The 3000km Te Araroa Trail has all the ingredients to be “the best single long walk in the world”. But the growing popularity of backcountry tracks also presents problems.
Sometime after dawn comes the rustle of packs and the hiss of the first brew being boiled over a gas cooker. The hut door rattles and squeaks as the first risers head out to the long drop.
The Swiss couple are up before anyone else, anticipating a 17km day; it will be six to eight hours tramping into a bitterly cold southerly. Yesterday was a desiccating 30°C trudge through treeless Canterbury foothills; today the temperature is unlikely to get above 8°C. Such is the changeability of the South Island high country.
The American couple are still in their sleeping bags, contemplating a pit day in the hut while the southerly blows through. Outside, still in his tent, there’s a young Canadian who will also head south today. Back up the track a few kilometres and enjoying a solitary night in a tidy little three-bunk A-frame hut is a 46-year-old Swiss woman walking north towards Cape Reinga. She’ll have the aid of a cold tailwind today.
Aside from interlopers from the Listener, the only New Zealander here at Comyns Hut, a 60-year-old corrugated-iron structure with eight bunks, is Aucklander Bridget Dennison. At 17, she is spending her school holidays walking 900km. Starting in December at Pelorus Bridge in Marlborough, she’d done 300km to reach Comyns Hut in mid-Canterbury’s Hakatere Conservation Park by mid-January. All well, she’ll finish in Queenstown before heading back to Howick College for Year 13.
Along with the other members of the multinational community of walkers sharing the hut’s dim light, Dennison is “TA Sobo” – Te Araroa southbound. The brainchild of writer and journalist Geoff Chapple, Te Araroa is a 3000km trail that winds through farmland, over alpine passes and rivers, through bleached high country and thick rainforest and along beaches from Cape Reinga to Bluff. The idea came to Chapple in the mid-1990s as a project to inspire a nation battered by economic restructuring and the scourge of unemployment. It took almost 20 years, but the dream was fulfilled in 2011 when Te Araroa was formally opened.
FELL IN LOVE WITH TRAMPING
Some people do the entire epic journey, some do just the South Island or the North Island, and some, such as Dennison, do long sections. What possessed her? Last year she and her family – who until two years ago lived in Taiwan – walked the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds, and she fell in love with tramping. When she heard of Te Araroa, it took hold of her and she calculated she could shoehorn the Pelorus to Queenstown section into her 45-day summer holiday.
“Out here,” she says, “you can think about stuff … Eight hours a day by yourself, you are just walking and thinking. I think about what I will do when I leave school, I think about my family and how I miss them and really appreciate them. I think about being alone and enjoying being alone.”
Back home in Auckland, there is the stress of high aspirations at school and of continuing to master English. But out here – focusing on the route ahead, the rhythm of each step, the weather – life is soothing and meditative.
A young woman alone in the hills: is it wise? “I have to say, I haven’t really been alone,” she says. “Every day I meet new people and they look after you. It’s like a big hiking family. You’re all experiencing the same thing.” Strangers on the trail quickly become friends and allies.
Those relationships can bridge the gap between safety and disaster. She was walking with a Swedish tramper, Alex, when she crossed the Taramakau, a braided river on the western side of the Main Divide. It had been raining, the river was up and she almost got washed away. Alex grabbed her and pulled her to the riverbank.
“After that, I got out of the river and just sat there and thought, ‘I’m done with this, I’m 17 and I almost killed myself. This is crazy.’” The moment of despair didn’t last. Freezing and soaking wet, she and the Swede pushed on.
We’d first met Dennison a couple of weeks before, at Blue Lake in Nelson Lakes National Park. Our party of four were five days into a week-long tramp from Lewis Pass to Lake Rotoiti, and had passed two solitary New Zealand trampers out in the hills for a couple of days, a Kiwi family returning from spending Christmas Day in the bush, and a couple of uncommunicative American backpackers. We were looking forward to getting over Waiau Pass and down to the lake – a place of spectacular beauty that we’d last visited 30 years before. We’d even thought – naively – that we might take a night off from fly camping and grab a bunk in the Department of Conservation (DoC) hut.
But the place was teeming. The 16-bunk hut was full (four slept on the floor that night), tents were dotted all around, and ground trails left by admirers threaded around the edge of the fragile lake. Not all were Te Araroa walkers – Dennison thinks that of those at Blue Lake that night, about 10 were “TA”. Many people were doing shorter trips, including the popular 80km Travers-Sabine Circuit.
SUMMER PULSE OF SOUTHBOUND WALKERS
Despite posters in the hut explaining how Niwa scientists had proved the water in the lake to be the clearest in the world (with visibility of 70-80m), and DoC signs pleading for visitors not to swim or wash in it, one tramper was spotted carting a bucket of washed clothing back to the hut.
Dennison had stopped to chat to us near the lakefront, keen to know if we had come over Waiau Pass, one of the most challenging legs of Te Araroa. The track to the pass includes a high sidle above bluffs that drop into Lake Constance, where English tramper Andrew Wyatt fell to his death two years ago. (Dennison told us later, when we met again at Comyns Hut, that her trip over the pass had gone well, with seven other Te Araroa walkers crossing it the same morning. A mini-United Nations summit had occurred at the top, with Dennison the sole Kiwi among Spaniards, Danes and Israelis.)
Thanks to our chance conversation with her, our party of four belatedly discovered that from Waiau Pass and for the remaining legs of our trip – down the Sabine River, over Travers Saddle and down the Travers River to St Arnaud – our path was also the Te Araroa path, and that we were walking north into the summer pulse of southbound TA walkers.
By Dennison’s estimate, 90% of those on the trail are overseas visitors. The DoC hut books bear the signatures of TA walkers from the US, Italy, the Czech Republic, UK, Germany, Japan, France, Poland, China, Belarus and Russia. We met one British tramper from Newcastle who’d flown to Auckland with his backpack, picked up the trail right outside the airport, and started tramping to Bluff.
Just three years after it was formally opened, Te Araroa was described by National Geographic as “one of the best places for a long walk on the planet”, and ranked among the world’s top 20 trails, alongside the famed 4200km Pacific Crest Trail. In 2015, CNN listed Te Araroa as one of the world’s top 10 long trails, along with the 3500km Appalachian Trail and the 6200km Sentiero in Italy.
It’s hard to find out precise numbers – Te Araroa walkers are asked to register but not all do. Te Araroa Trust chief executive Rob Wakelin says the number of “through walkers” – those planning to complete the entire trip – is 350 this year, up from 200 last year, 100 the year before and 60 before that. But no one knows how many people are doing just one island, or how many are like Dennison and doing ambitious sections of the trail.
For Shannon Hawthorne, 26, and Myles Beyer, 27, outdoor enthusiasts from Montana who were members of our overnight community at Comyns Hut – Te Araroa is “a pretty affordable” way to see the country. Like most Te Araroa walkers they paid just $92 to DoC for a six-month pass, which entitles them to stay in as many huts as they like within New Zealand’s unique backcountry network of huts (except those on Great Walks or with booking systems) – including the 73 DoC huts along the Te Araroa trail.
Canadian Etienne LeBlanc, 23, set out in early December with the goal of walking the entire 3000km distance to Bluff, but was foiled in the Waikato by a knee injury. He’d restarted in Canterbury after an enforced rest just a few days before we met him and still hopes to make it to Bluff. “There is a nice thing about long trails in that there is always a community of walkers,” he says. “That appeals to me – moving slowly with a community.”
Last summer Palmerston North trampers Anthony Behrens and Fiona Burleigh completed the South Island section of Te Araroa, after having initially planned to fly to the other side of the world to walk Spain’s El Camino de Santiago. “The idea of a long walk became a bit of an obsession,” Behrens says. They needed a purpose and so their walk – which he blogged about en route – aimed to raise awareness of the endangered whio (blue duck).
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Behrens, a web and graphic designer.
“I would describe it as staggering, the impact it has had on me. I don’t know if that’s because I’m an obsessive, but it has completely changed the way I look at myself and the world around me. I am really happy just to take my time because of it, to look at the close things, the little things, the small stories. It really surprised me that every day I could sit down and write a story, yet all we did was walk … It’s kind of flipped the universe around for me. It’s the rhythm, the understanding.
“The step, step, step is good for your body, for your mind, for the clarification of your thoughts. The understanding of pain, the understanding of being somewhere. It wasn’t about getting to the place, it was about the journey.”
Says Chapple: “You learn a lot when you unroll slowly through New Zealand … You pick up the vibe of Aotearoa itself.”
SPREADING THE LOAD
Despite the pressure of numbers at Blue Lake and in the Sabine and Travers valleys, Te Araroa has, in other places, spread the load of backcountry trampers into previously ignored areas. Robin McNeill, Southland tramper and president of the Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC), recalls in the early days of the Te Araroa crusade, Chapple mooting a route that went further west into the Southern Alps. FMC baulked, saying it would cannibalise existing tracks valued by backcountry enthusiasts.
“To his credit, Geoff listened to what we said and realised it had to come eastwards out of the Main Divide and into places where there would be benefits for communities and shops and where it would be manageable for a lot more people than just hardened trampers.
“So we had a win, protecting the areas we were concerned about from overuse and Geoff got a much better track that was more suitable for what he wanted…
“Geoff was smart enough to work with the locals and win everyone over.”
The upshot was that Te Araroa helped open up previously hard-to-reach areas such as Southland’s Takitimu Mountains, an area locked in by farms with no guaranteed access for recreation. That has brought real benefits for locals who can now make use of these places for day and weekend walkers, says McNeill.
DoC’s recreation manager, Gavin Walker, says the same is true of Marlborough’s Richmond Ranges (where the occupancy of previously little-used huts has doubled as a result of Te Araroa), the Hakatere Conservation Park and, in Northland, where tramping tracks tend to be eschewed by New Zealanders who see the north as a beach destination.
And although the number of Te Araroa walkers is just a tiny subset of New Zealand’s booming tourist market, it has helped push useful amounts of spending into the small settlements that lie along its path.
At Colac Bay on the Southland coast, tavern and camping ground owner Warren Bevin says “it’s good for us. It’s just another string to our bow … If [TA trampers] make the effort to stop here, we look after them. They’re doing the hard yards.”
At the other end of the country, Eileen Ratcliffe at the Ahipara Holiday Camp speaks of the “amazing” growth in numbers that came through at the start of the walking season in November and December. Trampers often limp into her camp at the end of the gruelling 90 Mile Beach section exhausted and with damaged feet, needing time to heal before continuing. “It’s a good thing,” she says of the trail, “but they don’t spend much.”
Te Araroa Trust’s Wakelin says small towns along the trail are becoming aware of the growing market of TA walkers. “Every week I get dozens of requests to list B&Bs and so on … For some of them they are offering formal accommodation, others just want to open their houses [to walkers].”
Walker says while the number of walkers and volume of spending in rural towns along the route is small, the economic contribution in some places may be the “difference between the dairy being able to remain open or the petrol station viable”.
As the humble beginnings of the Central Otago Rail Trail showed, such ventures can provide just enough reassurance for locals to “stay around and see a future”.
But Wakelin is wary of digging too deep into arguments about economic benefits and multiplier effects.
“People do a lot of comparing of us to the cycle trails, which isn’t really appropriate. They are a tourism product and can be judged on metrics such as the numbers and economic spin-offs. There is probably a more deep and meaningful aspect to Te Araroa … There is a bit more mystique to it, which is as much a challenge to us and an asset. Because we don’t fit into a box, we struggle to get anyone in Government really standing up and taking ownership, and saying ‘I’m going to be the one that makes this succeed.’”
Wakelin says the recognition by CNN and National Geographic puts Te Araroa “absolutely on the radar” of international tourism. It’s tough – and walkers such as Hawthorne and Beyer attest to that – with the inherent dangers of alpine passes and rivers, and New Zealand’s savagely changeable weather.
“But make no bones about it,” says Wakelin, “Te Araroa has absolutely all the ingredients to be the best single long walk in the world.”
Yet the challenges and threats are apparent to anyone who loves the backcountry. Given the rising international profile of New Zealand as a hiking destination, do we risk becoming too popular for our own good? At what point are we in danger, as Myles Beyer says has occurred in the likes of Yellowstone National Park, of “loving our parks to death”?
No doubt the experience of moving slowly and self-sufficiently through the natural environment is immensely rewarding for those who fly halfway around the world to get it. But when the visitor is parting with less than $100 in return for access to our world-renowned network of backcountry huts (or a grand $122 for a 12-month hut pass), and is charged nothing at all to walk over tracks that have been developed over generations by volunteers and taxpayer money, the question has to be asked: who is paying, and who is benefiting?
KIWIS CRAMMED OUT
Backcountry huts “have always had the unfailing ability to get to the very core of what it means to be a New Zealander from the moment one walks in the door,” wrote former Prime Minister Helen Clark in the foreword to Shelter from the Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts, a book by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown and Geoff Spearpoint that celebrates the history and heritage of the huts. But what happens when those New Zealanders can barely get in the door – let alone get a bunk – because the hut in which they seek shelter is overflowing with tourists brandishing all-you-can-eat backcountry passes or no hut passes at all?
DoC estimates that about 8% of overseas visitors to New Zealand go on some kind of multi-day tramp – mostly on the Great Walks such as the Milford, Kepler, Abel Tasman and Routeburn tracks. That sounds like a small proportion but, as Walker points out, it equates to 135,000 people every year. Tourism New Zealand figures suggest the number of “walking and hiking” visitors to New Zealand has declined since 2009 (putting the annual average at 254,000), but it sees “significant growth opportunities” for this market.
Barnett and co-writer Chris MacLean warned in their 2014 book Tramping: A New Zealand History that the backcountry was at risk from “unlimited Tolkien-inspired tourism”, with overcrowded huts and tracks undermining the experience of nature for visitors and locals alike.
“A government that neglects to co-ordinate tourism with its impact on the conservation estate risks killing the golden goose,” they wrote.
These issues are on the mind of DoC director-general Lou Sanson, who had his own summer experience of overcrowding in the hills. He walked the Routeburn, which was “chocker”, and heard from an Aucklander who told him of his life-long aspiration to walk the track, but how hard it had been to get a booking on the iconic Fiordland tramp at a time that suited.
“He said, ‘It’s a bit like going to a Rolling Stones concert to get those peak dates.’ You’ve got to be in.”
He also witnessed first-hand the problem of freeloading visitors camping illegally on the track. Hut wardens can issue infringement notices, but enforcement is difficult – although Sanson says he’s talking to the NZ Customs Service about how to put some teeth into the system.
Despite low DoC hut fees – from $5 for a night in a standard hut to $15 for a serviced hut (although huts on the Great Walks range from $32 to $54 a night) – DoC estimates as few as 30% of users actually pay in huts where there is no warden, which is the case in most of DoC’s 956 huts.
Unintended consequences have occurred as a result of inspired policies. “On the Great Walks we have free access for under-18s,” says Sanson. “But now we have Singaporean and Australian schools taking advantage of that free access that was set up to encourage schoolchildren and their mums and dads in New Zealand to go on the Great Walks …
“One of the issues that has become clear to me is that there are some websites – ‘how to do New Zealand on $30 a day’ – and our huts form a major part of that advice to backpackers. My question is, ‘does New Zealand want tourism that’s surviving on $30 a night or do we want to target tourism that survives on $300 a night?’”
International tourist numbers have surged from two million to three million over the past 13 years, and are predicted to hit four million in the next five years, says Sanson. “We need to think strategically about how we deal with the increase in international tourism, but make sure there is space for the Kiwis who pay for all this.”
Under DoC’s legislation, it can only recover the cost of additional facilities and can’t charge for tracks. “Those are facilities provided by the New Zealand Government for international visitors and domestic users alike,” says Sanson.
He says DoC is working with the tourism industry, Tourism New Zealand and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment on “how the New Zealand taxpayer sees more of a commitment from international visitors to paying for this first- rate infrastructure”.
He hints at the possibility of a differential pricing system being introduced for backcountry huts to help protect Kiwis’ access. “We are moving to the stage where we have to look at this, because it may be quite unsustainable if you put another million people on top of it,” Sanson says.
Many countries make it cheaper for locals to experience their natural treasures. In the province of British Columbia, a Canadian driving licence entitles the holder to a 40% discount on park entry; Tasmanians also have discounted park passes for locals.
No decisions have yet been made, he says, but he’s aiming to have “solutions” by April. “We can’t go through another season where we have the amount of illegal camping going on and Kiwis struggling to get into some of these places.”
Our backcountry, acknowledges Sanson, is suffering from its own success.
“In a nutshell, New Zealand, through our marketing and particularly the Great Walks and Te Araroa brands, has created these huge success stories which the world now wants to participate in.
“The big issue for the Department of Conservation is many of these products were built with Kiwi families in mind. We just really need to think through how the world is coming to us, but how do we still create a space for that Kiwi mum and dad tramper.”
TE ARAROA TRAIL
• Although the straight-line distance from Cape Reinga to Bluff is 1475km, the trail covers 3000km.
• Fast trampers complete it in 120 days, but a more moderate pace is 160 days.
• Most travel from north to south, starting at Cape Reinga in mid-November or December, and travelling through the South Island’s more challenging climate from January to April.
• About half of Te Araroa is on Department of Conservation tracks, 20% is on council land, 15% is on private land and 15% is road walking.
• 10% of the trail is classified as a “route”, meaning advanced backcountry skills are advisable.
• The trail has about 300 sections.
• The trail includes some road walking, where the Te Araroa Trust has not yet been able to negotiate access over private land, but improvements are continuing. The long-term goal is for the entire trail to be off-road.
Read more: teararoa.org.nz, newzealandonfoot.com, whiowhio.weebly.com, A Walking Guide to New Zealand’s Long Trail: Te Araroa, by Geoff Chapple (Random House)
‘Home’ is where the hut is
Backcountry shelters are part of the experience.
New Zealand’s backcountry huts have been described as the most extensive and impressive in the world. To see a hut appear in the distance after a long day on foot – nestled on a terrace above a river, snuggled at bush line, or amid alpine tussocks – is to feel that the day’s work is done. Ahead, there is safety, comfort, shelter and the chance to dry out.
Writer Mark Pickering once wrote that opening the hut door at the end of a day’s tramping feels like “a homecoming”. But it is a shared home: our huts are public places – the door is unlocked to all who need refuge. Strangers sleep beside strangers in bunks – as author Shaun Barnett observes, much like staying on a marae.
Former Federated Mountain Club president Richard Davies wrote in the foreword to Shelter from the Storm, by Barnett, Geoff Spearpoint and Rob Brown, that our huts sit at the heart of New Zealanders’ interaction with the wilderness, and form the centrepiece of most trips into the mountains.
Pickering wrote of huts in his book, A Tramper’s Journey: “They are durable and vulnerable, a bit like the people who use them, I suppose.
“A few get blown to oblivion but most hang on in there, and even with years of neglect they can still manage to do the job they were set down on this earth for.”
DoC has responsibility for almost 1000 huts. They range from basic shelters and classic six-bunkers with a small bench, a fireplace and a long drop toilet to – at the Great Walk end of the spectrum – relatively palatial places with flushing toilets and gas stoves.
The cost to use a hut goes from nothing in a basic hut, to $54 for a booked bunk in a Milford, Routeburn or Kepler track hut.
DoC’s revenue from the sale of hut tickets and annual or six-month hut passes was $7.55 million in the 2014/15 year, of which $5.8 million was from passes for the nine Great Walks.
Hiking and writing
Americans’ odyssey may have been different without local knowledge.
Margaret Hedderman came to New Zealand to walk – pure and simple. The 29-year-old Colorado marketing co-ordinator and writer walked the Te Araroa trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff in the summer of 2014-15 with her 67-year-old father, Bobby.
She’d never embarked on such an odyssey, although she had done plenty of shorter hikes in the US. She’d wanted to come to New Zealand for years, and when she heard about Te Araroa in 2010 (before it opened formally in 2011), “I just kind of knew I had to do it.”
She created a literary project around her trip – she wrote a blog and sent articles from the trail back to US publications, produced a 16-part video series that aired on local TV in Colorado, and is now working on a book about the experience. Te Araroa Trust sponsored her walk.
It took almost five months. She admits she hadn’t really known what to expect of the trail. “I don’t think I’ve ever walked through that much mud in my life. I’ve never seen that much mud …
“The whole North Island was mud.”
The rainforests were tough too. “I live in the Rocky Mountains with big views and a very open landscape. I found the rainforest incredibly claustrophobic – a beautiful environment and wonderful ecosystem, but it really weighed on me, not being able to see more than 10 feet, or sometimes not being able to see the sky.
“It was just such a foreign environment and such a different kind of walking experience to what I was used to.”
And although the South Island stretch provided a more familiar landscape, the trail included hazards that she fears are underestimated by some walkers. She recalls being in Blue Lake hut, preparing to cross Waiau Pass the next day. There had been snow, and there was a party of Wellington Tramping Club trampers in the hut. They were waiting until conditions improved before crossing and urged the Heddermans to hold back too. The pass is steep, as is the traverse across the snowgrass-clad flank above Lake Constance. She’s sure that without the benefit of local knowledge they would have pushed on that day.
“Most well-developed hiking trails [in the US] seek to avoid things that could kill people.”
On Te Araroa there are river crossings and high passes and a few stretches of unpleasant road walking (she and her father opted to hitchhike these); many of the tracks are rudimentary, and in some cases, such as up the Deception River on the west of the Main Divide, the track is actually a river.
“I noticed with a lot of through hikers that they didn’t know a lot about the environment they were walking through … They didn’t know about Waiau Pass, which can be difficult and dangerous. I met people who had done the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, and I didn’t think they were prepared enough. Some were so focused on lightweight [packs] that they didn’t have enough gear to fall back on.”
The motivations of those she met on the trail varied widely – some were seeking “healing through nature”, some were focused on achieving a goal, some were simply addicted to long-distance trails.
In her case, she wanted to see if she could do it. She did, so has it changed her?
“I think I remembered how determined I can be.”
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