Four seasons on one track   8 Dec 2006

Rachel Tiffen

New Zealanders are world-renowned for their love of the great outdoors, so it follows that we are a nation of trampers. Rachel Tiffen takes a peek at what all the fuss is about.

Pack on back, boots on feet, not a care in the world. One day you might be navigating the wind-whipped shoreline of Rakiura (Stewart) Island. The next, the lush, green bush of Fiordland. A couple of weeks down the track you’re teetering on the edge of a mighty Tongariro crater. New Zealand is packed full of inspiring terrain, but for the best view you’ve got to get amongst it. And don’t expect luxury. It’s hard beds and nuggety earth. It’s soggy feet and mildewy clothing. It’s tinned or freeze-dried cuisine, blisters, mozzie bites, a touch of sunburn or frostbite if you’re extra lucky… It can be rough, it can be wet, and it certainly ain’t gonna make Gordon Ramsey’s next bestseller or Karen Walker’s latest range, but it’s real. By gosh, it’s New Zealand at its rugged best. It’s tramping.

It’s getting back to nature and seeing the nation in its unabashed, naked glory. It’s tracing the 12,500 kilometres of walkways – over land, sand and riverbed – that permeate North, South and Stewart like veins on weathered limbs. We legislate to protect these tracks. We answer to a Prime Minister who tramps religiously and opens new huts.

In 2002 the Government committed $349 million to improving facilities over a decade. Each year, the Department of Conservation puts in $50 million worth of maintenance work. And it pays off. Last year Fiordland National Park alone was worth $228 million, according to a DOC series on the economic contribution of major conservation areas. This was thanks to 560,000 day visitors and 33,000 over-nighters, who respectively spent 1.3 and 3.8 more nights in the region than they would have in the absence of the park.

At Nelson’s Abel Tasman Park, $45 million was churned out and 370 jobs created; after $1.2million of DOC funds went in. At Marlborough’s Queen Charlotte track $0.2 million was spent to rack up $9.4million in output and 98 extra jobs. Reasons for indulging are varied. We tramp for fun, we tramp for fitness, we tramp for scroggin. Teachers take school trips, lovers test relationship boundaries, retired folk make use of newfound free time.

Pick up a travel brochure, chuck a Peter Jackson special in the DVD player, or google "New Zealand" and "scenery" and appreciate the marketed lure. Granted, the "Great Walks" are the best known – visit the likes of the Tongariro, Lake Waikaremoana and the Abel Tasman to see why they’re not just "good" – but don’t forget the little guys.

The special stuff won’t fall in your lap. Majestic, snow-capped mountains and red-rimmed craters won’t jut from arterial routes willy nilly, you will have to seek them out. "To see awe-inspiring landscapes unobstructed, and for as long as you want to stare at them, the only way to go is tramp," says British author Gillian Orrell, in her best-selling book, New Boots in New Zealand.

DOC Heritage Appreciation Department manager Dave Jane says New Zealand is compact but diverse, characterised by forest-clad valleys stemming from a central range of mountains. "This does provide the perfect setting for tramping or hiking," he says. But you have to be psyched for the sore shoulders, weary legs, soggy feet and rough sleeps. You have to dress for the elements, prepare for the worst and heed the advise of DOC staff at all times – they are gods of the land.

You must carry on back what you want to put in mouth. You must squat for relief. But it’s worth the effort. Te Anau’s Ray Willett can vouch for that. With nearly half a century of tramping up his hardy sleeves, the 70-year-old mountain goat has been guiding intrepid souls since the 1950s. He first put boot on track as a teenaged Boy Scout and still helps the Fiordland DOC crew when they are short. He tramps more with mates and family or for himself these days – blocking his diary out with gut-busters such as the 60km Kepler Challenge, the Coast to Coast and the 376km three-day Goldrush – but certainly has a tale or 12 from years gone by.

For Willett, tramping is all about the anticipation. "Of emerging from the bush line," he explains. "You spend an hour or two zigzagging between bush and then you see that opening ahead of you and that’s the magic moment. You have that magic mountain landscape around you and you can see for miles."

Jimmy Johnson knows the feeling. He has been tramping the Tongariro Track and the Northern Circuit for 16 years since emigrating from England, but still gets a shiver down his spine each time he’s atop the Red Summit crater – as if seeing it for the first time. "I have travelled and hiked in over 40 different countries, but I still get it [shiver]. The stark landscape of the Tongariro Crossing thrills many trampers in particular, as they negotiate the climbs passing the Ngauruhoe volcano to stand and look out over the lava fields," he says.

On the way to this vista, trampers are treated to views of Mt Taranaki to the west, the Ruahine range to the southeast and Mt Edgecombe to the north – on a good day. "It is even whispered by some that if the wind is in the right direction you can see the Sky Tower in Auckland!" he says.

Hugely marketed as "New Zealand’s finest one-day walk", the Tongariro Crossing follows a challenging series of climbs and dives across the volcanic north. Up to 50,000 people trek it each year, largely over the summer. This is massive, when compared with the 11,000 who visit Fiordland’s Milford Track, or the 7,000 who walk the Kepler, or the same again on the Routeburn.

Back down south, Willett staunchly stresses that size and fame are not every-thing. "What I really emphasise is that the Milford Track is an icon, you know, like the pyramids in Egypt and so on, but there are so many other wonderful places in the [Fiordland] park."

Take, for example, the Tuatapere Hump Ridge track, he says. Just an hour’s drive from Te Anau, this community-driven wonder has "a little bit of everything". "It really is a special trip. It just hasn’t really hit the headlines yet."

Unlike many other tracks set up by DOC, this three-day trek was dreamed up, fund-raised for and established by locals. The track follows a scenic loop 890m up to the Hump Ridge and Okaka Hut – through sandstone tors and mountain tarns – and boasts panoramic views of Stewart Island, the Southern Ocean and wild southwest Fiordland along the way. It’s a track not entirely dictated by weather, so a good one to bank on.

Willett has lost count how many times he’s watched trampers sit ‘round "quivering in anticipation", advised against braving the elements. Silly really, when the Hump Ridge is just down the road. But it brings us to a crucial point. The weather. New Zealand’s is not to be trifled with. Crowded House sang about it for a reason – we really do experience ‘four seasons in one day’. Hamilton tramper Ruth Barrett says our proximity to Australia can also work against us. "Some tourists think it’s a nice hot country like Australia, but it can be terrible!" Last February – supposedly the height of Kiwi summer – she walked a stretch of the Routeburn track, while it snowed in Queenstown. "I know that’s the old cliché, but they NEED to have some warm clothing with them."

Our friend from DOC vehemently agrees. "The New Zealand landscape is not one to be treated lightly," Jane says. He urges every person planning a tramp to research the region, ensure they have appropriate apparel and equipment; and to check the weather forecast regularly. This warning is sounded time and time again, but every year people get lost, injured and killed unnecessarily.

Jimmy Johnson recalls a particularly nasty January a couple of years back, when 15 different search and rescue operations were launched in Tongariro. "Most of these were for day walkers. It’s not a test of survival after all!"

Nor is it a dumping ground. That is the biggest bone of contention among DOC staff and trampers. The untouched nature of our landscape should be preserved and those privileged enough to enjoy it should leave no mark. Orrell summarises this point well in her book: "The aim is to leave no trace of yourself behind. This is not always achievable, given that you’re likely to encounter mud and leave a few foot-prints in it. But footprints should be all." After all, DOC and other track staff work tirelessly to ensure facilities are in pristine order.

These have improved markedly since the 1960s, when tramping hit the mainstream market. Previously it was the domain of tramping and alpine club members, but now even the biggest exercise rookie can find a track that suits. It was the New Zealand Forest Service and National Parks Service that kick-started the formation of our walkways, with the development of thousands of kilometres of tracks for wild animal control. These basic facilities were adopted by trampers and are the backbone of our nation’s hut and track network. But as the popularity of the sport grew, so did the need for more facilities.

"By the 1990s there was pressure to provide a range of opportunities, from the comfortable huts and easy graded tracks to the more challenging routes and basic facilities that had been derigueur in earlier days," Jane expands. Nowadays your average hut bears mattress-clad bunks, gas heaters, gas cookers, water and a toilet. During the Great Walk "season" – Labour weekend to Queen’s Birthday Weekend – hut wardens are on hand to monitor the weather, act as emergency contacts, do minor hut and track maintenance and to check passes. An adult pays about $20 per night to stay in a hut, $15 to camp and it’s cheaper to pay in advance.

If one wants the scenery minus the "roughing it", there are private operators who will carry packs and cook food for a fee. But to enjoy tramping "the way New Zealand used to be", you can’t go past Stewart Island. "It’s the quiet, tranquil way of life," says Rakiura National Park ranger Ann Pullen, of the island’s lure.

Floating off the heel of the South Island, Stewart Island was first dubbed Rakiura Island, "Land of the Glowing Skies", by Polynesian settlers – after its amazing sunrises, sunsets and occasional Aurora Australis. However true to Colonial form, this was anglicised in honour of sealing ship officer, William Stewart, who began charting its southern coast on an expedition in the early 1800s.

This often forgotten third island has nearly 10 times as much walkway as it does road, and is largely blanketed by native bush, rainforest, sand dunes and wetlands – making it a regular tramper’s paradise. In March 2002, 85 per cent of the island was christened Rakiura National Park – now the least populated of the Great Walks.

Once described as "an actual piece of the primeval world", Stewart Island is delightfully untouched with tramping treasures such as the frond-filled Fern Gully Track and Ulva Island, with its abundance of birds, in store. This predator-free sanctuary is a must for native bird fans, with rare species such as the ancient South Island Saddleback having been introduced there.

As locals will tell you, Stewart Island is one of New Zealand’s best-kept secrets and a great chance to get back to nature. But there are several others waiting to be discovered. Can’t decide which to do first? Stay tuned. Plans are afoot to build a track stretching the length of the country.

Do it the rough way, I dare you.

– NZinspired magazine, December 06/January 07

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