With more than 120 years combined experience, few people know the backcountry better than these three veteran rangers. They give a behind-the-scenes look at the development and evolution of the Kiwi outdoors experience.
A spiritual place
John Walsh, Waitakere Ranges Regional Park
John Walsh has had four death threats, has been shot at three times, found Maori relics, thousands of marijuana plants and dozens of bodies during nearly 40 years as a ranger in New Zealand’s busiest regional park.
Walsh spent 38 years at Huia, on the southern end of the Waitakere Ranges, working as a ranger for Auckland Council, under various guises. On the doorstep of 1.5 million people, he says managing the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park involves everything from search and rescue, maintaining tracks and pest control, through to law enforcement issues ranging from illegal dumping to body recovery.
Walsh grew up in Auckland and was headed for a career in the insurance industry, before chasing his dream, combining his passion for tramping and hunting. He started working for the Department of Lands and Survey, a precursor to DOC, working on tracks and huts in Mt Aspiring and Fiordland national parks, including both the Routeburn and Milford tracks. But he was drawn back to the Waitakere Ranges, his favourite patch of forest.
“I developed a passion for that landscape – it’s still special to me after 45 years. I’m not a religious person, but the Waitakere’s are very spiritual for me.”
He applied for a job working as a ranger, but the criteria at the time meant you had to be married. Still a bachelor, Walsh had to be content with a job on a work crew that helped build the Lower Huia Dam. But in 1974, when the Arataki Visitor Centre was established, he got a job as a senior ranger.
“By that stage, my knowledge of the area was extensive – I had tramped every track and walked every stream in the park.”
Walsh helped set up an education programme, working with school groups to help children understand the importance of protecting the environment.
“It was a very progressive programme for the time,” Walsh says. “We had issues with people lighting fires, dumping rubbish and cutting down trees for firewood. The idea was to work with the next generation to engender a sense of respect for the forest.
“We got the kids to plant trees so they had a vested interest in the forest. Within 10 years we saw a marked change in behaviour and offending dropped dramatically. I still meet people who did the course 30 years ago and they remember that experience fondly.”
After seven years, Walsh moved on to become a ‘homesteader’, based at a ranger homestead in Huia, where he continued his work with the Kiwanis Huia Camp outdoor education centre.
“I soon fell in love with Huia, but it’s a 24/7 responsibility. You were everything to everybody. We were the only authority figures out there, so you’re like the country cop. I’d get called up at 3am because someone had heard a noise in their backyard – but you’d have to follow it up.”
That included dealing with poachers and gang members.
“I had four or five death threats and I’ve nearly been run over twice. One poacher ran over my foot trying to run me down.”
Walsh would often find poachers, including people hunting native woodpigeon/kereru. Marijuana growers were also prolific.
“We had a sweepstake one year to see who could find the most plots. I found 51 and still didn’t win the money. Often the growers had cleared a quarter acre of forest for their plot.”
Walsh’s favourite part of the range is the Pararaha Valley, between Whatipu and Karekare Beach.
“It’s the spirituality of the place that gets me and it’s one of the only big open valleys in the range.
“It was a very popular place for early Maori. I used to do a lot of abseiling on the cliffs there and the Maori people used to use the caves in the cliffs like a cupboard to store things. I’d find a lot of personal items, like combs, adzes and fishhooks, but I’d just take a photo and leave them there. I also found a number of burial grounds there, which I’d just leave and respect. That’s how I’d want my remains treated.”
Walsh has also found a lot of items from the logging days in the range, including abandoned logging camps with boots, bottles and tools still lying around.
He says the forest has regenerated markedly since the council funded a major possum poisoning campaign in the early 1990s.
“One ranger in Piha put a poison bait under a large pohutukawa tree and came back and found 27 dead possums. Between Whatipu and Karekare we surveyed 1000 trees that were very badly defoliated and after the poisoning the recovery rate was 98 per cent. That’s really gratifying.”
Walsh was also involved in 36 body recovery operations.
“A lot were suicides. We had nine in nine weeks once. The winter was a particularly bad time for it.”
He also joined more than 250 search and rescue operations.
“It’s a very rugged landscape right on Auckland’s doorstep, and most people don’t have the skills to visit it safely.”
Walsh retired in 2012.
John Walsh’s top five
1 Omanawanui Track, Whatipu – “Outstanding views of Whatipu and the Manukau Harbour”.
2 Mercer Bay Loop, Karekare – “The breathtaking spectacle of the highest sea cliffs in Auckland”.
3 Karamatura Loop Walk, Huia – “Lush, dense rainforest with views of towering conglomerate bluffs”.
4 Fairy Falls Track, Cascade Kauri – “A large waterfall with a dramatic outlook”.
5 Gibbons Track, Whatipu – “An old logging road lined with relics of that era”.
A good, fortunate life
Ken Bradley, Fiordland National Park
For nearly 50 years, the valleys and passes of Fiordland have been Ken Bradley’s office.
From guiding on the Milford Track in the 1970s, to working on maintenance crews on the Dusky Track, developing the Kepler Track, and managing the Fiordland Great Walks, Bradley has been a central figure in the development of the park. He says enhancing the wilderness experience for others has been deeply rewarding.
Bradley spent his teens in Te Anau and first walked the Milford Track in 1968 when he was 16. Little did he know he would be managing the track 25 years later. Back then, the track was run by the Government’s Tourist Hotel Corporation and people had to pay $3 to walk it (the equivalent of six hours wages for Bradley) and 50 cents for a night in a hut.
“People had to book as a group of 16 and had to write a letter informing the THC about their tramping experience,” Bradley says. “The ranger at the start of the track would check everyone’s packs to make sure they had the equipment on the gear list and you had to take a minimum of six days food in case the rivers flooded.
“If those rules were still in place, 90 per cent of walkers wouldn’t be allowed on the trail today.”
Most of the walkers were also women on guided walks, he says.
“It was about three-quarters females. The Milford Track wasn’t the gung-ho thing to do as a man in the 1960s.”
Bradley started working in Fiordland National Park in 1969, at first as a guide and on maintenance jobs for Fiordland Travel (now Real Journeys) at the Te Anau caves, Deep Cove and Milford Sound. He began guiding on the Milford Track in 1972.
“Most of the job was maintaining the track – the guiding was incidental. We guided in sections, so the main priority was to make sure walkers got out of your patch so you could get more maintenance done.”
He got a job for the Fiordland National Park Board in 1976. At first he was working in the Manapouri and Doubtful Sound area and spent months cleaning up after the Manapouri Power Station construction in Deep Cove.
“Back then things like environmental protection and conservation weren’t mentioned. There’s been a huge change in attitudes since. That project was a catalyst for the conservation movement in New Zealand. Today, everything is done with a lot more awareness and the impact on the environment is kept to a minimum. It’s a totally different mindset.”
Bradley would also work up to two months a year maintaining the Dusky Track.
“We used to hand-slash it from one end to the other, working in 15 to 20-day stints. We’d eat porridge for breakfast, cabin bread and sardines for lunch and bully beef, dehydrated peas and spuds for tea and you did that every bloody day. I did that for 18 years.
“But it was a great place to be and it’d be the highlight of my year.
“Now the track might get three weeks worth of maintenance a year at best. It only gets about 400 walkers a year and numbers haven’t shifted, so it’s not a priority anymore.”
In the 1980s, Bradley was involved in planning the route for the Kepler Track – which was built to take pressure off the Milford Track.
“I was on the first team that went right across the alpine section for the first time. The idea was to have a loop track close to Te Anau and a lot of the track just follows deer trails.
“The track changed the perception of a lot of local people who were very anti the park at first, as they saw it as locking up the land – once the park rules came in people got snippy. But building the Kepler Track was one of the things that reversed that mindset – they could see the value of it.”
From 1992 to 2006, Bradley was in charge of managing the Fiordland Great Walk tracks. The Milford Track is still his favourite – he says it warrants the hype. Although he says the clientele has changed a lot since he first walked the track.
“When I went through the track with the Otago Tramping Club for the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Walk in 2015 [a protest against restrictions on access to the track], they would have been the first group of real trampers I’d met on the track in years. There are just tourists today. Anyone can put a sleeping bag in their pack and a few packs of noodles and listen to their iPhones the whole way. It means the hut rangers have to spend a lot of time looking after them.
“But I’m not too perplexed about that. It gives people that opportunity. A group may get together to walk the Milford Track for their first tramp and it leads on to other tramping, so it’s a great introduction.”
Bradley has noticed the birdlife has bounced back in the park, with greater emphasis on predator control.
“When I started there was only funding for weed control and protecting the takahe. Now the biodiversity section is far larger than recreation.
“We got a significant funding boost for biodiversity under the Helen Clark government, but there’s still never enough money for that sort of work, or anything else for that matter.
“I’ve worked on the tracks extensively both before and after four 1080 drops and the change is incredible. There was a 1080 drop prior to last walking season and the result was phenomenal. The bellbirds were that noisy you just about had to yell at each other over the noise. After 1080 you don’t need to set your alarm clock – big flocks of kaka will wake you up.”
However, kea numbers have declined dramatically and there hasn’t been any sign of a rebound, he says.
“There used to be a regular 40 to 50, but now 10 would be a big number.”
In the last 20 years, the popularity of the Fiordland Great Walks has boomed, and managing numbers has been a big job. The Milford Track has been booking out every season since 1995 and Bradley says people will eventually have to book to visit Milford Sound.
“The department has some major issues to grapple with. I may not see that, but my children will, if tourism continues to grow the way it is.
“But it’s a fickle thing. We’ve only got to have a financial crisis or a nutter with a gun at Auckland Airport and New Zealand may not be considered a safe place, or if the Alpine Fault ruptures, there would be no road to Milford.”
Bradley retired in May, 2017, and is now focusing on building a museum in Te Anau to tell the history of Fiordland.
“I’ve been involved in the Fiordland Museum Trust for 20 years. Our target is to build a museum by 2020.
“I’m also volunteering to look after parts of the Milford Track. It’s a pretty hard place not to enjoy. But I’m 65 now and my knees and ankles are not as good as they were, but I’ve had hut rangers who were walking the track in their 80s and 90s.
“Being out in the park, meeting people and making sure they enjoy the place, it’s been a good fortunate life. I’m pretty pleased with what we’ve achieved.
“I’m really passionate about making sure Fiordland is as good as it has always been. Those who constructed the Milford Track had a pretty hard life – I like to think they are looking down and can see someone is still looking after it.”
Ken Bradley’s top five
Best area: Preservation Inlet – “For the heritage interest”.
Best track: Milford Track – “I’ve had the longest association with this track”.
Best hut location: Hidden Falls
Best local spot: The track system south of Manapouri, Hope Arm, Back Valley – “I built Back Valley Hut with my own materials”.
Best day trip: Lake Marian – “Close on the tail is Key Summit”.
A forestry life to the core
Brad Lett, Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park
After nearly four decades in one of the wildest spots in the North Island, Brad Lett says working among Tuhoe communities and seeing the birdlife and forest regenerate has been a dream job.
Lett started working as a logging apprentice in Kaingaroa Forest, near Murupara, before his interest in the bush drew him deep into Te Urewera, working as a possum trapper.
“In those days there was good money in possum skins,” Lett says. “I spent a winter collecting skins and processing them.”
At the end of the season, Lett was offered a job as a deer culler and started his career with the Forest Service, a precursor to DOC.
“We stayed in the bush for three months at a time and only came out for a couple of weeks before going back in for another three months. It was very isolated, but I really enjoyed it.”
At the end of the season, Lett worked on track maintenance and environmental monitoring in Te Urewera, based in Ruatahuna, a stronghold of the Tuhoe iwi.
“Living amongst the Tuhoe people gave me a much greater appreciation and attachment to the area. They are still living their traditional values and it’s a real Maori community. It was a life-changing experience.
“Initially it was a bit of a shock – I didn’t know marae protocols and how to act. But you’ve got two options in a place like that. You either accept the place and the people and the way they are, or you don’t. If you accept it, then they reciprocate and accept you. To this day, when I bump into people from Ruatahuna they give me a big hug and kiss.”
Lett was transferred to Minginui in 1983 to work on the forestry operations, shortly after protests to stop the logging of Whirinaki Forest – one of the most ancient forests left in New Zealand. The protest movement eventually led to the end of logging in native forests nationwide.
“If you had any green inclinations you were well advised to stay clear of Minginui,” Lett says. “I could see both sides of the argument. You don’t live and work in a place like Te Urewera and Whirinaki without developing an affinity for it. Wholesale native logging as it was done in those days was just not sustainable. But I think there was a place for very selective logging.”
Logging in Whirinaki ended in 1987 and Lett saw the aftermath, as the community was left without work or support.
“The Forest Service managed everything in that community and all of a sudden all that support was gone. So you’ve got all these people with limited skills who had been supported all their life and suddenly it’s not there and a lot of people were unable to see a way out of it.”
When the Forest Service was amalgamated to form DOC in 1987, Lett got a job doing track maintenance and biodiversity work in Whirinaki Forest. He left DOC in 1993 to do environmental work in Kaingaroa Forest, but returned in 1998, continuing to work on track maintenance and predator control. He says the early biodiversity restoration work in the forest is now having a big impact.
“I’ve seen huge changes. The vegetation has improved markedly with the reduction in predator and deer numbers. Whio and kaka numbers are slowly increasing and you can see flocks of kereru in the odd place now, where you’d never see that before.”
But Lett says the under-resourcing of DOC led him to quit in September 2017.
“You’re expected to do a lot more with a lot fewer resources now and people are actually struggling. We went through the last restructure in 2013 on the promise of more resources and time in the field, but the reality is there’s less money and less people to do the work and it’s having an effect.
“People are rebelling – I was the 27th staff member who left DOC in the central North Island in three months.”
There has been a lack of funding for basic track maintenance, and some tracks were still closed from storm damage in 2016, he says.
“A lot of new funding is tagged for tourism, so none of that filters down to the likes of Whirinaki because the people aren’t coming. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we had the money to get the tracks up to a decent standard, people would come.
“Over the last two years, it’s got progressively harder and harder.”
There is also a disconnect between decision making and the workers on the ground, with more decisions being centralised, he says.
“Decision makers aren’t based locally and they don’t have the commitment to meet local needs, so it’s quite a difficult environment to work in. You start getting decisions that aren’t in the interests of Whirinaki. We are meant to be working with Ngati Whare through a co-management agreement, but the staff in Wellington are just ignoring it. That puts stress on local staff, because we are having to deal with the impact on the ground.
“It’s been an awesome job and it has a lot to offer. But slowly the benefits have been eroded and literally the fun went out of the job.”
Lett now manages a quarry near Minginui.
Brad Lett’s top 5
1 Whakatane River – “It’s very picturesque, particularly from midway back to Ruatahuna”.
2 Skips Hut, Whirinaki Forest Park – “A particularly nice walk from the Okahu Road end”.
3 Lake Waikareiti, Te Urewera – “A magical spot even in the middle of winter”.
4 Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk, Te Urewera – “Because of the scenery and history”.
5 Central Te Hoe Hut, Whirinaki Forest Park – “A beautiful hut and location, and a very quiet spot”.