Can New Zealand’s most popular alpine track sustain more than 10,000 hikers each summer, yet retain those pristine wilderness qualities that nourish the soul?
This place is turning into a suburban walkway,” lamented the grey-bearded man next to me. “A few more years, mate, and they won’t have to maintain this track—they’ll sweep it!”
From our vantage point high above Harris Saddle, the alpine section of the Routeburn Track sprawled before us like a highway, shimmering in December heat. Brightly-coloured centipedes of walkers passed each other along the trail and wrapped themselves around the brown steel Harris Saddle shelter shaped like a miniature airport hangar. Someone yodelled, and the tussock meadows rippled with laughter and more or less successful imitations. My companion, an old-fashioned Kiwi tramper dressed in blue-checked Swanndri and green rugby shorts, snorted in disgust. He hadn’t walked the track for 20 years, and what he saw now wasn’t tramping as he knew it.
The 39-kilometre-long Route-burn straddles the spine of the Humboldt Mountains which mark the border between Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks. It is the busiest transalpine artery in New Zealand, and yet, some say, still the most beautiful. Whether a result of slick advertising or word of mouth over pizza and cheap wine at backpackers’ hostels, its popularity has reached astonishing proportions.
Every year the Routeburn attracts more than 10,000 visitors. They burn seven tonnes of coal and 2000 kg of gas, use nearly 3000 rolls of toilet paper and keep six seasonal staff frantically busy. In summer, the car parks at both ends of the track can resemble parking lots of a good-size supermarket as scores of trampers and day-walkers window-shop for nature’s treasures.
Despite their strong outdoors tradition, New Zealanders make up only a quarter of the total number of visitors. Promoted as a major destination by the tourism industry, the Routeburn has become so dominated by foreigners that local trampers are beginning to feel like strangers in their own backyard.
And that backyard is starting to show a few cracks. Local or foreign, thoughtful and nature-loving as they might be, the walkers have brought problems: overcrowded huts, illegal camping, rubbish and the threat of giardia. Most of all, they have endangered the elusive sense of wilderness, the very reason for their visit.
The heart of the problem is that the boom in visitor numbers—in all the national parks, not just Fiordland—has not been matched by government expenditure to maintain and improve facilities. It is only the tolerance of visitors and the ingenuity of track staff which have kept the Routeburn functioning more or less successfully. Now, as demand for the Routeburn and her sister tracks continues to increase, new ways of managing the human torrent are being put in place.
Throughout 1994, I walked the track several times. I toasted the New Year with an overspiced punch in a but warden’s quarters, trudged patiently among the Easter crowds and slogged through waist-deep winter snowdrifts. I slept under a kitchen sink in a but bursting at the seams, and, on occasions, I had the entire track to myself. I walked across Lake Harris, frozen so thick you could drive a car over it, and heard the ice groaning in the first of the spring thaw.
The Routeburn I got to know was always a surprise, an odd mixture of the wild and the tame, the sad and the hilarious. A place where you can get a sore throat from replying to countless “hellos” or, like two youngsters on a school trip in 1963, perish in a blizzard within shouting distance of a hut. Ignore the metre-wide track polished by countless feet and you can see this timeless landscape with the eyes of the pioneers. Add a small glacier or two and you could go back another 10,000 years.
The scenery of Routeburn has empurpled the literary style of many writers. A turn-of-the-century visitor wrote of “standing spellbound before a panorama of indescribable grandeur, myriads of nameless mountains and glistening glaciers of wondrous shape and size firing the imagination.” Today’s accounts may be more modest, but they all show Routeburn as something beyond an everyday experience: an encounter with nature which harps deeply resonating notes in visitors’ hearts and leaves them clumsy with words. This experience has been in such a demand that it has made the Routeburn a victim of its own splendour.
Whenever stretches of the track became boggy, to keep their feet dry the trampers added a new path next to the existing one. They blazed their way across tundra-like carpets of peat bogs—home to carnivorous sundews and bladderworts. These insect-devouring plants, adapted for a harsh mountain climate, are so fragile that they take several years to recover from a single bootprint.
With numbers of walkers rising steadily over the past 20 years, the strain on the environment was quick to show. Dozens of trails, like glacial rivers, braided across Harris Saddle and Key Summit, the most scenic and vulnerable parts of the Routeburn. From the air, these portions of the track resembled rapidly balding scalps.
Three years ago, the Department of Conservation flew in an excavator to fix the problem. The new track, so wide and obvious you can’t possibly stray from it, has minimised the damage to the alpine flora. Routeburn, chiselled in a base of hard rock, has been pronounced almost bulletproof, and able to withstand even greater numbers of visitors
Today the track is broad, dry and comfortable. All streams and rivers are bridged and an occasional swamp and bluff boardwalked. Four huts and three shelters divide it in such a way that there is never more than a three-hour walk between them. Indeed, for anyone with even the most limited experience in the back country, Routeburn has a rather tame appearance. But appearances can be deceptive.
In January 1994, shortly after my Christmas visit, heavy clouds shuttered the sky and burst into a torrential deluge lasting several days. Southern lakes rose rapidly, and water seeped through the barricades of sandbags. Lakefront houses and flooded streets resembled a scene from Venice. Behind them, the mountains roared with torrents of white water and trembled with landslides of apocalyptic proportions.
Routeburn Flats, 47 hectares of blue tussock, wheat grass and white clover, turned into a lake. All bridges in the Lower Routeburn were washed away, and in the mountains several landslides turned stretches of mature beech forest into a wasteland of stumps. For those walking the track, and later rescued by a helicopter, it was an unforgettable experience. Someone scribbled in the but book: “8.01.94. 36 hours of non-stop rain. The track is waist-deep in water, river is rising . . . 20 hours later . . . constant heavy rain . . HELP!”
In the height of a summer season, when tracks need to earn their keep by way of but fees for the rest of the year, Routeburn had to be closed. Its subsequent restoration had all the urgency of a military intervention. A 100-strong contingent of army personnel arrived by truck, jeep and Iroquois helicopter. They replaced all the suspension bridges and blasted through slips and jumbles of uprooted trees. When, two months later, the track officially reopened, it was not only repaired but also partially re-routed and upgraded.
One late march afternoon I walked across the Route-burn Flats, past a bright orange excavator and a now-idle pneumatic drill, past ponds of shallow water left stranded by the capricious Routeburn River, where slivers of koaro (native trout) darted beneath the sun-dappled surface.
From the riverbank came the sound of flute music. A pony-tailed man was sitting cross-legged in the grass, a bamboo pipe to his lips. A Mexican mestizo—half Spanish, half Tzotzile Indian—Alberto Morales had spent the past eight years playing his way around the world, from Tibetan monasteries to camps of Bedouin nomads.
“Every place has its own song,” he told me. “I only shape it so others can hear it too.” His flute was a gift from a tribe of Amazon Indians. His music, spontaneous and unrepeatable, mingled with the burbling of the Routeburn River and seemed a part of the landscape.
“I have walked a few tracks in New Zealand, but this one is like all of them put together,” Alberto said between songs. Indeed, there can be only a handful of tracks in the entire world which would match the scenic variety of Routeburn. Fiords, glaciers, jagged mountains fresh from a Tolkien tale, alpine lakes and meadows, waterfalls slashing through spongy rainforest—this is a condensed version of the whole South-West wilderness. You won’t hear trampers complaining about the scenery of the Routeburn.
But there is another song here, much older than Alberto’s fleeting impressions; a song whose origins go back several centuries before Irish prospector Patrick Caples painstakingly sketched the “newly discovered” transalpine crossing in 1863.
Routeburn was then known as Te Komama, a greenstone trading route connecting Te Wahi Pounamu (West Coast) with Lake Wakatipu. The song was a form of memory map. Each verse named or described geographical features and reference points encountered en route: mountains, river crossings, caves, good resting and fishing sites. Rhythm made the lengthy string of words easier to remember.
Bruce Chatwin, an eloquent traveller obsessed with nomadic cultures who studied the songs of native Australians, depicted them as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys covering the entire country. But, unlike Australian songlines, which have not changed since the Dreamtime (an alteration to a song was considered sacrilege, an “undoing” of the creation and thus punishable by death), the chants of the Maori evolved continuously. The original journey of the ancestors who discovered and shaped the land formed the skeleton of a song, and this was later embellished with verses describing more contemporary events. Myths of creation became mixed with deeds of prowess, tragedies and even jokes. The songline became not only the map of a trail, but also its history.
Throughout Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks there are places that make your heart stop and leave you wondering if this is where God used to retire from the chores of creation to perfect his favourite pieces at leisure. They are, however, usually very remote, with access to them strenuous and often fraught with danger. They are areas revered by the diehard Kiwi tramper and mountaineer and rarely seen by the foreigner. Here a week-long expedition may make for a couple of laconic lines in a guide book, such as “times from three hours to three days have been reported. A difficult route.”
Routeburn, although sometimes criticised for being “tame” and “suburban,” is a safe way through a similarly steep and splendid alpine terrain. You only need to stray from the track for five minutes to find yourself in a place as wild as you could ever see. This, perhaps, is the greatest value of the track: it allows a rugged backcountry environment to be visited and experienced by almost anyone capable of walking three hours at a stretch.
A guide from Routeburn Walk—a privately owned guiding company which operates its own lodges on the track— told me about one of her clients who took 12 hours to walk from Lake Mackenzie to the Falls hut, usually a moderate 4-5 hours. “I had to hold her hand in places, and she burst into tears when we finally got here. It was not just a walk, it was the adventure of a lifetime. For her it was a personal Everest.”
Faced with the dilemma of how to provide a valid wilderness experience that is accessible to the public, yet at the same time preserve those very wild places from being trampled to the ground, the Department of Conservation—responsible for management of the vast majority of tracks and backcountry facilities—in October 1992 introduced the concept of “Great Walks.” Into this category was placed an elite group of tracks, which, because of their popularity, heavy use and high earning potential, require more intense management than the rest of our wilderness.
Many of New Zealand’s scenic pearls were included: Tongariro northern circuit, the Heaphy Track in North-West Nelson, the Kepler (a ridgetop traverse above Lake Te Anau) and, of course, the Milford Track. With most of its facilities already in place, Routeburn became a model Great Walk.
As the number of trampers steadily increased, track administration procedures were streamlined. Instead of collecting fees ($14 per night), but wardens punched pre-sold tickets like old-fashioned tram conductors.
I followed Willy Poison, the ever-cheerful Falls but warden, on one of his “hut-busting” tours. It was Good Friday, the beginning of the weekend most dreaded by the track staff. The 30-bunk but was bursting at the seams. Back-to-back mattresses covered the verandah and the kitchen floor.
“At least it’s not busy,” Willy muttered, smiling his way through the multilingual crowd.
Seeking wilderness and tranquillity and finding scores of other walkers and overcrowded huts can be a frustrating experience. Still, there is an atmosphere of tolerance and camaraderie of people brought together by a common interest. Like a medieval port, Routeburn is an international crossroads where travellers’ stories flow abundantly.
“. . . Milano has a splendid train station . . . all the information about UFO has been suppressed and ridiculed for years . . . he said he was a Buddhist monk, then I saw him eat the biggest medium-rare steak I’ve ever seen . . . I had a wisdom tooth removed under a general anaesthetic; the dentist was a very staunch fellow, a real silverback. I woke up with a bootprint on my forehead . . . In 1984 in the Ecuador jungle we were ambushed by head- hunting Jivaro Indians. I did the only sensible thing. I panicked. I never ran so fast in my life . . . I’m from ver everybody’s from. My name is Hans . .”
Next morning in the warden’s quarters the mountain radio blurted out a heavy rain warning for Fiordland and forecasted snow-showers to low altitude. The humpbacked ranges receded into the grim haze, and monotonous drizzle murmured against the roof. I sat by a whistling potbelly stove with Willy Polson, sipping his evil brew of earthen coffee.
Kiwis are rare birds on this track, but they have a strong self-preservation instinct,” Willy said. “Most of them come well-equipped. They clean the place up as if it was their own backyard. Foreigners, on the other hand, just pass through, so their attitude is different. They are just buying a product which happens to be abundant and cheap in New Zealand. Many of them have never been tramping before.”
As if to confirm his words there was a shy knock on a door and a young woman wearing rainbow lycra tights and an expensive pair of running shoes appeared. A sleeping bag, wrapped up in a piece of plastic, dangled sadly from her small backpack.
“I don’t have a raincoat,” she said in a strong Californian accent. “Do you think it is wise to go over the Saddle today?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Willy said. “It may get very nasty around the tops in this weather.”
She looked outside and hesitated for a moment. “I have a bus to catch and the Milford cruise booked. I think I’ll have to go, anyway.” The pitch of the rain rose a tone.
“People don’t realise the Routeburn can be a serious alpine crossing,” said Willy, shaking his head. “And I physically can’t stop them. Best way to discourage ill-prepared trampers is to mention we’ll sting them $1400 for a helicopter rescue if it results from their negligence. Sometimes it works. But if things go wrong, I’ll have to go and look for them.”
An ever-ready backpack with survival gear and first aid kit stood by the door. The rain hit a higher octave. “And I’d hate to go out on a day like this,” he sighed.
With adventure tourism now an established worldwide industry, the demand for accessible wilderness is growing at about 15 percent a year. Marketing sultants estimate the number of outdoors-hungry visitors to this country could treble by the year 2000. The opening of the Dart River bridge in 1974 doubled the numbers of walkers doing the Routeburn, and tar-sealing of the QueenstownGlenorchy road, which is scheduled to take place within the next five years, could have a similar effect.
In a report based on surveys conducted between 1989 and 1991, Ciaran Keogh, a Dunedin-based resource planner, pointed out that a substantial number of tourists are deterred from walking the Routeburn Track by its reputation of being fiercely overcrowded. Some of them spill on to less developed and thus more vulnerable walkways like Greenstone-Caples, whose alpine peat-bogs are already beginning to look like a cattle yard. Others venture without the necessary experience into much more serious mountain country like the Rees and Dart valleys. Many more give up the idea of tramping altogether, and this, says Keogh, means a considerable loss of much-needed revenues which could be applied to other conservation projects.
Of course, judging whether the track is overcrowded or simply busy is largely a matter of interpretation, and even among the old Routeburn hands opinions are divided. “Overcrowding on Routeburn is only occasional, and it is not the track that is crowded but the facilities,” Jan Powell, Lake Mackenzie but warden told me. “I think the numbers of trampers are very much self-regulating. It works a bit like a bush telegraph. After a particularly busy night, the track gets quiet for a few days.”
The so-called “physical capacity” of Routeburn is estimated at 12,000 trampers over a 200-day season, and so is well above the current use level. But, as with all averaged data, this figure can be misleading. The “social capacity,” determined by whether the trampers feel the track is crowded or not, gives a much truer picture of what is happening. This capacity, says Ciaran Keogh, has already been exceeded.
“You can’t use overcrowding as a form of management, and at the same time boast about the quality of wilderness experience. It’s nonsense,” he told me. “The Routeburn Track is not being overused, it is being poorly managed.
“Public huts are available on a first come, first served basis, but there is no reliable information about how full they are at any given time. So the walkers have to take chances. They race between huts to get a bunk, too busy with the logistics of the walk to appreciate the scenery. In the process, they bunch up in big groups, and instead of three or four people per kilometre of the track, you get a pulse of 30 or more. Once in a hut, people get very territorial about bunks and guard them for the rest of a day. You’ll find not a soul on the track.”
Under a more efficient management structure, and with better facilities, the Routeburn Track would be able to accommodate 30,000 people a year and seem less crowded than it does now, say tourism developers. Run the track like any other business and turn out a profit, they argue. Indeed, it comes as a surprise that under current management a tourist attraction of such grand dimensions can barely break even.
On the other hand, the idea of a strictly cash-orientated development of Routeburn brings to mind scenes from European Alps, where in a mountain “hut” gourmet meals are served on white tablecloths and a tuxedo-clad waiter fills up the glasses with crisp chardonnay. It is visitors from these overdeveloped alpine countries who make up a large percentage of Routeburn walkers. “In tourism development, New Zealand is years behind many European countries,” a Swiss tramper told me. “But, believe me, you don’t really want to catch up!”
Developing and upgrading other tracks in the area to take the pressure off Routeburn has also been suggested, but such is the nature of our wilderness that each new walk, a Great one or not, tends to become an instant attraction. The Kepler Track, opened in 1988 to divert some of the Routeburn-bound trampers (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 1), is today almost as busy.
The more conservative members of New Zealand’s tramping community oppose any new additions to the network of existing tracks. “We call them the grey-bearded brigade,” Gus van Wijk, a but warden told me. “They don’t want huts or graded tracks. They are happy to spend the night under a piece of tarpaulin miles from anywhere.”
The “bearded ones,” I found, were no longer concerned with the likes of Routeburn; they have quietly written them off. “We don’t bother going there any more. It’s too busy,” the president of one tramping club told me. “As long as we can freely use the Routeburn as an access route to the real wilderness, like the Olivines or Fiordland, we don’t particularly care if there are 10,000 or 50,000 people there.”
That “free use” is something of a sticking point. It would be relatively easy to fund track facilities by simply increasing user charges. But this would inevitably bring howls of protest from local trampers like my companion in the blue Swanndri.
“Free access to national parks is our birthright,” he told me, heatedly. “We already pay for it with our taxes. If the foreigners want to come and see our wilderness, they must pay for it as well. Why should we subsidise their holidays?”
Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC), the largest umbrella organisation for mountaineers, trampers and wilderness enthusiasts around New Zealand, has been a traditional watchdog over conservation policies. It has also been a heavy and successful counterweight against hasty commercialisation and introduction of what they call “intrusive activities in national parks”—mountain biking, jet boating, helicopter scenic flights and the like. This standpoint sometimes brings them into conflict with today’s more commercially driven tourist operators. FMC’s primary concern is freedom of access to all public lands and the maintenance of only basic backcountry facilities.
“We accept the need for controlling the numbers of people on highly developed, high-use tracks like Routeburn, Kepler or Abel Tasman,” John Easton, an FMC spokesman told me. “However, any booking or permit system must protect the rights of New Zealanders to walk a track whenever they wish to do so.”
On the Routeburn, various forms of mandatory permit system, where you have to book either your bunk or number of days on the track, have been advocated since 1973, and, although raising the ire of free access advocates, today they do seem the necessary evil. Uncontrolled access to Routeburn has been compared to running an airline without reservations: just turn up at the airport and there may be a spare seat. Or perhaps some space in an unpressurised cargo hold.
One management option which was considered involved spreading the numbers of trampers from the peak season (December-March) to the “shoulder” season (October-November and April-May), but this has already happened naturally. Shunning the crowds, some hardy, but not always experienced, tramp ers have tried to stretch the season well into the winter, when large parts of the track become threatened by avalanches. I have seen them ploughing a metre-deep trench across snowbound Harris Saddle. Some wore jeans and had plastic bags wrapped around their feet.
After 20 years of increasing pressure to “do something about Routeburn,” DOC has finally come up with a proposal for a computerised booking system which is to be introduced for the 1995/96 season. Apart from Milford Track, which because of its aura of “the finest walk in the world” has enjoyed the protection of a booking system for a number of years, this will be a precedent in the New Zealand back country, and perhaps a sign of things to come.
The Department considered, but discarded, a quota system which would have regulated only the total number of walkers on the track at any time. Under this system, park staff at both ends of the track would have been placed in the unenviable position of acting as night club bouncers, politely but firmly informing, “Sorry, you can’t get in—we’re full today.”
Instead, from July 1 each year, bookings will be taken for the following season (Labour Weekend to Easter), and walkers will book a place in each but according to their projected route and speed. Paul Wilson, recreation manager for DOC Southland, explains that this system retains flexibility in hikers’ use of the track.
“The time and effort involved in getting a car from one end of the track to the other means that a lot of trampers just go part way, stay a night and then return to their starting point. On the Milford Track you sign up for the whole track, not each hut, so you have to cover the distance in a fixed number of days. Booking a bunk on the Routeburn will be no different from booking a hotel room.”
This option should favour New Zealanders who, unlike the transient foreign tourist, can usually plan their holidays well in advance. There is, however, no leeway for the fickle nature of the Fiordland weather, and booking early could well mean walking three days in a torrential downpour.
Routeburn may seem like an isolated case, but the issues at stake here—protection of the environment, management of visitors and directions of future development—are universal. Solutions found here can become a blueprint for the rest of the country, for no doubt, the story of the wilderness being loved to death will occur again and again.
New Zealand is a popular tourist destination—still unspoiled, still attractive, still a vision of a faraway paradise. Tourism trends, however, are notorious for being short-lived, even more so if overexploited. Costa del Sol, where the Sierra Nevada mountains meet the Mediterranean Sea in the south of Spain, was once an idyllic shoreline attracting millions of visitors. Now a nightmare of run-down, deserted hotels, eroding beaches and polluted sea, it is only one example of tourist management run amok in pursuit of short-term profits.
Sensitively managed ecotourism can pay for the preservation of wilderness in New Zealand just as it helps the mountain gorillas in Rwanda and the tigers in India. It can focus the environmental impact in a relatively few well-developed areas, while vast stretches of true wilderness remain untouched and unaffected.
The question is one of balance, of finding a healthy compromise between recreational use, preservation and the necessities of market economy, between radically opposing views such as removing the Falls but to make the track more challenging or allowing regular helicopter access when Harris Saddle becomes impassable in winter.
“As long as there is wilderness there is hope,” wrote Paul Theroux, after walking the Routeburn. As global environmental awareness improves, there is perhaps more hope for the wilderness today than ever before. On the Hollyford side of the track I watched a Japanese ecotour stop for lunch. After much munching and slurping they lit cigarettes and the leader produced an intricately ornamented silver ashtray. Not a pinch of ash fell on the ground. All the cigarettes were stubbed into the ashtray, which the leader put in his pocket. Off they went again, “ohhhing” and “awwwing,” sniffing buttercups and mountain daisies.
If the tourism industry has its way, in five years’ time the number of foreign visitors to New Zealand will reach three million, and almost equal our population. This, however beneficial to the economy, brings a real danger of turning our national parks into a string of ecoDisneylands. The degree of tourist development in the wilderness is our choice, but this choice goes far beyond the width of tracks and the capacity of huts.
“We still have a fast-food attitude towards our natural world,” Lesley Shand of Forest & Bird Society told me. “We use it, discard it and ask for more, but the dispenser is slowly running out. We alter the last stretches of wilderness to satisfy our whims, but the essence of coming to places like Routeburn is that we can get back to the basics, to simplify, to refresh our values. Being here is not about changing everything around us. It’s about changing ourselves.”
Indeed, the Routeburn is not just about wilderness, but also about the people who come to experience it. About an amateur botanist returning here every year for over a decade, and a blind man soaking up the spring sun, his neck outstretched like the stalk of a sunflower. About a dog-tired six-year-old asking how far to the next hut. Moments of inspiration and challenge in an incomparable setting.