As the Te Araroa Trail enters its seventh year, the trust that administers it has appointed a new CEO. Mark Weatherall, the former head of Canoe Racing NZ, discusses the challenges the trail faces and how to manage them.
Why did you want to be the new CEO of the Te Araroa?
I studied parks and recreation at Lincoln University, and I wanted to be a park ranger, but I got into sports management, and for the past 20 years I’ve been managing surf lifesaving, rugby and kayaking. But I was looking for a change, and I have spent a lot of time in the outdoors around Dunedin and Central Otago. This is a neat opportunity to get back to the things that I was first interested in when I headed to Lincoln.
What are the most significant challenges for the future of the TA?
Kauri dieback is going to be a major one. In my first week, I met with DOC, Northland Regional Council and landowners to discuss how it might affect the trail.
We may have to reroute some sections. Another challenge is the ongoing interaction with private landowners and their goodwill to allow walkers through their property. Some landowners are noticing more impacts, and that brings challenges in how to manage the behaviour of walkers. I don’t think it’s a major issue, but there have been issues with litter and other waste, and some landowners have come close to saying ‘no, you’re not coming through anymore’. It’s important to have ongoing education of walkers and to build a good relationship with landowners so we don’t upset them. But the majority of walkers are respectful, and landowners are happy to have people walk through. The trust also needs to find a sustainable income stream that includes fundraising ideas, sponsorship and, potentially, government funding.
What changes do you want to make to the TA?
My main goal is to raise the profile of the trail, not for more people to do it, but so more people are aware of it. About 700 people have walked the TA this season, but the majority are from offshore. It would be great for Kiwis to understand we have the trail and to encourage them to at least do bits of it over their lifetime.
The idea of charging a trail fee has been mooted. Is that something you’d like to see progress?
The trust isn’t keen on that. We rely on donations, and that is increasing to around $40,000 this year. I’d like to do more work understanding those who walk the trail and their background. We don’t have information on where the walkers are from and their age and occupation, and that makes it hard to pitch to funders. We need to collect more information, but I’m not sure how to do that yet.
What can be done to address the issues of under-pressure infrastructure and overcrowding at huts?
I think these issues are reasonably isolated at the moment. On the majority of trails, crowding isn’t a major issue. But there are areas where it is an issue. We need to look at mitigating those issues and work with DOC to look at how facilities can be improved. As the popularity of tracks increase, there have to be discussions on how to cater for increasing numbers.
What is a sustainable number of TA walkers each year?
Rob Wakelin [the former TA Trust CEO] has said the magic number is 1000-1200 a year and he believes at some stage it will flatten out. It’s had huge growth in recent years, but I don’t think anyone sees it continuing to grow at this rate.
What is your vision for the TA in 20 years time?
I’d love it if every Kiwi knew about the TA and was proud of it and at some point had done at least part of it. The reality is, it takes six months and will cost you about $10,000 to do, so walking the whole trail is only ever going to attract a certain type of person at a certain stage of life. But lots of people can do part of the trail every weekend or in the school holidays, and the idea is that over a lifetime you can do the whole thing.