OPENED in December 2011, the Te Araroa Trail, which bills itself as "New Zealand's trail", is the country's fastest-growing international tourist attraction.
Hundreds of thousands of people walk the 3000km trail every year and this summer the number walking its full length will top 1000 for the first time — almost double what it was two years ago.
With growth come problems and the trail has had negative publicity about some sections, particularly in the North Island, resulting in calls for better alerts about obstacles. Walkers are getting increasingly grumpy about the long road sections — Whanganui to Palmerston North is particularly disliked.
Te Araroa Trust chief executive Mark Weatherhall says there are a number of places along the trail that can become "dynamic" in adverse weather conditions. The trust alerts trampers to issues on the trail status section of its website as well as on its two Facebook groups, but he acknowledges that it doesn't always get communications right.
"The trust has limited resources but we're always working to try to keep ahead of any issues and communicate updates. But sometimes we don't hear about them straight away. Another tricky thing is that trampers often don't have wi-fi and it's quite a dynamic environment."
Weatherhall said the trust is working on an official trail app, expected to be available next walking season, which will enable it to "communicate directly with walkers the length of the country".
Another issue is that walkers and landowners along the trail fear New Zealand is jeopardising its reputation by relying on locals' goodwill to keep it running. Several stranded trampers have required rescue in recent years and there is no official form of transport for crossing the Whangārei Harbour to Marsden Point, leaving trampers at the mercy of local boaties and drivers.
The trail status section on Te Araroa's website recommends hitchhiking around Whangārei Harbour or trying to flag down a boat to get a ride across the several kilometres of sea. "We understand and appreciate this is far from ideal — but hope to have it sorted ASAP," the website reads.
The need to keep walkers away from areas where there is kauri dieback is another complicating factor as is a lack of alternative routes for closed sections of the trail and stretches along busy highways.
Weatherhall says the trust is working to move the entire trail off-road but it can be challenging to persuade landowners to allow trampers access to their land. This is true for the Te Araroa Whanganui Trust which tried to move hikers off SH3 down South Beach to the Whangaehu River where a foot bridge was planned. However, prolonged talks with farmers have made little progress forcing the trust to look at other options.
Yet another challenge is the walkers themselves — walking and camping where they're not meant to. It puts the trail's reputation at risk and compromises it for future generations of walkers.
"They need to help us so we can help them," Weatherhall says.
It's widely recognised that the best walking is in the South. Brad, an Australian, describes the North as "more of a route than a hiking trail" and says many people don't bother with the North Island.
This is at odds with Pete, from Wales, who I hosted this month. He actually likes road walking as he enjoys meeting people.
So it's different strokes for different folks but clearly there are genuine concerns about Te Araroa which need addressing.
Dave Scoullar is a tramper, conservationist and member of the Te Araroa Whanganui Trust.