Preserving Outdoor Access

Radio New Zealand’s Insight programme has looked at public access rights and the conflict over paper roads in New Zealand. The 28 minute audio programme can be found at the end of the linked page.

Paper Roads are legal rights of way, effectively public land, but some aren’t practically navigable as roads. Some also go through private property, and have sometimes been treated as inconvenient or non-existant by owners of surrounding land.

Conflict between property owners and people who want access through their land via these rights of way has been a festering issue in recent years. Several years ago, the Walking Access Commission was created, with a general role of liaising between the sides. I wrote about this in 2009.

From its beginnings, one of the early problems the Commission identified that recreationalists were having was not actually knowing where they had public access rights to go. An early success stories therefore, in my view, has been the Walking Access Mapping System. That system collates together information held by LINZ and countless local councils, and makes it clear where legal public access actually exists throughout New Zealand.

The Insight episode tracks down people on both sides of the issue, and it’s worth a listen for its presentation of the problems being faced.

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Groups Staying Together

Stuff recently posted a story titled “Friends leave woman behind in bush — search and rescue called“. It refers to an incident in the Wairere Falls area near Matamata, suggesting that a group of friends selfishly left someone behind because she was too slow, resulting in both a SAR call-out, and prompting a particularly nasty comment thread below the article. More recently there’s been another odd-sounding case, of a group leaving a sick person behind having activated a PLB.

I’ll state outright that I don’t consider it acceptable to consciously, or through negligence, leave someone behind because they can’t keep up, unless that person is complicit with splitting the group, remains well looked after, that both resulting new groups remain fully self-sufficient, and that each knows the other’s intentions. Being in a group means having a mutual responsibility to each other. Particularly if there’s enough of an emergency to set off a PLB, I’m struggling to rationalise splitting a group at all, unless the reason relates to the emergency, such as having part of the group attempt to walk out and get help independently.

For various reasons I think the full context of the first event probably hasn’t been represented in the report, and the second case I’m struggling to justify from provided info, though a later report suggests they might have misunderstood certain things. I’m wary of judging people’s decisions under often-stressful circumstances based on terse media reports and I don’t care to dwell on either, but resulting discussion has veered towards tramping clubs and groups generally, and group safety techniques. It’s caused me to consider my own view of tramping in groups.

It’s generally accepted tramping lore, at least within the club scene as it’s evolved through the decades, that groups should stay together when tramping, though there’s also some subjective inconsistency in what “staying together” actually means.

When “staying together” how far apart is it acceptable to be? Must each person to be two-steps behind the person in front? Must everyone always be able to see each other? Should the slowest person always be at the front? Must there always be a person designated to always stay behind everyone else, also known as tail-end Charlie? Are there circumstances by which it’s acceptable for a group to split?

I’ve met people with very strict, non-negotiable rules, and could collect a diverse range of answers to all of the above questions. I think my own response to all of these group mechanisms would be that it usually depends on circumstance.
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Otaki Gorge Road Closed, Also for Foot Access

Just quickly, for now at least, it looks as if Otaki Gorge Road has been closed. Not just for vehicles due to the usual slip, but also to foot access. At this time, it also appears to be indefinite.

Alternatively, here’s the announcement from the Kapiti Coast District Council. The latest status of the road can be checked here.

The reason? New cracks found above when clearing the road from an earlier slip. It won’t be until next year before more detailed survey work can be carried out to determine the scale of the problem.

This sounds potentially serious and hopefully it doesn’t result in long term blocking of access to Otaki Forks from outside the Tararuas. That entrance is, by a substantial margin, the most major entrance and exit point on the western side of the range.

[Edit 23-Dec-2015, 5.50pm: Further information from Radio New Zealand Checkpoint.]

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Mountain Biking Between Holdsworth Road and Atiwhakatu Hut

The Tararuas hit the news a few days ago, not for the most flattering reasons.

The Tararua, Rimutaka and Aorangi Huts Committee, which forms the representation of local tramping and recreation clubs in DOC’s consideration of local park management issues, has expressed concern that DOC issued a permit for a “one-off” mountain bike ride event between Holdsworth Road and Atiwhakatu Hut.

The event is the Huri Huri 2016 Wairarapa Bike Festival, with this particular ride to take place on Thursday 21st January. Here’s the promotional Youtube video (also embedded in that page), which I’ll presume they also had DOC’s permission to produce because it clearly shows mountain bikes being ridden in that region. The event is being billed as a “one off”, but it seems reasonable to expect that if DOC’s seen fit to permit the activity once, it could easily do so again whether for this festival or not.

The complaint of the Huts Committee isn’t without merit. Under normal circumstances, it’s illegal to enter a Conservation Park (Tararua Forest Park included) with a vehicle unless it’s in a place that’s been designated for that type of use. This rule is embodied in Regulation 19 of the State Forest Parks and Forest Recreation Regulations 1979 (which are deemed as valid for modern Conservation Parks under section 65(5) of the Conservation Act).

DOC can grant permission, of course, but it’s always meant to be adhering to the local management plans and strategies in place for the parks, which have been developed in accordance with consultation of park users and everyone who takes an interest.
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That Paparoa National Park Great Walk

In September I wrote about precedents around Great Walks seeming to become skewed. This morning I think that’s finally happened. Nick Smith has announced that a new Great Walk will be created in Paparoa National Park, to commemorate the 29 people killed in the Pike River Mine accident of 2010.

I do not for a moment wish to belittle the obvious tragedy for the people who died in the Pike River explosion, their families and their friends. But purely as justification for a Great Walk, I really don’t understand this at all. If there’s to be a new track, then why a Great Walk instead of a regular track?

In 1992, DOC itself justified the Great Walks concept as being “to manage impacts on New Zealand’s most highly used tracks” [FMC Bulletin 111, Oct ’92, page 18]. This was stated at a time when all of New Zealand’s current Great Walks were either in place, or planned. 23 years later, the newly-planned Paparoa Great Walk is not highly used. Therefore what has changed, why has it changed, and can we expect the same new principles to be applied for a new batch of Great Walks?

In recent years, Great Walks have become a major brand. Tourists seek out the Great Walks because they’re great walks. The only rationale I can detect in this is to latch on to that brand and attract tourists to a local area, and in fact Nick Smith’s raw press release stresses that “it will bring tourism and economic development to the West Coast”.

Smith’s press release also mentions a couple of other things (protecting the area, ensuring access to the resting place of 29 miners), but neither of those other two actually require a Great Walk. They could be achieved with a simple track combined with applying protection already available under existing law. Therefore those claims are really just government spin.

If generating local tourism and boosting a local economy is the real reason for creating a new Great Walk, we should be asking some serious questions around what impact it will have on future decisions, because this decision seems very politicised.
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Streetview on Great Walks

Several days ago, Google announced that it has adapted its Streetview technology for use on most of New Zealand’s Great Walks (also from Stuff, and from the Herald). Thanks to some guy who was employed to walk most of them with an 18kg camera on his back, it’s now possible to see a glimpse of any point along the walks from a web browser.


Crossing Awarua Inlet.

Streetview has potential to be a very useful tool. I have a couple of concerns about how it’s come to be (mentioned below), but there are several potential uses which I like.

The most obvious is simply being able to see a place without going there. Since Streetview on Great Walks was announced, I’ve seen this very advantage criticised in social media. It’s been declared a waste of time, or people have expressed outright offence that certain places which some consider to be personal experiences might suddenly be so easily available on the web to people who aren’t actually going there themselves. Popular media’s framing of the whole thing being about “armchair trampers” and little else has probably encouraged some of this view, but I’m sure there’s more to it than that.
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Trip: Blue Range Nav to Ruamahanga, Cow Saddle, Cow Creek

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Eleanora dropping to Cleft Creek on Saturday.

It’s Saturday night, before 8pm. I’m hunched below a top bunk of Cow Creek Hut, feeling very well fed and trying to scribble these notes by torchlight. Debbie and Eleonora are already trying to go to sleep. Debbie’s had the wood-burner going, and it’s toasty enough for me to have switched to a downstairs mattress, even though the mattresses don’t fit properly. We’re expecting rain overnight. A typical early winter’s evening after a fun-filled day.

Dates: 28th – 30th August, 2015
Location: Tararua Forest Park, Kiriwhakapapa Road-end.
People: Debbie, Eleanora and me.
Huts visited: Blue Range Hut (1 night), Cow Creek Hut (1 night).
Route: Kiriwhakapapa Road to Blue Range Hut on Friday night. Then skim around Te Mara (along marked track) to .970. Navigate along ridge past .790 and .775 towards .655, and find a way down to Ruamahanga River track. Back to Cow Creek Hut via Cow Saddle for Saturday night. Out to Kiriwhakapapa Road via main track on Sunday.
Also includes: A side trip up towards .1390 near Table Ridge above Cow Creek Hut on Sunday morning.
Also see: The Friday and Saturday portion of this write-up make up part of a trip report published in the WTMC newsletter.
[Photos]
[Download GPX] [Show map] [Display in new window][LINZ Topographic Map in new window]

This post is a trip report. You can find other trip reports about other places linked from the Trip Reports Page, or by browsing the Trip Reports Category.

The original idea had been to visit Table Ridge of the Tararuas and drop to Mid-King biv, but forecasts of strong gale-force winds swayed our intentions before leaving home. Instead, Debbie proposed a nav trip centred on Blue Range, which we hoped would be sheltered from the west.

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Blue Range Hut on Saturday morning.

So it was that 24 hours ago, having arrived at the Kiriwhakapapa Shelter, Debbie, Eleonora and I strolled up the 600 vertical metres to Blue Range Hut with torches, arriving about two hours later. Blue Range Hut was empty, helpfully allowing plenty of space for the three of us.

Debbie had water boiling this morning before Eleonora or myself had bothered to sit up. It’s great when someone does that. After some uneventful breakfasting and packing, Eleonora and Debbie left me behind to sweep out the hut before I also left at about 8am. After just one obsessive compulsive moment, needing to sprint back and check I’d bolted the door, I caught them on the slope on the marked track which skirts around the side of Te Mara: the high point of Blue Range.
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More on the Collapsing Hopuruahine Bridge

Today this video became very noticed in New Zealand media. It shows the moment in early September 2015 when the Hopuruahine Bridge collapsed along the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk, with four people on it. I wrote about this earlier and linked to much of the earlier coverage.

The latest coverage has been driven by the sudden availability of a video of the accident. This could be compared with when it actually happened, which triggered a short flurry of attention after which it promptly vanished when easy sources of information dried up.

The incident could easily have been extremely serious, and those involved were very lucky that it wasn’t. With the limited info available at first, potential significance for risks elsewhere, such as other back-country bridges, was high. The build date of the bridge, mid-1990s and roughly the same time as when DOC’s inconsistent building practices produced the Cave Creek Platform death trap, really should have triggered alarm bells of something worth active journalistic investigation. If those bells were ringing, they weren’t acted on.
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Justifying Great Walks

News emerged yesterday that a new Great Walk is being considered through Mount Creighton Station, near Queenstown, once tenure review has been sorted. Most references point at this Otago Daily Times’ article, but the original rendition seems to have been produced by the same author on behalf of Mountain Scene, and specifically links the claim back to a document from the Overseas Investment Office that was obtained under the Official Information Act. Wilderness Magazine has also chimed in, and produced a clearer map of the likely route.

I’m not sure what to think except to have some looming concern that the Great Walk concept may have become very skewed in the last few years. Great Walks have a wow factor where tourism is concerned. They tend to attract tourists, who hunt them out, but the presence of a Great Walk can also have a negative effect on an area, certainly for its atmosphere and the freedom and flexibility with which one might visit it.

In addition to cutting a walking super-highway through what might once have been a more remote environment, Great Walks come with baggage. Bylaws frequently restrict camping. Back-country huts tend to shift from the flexible back-country ticket system onto a rigid booking system. Accommodation as a whole is sometimes only available in highly structured sequences, making it difficult to plan a trip which does anything other than follow a tourist conveyor belt. Tracks are hardened and widened, to make them more durable.

The presence of Great Walks, and their rigid structure, is in conflict with the traditional legally enshrined values of our National Parks and Conservation Areas. These values prioritise freedom of entry and exploration for as long as it’s not unreasonably destructive to the rest of the park. Great Walks are, therefore, a compromise which should only be used where needed.
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Collapsing Bridges

Today’s news about one of the two main support cables of the Hopuruahine Bridge (on a map) giving way, along the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk (radio NZ, Stuff, NZ Herald) should be seen as very concerning. The consequence was that four tourists were dropped eight metres into two metres of water below. With a different set of circumstances (flooded river, shallower or no water, victims being incapacitated on the way down or otherwise unable to swim), the outcome could easily have been far more serious than four people plunging into a river and clambering out with their lives intact. Especially since the Cave Creek accident of 1995, which I wrote about in detail here, this is the type of incident which should never happen if a bridge has been engineered, built and inspected according to the standards by which DOC holds itself under New Zealand law, and yet it’s happened anyway.

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An asset number tag on the bridge over
the Waingawa River in the Tararuas,
outside Cow Creek Hut.
(Not the bridge in question.)
IMG_1415

Although the area is jointly managed by DOC and the Te Urewera Board, it’s likely DOC with its expertise and systems which continues to be most directly responsible for monitoring and maintenance of this bridge, as would have been the case until recently anyway. If you look closely at bridges, huts, signs, and nearly anything else significant and artificial that’s administered by DOC, you’ll find a tag with a number. Here’s a photographed example of the tag I passed on a bridge, just last Saturday.

The number on the tag maps back to the Department of Conservation’s asset tracking system. The system is used to keep track of all of DOC’s structures. It assists with generation of inspection and maintenance programmes for qualified staff to check and verify that all of these structures are up-to-standard, and to record when this inspection and maintenance has been carried out.

So far, media reports have stated that the bridge in question was most recently inspected in June, three months before this occurred. [Additional: Although Stuff and Radio NZ have both reported the most recent check as having been in June, Mike Slater of DOC stated in a Radio NZ Checkpoint interview that there was an Engineer inspection 18 months ago, a further inspection by a qualified DOC inspector 1 year ago, plus regular observations by DOC staff. The June claim in the Stuff article seems to originate from a statement by the Te Urewera Board which jointly manages the park, but it’s unclear what type of inspection that was.]

It’s too early to say what the cause is for this to have happened, and whether we should be concerned about any other structures. DOC has already sent a senior engineer to the site to investigate more completely. Possibilities, I suppose, are (a) that an inspector made a mistake, (b) that whatever inspection plan which exists for the bridge was flawed for some reason, (c) that the design of the bridge was fundamentally flawed from the start, (d) that the bridge wasn’t built to its design, or (e) that some kind of vandalism or unforseen serious damage has occurred since the most recent inspection.
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