18 Oct 2023

Shaun Barnett's life in the outdoors

From Afternoons, 1:45 pm on 18 October 2023

As he works on his 11th book, Kiwi tramping guru Shaun Barnett is facing the toughest challenge of his life - stage four brain cancer.

He talks to Jesse Mulligan about his passion for the outdoors and the focus and gratitude the recent diagnosis has brought him.

Wellington photgrapher, tramper and author Shaun Barnett

Wellington photographer, tramper and author Shaun Barnett Photo: Supplied

Barnett says he was "'a real nature nerd" as a kid, growing up in Auckland till the age of 13, then shifting with his family to Napier where he was immediately attracted to the nearby mountains.

Eventually, he got to visit them, tramping with youth groups and high school mates, which involved "heavy and uncomfortable" external-frame packs, Swandris and very basic boots.

"On one of our first very ambitious tramps into the Kaweka Range in the middle of winter, we were crossing a river and I thought 'Jeepers, you can feel every stone through these boots'. Then I realised there was a reason for that - the sole of my boot was floating down the river, leaving me with not much more than a moccasin on my left foot."

Barnett decided to keep going with his mates and upon reaching the next hut made a miraculous discovery: "There was a pair of leather boots in the hut that fitted me."

These came in very handy the next day, he says, which involved six hours of wading through waist-deep snow.

After leaving high school, Barnett decided he wanted to be a DOC ranger so studied zoology and ecology at Massey University in Palmerston North.

Later, as a way to get experience and get himself known, he volunteered to spend a "wonderful year" surveying Kiwi and working with fur seals on the west coast of the South Island.

Eventually, Barnett landed a full-time job with DOC in Waikato, mainly doing pest control with possums.

Over the years, he also became a nature photographer, edited Wilderness magazine and wrote 10 books, including Tramping in Aotearoa: New Zealand's Top 45 Tracks.

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Photo: Supplied

Outdoor adventures in New Zealand's "utterly magnificent environments" have always been part of Barnett's life.

Traversing the Southern Alps - via a number of short trips with various companions over a 10-year period - is one wilderness feat that he's most proud of.

"It involved having food dumps flown into huts and carrying crampons and ice axes and doing transalpine tramping - using mountaineering skills to travel through the landscape."

In the last couple of years, Barnett has been gathering material for his 11th book - a memoir called Wild Notes.

Yet this April, his work and life were suddenly interrupted by a seizure that led to emergency brain surgery in Wellington Hospital.

"At first the diagnosis was late-onset epilepsy but as it turned out, after an MRI scan, they found a brain tumour."

In July, Barnett learnt this was a "pretty serious tumour' and over the last few weeks, he's been undergoing radiation and chemotherapy.

The treatment has turned daily life into "a bit of a roller coaster", he says.

"The radiation thas caused tiredness unlike anything I've had before. I get a lot of pressure headaches which mess with your head in a few different ways… it's quite hard to operate normally, to concentrate, to work."

On the "flipside", there have been two positive outcomes from the cancer diagnosis, he says.

"I've never felt more valued and appreciated in my life. It's been tremendous the amount of support I've had, contact from old friends, it's been humbling and overwhelming."

"[Also] it's very focusing on what you want to achieve in the rest of your life, and for me, that's more books… that's been a great incentive."

Wild Notes, the book Shaun is currently working on, is a memoir told through various nature themes such as rock, native birds and beech forest.

"I plan on writing about my own experience but also weaving through the science and knowledge that I've gathered over a long period of time reading and being interested in these things."

A link to Shaun's Give A Little page is here.


Shaun Barnett's tramping tips 

Shaun Barnett on New Zealand's best back country huts

Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean on their book Tramping: A New Zealand History

Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean on NZ's first tramping club