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The freedom of the hills

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August 2019 Issue

A tramper’s good intentions may spoil a remote experience for others, writes Tania Seward

So close to Wellington, with a storied history encompassing triumph and tragedy, the Tararua Ranges have a near-mythical status in the tramping fraternity.

Many a love affair with tramping has been born in these hills, yet it’s a mountain range that has more than its fair share of accidents and near-misses.

One recent example was that of Peter Crosland, chronicled in the story ‘Rocks for a hard place’ (Wilderness, July 2019). By his own admission ill-equipped, and on an unfamiliar route in deteriorating weather, Crosland was plucked from the Tararuas by a rescue helicopter in the nick of time. In the century since the Tararua Tramping Club started leading trips into the ranges, many other trampers caught in similar conditions haven’t been as lucky.

Crosland’s experience last January led him to ask the Department of Conservation for permission to install signage and poles across his route around the Three Kings and across Baldy. On paper, it seems a worthwhile idea – he’d had a frightening near-miss, and the urge to protect other trampers from going through a similar experience is a strong one.

Looking at the map, it’s easy to justify as well – it’s barely 5km from Mitre Flats Hut to Baldy, and Mitre Flats is easily accessible from the road-end. But in the Tararuas, where the wind roars and the rain comes at you sideways, wilderness isn’t as far away as it might seem on the map.

The challenge for the Department of Conservation, and any land manager, is how to balance people’s desire for a remote or backcountry experience with the perception that better marking of tracks will improve safety. One person’s marker is another person’s intrusion, and yet another’s beguiling but hollow promise of safety. So where does the balance lie?

Traditionally, New Zealand and other countries have used the recreational opportunity spectrum to manage an area of land for multiple types of users. Land is zoned into categories including ‘front country’, ‘backcountry’ and ‘remote’. Arthur’s Pass National Park is a good example, with its roadside shelters and alpine huts catering to a variety of users in a relatively small land area. Put simply, it means something for everyone, regardless of age or ability.

The Tararua Ranges has some popular front country allowing for more intensive track signage and wayfinding aids like track markers. However, the majority of the ranges has been designated backcountry and remote, meaning that track marking and signage is kept minimal, apart from critical track junctions.

So who decides how much of a mountain range is made accessible for a family with adventurous toddlers, and how much is left to those seeking a wilderness experience? That’s the remit of DOC’s Conservation Management Strategies (CMS), regional overarching documents that set out the recreational settings and policies. The Wellington CMS was signed off in 2018 after a significant public consultation. DOC is legally bound to implement the strategy, which applies to the Tararua Ranges.

So where does this leave Crosland, wanting to improve safety in a mountain range so accessible yet inhospitable at the same time? It’s tricky. DOC denied Crosland’s request for track markers and additional signage, in keeping with the terms of the CMS – and with the knowledge that such signage can make a route appear easier than it is. As a compromise, they suggested Crosland install cairns on the route.

While cairns have a use in some environments, their placement needs to be weighed up against the opportunities that suitably-equipped trampers have to find wilderness experiences so close to home. There’s also the possibility that in the midst of a white-out, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish the cairns from the surrounding landscape, and a GPS would be more useful. Cairns can also inadvertently encourage people whose skills and experience don’t yet match the challenges of the route.

The beauty of the Wellington region’s beloved mountain range isn’t just in its craggy ridgelines and mist-covered tops. It’s also in its ability to provide an experience for all – from the earnest first-time trampers to the record-seeking trail runners to the septuagenarians who helped build the range’s hut network and everyone in between.

– Tania Seward is vice president of the Federated Mountain Clubs and a keen tramper and trail runner.