June 10 was a nervous day for me. Bookings opened for the 2020/21 season for the new Paparoa Great Walk. I was out tramping and a colleague was tasked to get in quickly to book for a party of eight from the Wanganui Tramping Club for next March. He managed to do so, but it was a close run thing as DoC had record results on the eight Great Walks that opened for bookings.

Kiwis are being encouraged to support domestic tourism through Tourism New Zealand's "Do something New, New Zealand" campaign and they responded big time with a 36 per cent increase in overall bookings for all walks that opened.

So contrary to expectations - despite border restrictions and the devastating impacts of Covid-19 - opening week bookings were significantly up on previous years. Results included a 47 per cent increase on the Paparoa Track. With 92 per cent of these Great Walks bookings made by Kiwis, it demonstrates a huge domestic appetite to explore our exquisite landscape and connect with the natural and cultural heritage.

Overall DoC manages around 1000 huts, 14,000km of walking tracks and 13,000 historic and cultural sites. You don't need to take a multi-day tramp to enjoy these places — there's something for everyone and every budget. And there will never be a better time to get out there than now, with overseas tourists absent.

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As a DoC spokesman said, "Time spent in nature is an investment in both our own health and wellbeing and our recovery as a country". But it goes further than that. It is often said that we need to be educated to better understand how much our environment is being degraded and how much it needs to be nurtured.

I would suggest that preceding education, we first need to develop a simple awareness of how wonderful our country is and what we face if we are indifferent to the needs of nature. So it is good to see so many Kiwis planning to get up front and personal with the great New Zealand outdoors. Such involvement will greatly increase awareness which can only enhance efforts to regain the balance we have lost.

Clearly, New Zealand has no shortage of environmental and conservation issues. As humans continue to consume natural resources, many organisms are headed for extinction. Conservation issues include the protection of trees, animals and wetlands.

For instance, nearly all of the country's rivers and lakes in populated areas exceed environmental guidelines, according to a recent government report that warns our freshwater is at breaking point. Human impacts on the country's waterways are not only having dramatic impacts on recreation and the economy, but three-quarters of our native freshwater fish species are threatened with, or are at risk of, extinction.

The situation is also forecast to get worse under climate change unless New Zealanders change their ways, according to the report Our Freshwater 2020, using the latest evidence showing how the country's waterways are impacted by urban development, farming and forestry. Before humans arrived in New Zealand, forests covered about 80 per cent of the land, but in 800 years only about a third of forest remained, and 10 per cent of wetlands.

Sobering stuff but let's remain optimistic. To quote a well-used line, "We are all in this together". So become aware, get educated, be involved. Each one of us can help make the planet a more human place to live.

* Dave Scoullar is a tramper, conservationist and member of the Te Araroa Whanganui Trust.