The Irony Around Upgrading Hiking Trails

14 April, 2022 By Chris Chase

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When we go hiking, one of the underlying goals everyone has is to feel some sort of re connection to nature, as it currently stands and has stood as a place of escape.

To be in the middle of the woods, hear the birds chirp, ogle at expansive and impressive views, see wildlife, witness a powerful waterfall that has eaten away the mountainside for hundreds or maybe thousands of years. 

One of the last things you expect to (or want to) see when you are after that goal of mental and physical escape is any form of human intervention.  It's one thing to find thee occasional footprint or broken tree brach that someone tried to grab one to while stepping down somewhere.

These kinds of human interventions help you feel like you shared this experience with others who saw its value.  It reminds you that you are not truly alone and can carry on your journey knowing that someone else has completed what you are seeking to achieve.

It's another thing when you start to see trails that are dug out, branches deliberately chopped away, and areas stamped down to form "safer areas" for people to cross.

On a trail like the Pouakai Circuit, it became important years and years ago to some intrepid hikers of the area that if it were gaining in popularity, it would need to be protected to some degree.

I spoke with an elderly gentleman on the trail who was walking slowly up from the Visitor's Centre, seemingly looking at all of the older planks of wood placed down to make steps.  We both stopped near a small outlook and I stopped to have a chat with him, as I always do on trail when I see other hikers.  The area we stopped in had been re formed recently into new steps with a beautifully made rock drainage system beside it.

He pointed out a plank of wood not far below this new set of stairs, and then said "I put this wood in the ground 56 years ago."  You could tell by the condition of the wood that it was definitely due to be replaced, but I thought it was amazing that it was even still there and felt privileged to hear the story of the man who placed it there all those years ago.

The work he had done was a sure testament to people's desire, even all those years ago, to protect the integrity of the trail in a way that helped more people access it, but not to interrupt the nature surrounding it.  people like him carried wood and rocks in sacks, and slowly developed and dug out sections of path so that people could access the nature that is now the Pouakai Circuit.

As you begin the walk from the Visitor's Centre, you see this mixture of old and new trail work, some of which is still ongoing...and it made me think hard about whether what we are doing to build safer and stronger pathways is truly worth it?

Why does the Department of Conservation (DOC) even go to all of this trouble, when part of being in the outdoors is to experience the nature as it currently is, and how it has stood for thousands of years before?

As I walked further into the trail, I began to realise why this conservation is so important.

Because it is a hugely popular trail in New Zealand, a lot of feet impacting the ground day after day, year after year, actually does end up having an impact of the flora.

Trails get muddy because vegetation gets trampled on or broken, doesn't have a chance to grow or grow back before the next person comes.  That cycle then perpetuates and this can result in unstable ground, slips in the landscape and unique ecosystems forever changed.

50-60 years ago what that elderly man I met was out doing that trail building, he ways doing it in the only ways they could at the time.  Hauling everything in on their backs. 

Those efforts have lasted a whole generation, but now what we are seeing is this incredibly modern effort to conserve the land take over...and some people (including myself) are worried about its impacts.

Since the more commercialised use of helicopters, it has become easier to haul workers and more complex methods of conservation directly up to those trails.

So as I walked, I was confronted by all of that new age construction.

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I witnessed a helicopter hauling small and medium sized rocks that would fill in the footpaths to help avoid trail erosion.  I spoke with the workers that were brought in using heavy machinery to dig new path and reinforce it with wooden walls and trusses to then build a staircase across a complex river section of terrain.

Part of me was conflicted because I realise all of this wood and rock and other material had to come from somewhere (else). So they were taking from somewhere else to make improvements here, but I learned through the signage they also put up along the way why it was all so important.  That was a turning point for me in my understanding on the walk.

These boardwalks they put together allow the old track to grow back and vegetation to grow under your feet through the slats of wood.  This ensures that with the hundreds of boots pounding the ground each month that the rail doesn't build up any more mud.

The stairs allow you to step up and down the terrain without pushing roots and soil out of the way and possibly down the mountain.

All of these efforts are seen as silly and a waste of money and resources to some, but if you left us humans to it, every day, for years and years, that rail would not look the same and we would have trampled over and contributed to the ruin of the delicate ecosystem that is one of a kind out there.

I came to realise that even though his new con-struction is causing more de-struction, that destruction in the grand scheme of things will be minor compared to how long the nature around it can thrive for once DOC finishes the improvements.

We will always be in a constant generational battle with nature, working to overcome new growth, but with the tools we use and have today, hopefully the conservation efforts will double or triple the amount of time we can enjoy them for before having to go through this re build process again and the next generations will have to replace what we built.

The new changes on that track certainly contributed to my enjoyment of the experience and as much as I would like to say it felt like a true wilderness experience slogging through the mud and feeling the struggle that comes with tramping and "connecting to nature"...I now understand why it is so important to have track improvements and things that assist in our enjoyment of the outdoor experience, like serviced huts.

The work that is being done to there and on other trails around New Zealand is an incredible testament to human achievement and conservation.

And although it is ironic that in order to upgrade trails and protect the natural environment, we need to take from somewhere else...enduring this cycle of take, repair, take and repair again will ultimately allow for generations more to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors.


If you have not hiked this trail before, I highly recommend it, but please make sure you do your research before you go.  I have years of experience tramping and solo tramping, so I was confident in a solo excursion...but please make sure you are prepared before you go.  Contact the North Egmont Visitor Centre to ask about track conditions and weather before committing to the trip.  The weather there is very changeable.

Want to see the rest of the photos from my trip? Click on an image below to see the whole gallery!

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