New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has decided not to establish a track along Oriwa Ridge in the Tararuas as part of Te Araroa — The Long Pathway. Instead, DOC is recommending that Te Araroa go via the exposed tops in the Tararuas, via places like Te Matawai, Dracophyllum, Nichols.
The original proposal of the Te Araroa Trust was to go more or less via this route, but the Trust put together the alternative proposal to build a track along Oriwa Ridge, below the bush-line, after the DOC Wellington Hawkes Bay conservancy expressed concern that the earlier route could be too dangerous for the often less experienced trampers that Te Araroa might be expected to attract. This has been brewing for about a year now, and has unveiled much controversy over balancing the seclusion of dedicated wilderness areas and the promotion of recreation, and all that.
Having gone through the submission process with 218 submissions, DOC has decided that its initial concerns are no longer relevant. It’s decided that for various reasons Oriwa Ridge probably isn’t that much safer anyway, that the reasons against the Oriwa Ridge proposal out-weigh the reasons in favour, and ultimately that there will be no track built through Oriwa Ridge. Reasoning that the Te Araroa Trust has since included rugged exposed alpine routes in other regions of the track, DOC has now also come out in favour of the original Te Araroa proposal that it initially had concerns about, to follow the existing and more exposed route through the Tararuas at higher altitude. As long as everyone who walks this section of the Te Araroa Trail takes standard precautions (ie. doesn’t take undue risks), this should be a win for everyone.
It ruffled feathers and caused stress for people on both sides early on. Oriwa Ridge is within one of two Remote Wilderness Areas in the Tararuas — special areas set aside to receive little or no development. This is so experienced people really can get into the wilderness without having to run into tracks, huts, helicopters, and too many other people. Despite having been a popular route many decades ago, Oriwa Ridge itself has a reputation (deserved or not) of being a remote ridge to walk along thanks to a famous storm in the 1930s that left behind lots of tree-fall, causing the ridge to be a comparably challenging, but rewarding route for people who enjoy getting out to that sort of place. The Te Araroa Trail proposal would have ploughed a more heavily walked track along the ridge, which contradicts the idea of a remote wilderness zone and (being on the ridge itself) would have made it difficult for people visiting the region to avoid.
When the Department of Conservation eventually requested submissions on the Oriwa Ridge idea back in August, it triggered debate amongst many of the locals who visit the Tararuas. The Te Araroa Trust encouraged its supporters to make submissions in favour of its proposed route. At the same time, however, several of the local tramping clubs approached the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand, which made a strong submission against the proposal.
In some ways it’s a shame that so much time and effort has been spent both by people in the trust, in DOC, and other interested parties, certainly with much stress along the way, to effectively arrive at the conclusion that the initial idea was always the best. I suppose at least it’s been thought through in a lot of detail now, however, and hopefully everyone can at least see there’s been reasoned consideration.
Perhaps the last word is that anyone who still wants to walk along Oriwa Ridge, as part of their own Te Araroa route or not, can continue to do so. I’ve never been there, but I intend to see it sooner or later. Unlike many countries, there’s no legal requirement to fill in any forms or pay any admissions, or stay on any marked track. All that’s required is to leave it as you find it, and to be fully responsible for yourself. Once these things are accounted for, Oriwa Ridge and nearly anywhere in New Zealand’s back-country is there to be visited in a relatively un-touched state. It’s one of the beauties of our public estate which I hope I’ll never take for granted.