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LIFE AT THE TOP: TALES FROM AORAKI-MT COOK
The distillation of material from books which are now not easy to find offers a gentle climb through the experiences of early travellers such as Samuel Butler and explorer Julius von Haast to the larger than life characters who inhabited the world of 19th century mountain climbing.
Some, such as Austrians Robert and Anna von Lendenfeld may be new to many readers, while the story of Freda Du Faur, the first woman to climb Mt Cook, is given extensive treatment and we learn of her tragic later life and eventual suicide.
The three Hermitage buildings and the families who ran them provide a history of tourism in miniature and the enthusiastic support of the early run holders and their shepherds emerges as a somewhat neglected aspect of the birth of tourism in the Southern Alps.
The papers of the Wigley family have been made available and some previously unpublished stories and photos have been revealed.
Rodolph Wigley’s pioneering motor car trip to the Hermitage in 1906 is just one of dozens of the tales of determination and hard graft. This account omits the often told reaction of the Hermitage porter when Wigley and his car arrived at the hotel door at 4am.
"We’re full," he is supposed to have said before he slammed the door. Perhaps apocryphal but too good not to tell.
Although the author emphasises that her book is primarily a social history, it would have benefitted from more rigorous checking. The phrase, "J. H. Suther, M.P. for Gladstone, as the Fairlie district was known," will jar with general historians. James Sutter (who was also a Timaru mayor) represented an electorate that covered all of inland South Canterbury. Probably chosen to honour the new British Prime Minister William Gladstone or perhaps his nephew Henry Gladstone, who had been an early Mackenzie settler, Gladstone was never a name for just the Fairlie district.
The book also deserves an index.
These are minor quibbles overshadowed by the book’s achievement as an easily-read, one-volume compendium of the Mt Cook story with an eye for unusual tales — ghosts, murders, tragedies — the glory days of the great mountain guides, such as Peter Graham, Mick Bowie and Harry Ayres and the memories of the children who grew up under the mountain.
Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.