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April 2013 Issue
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Highways – and byways – for all

Easy tracks might put off more experienced trampers but they do encourage more people outside. Photo supplied

Is the conservation estate for everyone or, asks Hazel Phillips, is it only for an elite few?

We met Derry Kingston on the Heaphy Track last year. He’s a wiry type, clearly quite fit and strong, and must absolutely cane it along the track when he’s going at full speed.

Derry does car relocations and food drops on the track for trampers and mountain bikers, which leads him to do the track up to three times a week when he’s busy. He breaks up the 78.4km journey by staying at one of the huts – usually Lewis Hut, I think – for one night each trip.

Derry’s 235km weekly ‘walk’ keeps him fit, he says, for his other hobby: “Long-distance tramping”. Seriously.

Not everyone could be so resilient or so fit, and the indomitable Derry isn’t exactly 21 years old, if you know where I’m going with this.

Tramping clubs are full of older folk who are in better condition than us young ‘uns. Even at 70-something, they often put us to shame when it comes to speed and fitness. I put it down to a lifetime of tramping. Some have been doing it since they were kids.

A few tramping buddies in my age group are on the fitter side of fit, too. One decided to do Ruapehu round-the-mountain as an overnight trip “as a bit of training for Oxfam” and walked off the track feeling fresher than ever. Another likes to go for a morning and afternoon run on multi-day tramps just to get rid of the excess energy. He needs a good hard slap, for this is not the behaviour of a sensible individual.

We did a trip to Crosbies Hut in the Coromandel a while back and took the Wainora route out. Towards the track end, close to Kauaeranga Valley Road, it becomes something of a gravel highway and it had just been freshly packed down when we came across it.

One of our group got so angry at the presence of this flattened, easy track that he decided to follow the old track alongside it out of principle, crashing his way through the bush and swearing angrily about the frivolity of DOC spending as he did so. (The swearing was punctuated by him having to spit out the occasional bug or spider that ended up in his open mouth. Hazardous.)

On that gravel highway we passed a long line of people, mums with prams, elderly folk not of the Derry Kingston variety, people who’d just had knee surgery, and plenty of kids. All out for the day enjoying a taste of the outdoors at a moderate pace in a non-threatening manner. The excursion up the gravel highway was an adventure for them, a day out being active and pushing some boundaries. It’s entirely possible these people didn’t get into the bush very often and that stroll was an exciting event that perhaps they only enjoyed a few times a year – if that.

By contrast, our group was out there giving it the bash every weekend and the muddy track up to Crosbies was fairly standard fare. Those on the gravel highway would have wet their pants at the prospect.

There’s often a lot of talk about DOC spending on pointless items – the Routeburn bus shelter is a prime example. But those of us on the more muddy side of the tramping divide should remember that (tramping) recreation isn’t just for us; the outdoors is open to all comers. Those on the gravel highway mightn’t have ventured out into the bush at all if the track had been more threatening to them. So, one wonders: ‘Is the conservation estate only intended for an elite few?’

How do we expect more people to get into the outdoors if the barriers to entry remain high? If you started tramping as a kid you may not remember the tough times of getting used to the physicality of it. Embarrassing as it is, I’ll admit my first overnight tramp, the Milford Track, nearly killed me. When I got to Mintaro Hut on the second day, I was so munted I couldn’t get words out. It was rated ‘easy’ but I was as wrecked as the Rena. Of course, going back and doing it again with more experience, it was a walk in the park.

Keeping an eye on resource allocation is important, but let’s not lose sight of making conservation accessible for everyone.

– Hazel Phillips is editor of business magazine Idealog by day, writes books and an MA thesis by night, and spends her weekends in mad action mode. You can follow her @hazelphilli.