Great Walk or Great Ride?

As thousands of trail riders will attest, mountain biking the Heaphy Track in the Kauhurangi National Park is a fantastic trip. But then again, the tens of thousands of trampers who have walked it over previous decades would have told you the same thing.

The Department of Conservation has proposed an extension of the Heaphy Track’s mountain bike season by three months, from 1 April until 30 November, excluding Easter.

Unlike other mixed-use tracks, for instance the Queen Charlotte or Wharfdale, the Heaphy lies within a National Park. Consequently the Kahurangi National Park Management Plan must be amended, and DoC is calling for submissions right now, until 12 July.

The Heaphy Track is characterised by variety. Open tussock lands, classic West Coast bush, a stunning section along the Heaphy River and a good stretch down the wild coast with breakers rolling in, and Nikau palm groves at its southern end. It is no surprise DoC has classified the Heaphy Track as a ‘Great Walk’. Atypically for a Great Walk, approximately two thirds of the visitors are Kiwi.

There has been a three-year trial run. In 2011 DoC opened up the winter months from May-September to mountain bikers. Investment was poured into upgrading the track, building new bridges and the new Perry Saddle, James Mackay and Heaphy huts.

Mountain Bike New Zealand anticipated up to 3,000 riders each year. Overall users have gone from around 5,000 a year to almost 7,000, of which around 1,700 are most likely mountain bikers. Nonetheless this can only be described as a success for those looking for multi-day mountain biking opportunities.

DOC reviewed the arrangement, concluding conflict between trampers and mountain bikers was minimal. The review found mountain biking wasn’t causing significant harm to the actual track or the ecological values of its surrounds, as long as night time riding was prohibited to protect the area’s giant Powelliphanta snails.

Like their tramping counterparts, most mountain bikers ride the Heaphy from north to south. Many use commercial transport to get back to their start point in Golden Bay, and the review ascribed a $756,000 benefit to the local economy from mountain bikers.

Yet there are questions that can be asked of this proposal. The majority choose to ride the Heaphy in the warmer months. Can we really expect an increase in mid-winter riders? Extending the season at each end may push any winter users into warmer months.

Will broader mountain biking opportunities complement or compete with the adjacent Old Ghost Road or planned Pike 29 Great Walk? Will the Buller region become a trail-riding hub, or is it reaching saturation point?

There has not been much reported conflict between users. But how much goes unreported? And for trampers, are three brand new huts, bigger bridges and a more evolved track worth it? Or are they outweighed by the heavily gravelled, compacted and graded track standard for riders, which can prove to be monotonous and tough on joints.

Even if the extension is just a cunning plan by DoC to sell more bed-nights in their shiny new huts, is that a bad thing? I suspect this is one of the more harmonious arrangements, and I don’t foresee any protest marches down Queen Street or road-end biffo between user groups.

But we shouldn’t be apathetic. DoC is asking for views on the plan for one of our National Parks and we shouldn’t be shy about giving them.  Where and how trampers and mountain bikers will share spaces in New Zealand is relatively new territory for DoC – the quality of their decision making is improved when the public shares their views.

More details regarding the Kahurangi National Park Management Plan amendment can be found at: http://www.doc.govt.nz/get-involved/have-your-say/all-consultations/2016/kahurangi-national-park-management-plan-amendment/

Sam Newton is the Advocacy Manager – Outdoors Sector at the New Zealand Recreation Association. He also sits on the Canterbury Aoraki Conservation Board. His mountain bike and tramping boots compete for attention and space in his garage.