How DOC missed the track…

Makarora RiverIn the light of December’s news, of the third death in 2015 in Mt Aspiring National Park within a two to three day walk of Makarora, it’s natural to ask why the Department of Conservation has closed its Makarora Information Centre this summer season. (DOC uses the words, unmanned decommissioned.)

You could miss Makarora on State Highway 6 between Haast Pass and the head of Lake Wanaka: a sprinkling of accommodation, the once ‘manned’ DOC information centre, a café and fuel pumps, a base for Siberia Experience trips and Wilkin River Jets and Southern Alps Air’s bright yellow Cessna.

But Makarora is a gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park – the jumping off point for the Siberia Valley, the Gillespie Pass Circuit and the nearby Young and Wilkin Rivers. And up these rivers you find New Zealand at its finest: snow topped mountains and high ice filled tarns, stunning rivers and gorgeous flats, dramatic bluffs and bush. Mt Awful and Mt Dreadful tower over Siberia Valley and up the Wilkin, Mts Pollux, Castor and Juno lord it over Wonderland and Jumboland. And here also lies Rabbit Pass.

Sounds like Heaven. But here lies the catch. This is not Cycleland. As DOC says, the weather is notoriously changeable. Rivers can seduce. Until rain sets in. Then dry side streams can turn into thigh high monsters, gentle trickles can transform into power houses and that picture post card braided river can morph into one ginormous thundering torrent. As well, DOC writes of some areas, like Rabbit Pass, that are suitable for experienced alpine trampers and only to be undertaken in good conditions.

Since 2007, six people have died in this Young, Siberia Wilkin area. One Englishman lost his way at the head of the Siberia Valley, one Englishman drowned in the Makarora River, a New Zealander fell to his death on Mt Twilight, in early 2015 a New Zealander drowned in a gorge near Jumboland and an Otago student from USA drowned in the Young River and in early December 2015 an Alaskan fell to her death on Rabbit Pass.

DOC is not responsible for these deaths in Mt Aspiring National Park. DOC states on its website you are responsible for your safety. And causes of the above deaths have been varied. For example the Southland Coroner, David Crerar sited becoming separated from a group as a factor in the two 2015 drownings.

Over the last eight summers my husband and I have spent a week each season as volunteer hut wardens for DOC at Siberia Hut and have met hundreds, representing a United Nations assortment of trampers, from Israelis to Aussies, Czechs Germans, Ukrainians, Poles and Scots. In our week in March 2015, 100 trampers stayed at Siberia Hut, in December 2015 because of bad weather, 49. And when the weather lifted, later in our December week, a party of eight Year 11 students from Otamatea College in Northland guided by two teachers and a parent arrived from over Gillespie Pass.

And so it seemed natural to ask DOC, as hosts of our conservation estate, why, when we turned up in early December, its Makarora Information Centre was being wound up and no longer featured on DOC’s website.

“It was decommissioned for a number of reasons,” Annette Grieve, Senior Ranger at Wanaka told me later. “The Department has now moved to a National Strategy in regards to visitor centres and it just didn’t fit under the criteria that was required.” One of the factors is that it has large visitor service centres at Haast and Wanaka, each within an hour of Makarora and you have to drive past these places to reach Makarora she explained. Then there’s the difficulty of finding staff, numbers using it have declined and people are moving to get their information from the web and social media.

Makarora is out of cell phone contact. So is Haast. And so much for social media at Siberia. Yes there is good advice on DOC‘s website – but not up to the minute. And what’s this blunt weapon that has cut DOC information centres ‘within one hour of a large visitor centre’? Is the need really equal in all these places? Doubt it. Did Wellington DOC realise that in Wanaka the weather can be very different from one hour up at Makarora? Don’t think so.

In Wellington, DOC cannot evaluate the true worth of the Makarora Visitor Centre by numerical criteria. How would you measure visits from 100 short walkers in Wanaka against 10 Back Country potential trampers /climbers in Makarora, who want exact and current information relating to their safety crossing rivers and mountain passes?

Most importantly, DOC cannot measure the valuable face to face discussions over the years between Makarora DOC staff and the public that have resulted in trampers’ decisions, NOT to cross the river, NOT to take on the pass.

International Tourism is worth $11.8b to New Zealand’, the New Zealand Tourism Board’s website says. And ‘Natural Landscapes and scenery is the top factor for influencing visitors to choose New Zealand.

Yet the Government cut the Department of Conservation’s operational funding in the 2015 budget by $8.7million.

DOC, as guardian of nearly one third of New Zealand, needs to place importance of face to face communication for safety and put the Makarora Visitor Centre back on the map. Put DOC staff out front. And get back on the track.

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Janet Hart

Janet Hart lives in Nelson, where she taught English in secondary schools for nearly 30 years, before dabbling in a little historical New Zealand Art. In 2012 she took up Magazine Journalism, which now consumes her.