Essay by Keith Rankin.
Last Thursday I walked the Tongariro (Alpine) Crossing with my partner. Actually, it was my third time, having also enjoyed that beautiful volcanic walk in 1979 and 1990. This was my first time with a mobile phone in my pocket. My phone assured me that the 19½ kilometre walk took me 39,000 steps; 2 steps per horizontal metre on average, compared with the 1½ steps per metre that I do when walking around the block at home. ‘The Crossing’ has more steep bits – and many more vertical steps! – than the (not well maintained) footpaths of Glen Eden.
Despite its length, The Crossing is accessible to people of reasonable fitness aged 7 to 77. There were probably about 250 people on The Crossing that day. But, as we left National Park for Auckland on Saturday, we saw huge numbers of young adult walkers boarding shuttle buses for the trail. Many people resident in Aotearoa do seem to be taking the opportunity to experience this experience while the international visitors are largely absent.
The Crossing has gained a status – domestic and international – since the 1990s as a ‘must do’ endurance walk, a one‑day complement (or alternative) to the multi‑day ‘Great Walks’. (Indeed, the first half of The Crossing is also part of the ‘Tongariro Circuit’ Great Walk. The Crossing is also part of the Te Araroa Trail, that winds from Cape Reinga to Bluff.)
While the ‘Bucket List’ marketing of these walks has proved to be very effective, it has almost certainly contributed to the culture that such activities should be seen as ‘achievements’ rather than ‘experiences’. An example of an ‘achievement’ is to drive from Auckland to Wellington in under eight hours, whereas an ‘experience’ is to take 11 hours, stopping every hour or so along the way; at towns, beauty sports, rest areas, cafes. And not speeding. And not driving tired. Another example might be to visit Hot Water Beach; a half‑day achievement or a full‑day experience. A half day visit would be enough to travel from Auckland, get the selfie and to tick it off the Bucket List; a full‑day visit enables visitors to fully experience (enjoy) this coastal environment.
The Crossing requires a lot of effort to get to the most spectacular bits in the middle. And a lot of effort – potentially enjoyable effort – to get out. (A long downhill walk does require effort, especially when it comes after the challenging Red Crater ridge walk.) Why rush the enjoyment? Why aim to finish the walk at 2:30pm when there are still more hours of enjoyment available?
We caught a 7am shuttle bus from National Park, meaning we started walking at 7:30am. We booked an expected pickup at 4:30pm, expecting an enjoyable nine‑hour experience which matched the timings on one of the maps that we had read. When we alighted from the morning bus, we were informed that the return buses would be at 2:30pm and 4:00pm. We made it to the 4:00pm bus, just! But we had to walk the last section of the walk at ‘hurry to catch the train’ speeds, in part because of the unexpectedly early departure time and in part because we discovered the signage on the walk was incorrect; the last section – allowing for a half-way toilet stop and a few minutes to reflect before boarding the return bus – was a 2½ hour walk incorrectly labelled as 1½ hours.
Such clumsy management certainly affects the enjoyment of the experience. Both the bus driver and the DOC employee at the Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre considered The Crossing to be a six to seven hour walk, and indeed most people on our morning bus did catch the 2:30pm bus back to their lodgings. I guess they thought it was an ‘achievement’ to walk the 39,000 steps so quickly. They had the opportunity to spend another 90 minutes at the place they took much effort to get to, yet they declined that opportunity.
This ‘achievement’ culture has been around a long time. It’s all about how many great walks you have done, how quickly you were able to complete a ‘challenge’, how many World Heritage Sites you have been to. It’s the challenge that principallydrives so many people to do such walks, not the experience of the environment they are visiting. It’s an austerity culture, where the pain actually is the gain.
There’s a huge domestic tourist market in New Zealand for families (in the school holidays) and newly retired persons (in the other times) for enjoyable environmental experiences that involve a bit of effort, but for which the environment rather than the effort is the principal enjoyment.
In these Covid times, it is the newly retired persons – fit for their ages, but preferring to walk at an unpressured pace, and taking extra care not to fall or ‘do’ their knees or ankles – who can form the mainstay of a year‑round domestic tourist industry. They travel outside of school holidays and weekends. These are people (indeed ‘boomers’, so there are many of them) – aged 65 to 75 – who would otherwise have been doing lots of overseas trips. The New Zealand tourist industry can survive by treating our lovely walks as environmental experiences rather than as time trials. The ‘destination’ is not the end of the walk; it’s the walk itself, especially – as in the case of The Crossing – the stunning middle bits of the walk.