Parking restrictions on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing could be just the beginning. Plans to limit the number of people walking this and other popular trails around the country are in the pipeline. By George Driver

Tongariro is glowing red. Ngauruhoe, fingers of snow clinging to its perfect cone summit, is picture-postcard perfect. In the distance, Mt Taranaki puts on a light show of its own, silhouetted on the horizon.

I’d arrived at the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing at sunset on the eve of Labour Weekend. After a 20 minute stroll from the Mangatepopo car park, I pitched my tent among the tussock outside Mangatepopo Hut – the hut itself was full with trampers, but the campsite was quiet, and I watched as the stars emerged. With the holiday traffic far behind me, it was another world – deserted and awe-inspiring. But it’s an experience which is becoming harder to find on New Zealand’s most popular day walk and only dual World Heritage site (recognised for both its natural and cultural values). Some have described the trail experience as similar to the traffic jams in the cities they’ve come to escape.

National Geographic magazine recently listed the crossing in its top 10 ‘most epic day hikes’. Publicity like that has seen the track become a bucket-list activity for a growing number of visitors and the numbers on the crossing have nearly tripled in the past decade, growing from 45,000 to 126,000 people a year.

Talk to those who work on the crossing, from shuttle drivers and guides, to DOC rangers, and there’s a recurring word: ‘chaos’. Last season, cars lined the narrow unsealed Mangatepopo Road for four kilometres on peak days, with 2700 walkers converging on the track, creating bottlenecks and leaving behind rubbish and human waste. By contrast, the peak days in 2012 had only 1000 walkers.

“It’s not a sustainable situation” says Terry Blumhardt, a guide on the crossing and chair of a group representing TAC concession holders. Blumhardt first came to Tongariro when he was 17, walking the Northern Circuit with friends. He began guiding in 1998 and started his own trekking business in 2004. He says it’s time for greater regulation on the crossing to protect the landscape, cultural values and experience of the trail.

“At the moment, it doesn’t send the message that this is a park with dual World Heritage status, but it’s been getting worse every year.

“It’s a stunning landscape that we have to nurture. We have to protect it for us and everyone into the future.”

Talking with those who know the trail best, it appears there is unanimous support for change. And after years of hands-off management, DOC has rolled up its sleeves and is taking a more active approach.

I arrived at the crossing on the eve of new restrictions which limit parking to four hours at all times from Labour Weekend to the end of April. But the parking restrictions have broader implications. At its heart, it’s about encouraging all TAC walkers to take a shuttle from nearby villages. The next morning, after leaving Mangatepopo Hut, I walked to the start of the track, through the throngs of morning hikers, where I was greeted by Tongariro National Park operations manager Bhrent Guy. He has been involved in managing the crossing for 15 years and says the restrictions are a new chapter and the start of a better story – one based on respect and appreciation for the mountain.

He says the goal of the parking restrictions has been to stagger drop-off times and to reduce the parking nightmare. But it also creates an opportunity for more interaction between walkers, DOC staff and the local Tuwharetoa iwi, who can educate walkers about the risks and engender understanding and respect.

“We have to have some active management to protect the walk from people trashing it, but also provide manaakitanga [hospitality] through the Tuwharetoa people,” Guy explains.

“Respect for Tongariro is at the heart of the management strategy. Even if there were 10 people doing the crossing, they need to respect the maunga. This is a dual World Heritage site – it’s about culture as well as nature. Whoever comes here needs to appreciate this as a living place. It’s not just a hunk of rock.

“We now get contact with all walkers where we can say ‘this is not a place to tick off your bucket list, it’s a place to enjoy and respect’.”

DOC has also installed more toilets and has removed signs indicating the route to the summits of Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, which are sacred to local iwi. Tuwharetoa representatives employed by DOC give information at the car park and the start of Mangatepopo Road.

The four hour parking limit on the TAC applies 24/7 between Labour Weekend and April 30. Photo: George Driver

I watched as Guy and a couple of Tuwharetoa staff approached each vehicle.  A few tourists arrived confused, having read conflicting information on local websites about the restrictions; some Kiwis arrived oblivious of the new changes. It’s no surprise there was confusion – the parking restrictions were announced just 10 days before the start of the crossing season. Guy says it was planned to announce the restrictions eight weeks earlier, but the announcement was held up while the communications strategy was approved. But the restrictions appeared to have helped clear the road – there were spare parking spaces for people to go on shorter walks. Walkers and shuttle drivers seemed happy.

Guy says the parking restrictions aren’t aimed at capping numbers or raising revenue.

“It might limit numbers to some extent, but 80 per cent of people used a shuttle last year,” he says. “We expect that to continue. The idea of it raising revenue wasn’t even considered.”

An overnight parking dispensation is available for people who have a booking at Mangatepopo Hut. People who have a booking at the hut can get a parking pass from the Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre at Whakapapa Village, which will mean they can park for the number of nights booked. But when Wilderness tried to arrange this, the staff knew nothing about it.

But a new set of proposals is being explored which could have a far-reaching impact, including capping numbers and raising revenue from trail walkers. Central North Island regional operations director Allan Munn is on a governance group looking at the strategy for managing the crossing over the next two decades.

“We are asking what sort of walk do we want in 15 to 20 years time, and that standard gives us something to aim at,” Munn says. “What we are talking about is presenting the walk as an  experience, up there with the best in the world. The natural values are clear – in the middle section you could almost be on the moon, it’s that fantastic. What we want is to make the beginning and the end of the trip the world class experience that it deserves to be.”

That means ensuring crowding doesn’t detract from people’s enjoyment of the track. Munn says a cap on numbers is being explored.

“I’ve been tramping for over 40 years and the idea that we would ever consider things like limits on the Great Walks, or the Tongariro Alpine Crossing couldn’t have been further from our mind. But tourism has grown so rapidly.”

Surveys have found that 1000 walkers a day is a tipping point, above which the adverse impacts escalate dramatically. When there were 1000 walkers on the trail, a third said they experienced significant crowding and it detracted from their experience – it’s also when car parks filled up. Munn says DOC will be closely monitoring the hourly rate of walkers to help determine what the limit might be.

“At the moment we don’t know what the upper limit is,” says Munn. “It’s always going to be a somewhat arbitrary decision, because the idea of what is crowded is subjective. What we’ve learnt from research is that a Kiwi tramper’s view of crowding is different from that of someone overseas. A lot of tourists don’t perceive it as crowded. But there is going to be an upper limit. We can’t have 5000 a day. We’ve been reluctant to say ‘this is the limit’, but at some point we are going to have to.

“We want to be able to compare what 200 people an hour looks and feels like compared to 400 an hour, so we can make an informed decision.”

A cap could be trialled as soon as March. Shuttle operators say DOC has proposed restricting the number of people dropped at the Mangatepopo car park to 125 every half hour between 6.30am and 11.30am, or 1250 over the morning.

“We haven’t made a final decision,” Munn says. “The parking restrictions are going well, so we might be pleasantly surprised at what we can achieve by closer management and cooperating with concessionaires.”

DOC’s Bhrent Guy discusses the parking restrictions with a tramper. Photo: George Driver

Munn says the ideal time to introduce a cap would be after 2023, when the majority of the concessions in the park come up for review. Another opportunity is the review of the park management plan, which is overdue. He says the plan will be reviewed once a settlement on the park has been finalised between the Crown and local iwi.

The governance group is also investigating a ‘service fee’, which could generate revenue to help maintain and manage the crossing. The fee could be added as a component of the concession fee which businesses pay to DOC to operate in the park. Already a portion of the shuttle fee each walker pays is passed on to DOC – about $1.50 each way. In total, transport concessions in the national park brought in $163,000 in revenue last year.

Bhrent Guy says the service fee could be at least $5 and could be ring-fenced to go towards park facilities and maintenance – currently concession fees go to the Government’s consolidated fund. This year, the maintenance budget is $281,000, with a further $132,000 allocated to address ‘impacts of visitor growth’. Guy says it costs $100,000 a year just to empty the toilets. If a fee was set at $5 and just 100,000 paid it, that would be a significant fund to help manage, maintain and protect the crossing.

Other plans include sealing Mangatepopo Road, which would allow bigger and more comfortable buses to drop people off. The need to get things right is put in focus by the fact the walk passes through an active volcanic landscape.

“It’s highly likely that in the medium term we will have some kind of event, whether it’s a volcanic eruption or a weather event, that we will need to manage. History tells us we are going to get that. We need to make sure we are managing it in the right way so we can respond,” says Guy.

The restrictions being debated only affect one access point in one park on a trail where 75 per cent of walkers are tourists. But will similar strategies be adopted at other walks which are feeling the strain of their popularity?

Tinaka Mearns manages DOC’s national tourism strategy and says the management of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a test case to see what techniques could be used at other hotspots.

“We want people to have great visitor experiences, but a number of places are under pressure,” Mearns says. “We are using Tongariro to look at how we can manage those places into the future. We’ve purposely chosen the TAC because it’s the busiest walk and under the most pressure. We will see how we can learn and improve things there, and share that information, so other places can learn from it.

“There are five or six really popular walks, like Franz Josef and Fox glaciers and Hooker Valley, where we may manage things differently and adapt from the learnings at Tongariro.”

Strategies like managing parking and encouraging people to shuttle from nearby hubs could be used at other popular walks, she says.

“We are working to see what we can do differently, whether that’s around car parking or shuttles, but each location has its differences and we will need to talk to people in key roles at each location.”

Tuwharetoa members will meet walkers to explain the importance of the area to iwi. Photo: George Driver

Mearns says a service fee hasn’t been looked at for other walks and DOC isn’t heading towards a more user-pays approach to managing busy walks.

“Anything like that on a larger scale would have to involve more consultation.”

Tourism advisor Dave Bamford says we are well past a do-nothing approach and more restrictions are needed to manage crowded attractions.

“I’d like to see people shift from ‘what’s in it for me’ and ‘what restrictions does this place on me’ and start thinking about what is best for our parks,” Bamford says.

He says tourism growth has reached a stage where intervention is necessary and expanding facilities to cope with growth is not the solution.

“I think it’s useful to challenge the assumption that we can have growth forever. Bigger car parks and more toilets isn’t the way. If a car park for 500 cars was built it would be the size of two rugby fields. Do we want that in our special places?”

Federated Mountain Clubs president Peter Wilson says FMC is open to using a variety of management controls on conservation land, including a cap on numbers, but says it needs to be underpinned by open consultation. Wilson says there has been no public consultation on the recent TAC management proposals.

“Restrictions are inevitable, but DOC can’t just slap on more rules with little notice,” Wilson says. “It’s public land, they need to have public consultation.”

Wilson says the future may be a booking system for the TAC, which would put a cap on numbers, but a user-pays model isn’t the answer. “The department can direct resources to the crossing. There is no need for another fee. FMC is opposed to any shift towards user-pays on the conservation estate.”

Local trampers are also frustrated that the new restrictions came into effect with very little notice and no consultation.

“We go on a number of tramps from the Mangatepopo end that take a lot longer than four hours,” Taupo Tramping Club president Dick Fraser says. “We appreciate that we need some control measures on the track, but this impacts on something we’ve traditionally done for years.”

Fraser is open to other restrictions for the crossing, but says provisions should be made for local trampers. He says the club has written to DOC asking if they can reach an agreement so they can still park the club van at the Mangatepopo car park. But the future of the crossing will increasingly involve local iwi – those who have the longest and closest connection to the land and have the greatest incentive to protect it. Tuwharetoa signed its deed of settlement with the Crown in July this year. Tongariro National Park was ‘gifted’ to the Crown by Tuwharetoa chief Horonuku Te Heuheu Tukino IV in 1887, but the Waitangi Tribunal found the tuku (land transfer) was not an English-style gift, but an invitation to the Queen to share in its protection. The settlement says Ngati Tuwharetoa “aspire(s) to secure redress that gives effect to the true spirit of the tuku taonga [sacred gift] of the mountain peaks”. Under the conditions, the Crown must engage with the four iwi which have an interest in the national park within the next year. This could involve a co-management approach, with decision-making shared between DOC and iwi.

Iwi representatives have already indicated they want to see the number of tourists in the park reduced. Tuwharetoa representative Te Ngaehe Wanikau says a robust management plan needs to be developed for the trail, in consultation with iwi, the community, concessionaires and DOC.

“This is a significant issue for us,” Wanikau says. “We believe that, with a slight paradigm shift, the cultural and environmental well-being of Tongariro can be protected, while also providing major benefits to recreational users, concessionaires and iwi/hapu concerns.

“There has been a societal fallacy that these interests cannot co-exist in the same space. I believe the opposite is true, and that everything is positively interlinked and each element is therefore of immense value to the well-being of the other.”

But the underlying tension remains. Can national parks be both the backbone of the growing tourism economy, and a treasured getaway into the wilderness?

As I left Tongariro, I thought about my night on the mountain, falling asleep listening to the wind ruffle the tussock grass, and awaking to the sound of chatter on the crossing. It’s still possible to experience even the busiest parts of the park in splendid isolation, but it just might take a little more effort to find it.

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 edition of Wilderness magazine.