A century of freedom in the bush

The Victoria University of Wellington Tramping Club (VUWTC) has evolved significantly over the past 100 years, but its core values—and its "dreadfully debauched" parties in the bush—haven’t changed a bit.

Four members of the tramping club stand looking at the camera during a tramp in the bush.
Tramping Club, Lake Rotoiti, Christmas, 1936. From the Victoria University Tramping Club archives (item 61) held at the J.C. Beaglehole Room.

The Club, which marks its centenary this year, is celebrating the occasion with a dinner at the Hunter Lounge (subject to alert levels) on Saturday 16 October. All VUWTC members, past and present, are invited to attend the evening. Ben Carpenter, President of the Club, says it will be an opportunity to reminisce, reunite with old friends, and meet members from different generations of the Club’s history.

“It’s a great chance for anyone who’s ever been a part of the Club to come along, have a yarn, and just celebrate our history and everything we’ve achieved over the years.”

One of the attendees will be Pedro Radcliffe, who was active in the Club from 1965 to 1967. He says his fellow members were a daring group of students who found freedom and independence in the bush.

“The Vietnam War was humming along at that time, and there was an enormous amount of student rebellion on campuses all around the country. There was a lot of rebellion against adults, and their expectations in particular. A lot of free expression was let out by going tramping.”

A key part of that expression was the social aspect, which has been a driving force in the Club throughout its history. In Pedro’s day, the weekend trips in the Tararuas were the first chance many members had to mix freely with the opposite gender.

“A lot of guys had been to boy’s schools, and girls had gone to girl’s schools. There was, to begin with, a fair amount of embarrassment. We weren’t nearly as world-wise as the young seem to be today.

“I remember one particular trip—it was a dreadfully debauched and depraved weekend. The guys would drink all kinds of booze, and sing revoltingly dirty songs.”

A club trip today involves carefully divvied up food and gear, trip plans left with families and friends back home, and meticulous safety precautions. Pedro recalls a slightly different approach to organisation and safety.

“We didn’t have a lot of dough, and we didn’t have a lot of transport. We used to hitchhike a lot to get to places.

“There were several student flats that were often the scene of organisation for more trips. It was a world before cell phones. A lot of the time you’d just make a verbal arrangement with someone, with nothing written down—we would decide to meet here at this time, and whoever wanted to come would come.”

Very few students could afford proper gear, Pedro recalls, and making do with whatever you had was standard.

“We would wear scungy old leather boots which were made for farmers to milk cows in. Quite a few guys would wear their old woollen school jerseys. If you were lucky you had a good canvas pack with a proper frame on it.

“Rather than the canvas gaiters you see these days, we had these old long woollen strips called puttees leftover from the war that you’d wind round and round your lower leg and fasten with tape.”

Things have changed noticeably since then, but the Club’s three key areas of focus—outdoor education, conservation, and social connection—remain the same, according to Ben.

What also remains the same is the importance of the Club’s infamous annual social events—and both Ben and Pedro agree that ‘Freshers’, in which first-years are introduced to tramping over the course of a weekend, is the most important event of all.

“Freshers is a great environment for people to get that first taste of what the club is about,” Ben says. “We have people come along who have never walked in the bush or slept in a tent, or who struggle to get into a sleeping bag. A lot of people love it and come back.”

Pedro agrees. “Many people I know got the tramping bug on those trips and never let it go.”

Pedro says the skills he learnt during his time with the Club, and the character-building experiences he had, have stayed with him throughout his life.

“I think the resilience and self-reliance we developed on those trips—particularly the long trips—were a very good thing that carried us through for the rest of our lives.”

More information about the Club’s centenary celebrations and the dinner is available online. For more about the Club’s history, take a look at the resources found on the Club’s website.