Image of the January 2021 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
January 2021 Issue
Home / Articles / Private walks

Kiwis pick up slack on private tracks

Island Hills Station Walking Track was opened in response to New Zealand’s COVID-19 border closure. Photo: Matthew Cattin

New Zealand’s premier private tracks experienced a difficult year, but Kiwi walkers are helping them bounce back.

As with most in the tourism sector, Shaun Monk experienced some “nervy” times in 2020.

Shortly before the country plunged into lockdown, he threw in his “one-hundred-and-something thousand dollar” a year job to guide hunters around the 7000ha Island Hills Station in North Canterbury. Business had been good – until it wasn’t.

“I had clients booked from overseas, as well as Kiwis in the hunting season. I had booked out the whole period – and then I lost all the bookings,” he says.

With the majority of his hunting clients hailing from overseas, Monk knew the status quo would be unsustainable, and something had to give.

After discussions with the station owners, the decision was made to reopen the station’s walking track – formerly the Hurunui High Country Track.

First opened in 2003, the trail was a popular self-guided walking experience before its closure in 2013. Its reincarnation as the two-to-three day 30km Island Hills Station Walking Track was the product of the changing tourism climate and a lot of hard work.

“I spent six months building a new section by hand to have it up and running on the first day of October, and we’ve had some really happy people coming through,” Monk says.

Bookings have been “steady”, but they could be better.

“The continuous [COVID] shake-ups make people nervous about booking something in advance,” Monk says. “Even though we have a refund service, when you have a situation where people can’t turn up, or they can’t get on a plane flight, it does make things more difficult.”

Monk says the trail has proven popular with the older demographic – perhaps because of its homestyle comforts and privacy.

“You can spread out and feel like you own the place and no one is going to turn up out of the blue,” he says. “You also have a guarantee of security, and you’re not going to have some filthy pig hunters like me in the bunk beside you.”

Banks Track – the private walking experience on Canterbury’s Banks Peninsula – also had a challenging year, spokeswoman Charlotte Gibbs says.

When lockdown hit, the track’s season was cut short by two months.

“We had given the track an enormous marketing push in Australia just before Christmas [2019], so we took in a lot of Aussie bookings,” Gibbs says.

“We refunded everybody in full and we hope eventually they will rebook, but it did cost us dearly – we were very nearly fully booked for March and April.”

Even without international walkers, however, the 2020/2021 season has seen numbers well up on the previous season.

“There are a lot of Kiwis who usually wouldn’t fly down, but because they can’t go anywhere else, they are, and they are more than making up for [the lack of overseas walkers] – touch wood,” Gibbs says.

Gibbs believes the rush of Kiwis will be unsustainable, and says it’s “incredibly important” the international walkers return in the long run.

“If they don’t, we’ll run out of Kiwis!” she says.

Sally Handyside has noticed a hesitation with advanced bookings for the

Kaikoura Coast Track, which runs through her and husband David’s property.

“They’re not pouring in for February, March and April, but I’m assuming it’s because no one knows what’s happening – people might be able to fly to Australia by then,” she says.

In previous seasons, around 30 per cent of walkers on the track have been international – with half of those coming from across the Tasman.

When lockdown hit, the couple had to refund around 200 walkers.

“It’s just what everybody had to do, though some people kept their money in so they could rebook, which was very nice of them,” she says.

Kiwi bookings – many from the North Island – made up for the lack of international walkers at the start of the season, but Handyside says she’s not worried about what the future brings.

“We’re in our 70s now, and we just do it because we love meeting people and it’s a nice way to share our beautiful property,” she says.