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March 2012 Issue
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Lost opportunity

Overlooking the Manukau Harbour from Omanawanui Track, Hillary Trail.

If ever a track deserved its name, it’s Auckland’s Hillary Trail.

Hillary’s is a name that conjures up adjectives like challenge, toughness, grit and an unrelenting never-say-die attitude.

Those same words could easily apply to walking the 70km Hillary Trail on Auckland’s west coast. As Josh Gale found out (p30), parts of this walk are truly miserable. It’s been poorly maintained, has few decent accommodation options, in places is more like a route than a track and as a result has been walked by just a few hundred people each year since it opened in 2010.

The Auckland Council is promising new campgrounds and to re-grade some of the worst sections of track to make it easier and more appealing. But as one of the park rangers responsible for the track says: “The Hillary Trail is a challenge. We don’t want to dumb it down and sterilise it. We want people to get to the end of it and think, ‘wow, that was tough’.”

I suspect many trampers and walkers would agree with this sentiment. Part of the reason we go into the bush is to experience and overcome a challenge. But in my mind this premise falls flat when you look at the low number of people walking the trail. And for me, participation in the outdoors is far more important than making one long-distance trail ‘a challenge’. Besides, long distance trails by their very nature are challenging.

With around 1.5million people living within a 45-minute drive of the trail, the few hundred that walk it each year is an abysmally low participation rate. That may say more about the recreation habits of Aucklanders than the quality of the track, and while I think there’s something to be said for that, it’s a red herring as far as I am concerned.

There has been scant promotional activity to highlight the wonders of the trail – the scenery is truly breathtaking. If you asked a sample of Aucklander’s where the Hillary Trail is located, I doubt the majority would have any idea. Simple as it sounds, if people don’t know about it, people won’t walk it.

And with so few people walking the trail, the motivation to improve it has been lacking.

The Hillary Trail has so far been a lost opportunity. A well-promoted, well-maintained trail – of equal standard to any number of tracks found in most other front country areas of the country – would have been a major west coast draw card for tourists and Aucklanders. Positive word of mouth alone would have ensured its popularity from then on.

Bring on the trail improvements.