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Spare a thought for DOC

The opening of the Paparoa Track Great Walk was complicated by slips and heavy rainfall. Photo: Matthew Cattin
Kathy Ombler pens a letter to the hard-working staff at the Department of Conservation

As the country settles into the second half of the lockdown, spare a thought for DOC staff. When summer storms and slips smashed into three of our Great Walks, one before it even opened, it was hands-on deck for many DOC teams and contractors, both on the ground and in the office.

After facing record rainfalls last winter, Paparoa Track crews were already under the pump to finish building our first dual bike/walk Great Walk before deadline. Then, days before opening, a massive slip above Pororari Hut literally cut the track in half, necessitating not only a major track fix (and retrieval of the digger it shoved 30m downhill) but also a total reorganisation of bookings. The wheels turned fast. Within days, three full months of hut bookings for through-travel were cancelled and refunded or amended to up and back overnight stays. I know, I had one of those bookings.

On February 3, a weather bomb hit Fiordland, wreaking chaos on 78 tracks including the Milford and Routeburn Great Walks, as well as the Milford Road. Huts were flooded, one hit by a landslide. People were lucky to survive.

Out went the DOC crews; rescuing people, clearing and repairing the mess where they could and identifying the damage and geotechnical danger points where they couldn’t. Within a month, 51 of the 78 damaged tracks were re-opened.

DOC bookings and visitor centre staff also sprang to action. As the Great Walks closed, then re-opened in different forms, these teams were faced with landslides of their own to manage: literally thousands of bookings to cancel, refund, rebook in new incarnations and schedules for boats and buses to rearrange.

Some rough maths: let’s say the seven huts across the Milford and Routeburn Tracks were fully booked when the peak-season storm hit. That equates to more than 8000 nights, not counting campsites, for the track’s closed periods alone. Then came the ‘new experiences’ to manage.

Friends and I were booked to walk the Milford Track in April. We’d hoped it would be open by then. In February, a ministerial press release launched the new ‘Southern Milford/MacKinnon Pass Experience’ – a mouthful and rather a beat-up of what was, in fact, half the Milford Track. A more pragmatic email followed to those who had bookings. Arthur Valley was beyond repair and would remain closed for the season. The ‘new’ option was to walk up the Clinton Valley and back again: two nights with a 21km walk all the way back to Lake Te Anau on the third day. Those fit enough and willing could scamper from Mintaro Hut tp MacKinnon Pass and back of an afternoon/evening on day two. This was DOC doing their level best to give people a taste of the famous track.

Te Anau DOC staff contacted everyone and asked what we wanted to do. Depending on the answer, they cancelled and refunded or confirmed the booking on the new option, shifting boat bookings and refunding bus bookings as necessary. Phone queries were received with efficiency and positivity. “So you will also change my transport bookings?” I checked. “Yes, we will do everything for you, foot rubs too if you like,” was the happy reply.

Later, DOC repeated the process for the new ‘Routeburn Return’. Hut and track damage at the Main Divide end of the Routeburn Track was beyond repair this season, however speedy replacement and repair of damaged bridges elsewhere enabled a four day walk, starting and finishing at Glenorchy, to offer an alternative yet significant Routeburn experience. Again, those myriad bookings were cancelled, refunded or changed, as required.

And now here we are. Lockdown. After all that effort, no-one is going on any Great Walk. So kudos to all of you involved at DOC, and you guys on the Paparoa Track teams. Thank you for trying so hard. Keep safe. I’ll take a rain check on that foot rub.