DOC, the new THC

I went with some friends to spend 8 days hiking about 60-odd kms along the Travis Sabine circuit in Nelson Lakes National Park. In addition to the usual highlights of this kind of holiday (scaling mountains, waxing philosophical, eating dehy), one thing became abundantly clear: the 100% Pure brand is falling victim to its own success.


Sabine to Speargrass, pond

Environmental stagnation. National parks are coming under increased stress from tourists, and the economic imperative to put them there.

Since our last visit many years ago, the park’s changed in two ways. The huts are bigger and better than they used to be. Some of them even have a look, almost as if an architect had something to do with them. And most have running tank water, some of which is even inside.

And the other change, which has resulted in the improved huts, is the people. There are more of them.Lots more.

At a rough calculation, we met 10 other New Zealanders over the week. Plus us made 16 in total. And in the same period we encountered at least 40  internationals. Of those, at least a quarter were in the middle of Te Aroroa, the walkable route between Cape Reinga to Bluff. Many others were linking the best bits of the great walk with vehicular transport (which I would: over 100kms of it are on SH1).

Most of them – NZers and tourists alike – were thoroughly pleasant: wholesome, friendly, communicative hiking types. We know this because we spent almost every night sleeping very close to them in massively over-crowded huts. It was standard for half a dozen bodies to sleep on the floor every night.

There were two very popular skinny French kids, doing the whole thing in le flip flop and sneakers, carrying virtually nothing. In the best spirit of the sport, people gave them both food and equipment to cook it with. At one point they’d eaten raw eggs. We couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if they’d been caught out in the shit, as they say.

And a hysterical American who had either spent too long on the trail and lost her mind to malnourishment, or had endured some horrendous trauma along the way, or both. “I can’t stand this country” she half-screamed. “Y’say yerr doing Te Aarroa – y’know what dat is? – and dey’re like, what! WHAT!” Uh, ok. Have you enjoye- “Enjoyd it!? ENJOYD it!? I walked places people have died!” What, you mean, they died when you were actually ther- “Oh, whoa, whoa, I dunno! I dunnooo …” Hands flailing, gesticulating general hopelessness.

We also met two of a new species of volunteer DOC warden: they’d walk the trails, spend a night or two in each hut, and generally help people out. They surprised us at first, the first one, an American, popping up like a jack-in-the-box at our first night’s hut. “Hi! I’m Greg! I volunteer for DOC. Just a few things to bear in mind  …”

Later, after a Chinese guy turned up out of the darkness one night, Greg and one of our group went back out with him to help rescue his parents. Greg helped them out enormously with endless advice and compassion, helping them modify their plans for something more realistic (they’d hoped to attempt a pass at 1700m). Greg’s a champ, evidenced by the fact that he’s just pleased as punch that someone once carved his name into the hut’s table: “Greg Minter is a munter”. He was justifiably proud to have earned a little bit of kiwi immortality.

But – awesome as he and the other vollies are – the whole picture makes one thing very clear: DOC is busting at the seams. There’s a distinct feeling in this high-traffic national park that DOC’s got a shifting mandate:  from looking after plants and animals, it’s future is about looking after humans among the plants and animals. Which means it’s now part of the tourist industry.

And the more the tourists come, the more DOC will need to manage them. In Te Araroa parks like Nelson Lakes, the track signs are plentiful and literally gleam with polish. The tracks are blazed clearly and heavily: it’s almost impossible to get lost or stuck. Many of the tree falls have steps sawn out of them. All that takes a lot of work, and ultimately compromises conservation stuff like this. And there’s no way that less visited parks will get the same treatment.

Meanwhile, the Government has cut DOC’s budget by something in the order of $60m in the last few years (about $7m last year, and about $50m in 2012). What are they to do? The current practice of a minimal hut charge is clearly just the beginning.

When someone comes into a DOC office to buy a back country hut pass, it’s not uncommon for them to enquire about normal tourist stuff: what’s on the menu, what’s the linen service like, etc. Yeah, nah. Not going to happen.DOC staff laugh this off, but it’s not hard to see a commercial operator identifying it as nothing other than economic demand.

Inside the huts, we found a market research survey form. I regarded it with apprehension. It listed all the less-used huts in the park, the small ones in amazing places which require excursions off the main route, and asked us to tick all the ones we’d visited. Do those huts have the same destiny as TVNZ7? Maybe they’ll be taken off line, and reserved for DOC staff, lowering their consumer tourist grade requirements and upkeep.

On another occasion after using a DOC campsite (different holiday), I was polled on how much money I spent in that area, compared to what I would have, had I not used the DOC campsite. It’s obvious they’re under pressure to prove their existence in the only language this government understands.

Speaking of which, as we prepare for the TPPA, and continue negotiations for TISA (a treaty establishing a minimum level of government services to be outsourced, currently speculated to be about 70%), it’s not hard to see this is ending up with conservation projects going up for commercial tender. DOC might end up as an SOE with the same muddled mandate as TVNZ: do a public good, and make it pay. Is it possible to do both?  A gambler wouldn’t say so. Neither would a TVNZ viewer.

Oh yeah, one other thing we saw: human shit on the tracks. Market solutions, anyone?

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