New Zealand on Foot is a book filled with walks that give something back for the effort expended. Carly Thomas spoke with Palmerston North author Denis Dwyer about his journeys on foot.
Denis Dwyer is a notepad-and-pen-in-the-back-pocket kind of writer. And as a walker, he’s less about knocking off the kilometres and more about noticing the little things.
In an absolutely delighted-in-the-fact way, Dwyer will tell you he is 72 years old.
He is retired and says it is the most wonderful stage of life. He has just written a book about the thing he loves to do, and which he now has the time to do.
“I love walking,” he announces, and that also happens to be the first line in his book. Dwyer says part of his motivation was to get it all down before a walk became “a shuffle”.
“I tried to keep it light. I think you have to lighten the path. I like to pick up a book that entertains me, as well as educates me. It’s a travel book that is a little bit of a memoir, but it’s more observations of people in places.”
It isn’t your usual New Zealand walking book. It’s a whimsical and funny ramble along our tracks and paths. This is no step-by-step guide, but more a “come and see what I saw” read.
He started out on his walking and writing journey a year and a half ago by doing “two great sweeps north and two great sweeps south”.
“The country is so well arranged for walking and I wanted walks that most people could do. Walks that gave something back for your effort.”
Walking is something Dwyer wholeheartedly thinks people should do more. He is a big advocate for putting one foot in front of the other.
“Māori walked the country for centuries and then the missionaries were great walkers. Jo Scott, New Zealand’s first sporting world champion, he was a walker. He would walk from Dunedin to Waitati and back and then cook breakfast for his family. People used to walk to work, children used to walk to school.”
Dwyer joined the Manawatū Striders a few years ago and has become a regular, although he does say that his first encounter with the group wasn’t “ideal”.
His initial walking companions were “seasoned-looking types” and Dwyer found their cracking pace to be somewhat daunting as they set off with elbows flying. But he eventually found walking companions whose pace was brisk but “not impossible”.
Walking, he says, is more recreational than sport. He’s not out to be the fittest or the fastest, but he likes to venture out in the world.
And as you walk with him through his book, you see the things Dwyer sees on his journeys through New Zealand. A magnificent sunrise at Te Aroha, the looming hulk of Mt Taranaki, the pumice land, low bush and chattering streams of central North Island and the deep, green harbour of Lyttelton.
You listen to the people, too. Dwyer likes to say that history is very often under your feet and there are plenty of stories of people who walked the paths before him in the book.
There is George Saunders, the “forgotten soldier” of Rangitoto Island who guarded defence property on the island during the Second World War.
Forgotten by who?, Dwyer ponders as he walks – “his family, his regiment, the Defence Department”?
Or maybe he just decided to become forgotten? Saunders continued to live in his little island bach long after the war ended.
Many of the characters who pop up in Dwyer’s books are wonderful.
They are from days well and truly past, the people who tag along with him and the strangers he encounters too.
He finds himself standing next to Lance O’Sullivan at the Matamata race track, “while most of New Zealand slept”.
Dwyer admires the everyday people in his book, the doers, the hard grafters and the locals. He advises to “do what the locals do, go where the locals go”.
“As you are walking you can’t help but notice. Seeing the people that live there and just noticing little things makes the landscape more personal. People’s foibles and eccentricities. Even if you do the same walk day after day, it’s never quite the same. We never stay the same and we look at things differently.”
Nature gets a good old nod to in the book as well and Dwyer says that’s another fabulous thing about walking. “You can’t help but notice what’s around you.
“As I have walked, indulgently, my interest in plants has grown.”
He’s also expanded his knowledge of himself, his country and what it means to be alive.
“Life just takes on a different hue when you have a purpose.”
Dwyer’s walked over bridges, through bush-covered canopies and under dark skies and blue ones, and from his trusty and well-worn notebook he has written a book that says ‘come and walk with me’.
New Zealand on Foot is available at Palmerston North’s Paperplus.
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