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Scott Point/Tiriparepa Point, above Ninety Mile Beach, on the Te Araroa Trail. Photo/Getty Images

Can Te Araroa Trail survive the influx of hikers?

New Zealand’s 3000km Te Araroa walking trail is becoming a major drawcard for hikers, but is it sustainable?

“There are some very special places,” the gruff and burly American says, as he reminisces about his wanderings through the heartland of New Zealand along the 3000km Te Araroa Trail. He talks of “spectacular backcountry regions” and “some very kind and generous souls”, but Scott Grierson, who attempted the trail last season with his young family, also mentions the “largely neglected” route, the expense, hazardous road walking and freedom-camping bans.

“The walking routes are sketchy at best, generally poorly designed, poorly constructed and abysmally maintained. Shocking and appalling best describe a great many sections, because of the destruction to the fragile alpine environments caused by irresponsible trail management and because of the conditions hikers are subjected to,” says Grierson, who hails from the US state of Maine and boasts an outdoor résumé that includes three hikes of the US long-distance Appalachian Trail.

Grierson claims there is “too much rosy spin” on Te Araroa that doesn’t match the reality of a trail that, according to him, is “not remotely” on a par with those in the US and Europe. “The route cannot handle the numbers it currently has, yet more and more hikers are being encouraged to use it,” he says. The publicity is mainly through blogs and pretty pictures posted on social media.

Read more: Should we limit the number of visitors to NZ? | Price hike for Great Walks: More money, fewer tourists | How many tourists are too many?

Hikers on the Mt Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Photo/Oneshot

Grierson is just one out of the about 1190 through-walkers who took on New Zealand’s “Long Pathway” over the 2018-19 season. The trail, which officially opened in 2011, starts at Cape Reinga in the north, then tracks 3000km down the country to Bluff, taking in stunning beaches, muddy forests, cities and small settlements, volcanic landscapes and majestic mountains. Consisting of backcountry tramping tracks, more manicured trails and a lot of road walking (14% of the trail), Te Araroa is 60% Department of Conservation (DoC) land, with 40% owned by private landowners, councils and iwi.

In 2014, National Geographic named Te Araroa one of the world’s best hikes; a year later, CNN listed it in its top-10 long-distance trails. As a result of these commendations and praise on social media, there’s been a boom in hikers tying up their boot laces to take on Te Araroa. Since the 2015-16 season, there has been an almost 50% increase in the number of through-walkers, with a year-on-year growth rate of about 200 trampers, says Mark Weatherall, chief executive of the Te Araroa Trust, which manages the trail. That doesn’t account for the unidentified number of walkers who choose to do smaller sections, or the four million Kiwis or 1.8 million international visitors who seek out New Zealand’s wild, green spaces, some of which form parts of the trail.

“We don’t actively promote or market the trail to the world; it’s all word of mouth,” Weatherall says, noting that 75% of the past season’s trampers were from 31 countries.

It’s no secret that New Zealand tourism has been booming, with 5.1 million tourists forecast to visit every year by 2025. It’s an industry that contributes $15.9 billion to GDP and employs 8% of the country’s workforce. Similarly, the popularity of Te Araroa has a clear economic impact when it costs $7000-$10,000 to through-hike. Website trailangel.co.nz, which connects trampers with volunteers who provide rides, a hot drink or a camp site, has cited the boost to the Northland economy, especially outside the normal tourist season, and new shops have popped up in Paekākāriki following the 2016 opening of Te Araroa’s 10km escarpment track on the Kāpiti Coast, which 40,000 people walked last season, Weatherall says.

A bovine escapee on a mudslide on Mt Tamahunga Track.

But with the growing popularity of Te Araroa come challenges. “We are very concerned about the impact of the trail on isolated areas such as the Richmond Range [between Nelson and Blenheim], because there isn’t the infrastructure,” says Palmerston North-based trail angel and conservationist Fiona Burleigh, a former Te Araroa hiker. “We’ve heard stories about 20 people staying at six-bunk huts. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was water and tent space, but many of the Richmond huts are alpine and in a delicate environment.”

The trails and tracks themselves are another concern, she says. “Some older tracks, such as the Tararua and Richmond ranges, are now suffering from the extra foot traffic.” Meanwhile, there are other conservation issues such as the possible spread by hikers of kauri-dieback disease, didymo and the “next big infection that will hit our wild places”, Burleigh says.

Toilets, too, are a pressing issue, says British walker Carina Rutherford. She found toilets at some of the more popular huts on the South Island became “rather full”. “If more walkers are expected in coming years, this is something that will need addressing to prevent people from using the ‘au naturel’ option and not using a spade – something I came across a couple of times.”

Trail infrastructure, track maintenance, conservation and inappropriate hiker behaviour (including illegal camping and not paying for a backcountry hut pass) are legitimate concerns as tramper numbers swell, Weatherall says. “I have asked: how many tourists, in general, are too many? But no one wants to answer that question. For New Zealand, it’s a big question, and Te Araroa is only part of that question. I don’t know if there is a magic number, but I don’t think we are there yet. But if Te Araroa continues to grow, these issues will be bigger.”

Mark Weatherall. Photo/Newspix

At a crossroads

The trail and the trust are at a crossroads, Weatherall says, admitting the trail is “fragile” at this point in its evolution. And as the only paid employee alongside a small group of volunteers, he says there are “sustainability challenges” around the trust’s ability to manage the trail. “The concept is great, but unless we can attract support and funding, it will become a real challenge.”

The trust relies on donations, charity gaming and community grants, with the funds going towards annual updates of trail notes and maps, liaison with stakeholders/landowners to ensure trail access, and the maintenance of land not under DoC control. It cost the trust $6000 to fix the recent slips on the escarpment track, and gorse along the Waikato section has to be cleared two to three times a year at a cost of about $5000 a time, Weatherall says.

As part of doing Te Araroa, walkers are invited to donate $250 to the trust for each island they tramp. In the last financial year, Weatherall says, the trust received $50,000 in donations; of the almost 1200 through-walkers in the last season, only 167 donated, and more than half of them were Kiwis. “Part of the feedback is walkers say they don’t donate because they don’t know where the money goes. As a trust, we need to do a better job communicating about this.”

Geoff Chapple, the brains and founder of the trail, disagrees Te Araroa is a victim of its own success, but he acknowledges it doesn’t have the resources and volunteer numbers that other international long-distance trails have. “The Appalachian Trail, of comparable length, has something like 14 full-time management employees, volunteer workers by the thousand, and federal government money supporting both its operational and capital budgets.”

Geoff Chapple. Photo/Amos Chapple/Supplied

In 2000, Chapple won a Churchill Fellowship to visit five of the world’s top long-distance trails to look at their history, management and membership, finding that the ones most similar to Te Araroa “all put their original route through cheaply, on handshake agreements and on back roads, just to establish the trail’s viability”.

“That’s what we did, too,” he says.

But Chapple also found that not all trails are immune to sustainability challenges. The 3218km Appalachian Trail, in the eastern US, connected Maine to Georgia in 1937, but in the 1950s and 60s its future looked very uncertain, says Jordan Bowman, spokesperson for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which manages it. “More and more of the trail that was originally on private land by virtue of handshake agreements with landowners was being pushed onto roads.” It required legislation before a framework to provide permanent protection of the trail was created.

Now, the trail is almost completely on public property, with more than 6000 volunteers committing about 200,000 hours each year to help repair, maintain and monitor the trail, which is hiked in parts by three million people a year and more than 1200 through-walkers. Overcrowding is an issue, especially balancing that with conservation, and is addressed through visitor use management planning, Bowman says, including an online campsite registration system, improved campsite design and education. Limiting the number of walkers is not being formally considered, although a quota has been introduced for the total number of Appalachian Trail hikers entering Baxter State Park, at its northern terminus in Maine.

“The future of the Appalachian Trail can never be taken for granted. If there is not broad public and political support for the trail, the trail as a connected and protected entity could disappear,” Bowman says. “To preserve it, we have found partnerships essential and focus on education … [and] empower volunteers.”

The Queen Charlotte Track. Photo/Getty Images

Finding a path forward

One of Te Araroa’s most important partnerships is with DoC and, Weatherall says, the government department has become more committed to the trail.

DoC is addressing the challenge of managing the “wave or bulge” of walkers that move up or down the country along the trail, says Steve Taylor, DoC’s director of heritage and visitors.

“As the bulge is only for a short period of time during the year, the solution is not necessarily to increase infrastructure that is then underused for the remainder of the year.

“DoC’s approach is to increase its operational budget over the peak visitor months, with additional resources and ranger presence targeted at high-pressure sites.”

Taylor adds that DoC is committed to ensuring the protection of New Zealand’s natural and historic heritage from increased visitor numbers and invested an extra $3.6 million in 2018/19 to maintain facilities on public conservation land, but also calls for a collaborative approach to addressing the issues.

Jan Finlayson. Photo/Supplied

However, Jan Finlayson, vice-president of New Zealand’s Federated Mountain Clubs, is concerned about the possible “domestication” of the trail, seen increasingly in other areas of the New Zealand wilderness where trails are made more accessible for less capable walkers. “Taming tracks and the wilderness isn’t kind to the trail or our relationship with nature. It creates a highway to charge through without cause to stop and examine where you are and removes the need to upskill and navigate.

“We need to be mindful this is a wild place and DoC and the trust need to stay away from developing it further.”

Indeed, Finlayson believes that a simple plan for development and maintenance – which does not include increasing hut capacity – will have the consequence of being a naturally self-limiting factor. The physical rigours of the track coupled with the five-month time window to complete the trail will work to keep walker numbers down and ensure sustainability, she says.

Federated Mountain Clubs would also support the introduction of a fee to walk Te Araroa, although Finlayson can’t say how much.

For Northland trail angel James Johnston, designing something around the value of the trail will attract possible sponsors, he believes. Emphasising that the trail represents an experience – an opportunity to reflect on one’s life and the world, and to create an appreciation of, and connection with, the environment – will help get sponsors, whether government or private companies, on board to fund and protect the trail for future walkers. “The trail is valuable. We have to protect it and create opportunities for people to experience it and become connected to the environment.”

Roses Hut on the Motatapu Alpine Track. Photo/Alamy

For its part, and despite its limitations, Weatherall says the trust is taking a stand to address the challenges, drawing up a five-pronged strategy document considering infrastructure, communications and sustainability. A code of behaviour for walkers will be produced as posters in huts and accommodation providers, while a permit system is being reviewed. His dream would be for local schools to adopt an area of the trail to help maintain it.

“It’s still a young trail and we’re looking to improve the walking experience, such as reducing road walking to 10% over the next three years. It just takes time and resources. The trail is fragile, yes, but with effort and investment we can take the next step in the evolution of the trail.”

Chapple agrees the time for action is now, as the trail reaches the cusp of a more mature phase. He suggests an independent yearly audit of the trust and trail partners. “That audit should go to Cabinet – a top-level document in the knowledge that Te Araroa’s profile is so high now that its reputation affects the reputation of New Zealand itself as an outdoors destination.”

The walkers will continue to keep coming. The onus now is to ensure there will still be a trail when they arrive.

Katrina Megget is a freelance journalist who walked 2000km of the trail in the last season before injury made her pull out.

This article was first published in the November 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.