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The Responsible Traveller: responsible trekking

Posted by Richard Hammond at 07:03 on Friday 24 July 2009

While hiking independently through some of the world’s most scenic terrain seems like the antithesis of a two week package deal in the Med, such tourism brings it own problems for the environment and the local populace. Richard Hammond explains how trekkers can help to mitigate the effects of their travels…

Hiking the Rees Dart track, New Zealand.
Photo: Richard Hammond.

No wonder New Zealand is known as a trekker’s paradise. For days I trekked over boggy floodplains and along lush valleys, through age-old beech forests and up steep alpine sections with dramatic views of ice-covered mountain ranges and glaciers in brilliant sunshine. The 57km route was clearly and reliably way-marked with easily visible orange poles, and the well-maintained backcountry huts had all the facilities you need after a day in the wilderness, including fresh water, wood chippings and coal for the stove (with a pulley for drying boots and socks after river crossings) and spacious bunks with comfortable mattresses. But best of all, for four days in glorious Lord-of-the-Rings scenery, I came across just five other people.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) manages 13,000km of trails, maintaining the huts and constructing bridges over the fast flowing rivers and streams. The most sophisticated trails are the nine “Great Walks”, such as the Milford Track and the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, but due to concerns that these popular trails were becoming overused, DOC set up a quota system in the peak season which sets a limit for the number of trekkers able to be on the trail at any one time. Even on many of the country’s lesser known trails, like the one I did in April – the Rees Dart trail in the Glenorchy region of the south of Mount Aspring National Park – trekkers have to adhere to a strictly enforced payment ticketing system for the serviced huts, which is funnelled back by DOC into the upkeep of the trails.

The result is that DOC appears to have found a working balance between encouraging trekkers to visit New Zealand’s green spaces, historically significant sites and areas of pristine wilderness without trashing the very asset they have come to experience. Achieving this is a common challenge faced by tourism authorities and conservationists in most of the world’s popular walking areas, and not all deal with it as well as they do in New Zealand.

According to Rose Beth of Natural England, “There are sections of the more popular trails [in England] such as the South West Coast Path and the Thames Path, often close to car parks and honey-pot sites, that get tens of thousands of visitors every year. The main problem is that once a surface starts to deteriorate, people spread out to avoid it and a small problem can soon become a much bigger one.” The state of Hadrian’s Wall Path is of particular concern. “The Path gets very wet in winter because it rains heavily in that area and the land doesn’t drain easily. This then leads to people sinking in the mud or straying off the line of the path to avoid the mud and by doing so they can damage the underlying archaeology. Our policy is to advise people to walk Hadrian’s Wall Path in the spring, summer and autumn months only.”

The impact of trekkers on areas of wilderness is often exacerbated in developing countries where there may be no control over numbers of trekkers or any post season clearing up operations to maintain the paths and clear them of litter. In all three huts on the Rees Dart track there were notices encouraging you to “carry out what you carry in” in order to discourage rats and mice, wasps and disease (many huts provide rubbish bags but no bins), as well as insisting that you keep to the trail (for your own safety as well as for environmental concerns) and there were any number of information sheets on the local flora and fauna and how important it is to protect them. Sadly, this culture of environmental protection is not commonplace in many of the world’s famous trekking destinations, which as led many of the more responsible trekking companies to seek out alternative routes so as not to overuse the most popular trails. Glenn Rowley of KE Expeditions, which takes over 3,000 trekkers a year mainly to Nepal, S America, Morocco, Kenya, Tanzania and the Alps, says that “unfortunately the demand is always for the most popular routes, even though you can often have a much better, less crowded experience in the next valley”. Even though there is a quota system now in place for the Inca Trail, Rowley encourages customers to go on the alternative trek to Machu Picchu from the Inca fortress at Choquequirao, while instead of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro he encourages trekkers to choose Mount Kenya, and at Everest he suggests a different route crossing Renjo La to the lakes at Gokyo.

The impact of thousands of people trekking in mountainous areas has had detrimental consequences not just environmentally but also on a social scale. Tourism Concern, the charity that campaigns against exploitation in tourism, has since 2002 lobbied for proper working conditions for porters carrying trekkers’ luggage and equipment in the Himalayas, on the Inca Trail in Peru and at Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Among its guidelines for operators are that they provide appropriate clothing and equipment for all their porters, insist they carry no more than 25kgs, and share tips among all the porters not just the head porter.

Several UK-based tour operators have adopted Tourism Concern’s porter protection policies (for a list of those that do see www.tourismconcern.org.uk), and while there are still many other operators that could improve their policies, the focus of concern nowadays is with those trekkers who travel independently. According to Brad Atwal, UK Manager at World Expeditions, “The market is still being driven by price. A lot of independent travellers look for the cheapest deal, but just because it might be cheap and good for you, that might not necessarily mean it will be so great for the porter. Unfortunately, there is this perception that porters are super-heros and people think that these guys can do the job, even if they’re in flip flops, T-shirts and a pair of shorts.”

Atwal recommends that if independent trekkers want to make sure their porters are properly looked after, they buy the porters meals, consider taking a spare tent for them to sleep in, and donate to some of the clothing banks that have been set up in the main mountain trekking hubs, such as those run by the International Mountain Explorers Connection in Peru (www.hec.org), the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project in Tanzania (www.kiliporters.org), and The International Porter Protection Group in Nepal (www.ippg.net). Useful clothes include wind shells, fleeces and boots (up to size 9).

“But the main thing is to question the really cheap trips”, says Atwal. “Those operators must be saving money somewhere. The more responsible local operators pay porters on top of top of what they give them for food and shelter so that they the money they get for their day’s work they can take home to their family. That is what responsible travel is all about.”

This article, by Richard Hammond, was first published in the August issue of Geographical, available in WHSmith and many independent newsagents. Subscribe online or order your copy by calling +44 (0)1795 414 881.

See also: Five Ethical Treks

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