While walking the Hump Ridge Track in Fiordland recently I met Julien, a young man from Belgium who had spent six months tramping his way around the country. He’d seen more of New Zealand in those six months than many Kiwis see in their lifetime and he couldn’t speak highly enough of his experiences. The thing that surprised me most was that he had not done any tramping at all before coming to New Zealand. But boy, did he love it.
But what he didn’t love was that at some stage during his travels he went into a DOC office to share his intentions only to be told that DOC no longer handles the paper-based intentions system. There were no forms to fill in, rather a directive to head online to adventuresmart.co.nz and fill in his intentions there and email them to a trusted contact. On the kind of budget only those who live out of a tramping pack can survive on, Julien said he didn’t have the money to spend on tracking down an internet connection, nor the time to wait to ensure his trusted contact had received his intentions. (One of the requirements of the online form is to email your intentions to a ‘trusted’ contact who can raise the alarm should you not return – all Julien’s trusted family and friends lived in Belgium.)
As a result, Julien stopped sharing his intentions and, he said, felt less safe. When I met him he was alone and had walked DOC’s South Coast Track to Port Craig. If anything happened to him – like he became lost or took a fall and seriously injured himself – no one would know where he was. It could be days before anyone thought to enquire as to his whereabouts let alone know where to start looking.
Most New Zealanders will have a trusted contact they can rely on to raise the alarm, but overseas visitors, many of whom come to New Zealand for the express purpose of tramping, will find the online system less helpful – it’s more difficult to confirm if their contact received the intentions, there are international time differences and, in the event of needing to raise the alarm, language barriers to contend with, and the contact will have little knowledge and understanding of New Zealand weather and environmental conditions that might make a tramp more dangerous.
It’s not always possible to share your intentions with DOC. Anyone who has walked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing will know that the nearest DOC office is around hour’s round trip away. It’s not always practical to stop in, so you have to make other arrangement to ensure someone knows where you are and when you’ll be back. That said, removing the paper-based system from DOC offices in areas where people can easily swing by – Egmont National park, Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park immediately spring to mind – seems a strange move, at least from a tourist’s perspective. If someone is late reaching the track end, the best people to deal with that situation are the local DOC office – not a family member in Belgium. DOC staff will know of any unexpected thunderstorms, flooded rivers or other natural obstacles that might have delayed a tramper. Under the previous paper-based system they would also know who else had been in the area and might have last seen someone who had gone missing. That vital intelligence is now gone.
I personally feel much safer knowing the local DOC rangers know I’m in their park, where I have gone and when I’m expected back. Unless drastic changes are made – and a good start could be the automatic sharing of intentions forms made via the Adventure Smart website with local authorities – the end result will inevitably be more people dying lonely deaths in the outdoors.