When ‘eager Kiwis’ miss out, who profits from taonga like the Milford Track? (Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)
When ‘eager Kiwis’ miss out, who profits from taonga like the Milford Track? (Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)

OPINIONSocietyJuly 7, 2021

How the Great Walk booking challenge left me baffled and fuming

When ‘eager Kiwis’ miss out, who profits from taonga like the Milford Track? (Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)
When ‘eager Kiwis’ miss out, who profits from taonga like the Milford Track? (Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)

While thousands of ‘eager Kiwi’ trampers miss out, private companies appear to be snapping up places in our taxpayer-funded DOC huts. What’s going on, wonders Fiona Farrell.

Last Tuesday, I tried to book the Milford Track. A party of five adults and three children. We’d do “the finest walk in the world”, staying in DOC huts for three nights and it would cost us, as New Zealand citizens, just $78 per adult per night, while the children would travel free.  

We’d tried to book last summer but missed out, so this year we had the booking process planned with military precision. The DOC huts on the Milford each have just 40 bunks, so places are limited, but we had three possible starting dates, not just one, and they were at off-peak times, not over New Year or Waitangi weekend. Three of us would try to book a date, and surely one would score. When booking you have to list the names and ages of all the members of your party. We had the lists ready, we were logged on, we were poised to strike on the dot of 9.30am when bookings opened. 

We almost succeeded. Got one date, but in the brief interval while filling in names and ages the booking vanished. Thousands of others were equally unfortunate. The next day DOC reported  that “eager Kiwis” had snapped up slots on the Milford “in record time”. But, said Steve Taylor, DOC’s heritage and visitors director,  there are “still fantastic  guided opportunities on this and other Great Walks”.

Indeed there are. 

A quick search revealed we could do the Milford as clients of Ultimate Hikes. They list themselves as the only company offering guided five-day, four-night hikes to groups of up to 50, staying in their own private lodges. It would cost us $2,230 per person. 

But other companies also offer the Milford on their websites, listing it as a “freedom” hike, where their clients stay not in private lodges, but in the same DOC bunk huts we were trying to book. EasyHike, for example, offers to relieve you of “booking hut stress” by handling the bookings, arranging DOC hut accommodation and transport to the start and finish for $1495. For $1735 per person, FirstLight Travel, a company with offices in the UK, USA, Singapore, Australia and Auckland, offers “independant [sic] but supported tramping” in a “cost effective way” using DOC huts on the Milford. It is one of the “amazing experiences” offered exclusively to clients of their customised travel packages with flights, vehicle hire, and nationwide accommodation. 

Routeburn Track, New Zealand
Pathway to Key Summit on the Routeburn Track, Fiordland National Park (Photo: Getty Images)

Would we have had better luck on another Great Walk? The Routeburn perhaps? The DOC huts there are larger, 48 and 50 bunks. The children have done it before. Every year their intermediate school has taken a final year group on the Routeburn as part of their outdoor ed programme. It’s enough of a challenge for a child, while introducing them to the beauties of their own country. Our three would have been happy to go again.   

The Routeburn also booked up in minutes and for the first time in years, the school missed out. They could of course follow DOC’s advice and try the private route. Ultimate Hikes offers clients a three-day, two-night Routeburn package, staying in their private lodges for $1475 per person. But their clientele is unlikely to be a cheerful bunch of 12-year-olds.    

Or the Heaphy? There are no private lodges on the Heaphy, nor the Kepler, nor most of the other Great Walks. But FirstLight Travel offers the Heaphy and its “cost effective accommodation” in the DOC huts on multiple starting dates. You can make a start on October 5,12, 19 or 26. On every Tuesday in fact throughout the entire season, until May 31. The cost? $1895 per person. 

Southern Wilderness offers a “Gourmet Guided Walk” on the Heaphy, also staying in DOC huts on three nights and offering a huge range of start times. You can start on almost every Monday throughout the season, for $2095. They also offer to arrange walks for parties of four or more on their “preferred starting date’, suggesting a wide range of dates at their disposal. Bush and Beyond offer walks on the Heaphy for $1990, while Southern Wilderness offers three nights or four, starting every Tuesday throughout the season, all in DOC huts, plus “gourmet meals” for $2095. 

Look up the Great Walks of this country and images of bush and birds and gorgeous mountains flash onto the screen from private companies, offering accommodation in the same DOC huts those “eager Kiwis” were trying fruitlessly to book at 9.30 am last Tuesday. DOC huts are not enormous. Twenty-eight bunks, 30, 40. It doesn’t take a lot to book them out.  

The question I was left asking is just how many of those “eager Kiwis” preparing to make their bookings were in fact “eager Kiwi companies” making a substantial private profit from the huts and tracks we as taxpayers pay to maintain and operate? Is DOC enabling private companies to exploit the affordable fees that were clearly intended by the government to enable New Zealanders of all ages and income levels to enjoy their national Great Walks? 

Were companies getting special treatment, I wondered. How otherwise could they complete multiple bookings with all the details required when clients are yet to register an interest? 

In response to questions from The Spinoff, Steve Taylor said that there are “no privately sold places for DOC’s Great Walk huts”.

“All our customers,” he said, “whether individuals or guiding companies [with] a valid concession… get equal access to the booking system” and he repeated the suggestion that individuals who missed out should consider the guided options.   

DOC’s bookings manager, Ross Shearer, added that concessionaires “book Great Walks in the same way the public does”. They must “enter the names, ages, contact details, addresses and nationalities of those being booked under the terms and conditions of the booking … These terms prohibit speculative bookings – unless they are authorised through a concession or other agreement.” For the Abel Tasman, however, “concessionaires can make bookings for up to nine spaces, but they can only do so with a minimum two actual people booked with their names and other details entered into the booking system”. Non-“actual people” sounds awfully speculative to me. 

He added: “Concessionaires cancel bookings for spaces that aren’t filled which makes them available to others, though this may be close to the booked date.” Isn’t that the very essence of speculative booking? To be given the opportunity to scoop up places, hang onto them to the last moment, then release them back onto the market if they remain unsold? 

Is not a company making a private profit, whether or not it has a concession, effectively turning a public asset – a hut bunk – into a “privately-sold place”? And should a company’s need to make that profit be sufficient reason for DOC to advantage them over other New Zealanders? 

It would be good to know just how many concessionaires are currently permitted to operate on the Great Walks. It would be equally good to know just how many hut beds and tent sites are now at their disposal following the melee last Tuesday morning.  

And it would be very good to know next year, when one mid-winter morning we once again prepare to enter the race for places on our wonderful Great Walks, that all of us are actual, living, breathing eager Kiwis. And that we are all starting on an equal footing. 

Keep going!