The Hillary Trail: impasse, decision, and reflection

Journey before Destination

Brandon Sanderson – Stormlight Archive Series

Right now, I am reading a book by Brandon Sanderson named Oathbringer. It is a fantastic book in a fantastic series that I adore (future post alert!) In the book, there is the above refrain repeated often in the series,  and it is one that I find myself saying as I write this post. My goal is the destination, but the journey… the training, the discovery, the trials… that is what is important.

Last week, I received a pretty big piece of news in relation to my upcoming Hillary Trail walk.

It was announced that the Te Kawerau ā Maki iwi has placed a Rāhui on the Waitakere Ranges. This… made me need to learn a few things in my new home of New Zealand. An Iwi is the largest social group of Maori in an area. Often translated to a Nation, a confederation, or a tribe, Iwis make up the largest political system in Maoridom. For Americans, think of the Navaho Nation. Iwis work with the government on matters pertaining tot he Maori, but also matters of conservation, the environment, and other areas stipulated in the Treaty of Waitangi.

rāhui is an edict by the iwi that forbids entrance and passage into an area. In this case… the Waitakere Ranges… where the Hillary Trail runs right through.

Why are they doing this you ask? It is because of the Kauri Trees. The Kauri trees are facing a large dieback and possible extinction due to microbes that are killing the root system of the trees. The infection is carried through the soil, and can easily hitch rides on muddy shoes, animals, and water.  Kauri Trees are very old and grow very slowly. They were once logged heavily in the early days of European colonization of the North Island but was stopped starting in the 1920’s. Kauri Dieback started showing up in the mid-2000’s, and despite attempts to slow the spread of the disease, it has exploded in the last few years infecting upwards of 20% of the remaining Kauri Tree population in the Waitakeres… home of the largest remaining stand of Kauri Trees.

A big issue is that people who walk the park are not doing what is necessary to protect the trees. I routinely see people take dogs into the Waitakeres, which is not allowed, and people do not use the cleaning stations, nor the sprays designed to kill the microbes.

The relationship between iwi and the government is a tumultuous one. The Treaty was not honored for a very long time and starting in the 1980’s, there have been attempts to change that. Despite that, the iwis move is not binding in any way. People can come and go through the park regardless of what the iwi does or decide.

Today, however, the Auckland Council is going to vote on what to do about the situation. They are considering 5 options, one of which is the closure of the entire park as per the iwis wishes. The other 4 options will be considered, but it is likely parts of the park will be closed indefinitely. However, while  Waitakere councillor Penny Hulse has stated that a complete park closure is impossible to uphold (the park is 160 square kilometers), people should respect the rāhui.

When I heard the news last week, I was despondent. after missing out on going on the Milford Track earlier in the year, I chose the Hillary because it was something that I could do in my backyard so to speak. It was a challenge I made for myself, and for the last few months, I have strived hard to achieve it. I have pushed myself, I have hyped myself, and I learned to love and enjoy the Waitakere ranges in their beauty of awesomeness. Now, with a month to go before the big walk, I am told that I shouldn’t and that my walking it could further harm the region.

Upset, Angry, shamed that I was angry, crushed at the loss of a goal, all went through my head. On one hand, there is nothing stopping me from walking the Hillary. It is highly doubtful that the Council will close the park, and the iwi has little bearing on laws. I can’t get arrested, they can’t bar the forest from me, or anyone (they even admit this). But… isn’t that what people have done for the last 150 years here in New Zealand? Ignore the Maori and their wishes when it didn’t suit them? English colonials ignored the Treaty, followed then by the NZ Government. The US had done similarly to Native Americans, making treaties and promises only to ignore them when it suited the US prerogative.

No, I can’t do that. Whenever I think about walking the Hillary in defiance of the iwis wishes, I get an empty pit in my stomach and I feel like I am ignoring one of the biggest reasons I am doing the Hillary in the first place: embracing this nation as my new home. And in the end, if I ignore the rules because they don’t suit me, I am not embracing my new home or those around me.

With the vote today, I will look to both the Council and the Iwi on what they want to do. It is likely that a two-pronged approach will happen. I suspect that the high-risk areas: Kauri Cascade, the Montana Heritage Trail, and other areas will be closed off from the public. I also suspect that they will also step up funding to combat the microbe, having found some success in areas, and being able to identify Kauri trees resistant to the microbe. If the iwi is satisfied with the decision and drops the rāhui, then I will go on my walk. If they keep the rāhui in place, then I will cancel my walk… which is a bit devastating. I love the Waitakeres, I want to walk them as much as I can. There is still so much of it I haven’t seen, but I can’t enjoy it if I am also going to help destroy it.

This also makes me worried about the Hunua Ranges, the next closest area of walks for me, which also have Kauri trees, and may be the next to close.

With this development, I tried to look at other great walks to go on during the Christmas/New Year break, and I have found that everything is either too far away, fully booked, or what is available is luxury tramping that is way too expensive. This made me very upset. Again, I have been hiking and training for months for this, and now… so close to the event, the rug gets pulled out from under me.

So… next steps.

If I cannot do the Hillary, I am going to look for a 2-day walk somewhere in the Hunuas or the Coromandel Ranges for me to go walking. I am considering the Pinnacles walk which is either a 1 or 2-day walk or I may do something in the East Hunua Ranges. Both are relatively close to me, so I should be able to find something. I just hope I can find a campground or hut to stay at.

The other thing I have done… is that I have decided to do the Tongariro Northern Circuit at the end of January. This is a great walk that also includes the Tongariro Crossing, something I was planning to do this summer anyhow. This 4-day walk will be just as challenging as the Hillary, so I am glad I was able to find campsites and a hut to stay at. The area is already protected, and it does not have any Kauri trees. So no danger there. It *is* considered sacred, but I will follow the rules of the local iwi there and that is perfectly fine for me.

If the Hillary does pull through, I will be thrilled, but only if the Iwi and the Council agree. Otherwise, I will go further afield.

“If the Journey itself is indeed the most important piece, rather than the destination itself, then I traveled not to avoid duty – but to seek it.”

Brandon Sanderson – Oathbringer Chapter 120

It is a reminder that sometimes the goal is not what you should focus on, and this situation is making me recognise that a bit more. I hope I can do the Hillary, but I am prepared to change the destination, for, in the end, it is not as important as the journey.

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