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The great disappointment

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October 2021 Issue

A focus on catering to tourists rather than domestic trampers has made a great flop of the promised new Great Walks.

This summer, two new Great Walks were meant to open, including one in the North Island, but instead it looks like we are getting some sections of track resurfaced and some new DOC signs installed on just one track. 

Four years ago, the government announced it would splash $12.7m on creating two new Great Walks. The options included a new track to the summit of Mt Tarawera and new huts along the beaches surrounding Cape Reinga on the Te Paki Coastal Track. But after four years of investigation spanning three governments, involving an independent panel, dozens of submissions and thousands of pages of reports, it seems the process won’t even result in a new hut in Southland.

When DOC announced it wanted to build two new Great Walks in 2017, its priorities were clear: it wanted at least one new Great Walk in the North Island, closer to the major centres of population, and to create opportunities to engage with Māori culture. And it had a sizable budget to do it. 

DOC asked the country to pitch ideas for the new walks and 30 were proposed. An independent panel stacked with tourism industry representatives (four out of the six organisations on the panel were tourism-related, including Air New Zealand) whittled this down to seven options. Then, DOC announced it might only have the money for one new Great Walk if it required significant upgrades and new huts (the Paparoa Track cost $12m, for example). But the shortlist still looked good, including upgrading the Te Paki Trail at Cape Reinga, the Aotea Track on Great Barrier and a new trail up Mt Tarawera.

By August 2018, it was down to three options – Te Paki, the Queen Charlotte Track and the Hump Ridge Track – only one of which was in the North Island. Notably, the independent panel thought the Tarawera Trail should be a finalist but was overruled by DOC.

Finally, a year later – two years into the process – the Hump Ridge Track was announced as the winner. DOC said it would spend $5m upgrading the track and building another hut to make it a four-day walk. Without the new hut, it would be one of the most challenging Great Walks, with 61km over three days. But it also committed to working to make Te Paki a Great Walk – it still had $7.7m left in the kitty. It looked like the country might still get two new Great Walks, including one in the north.

But now, DOC has announced the new Hump Ridge hut won’t even be built. It hasn’t finalised the budget for the track, but said about half of it will go on track upgrades and half on signs, toilets, shelters and the car park. 

So, after four years and a $12.7m budget, it looks like we’re left with little more than some new boardwalks and DOC signs.

This isn’t to take anything away from the Hump Ridge Track – by all accounts, it’s a great walk with a great story behind it; the community built the track to reinvigorate its economy after the forestry industry closed and now it’s paying off. But it does little to address the other priorities of a new Great Walk: accessibility to the bulk of the population and an opportunity to engage with Māori culture. In terms of financial accessibility, it will also be the country’s most expensive Great Walk by far, at just under $150 a night. Although the profits go to a community trust, the experience is also the most commercial. People can pay extra for everything from a fresh towel, a smaller bunkroom and even a helicopter flight to the hut’s door.

I can’t help but wonder whether things might be different if the borders were still open. When international tourism was booming, DOC and the government wanted to invest in new huts and walks to cash in. When then-Conservation Minister Maggie Barry announced the new Great Walks she literally said they would be “to cater to the increasing number of visitors”. But now with the country’s borders closed, suddenly even paying for a new hut isn’t a priority, despite the tracks being more popular with Kiwis than ever.

And what happened to Te Paki? The local iwi has said they don’t want it to be a Great Walk – they’d rather see investment in conservation in the north. Fair enough. 

But for a process that was meant to create a new way to engage with Māori culture, I can’t help but wonder why Māori weren’t engaged in the first place – $12.7m to de-velop a new track in partnership with iwi in the North Island. A multiday trail that showcases the best of the north. A new tramping experience like no other in the country. 

Instead, it has just been a great disappointment. It could have been so much more.