Saturday, November 27

Thousands of Great Walk reservations open as Auckland residents cancel

Over 2,000 Great Walk reservations have been canceled in recent months due to Covid continuing to charge a price.

The Routeburn track

The Routeburn track.
Photo: RNZ / Sally Round

In Fiordland, some Milford Track operators describe one of the quietest starts to the season they have ever experienced.

But while this season will be a painful reminder of unfettered tracks for some, cancellations bring silver lights for others.

The Milford track faced unprecedented demand this year and all spots for its six-month season were filled in just 15 minutes on a June morning.

But between the lockdowns in Auckland and Waikato, the lingering trans-Tasman bubble, and travel uncertainty, there has been a steady stream of cancellations via Great Walks.

Fiordland Outdoors Co. offers water taxis to the Milford and Kepler tracks and is a one-stop-shop for reserving track transportation in Fiordland.

Owner and director Christine Wallace said she has never seen a Milford Track opening like this week.

“I never knew on opening day, October 26, to have 24 empty spots on the Milford Track, so I don’t think it will happen again.”

The Kepler and Routeburn tracks had also been suffering, Wallace said they were considering downsizing their Kepler water taxi to an on-demand service.

Auckland residents were hopeful that the restrictions would end in time to buckle up their boots, he said.

“There have been constant cancellations, but it has really increased in the last 10 days. I think Auckland locals were really hoping for something to change, they kept their cabin tickets.

“But it was this week with the cancellation of flights by Air New Zealand that they have accepted it.”

She has comforted the crying Aucklandites who were forced to give up their place on a Great Walk because of restrictions and uncertainty.

“For every Aucklander who is devastated cannot go, we have two South Islanders or out of Auckland who are delighted to have bought cabin tickets at the last minute.”

Aucklander, Richard Wagener, his wife and their four children were hired to do the Milford Track in December.

He told RNZ he was disappointed to have to cancel the hard-earned reservation.

“Very difficult. Last year we got lost, this time we were lucky. But yes, the tickets were sold out in about five or six minutes.”

You have asked DOC to consider transferring your reservations to the same dates next year.

But the department has since confirmed that it was unable to do that and offered a 100 percent refund instead.

Half of the Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers guests used to prepare for a Grand Hike.

Their manager, Giovanni Ambriz, used to host between 30 and 40 people a night at this time of year, but that was reduced to 10 or 20 due to restrictions.

I was hoping for more bookings to come as people took places that opened up in Great Walks.

“That’s been good for some people because obviously it was booked in 15 minutes, so I’m sure a lot of people were left out back then. But now a few more could take their places.”

I had a group of four excited guests who did just that a few days ago.

“They live in Wānaka so they were happy to leave at the last minute and then they just headed here and stayed with us the night before we hit the track.”

The Department of Conservation has registered more than 2,400 cancellations between the national shutdown in August and this week.

Its acting and visitors director, Tim Bamford, said the pandemic was playing a role in cancellations, but so was weather closures and injuries.

The DOC had never seen as much demand from New Zealanders to go on a Great Walk as they had in the past two years, he said.

“These are bucket list experiences and it’s really difficult if you have to cancel them, but on the other hand, it gives people the opportunity to keep an eye on the website and access one of these iconic places.”

DOC is gearing up for a busy Great Walks season, asking people to scan where possible, keep their distance on the tracks, and follow the rules.

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