Te Araroa Trail - is it paradise lost?
OPINION: At the risk of spoiling the "party" regarding the exponential increase in tourist numbers coming to New Zealand and the burden this is placing on the hut and track network, I would like to single out a crisis I see arising on the renowned Te Araroa Trail.
After visiting some huts in Canterbury this autumn I noted the huge increase in the number of bed-nights attributed to the Te Araroa Trail walkers. A casual read of the hut books in Hurunui Hut, Lake Sumner, and A Frame Hut, Hakatere Conservation Park revealed this information. Both are accessible within half a day's walk from the road end and are popular with Kiwi trampers, particularly family groups for Hurunui Hut and its nearby hotpools.
Hurunui Hut book was full, no room to write my entry, and A Frame Hut nearing the same. The toilet at Hurunui Hut was close to overflowing and would be encouraging users to "go outside" when nature calls.
These huts, and others like them, are receiving large numbers of visitors over the summer months due to the increasing popularity of the Te Araroa Trail, with little planning having gone into the future demands being placed on these facilities.
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The mid section of Te Araroa, which covers the upper South and lower North islands, is becoming a bottleneck for the convergence of SOBO and NOBO walkers (South-Bound and North-Bound) over the peak summer period of late November to late February. This is the corresponding period when Kiwi trampers are in these same areas hoping to get a bunk, especially over the Christmas holiday season.
So how many are walking the trail?
In May this year Te Araroa Trust chief executive Rob Wakelin said, "More than 550 people walked the entire length of the trail over the 2016-2017 summer season ...
"It's a good increase on the 350 people who walked the whole trail in 2015-2016 and the 210 who enjoyed it the year before, so we're pleased with the steady and manageable growth."
There are a number of concerns here. Firstly, the trail trust really does not know how many are actually walking the trail, and neither do I.
There is no booking fee, and although walkers are encouraged to register on the website, many do not. Hut book entries provide a rough estimate as not all walkers use the huts and not all sign in.
Secondly, the increase of 350 to 550 in the last season is a 57 per cent uplift over just one season and furthermore an increase 1800 per cent in just six years from when the trail opened in 2011 for 30 registered walkers.
The trail website states that the peak number expected to walk the track annually is 1200 people, after which they foresee a decline. I'm at a loss to see where they get these figures from or why they expect a decline. Trail walkers will easily pass this "peak" in just three years even if we use the lower figure of a 30 per cent a year increase which is often quoted.
At a 57 per cent a year increase that "peak" will be eclipsed in 18 months.
I think we have a problem.
Take Blue Lake in Nelson Lakes National Park, where the water has been measured as the purest in the southern hemisphere. It has a 16-bunk less than 100m from the shore of this exquisite lake which is directly on the path of Te Araroa.
In 2016 the Nelson Mail reported on the amount of toilet litter found around the hut and lake area and of up to 50 people staying per night at the hut. Undoubtedly some of these walkers are also swimming and washing in the lake.
Nelson Lakes National Park ranger Paul Dulieu said they were "absolutely blown away" by how many Te Araroa trampers were passing through the Blue Lake Hut daily over the summer.
What impact is this phenomenon inflicting on our fragile mountain lands, water quality, and ability of the present infrastructure to cope?
Then there's the social issues – conflict of use with traditional Kiwi trampers.
In five years' time casual Kiwi weekend and holiday trampers will be totally displaced from almost all Department of Conservation (DOC) huts within the orbit of the Te Araroa Trail during the peak summer months (Dec-Feb) by trail walkers, particularly in the upper South Island.
Additionally, with increased publicity of the trail on social media, numbers are set to skyrocket and with it further displacement of Kiwi trampers and a widening environmental problem associated with free-camping when hikers choose to more regularly camp out.
DOC recreation adviser Brendon Clough has said, "We have talked about maybe a special pass for Te Araroa at some stage, but it's pretty early …The more people we can get out in the backcountry and using our facilities the better."
But we don't want that at the expense of our facilities, our environment, and social cohesion. I think DoC and the Te Araroa Trust need to act quickly on the trail's popularity and introduce a fee for non-residents to cover the costs of minimising the concerns I have highlighted and which is commensurate with the privilege of walking the trail and not the ridiculously low annual-hut-pass-fee, a meagre $90, users are purchasing as their contribution.
I believe this fee should be $500-$600, along with a booking system and limit on numbers per season and introduced within two years. The number of walkers needs to be linked to the current facilities, and prohibitions placed on trail walkers using huts in popular areas over the peak holiday period. Trail walkers already carry tents so they are covered for this eventuality.
Introduced it must be though, and soon.
Pat Barrett is a freelance photo-journalist, author, and active tramper-hunter and writes regularly for numerous outdoor publications.
The Dominion Post