of many historical factors, including the notion that we built this new nation partly on the idea that we are a mountain people. Can we still say that of ourselves?

PA: That was outside scope! But, in my view, I think so. Mountains are still prevalent in our lives, from the branding of the soap pump in the shower to everyday images of our environment.

DB: For me the story we tell of the embryonic development of the imagery of our mountains, especially the early painters and the role of iwi guides for our early explorers or painters, is historically important. I worry that now we are too slow in acting respectfully in hosting visitors to our mountains so, while our mountain communities are active, we need a greater focus on minimising visitors’ long-term impact on our mountains.

LD: When I was researching my PhD on contemporary New Zealand mountaineers, I was told that anyone who loves the mountains can call themselves a mountaineer – it is the feeling rather than any particular accomplishment that counts. I think mountains are deeply engrained in the New Zealand psyche, but it is always relevant to reflect on what this means and how we might enact it.

What’s one new thing you all learnt about our mountains and the way they were promoted while working on the book?

PA: I didn’t appreciate the publicity significance of the work of the early surveyors and explorers. I had felt it had some relevance to the story and was publicity of a form, but when we looked deeper, its publicity significance and usage overseas to promote New Zealand surprised me. It also underscored that we’ve been promoting mountains for a very long time!

DB: The significance of early artists in illustrating New Zealand as a mountainous country.

LD: It very strongly re-emphasised for me the way in which we see landscapes through a cultural lens, and how much mountains, and our relationships with them, have been part of the processes of colonisation, nation-building, belonging and identity.

And another new thing?

PA: It’s pleasing to find out historical details about key publicity works. In this case, finding the identity of a wāhine in one of our most glorious travel posters, prominently featuring a mountain, was a nice surprise.

DB: The importance of Lake Wakatipu and the Glenorchy area: over 100 years ago it was the main mountain tourism destination in New Zealand.

LD: I hadn’t fully appreciated that as European settlers increasingly embraced and valued mountain landscapes, existing Māori relationships were under-appreciated and often mis-represented. This is something I hope we can rectify in the future, so that the story of Aotearoa’s mountains comes to fully reflect our bicultural heritage.

Helen Clark’s foreword strikes a cautionary note, doesn’t it?

PA: Yes. Between the lines, I think she is saying that New Zealand is not sufficiently future-focused to get on top of the key current and expected challenges that will greatly impact our economy and wider wellbeing. As a mountain enthusiast and given her standing, Helen was the perfect person to write the foreword.

DB: Oh, how true are Helen’s words: ‘We must protect and, in new ways, enhance as part of the mountain journey ahead.’ Hopefully this book will encourage more to understand the need for caution and for the importance of respecting iwi’s spiritual connection to their maunga and whenua.

LD: This was something I tried to highlight in ‘The Story’ – people have been expressing concerns about the impact of tourism on our mountains since the nineteenth century and pointing out the need to carefully balance their commercial use with public recreation, while also respecting their wider cultural significance. These tensions are reaching crunch point, and I hope this book will contribute to conversations about how to approach these problems by highlighting important historical developments.

Did working on the book fire you up for a trip into the mountains soon?

PA: I am super keen to get my kids on to a trail with some climbs in it; hopefully that won’t be too far away.

DB: I am just back from a wonderful walk around Mont Blanc in the European Alps. The passion is still there.

LD: I’m always fired up for a trip into the mountains! What working on the book has done is help me reflect on and appreciate the experiences and feelings I have about the mountains in new ways.

What are you all reading at the moment?

PA: I’m reading about an American artist, Thomas Benton, who I recently discovered. His work, dating from about the 1930s, really appeals to me, being at the interface of fine and commercial art. I’m also steadily reading the pages of Mirror magazine and the Railways Magazine, related to the ongoing development of new books.

DB: To the Mountains: A Collection of New Zealand Alpine Writing, the wonderful new anthology of New Zealand mountain literature edited by Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey.

LD: How to Sail a Boat by Matt Vance. I’ve found a lot of parallels between the sea and the mountains in how we are drawn to them to find recreation, rejuvenation and a sense of who we are. There’s probably another book in that!