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August 2015 Issue
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Signs of the time

Hazard signs are in plentiful supply on the DOC estate. Photo: Barbara Morris


Barbara Morris asks if hazard signs in our parks are themselves a hazard

Recently the NZ Tramper website featured discussions about hazard signs in our national and forest parks and huts, and how trampers view these. Depending on the point of view, they are either an unnecessary evil which tends to dumb down the experience, or a useful aid to ensure the less-experienced are kept safe on our tracks and thus go on to become more experienced.

Interestingly, on a website which attracts a diversity of opinion often expressed in robust terms, the pros and cons of the debate seemed to be equally divided. One contributor made what could be a salient point that experienced trampers need not be upset by signs aimed at the inexperienced. And watching how some people deal with their fuel stoves in huts does, in my opinion, tend to lend credence to signs warning about the safe operation of these appliances.

But for some time I have been thinking about the number and the usefulness of warning signs on our tracks. I am fortunate to travel overseas annually for a few weeks’ hiking mostly in the United Kingdom, but most recently to Switzerland.

On these trips I have been struck by the distinct lack of signage on the tracks. This is particularly noticeable in the UK where directional and danger signs are usually non-existent; and where you are expected to follow map and compass to navigate the myriad of public footpaths, many of which give access to wild and remote places and not just the crowded tourist paths often associated with northern hemisphere walking.

There is possibly a fine line between signs being useful and necessary to promote safety and those which could be classified as visual pollution. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing springs to mind with the latter.

I appreciate that this track is one of the most used in the country and probably by the least experienced of walkers. It also travels through an active volcanic region. But on commencing the walk one is faced with at least four in-your-face signs dealing with the perceived dangers which might be encountered.

One large sign asks us if we have avalanche transceivers, shovels and probes and know how to use them. Surely mountaineers who have invested in such equipment would also remember to bring and know how to use these items and don’t need such a reminder? Until recently there was a set of traffic lights indicating it was safe to proceed because the mountain was not blowing up. Fortunately the lights have now gone – the danger of eruption has diminished and possibly someone realised they looked inappropriate and also a bit silly in a mountain environment.

Because the public is encouraged to visit conservation lands and with the provision of access and accommodation on these lands there comes the responsibility to ensure the safety of users. DOC is often damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. These days when it comes to safety, the lowest common denominator seems to be the yardstick used, but we know that unfortunately some visitors, usually inexperienced, do rather daft things – like crossing swollen rivers because they ‘have’ to get to a hut, or falling off mountains when they’ve been warned not to go there.

So perhaps those of us who consider ourselves experienced should not be too upset by the plethora of signs which inhabit our huts and tracks – although DOC could consider their size and placement.

A final word about a sign which entertains rather than irritates. The Ketetahi car park on Mt Tongariro has instructions for ‘Perpendicular Parking Only’ – grammatically correct but a sign which conjures up an image of cars parked vertically on their end. A solution to parking problems in overcrowded car parks, perhaps.