Another year, another summer grounded in a bucket-list-worthy destination. New Zealand's landscape provides a vast playground for the hill-climbers, cliff-jumpers, and outdoor-recreators among us — but requires our thought and care.
Aotearoa's vistas are often described as "rugged" and "untouched", but they're quite the opposite when you're up close and personal. While our relatively remote islands may seem hearty compared to the rest of the world's degraded travel hotspots, New Zealand's landscape is in fact fragile and delicate.
Why is responsible recreation important?
While all recreation alters landscapes, recreating mindfully in our outdoor spaces can preserve them for years to come, allowing generations more to enjoy Aotearoa's beauty. With domestic travel increasing — DoC published a visitor insights report (visit bit.ly/3A1FS7q) citing that from Nov 2020-May 2021 78 per cent of New Zealanders visited one or more outdoor environments— it's more important than ever to recreate responsibly.
Whether from lack of respect for the outdoors or not understanding how to recreate sustainably, there have been cases of negative impact on the New Zealand landscape for years. From the indefinite closing of Northland's Mermaid Pools due to litter to ecological disasters intensified by human carelessness such as kauri dieback and track erosion, the effects of human carelessness can cause lasting impacts.
How to recreate responsibly
So what's a New Zealander wanting to enjoy the outdoors to do? Planning ahead and understanding the significance of the space you're in — historically, ecologically, and culturally — is a good first step.
Lynnell Greer, DoC's heritage and visitors director, says responsible recreation begins with the Tiaki Promise (tiakinewzealand.com). "DoC asks that everyone heading outdoors makes a commitment to Aotearoa by following the Tiaki Promise: protecting nature, being prepared, keeping New Zealand clean, and showing respect. Importantly, give wildlife plenty of space and never feed birds such as kea."
Other care codes, such as the seven principles of Leave No Trace (lnt.org/why/7-principles) can be applied to help walkers and trampers respect the environment and those they share it with.
On the track
Walking is one of New Zealanders' greatest pastimes, and there is no shortage of track usage projected this season. The 2021/22 Great Walk summer season is expecting a significant increase in overnight hut accommodation at each Great Walk. The Whanganui Journey jumped up 103 per cent and there was an 89 per cent increase in bookings on the Routeburn Track, according to DoC's visitor insights data.
Greer's biggest piece of advice to walkers is to check what's permitted in the area you want to head to before beginning your adventure. Understanding where dogs are allowed or where drones are banned can help keep your impact minimal and your enjoyment high. On the track, make sure to pack out any trash, use loos when available (and know what to do when not), and respect any signposted rules.
It's also crucial to consider the weather, both for your safety and the sustainability of the track. If your activity will degrade the natural environment more in adverse weather — for example, rock faces can be damaged by climbers ascending in the rain and trails can be degraded through heavy foot traffic — it's best to save it for another day.
Beaches, coastlines, and marine reserves are our most commonly visited outdoor environments, so understanding how to interact with marine life sustainably is important. Giving seals wide berths when kayaking, giving moulting penguins space on the beach, and respecting marine reserve laws help keep these spaces wild.
With New Zealand's goal of being predator-free by 2050, it's important to play your part by packing out any trash — especially food scraps like fruit peels — as these can become food for pests.
Finally, always give wildlife their space. No up close photo is worth ruining a habitat or stressing out a bird.
Finding the road — but not the track — less travelled
Consider alternative walks and campsites to the normal hotspots. Greer explains, "DoC manages more than 14,000km of tracks across New Zealand, and with border restrictions in place, there is no shortage of quieter hidden gems to reward those who take the time to investigate first."
While the Great Walks are great, they also enjoyed the highest number of domestic users ever recorded, according to DOC's visitor insights report. If you're looking for something a little quieter, it would pay to avoid them. Study DoC's maps to find nearby, but less obvious, tracks, huts, and campsites. If you're stumped online, head to your local DoC or i-Site office for some advice.
Second, carving your own path — "social trails"— while on a track is a sustainable nightmare. These man-made tracks are worn over time by trampers looking to find the road less travelled or a shortcut. While tempting, using these tracks causes premature degradation of the surrounding landscapes, leading to track erosion, trampling of significant plants and wildlife habitats, and a generally less pretty track.
The best way to enjoy nature is to be an active participant. Unplug and take in your surroundings, while embracing the environment, wildlife, and being mindful of other recreationists around you. Caring for our unique environment while enjoying it is a surefire way to ensure there's plenty of New Zealand's natural beauty to go around for years to come.
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