Life and times of a photograper adventurer

06:00, Jun 22 2014
guy mannering
INTERESTING GUY: The front cover of the new book about adventurer Guy Mannering.

Guy Mannering's wife Margie and daughter Leslie often cursed the old trunk in which he kept his "stuff".

He lugged it around wherever the family moved.

The battered, bulky object seemed always in their way. They labelled it The Black Dog.

When Mannering died in 2003, Margie felt emboldened at last to open it. Inside she found diaries, letters, photos and other mementoes of his life. And what a life it was.

If all the items could be put together, what a tale they would tell of this Christchurch high- adventurer.

A decade later, the tale has been told. It is dramatic and its sequel is tragic. Just after Margie and granddaughter Nikki had compiled a book from the contents of the trunk, Margie was killed in a car crash.


At least three Guys figure in Canterbury's highly regarded Mannering family. The first's real name was George but he was known as Guy. He is Guy-1, a pioneer of mountaineering in the Southern Alps. The second was his son, photographer and adventurer, Guy-2. The last, Guy-3, is an Oxford farmer, environmentalist and all-round "top bloke".

The newly published book, Guy - the Adventures of New Zealand Photographer Guy Mannering, tells the story of Guy-2, with an introduction by Guy-3. It was launched in Christchurch yesterday.

Mannering lived a life of extremes. From a flimsy tent hundreds of kilometres from Scott Base across the icy wastes of Antarctica, to the blazing furnace of heat in Colorado's Grand Canyon. From marble halls at diplomatic receptions in Bangkok, to grass huts of stone-age tribesmen in Papua New Guinea's remote ranges.

From humid Mekong River banks where Pathet Lao rebels peer unseen from jungle on one side and Viet Cong are not too far away on the other, to breezes shushing the silence of evening as steaks spit on the barbecue in camp below the Southern Alps.

The camera is the common factor in Mannering's ventures. A largely self-taught photographer, he worked and operated a professional studio in Christchurch for many years. His work captured attention and brought invitations to adventure that yielded folders of photographs. The images stunned viewers in the days before colour TV.

Another factor is the jet boat, pioneered in the Mackenzie Country and built in Christchurch by friends of the Mannerings, the Hamilton family.

Put camera and jet boat together and you get the Colorado River adventure. Margie went too and her narratives make lively links between Mannering's diary entries describing the successful 1960 attempt at the first "up-run" of the river. No rapids, waterfalls, logistical and mechanical breakdowns or human frailties could stall these Kiwis in their home-made boats. They traversed Grand Canyon downstream, then made history with the return trip.

Mannering drove one of the boats but still managed to take photographs.

For the Hamiltons it was a triumph but jet boats would have no part in Mannering's next venture, the Antarctic - except that movie film coverage of the Colorado adventure impressed Americans at McMurdo Base and made Mannering a celebrity.

The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research invited Mannering to document a season on The Ice. His alpine experience helped him cope with the environment while snapping pictures of penguin flocks, husky packs and seals. He brought back images of vast landscapes sculpted by ice, of floes dwarfing aircraft, of cargo ships following in the wake of ice-breakers.

Mannering's diaries describe the challenge of handling film in plunging temperatures. They relate nerve-tingling tension as planes struggle to take off and land on ice. They explore the beauty of twinkling stalactites in underground caves and the horror of twisted metal from a plane crash.

The Mekong is one of the world's great rivers. By 1965, planning was underway for a giant dam on it. However, neighbouring countries of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia were de-stabilised by Communist incursion. The Vietnam War had not yet started but French colonists had left and tensions were building up.

Into this scenario steps Mannering on a United Nations mission to explore ways to improve access up the river for engineers, geologists and their supplies. New Zealand as a Colombo Plan partner offered jet boats for the venture.

Mannering's twin tasks were to gauge the potential for jet boats to serve the inland waterway and to train local people in handling the craft. As Margie says in her narrative: "He was delighted with the idea", and: "The chance to photograph this exotic country was compelling".

Mission Daunting became almost Mission Impossible, such was the lack of co-ordination between the factions involved, the mix of languages (English barely one of them) and the tendency of interpreters to fail to turn up for work. The boating side of things, by contrast, was easy. But heat and illness took a toll, as did the threat of war drawing ever nearer. Intermittent communications with the outside world failed to assuage the fear.

Mannering records his admiration for American pilots landing overworked DC3s expertly on short, bumpy jungle airstrips. He speaks of the elegance and courtesy of native peoples and the generosity of a few expatriate Europeans. He describes the wonders of animal, bird and fish life on the Mekong. He marvels at the ancient architecture of Angkor Wat. His photographs convey all these things.

Margie joined her husband there for some weeks. Her story of how they organised this is almost a book in itself.

A year later Mannering was in Papua New Guinea on a geological and mapping expedition of uncharted highlands along the Sepik River and some of its tributaries. It was jet boat time again and it was history-making time again. His party probed further inland than European boats had ever been and encountered villagers who, cut off from the world since the dawn of time, had never seen white people.

Getting the boats so far upstream involved building a "railway" to bypass an impossible stretch of river. Mannering writes of how quickly the natives caught on to the requirements and rallied to help by cutting trees, laying them in rails formation and binding them with rope they had made themselves. They willingly added their manpower to sliding the boats along the "railway", some pushing, some pulling. It is an engrossing account, enhanced by Mannering's photos.

There was more to Mannering's life. Guy-3 says a further book may yet appear. It may cover Guy-2's other expeditions, including his jet boat trip up the Ganges with Sir Edmund Hillary. But the four expeditions in this book show that Mannering deserves to figure in an adventure hall of fame.

Guy - The Adventures of New Zealand Photographer Guy Mannering, written from his diaries by Margie Mannering and Nikki Latham. Hardback $60; soft cover $40.

The Press