One of the things most people love about bushwalking is finding some peace and quiet in a beautiful, wild place. Possibly this was not the experience most walkers had when 200 of them crammed into the Overland Track’s Waterfall Valley Hut, designed for just 24, and nearby tent sites one night.
These spikes in track use were a major reason the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service (TPWS) introduced a booking system for the Overland Track (Wild issues 109 and 127) in 2004, addressing crowding that was detrimental to the environment and experience of walkers. Prior to introducing bookings, somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 people were hiking the track each year, concentrated in the peak time of December to March. “The Overland Track was being loved to death,” says Nic Deka, Regional Manager with TPWS. The impact of crowding included the expanding footprint of campsites, increasing problems with toileting issues and the track braiding that occurs when walkers walk wide to avoid mud.
With a bookings system in place for October to May, the number of walkers is now limited to a maximum of 60 starting the track each day, covering independent walkers and those on guided trips. During these months walkers need to walk north to south to eliminate the track widening caused by people passing each other.
In the 2015/16 walking season over 8,200 hikers tackled The Overland. The overall number of walkers is similar to the time prior to the introduction of bookings but, as Nic explains, these walkers are now more evenly spread over the year and things “operate on a more sustainable basis.”
Wilsons Promontory National Park (Wild issue 145), 200 kilometres south-east of Melbourne on the southern-most tip of the Australian mainland, has been managing camping by bushwalkers since the late 1960s. Originally limiting group size and length of stay, the park now also limits the number of campers at each campsite per night, on both the southern and northern walking tracks. There are two main reason for the camping limits. “One [reason] is around visitor experience and trying to limit the numbers so that people get a good experience on the walks,” explains Brett Mitchell, Area Chief Ranger for Wilsons Promontory National Park. Brett explains this ‘good experience’ includes camping in conditions that are not overcrowded and ensuring infrastructure such as toilets are adequate.
The demand for camping places on multi-day walks at the Prom is high. “From November Cup weekend through to April most weekends the Southern hikes will be booked out,” says Brett, with most of the southern section camp areas at their capacity of (mainly) 60 people. There are less numbers allowed for northern hikes, with campers limited to either six or 12 per site.
The second reason for managing numbers is to benefit the environment. “[Without limits] people would create their own campsites and we would have vegetation loss as they could be camping in really sensitive areas,” explains Brett. “There is a range of threatened orchids, there are certain species of flora that only occur on the Prom.” The northern hike limits also help reduce the spread of Cinnamon Fungus.
The booking system on the Overland Track is also designed to improve the walking experience by eliminating overcrowding. The requirement for all hikers to walk in the same direction during the bookings season also results in people encountering fewer walkers each day.
The Thorsborne Trail, (Wild issue 127) another of Australia’s iconic walks, also uses a bookings system to manage numbers. Twelve hundred kilometres north of Brisbane, the trail makes it way up the east coast of tropical Hinchinbrook Island. Hikers have seven campsites to choose from over the 32-kilometre length.
When the trail opened in the early 1990s, the number of walkers on the trail at any one time was set at 80, a number deemed compatible with the natural track surface, low key camp sites and a remote experience. When issues with human waste and other impacts were assessed, the number was reduced and the current limit is 43 walkers on its total length at any one time. Bushwalkers book a window of the number of days to walk the trail, whether over a couple of days or taking more time to enjoy the huge variety of mangroves, rare flora, waterfalls and the odd saltwater crocodile. The stunning beaches and beautiful rainforest gullies makes the walk very popular.
With bookings open at any one time for the next 365 days, a staffer in the branch managing bookings recommends walkers “jump on and book” as soon as possible, especially for the peak times of school holidays during the dry season of May to September.
Queensland has other multi-day walks in national parks and all of the campsites need to be booked ahead of time. Apart from managing overcrowding, the booking’s website states the system also allows for warning and evacuating campers in case of severe weather such as a cyclone.
The new walks
Another type of walk with managed numbers is emerging. These are the trails, such as the new Three Capes Track (Wild issue 153) on the Tasman Peninsula south of Hobart, created to attract walkers rather than existing walks imposing limits when overwhelmed by numbers.
The peninsula, although popular with walkers for decades, had low overnight visitation according to TPWS management plans. This has changed with the recent opening of the Three Capes walk, a ‘dry boot’ track with three overnight sites of sleeping and eating huts and a daily capacity of 48 new walkers to match the amount of accommodation. Walkers need to spend one night at each hut and then move on, ensuring all have a bunk for the night.
The Thee Capes Track is controversial, with some believing the development is excessive.
Grant Dixon and Nick Sawyer, spokespersons for the Tasmanian National Parks Association (TNPA) and passionate about protecting wild places, have deep concerns about the impact of the track. In a joint response for this article, they write “…prior to Three Capes Track construction, there were limited built facilities in the area (some sections of hardened track only), and walker impacts were relatively minimal (it is a fairly robust environment regarding trampling impacts). It has been the construction of the Three Capes Track itself (and all the associated huts etc) that has caused the major environmental impact of this previously wild region.”
Amidst these issues, The Three Capes has been popular since opening in December. “The way the huts are set up, a higher level of comfort, we are finding it is attracting people in the older demographic, many inter- generational groups , it is not unusual for three generations to be in a walking party and there is a far higher proportion of women,” explains Nic from TPWS.
Work will soon begin to extend the walk to the third cape, Cape Raoul.
This article is not a comprehensive list of tracks requiring a booking but an overview of the reasons for limiting numbers. Issues for further discussion include the cost of these walks (most are very reasonable), the impact of changing access and restrictions on independent walkers (such as Three Capes and Falls to Hotham Crossing proposal, see Wild news January 2017) and tracks with high usage that may benefit from introducing a way of managing numbers, such as Frenchman’s Cap.
The Overland has benefitted from managing numbers according to Nic Deka. “I think it [the booking system] has proven to be a very good system…our management of the land should be about stewardship so that at the end of our days we will leave it in better shape for those in the future,” he says. “Protecting the environment in which walkers recreate will almost always change the walking experience,” write Grant and Nick from TNPA. “From the walker’s perspective, whether this is better or not is a personal value judgement.The experience changes may range from just the visual intrusion of a hardened track surface into an otherwise natural landscape through to restrictions on the previously free right of access in order to either limit the number of trampling feet or reduce crowding in order to maximise opportunities for solitude.”
At the heart of managing numbers on tracks is how the land and wilderness (a term that means different things to different people), and walkers’ experiences in them, are cared for.
The author thanks the land managers, bushwalkers and advocates mentioned above as well as Mark Bryce, TPWS; Tamara Vallance , Dept of National Parks, Sport and Racing, Queensland; Rob Ellis and Grant Pelton, Dept of Environment,Water and Natural Resources, SA; Gavin Walker, Dept of Conservation, NZ.
This article appears in full in Wild 158. Subscribe today to receive your copy.