When you get the chance to travel to New Zealand, expectations are high. You imagine the incredible Lord of the Rings landscape – lonely, vast, spectacular. You imagine snow-capped peaks and rainforests, cheeky wildlife and lots of sheep. You imagine being in awe and wonder of geothermal features beyond comparison and of unspoiled natural beauty at the edge of the world.
In a word, you expect nothing short of paradise :).
And, yes, these expectations are met. New Zealand is achingly beautiful. The combination of mountains, glaciers, volcanos, geysers, forests, impressive waterfalls, the clearest lakes and wild oceans are hard to beat. Often you find yourself on a trail or road exclaiming around every corner – Man! What a view! Is this real?
But his beauty comes at a price: The price of popularity. All this natural splendor has not gone unnoticed and droves of tourists from all over the word flock to New Zealand each year to take it all in and experience this incredible country. Now, of course we know that we are part of the problem – we too traveled to the islands to experience their splendor. So I am not trying to say – everyone else is bad and we are doing it right. I am simply giving an account of our experience down south.
One example where the love of the outdoors has gone a little too far and a once amazing trail has turned into a crowded nightmare is the fabled Tongariro Alpine Crossing. 19 km through the volcanic wastelands of Mount Ngauruhoe – “Mount Doom“, down a long series of switchbacks with spectacular views of Lake Taupo and on the last leg along magical rainforest trails. This trail on the North Island is on every New Zealand traveler’s bucket list, a “must do!”, and “one of the top ten day hikes in the world!”
So naturally, this became our first major hike in New Zealand. We stopped in Taupo at one of the hip and millennial-pleasingly named “I-sites” which have replaced the traditional tourist information centers in New Zealand to enquire about what it might take to hike Tongariro. First we had to learn from the nice lady at the counter that the trail was closed the following day due to bad weather. No biggie of course and nobody’s fault. We had some extra time to wait.
Then we were told that the only way to hike was to take a shuttle. This shuttle would leave from Taupo and cost about NZ$85 per person. We swallowed hard. Seemed a little steep to do a hike, didn’t it? Asking for clarification: This is the only way to do this? – Yes, there are brochures on the wall. She clearly wanted to get rid of us. So we picked up some brochures and eventually learned that there were a number of shuttle companies that operated out of Tongariro directly and would drive us from the end of the trail to its start in the morning for a fee of NZ$35 per person. The option for people with a car, like us. So really, she only wanted to sell us one particular type of tour and had no interest in providing us with any unbiased information.
So there was our first lesson in popular New Zealand hiking: Don’t expect to do it for free.
We eventually settled on the cheapest shuttle company for pickup at 6am (the earliest time) on the day of the hike. When we arrived there was a lot of hustle and bustle at the bus stop and ours was soon filled to the brim. We joined a queue of other shuttles and got on our way for the 25 min ride through the day’s very first splendid light. When we arrived at the trailhead there was no time to linger, adjust or take in the view. People everywhere were trying to snap a photo with the trail sign, of the mountain in amazing pink morning light, getting in line for a last-minute potty break. And off we went.
Maybe somewhat naively we had thought that over a 19 km hike surely the crowds of people would thin out eventually, everyone walking at their own speed and with room to spare on the trail. But no. Every step of the way, the hike was crowded. Wherever you walked there was another group of hikers close behind breathing down your neck. Some people chatted happily. Some looked grim and determined. Some dared to stop and take a picture only to be quickly pushed on by the people behind. Most just walked along glancing at the scenery and every once in a while took a quick snap in motion. Need to catch your breath during one of the many steep sections? You better be in excellent shape for this hike, because you won’t be able to do that without causing wrath and havoc behind you. There really was no option to stop since the trail is for the most part a single track with everybody heading in the same direction.
So we soon realized that there was simply no point in pretending we might yet escape the crowds or that it would eventually thin out. As busload after busload was unleashed onto the trail from 6am to 9am, we decided to make the most of it and try to (somehow) laugh it off.
Tongariro’s popularity has become the trails own demise with sometimes more than 3,000 people hiking the trial equipped to handle 600. The Department of Conservation (DOC) licenses shuttle services to take hikers to the trailhead. Every shuttle leaves at the same time and you have no choice but to take one because parking at the starting point of the hike is limited to 4 hours. Why is that? Why is there a limited number of shuttle services? Who decides which providers get a license and which won’t? Does it really come as a surprise that every service charges pretty much the same price?
It quickly became clear to us that the DOC in New Zealand follows some very different guidelines to those of the National Park Service in the US. Here are the opening lines of both agencies “about us” sections on their websites:
“Our vision means ensuring that New Zealanders gain a wide range of benefits from healthy functioning ecosystems, recreation opportunities, and through living our history.” (DOC)
“Since 1916, the National Park Service has been entrusted with the care of our national parks. With the help of volunteers and partners, we safeguard these special places and share their stories.” (NPS)
Notice the choice of words here? “Gaining benefits” vs. “care and safeguard”. Where the NPS aims to promote its citizens’ outdoor activities and treasuring the nation’s natural wonders, the DOC is after tourism dollars. This is not just my interpretation as an outsider, this is official New Zealand DOC practice. At Te Papa, the national Museum of New Zealand in Wellington, one plaque about the development of national parks read:
“An early guidebook on New Zealand described ‘a land of stupendous mountains, roaring cataracts, silvery cascades, fantastic volcanic formations, magnificent landscapes, noble forests and picturesque islands.’
The New Zealand government decided to take advantage of this ‘goldmine’. It set up the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts in 1901. This was the world’s first government department totally dedicated to tourism.”
There you have it. New Zealand’s national treasures are exploited to the max for their tourism value. Like so many other popular places like Amsterdam or Barcelona or even the most popular US National Parks, they are being “loved to death”. But where these other areas are actively trying to find ways to limit the tourism impact, few such concerns are to be heard in New Zealand. The more the better, the more the merrier. For the famous Great Walks such as the Tongariro Circuit of which Tongariro Crossing is a part there are limited individual hiker numbers. But more people (e.g. 50 hikers per day on the Milford Track for just this one operator) are allowed with approved commercial tour operators than individuals (40 hikers per day in total). Again, where money can be made, it will be made.
We’ve encountered this attitude outside of Tongariro as well. At Piopiotahi – Milford Sound – where helicopters and small airplanes leave every 30 seconds with gigantic roar to take tourists on scenic flights thus disrupting everyone else’s experience on the ground. And where you cannot even walk to the closest of its many impressive waterfalls because you are supposed to purchases a boat tour to see it.
At Roturoa where the Southern Hemisphere’s largest active geyser – the Pohutu alongside many other spectacular geothermal features such as boiling mud and hot pools is locked up behind large cement walls you may cross for a minimum of NZ$48,60 per adult.
And at Tekapo where the most famous photo object for the dark night sky reserve, its historic church, is locked up at night to allow only paying tour groups to take the perfect shot and enjoy the Milky Way in all its splendor. In an act of blissful civil disobedience, we – alongside many others – ignored the signs…
By the time we got to Aoraki – Mount Cook – in the Southern Alps where Sir Edmund Hillary trained for his famed first ascent of Mount Everest, we had learned our lesson. Leaving as early as possible and hiking the gorgeous and incredibly popular Hooker Valley Track during the first light of the day was a magical experience with plenty of space and few people – until we turned back and the trail started filling up with everyone else who had started the hike at a more reasonable hour.
The Te Papa National Museum of New Zealand in – btw beautiful and laid-back – Wellington stands almost alone as the one tourist attraction that does not ask for an entrance fee.
So what is the takeaway? What can be done to give every hiker at Tongariro the amazing experience this incredible landscape deserves? Not completely alone in the wilderness of course, but at least with room to breathe without bottlenecks at every turn. Introduce another permit system? Allow people to start the hike without shuttle services? Create a daily lottery?
I do not know the answer. All I know is that we in the US should feel lucky for the incredible gift the national parks are for all of us. And continue to treasure and protect them as America’s Best Idea for its people, all of them.