Keeping stoats in check and trampers on track is all part of the job for Routeburn ranger Evan Smith.
Some trampers are content to do a Great Walk every few years – for others, it’s a part of their life.
Smith has lived as a ranger at Mackenzie Hut on the Routeburn Track for 16 seasons straight. But it’s no isolated existence – he shares his part-time home with thousands of trampers.
“I keep coming back because I like working in the outdoors and meeting people from all over the world,” Smith says.
It also helps that the warden’s quarters look straight over Lake Mackenzie and its backdrop of looming peaks.
“The location is outstanding.”
Smith has also started a successful trapping campaign. After growing tired of trampers asking why there were so few birds on the trail, he set up a few stoat traps around the hut. Predator control also became the centrepiece of his nightly hut talks, and donations from trampers have topped $100,000. The project has now ballooned to a 5000ha trapping programme, sponsored by Air New Zealand.
“People walking the trail are seeing the huge benefit of increased birdlife and native species,” Smith says. “I used to see stoats running around the hut, now you don’t see them and the numbers being caught have significantly reduced. It’s been a great experience.”
While he has seen a decrease in pests, he has seen an increase in ill-prepared trampers on the trail.
“I see more and more people from around the world with varying degrees of experience and equipment. For a lot of people, it’s their first overnight tramp, and that can show. It leads to us having to be more involved in their experience.
“Some people don’t understand the challenging nature of the terrain, and they end up struggling to make it to the hut before dark. But most people are prepared and are reasonably respectful of the environment.”
For Smith, the highlight of the tramp is the side-trip to Conical Hill, 290m above Lake Harris at the top of the track.
“The views there are outstanding.”
But he is less emphatic on the best time to walk the Routeburn – his advice is be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.
“The weather is so fickle – you need to be prepared for all types of weather, no matter the forecast or the time of year. It’s often more settled in February and March, but that’s not always the case.”
The Routeburn is particularly unforgiving if the weather packs in.
“Unlike other walks, you spend a whole day in an alpine environment – we’ve had track closures for snow in mid February.”
But he says early spring is one of the most scenic times to visit, with the added beauty of snow down to lower levels.