by Melanie Vautier
“The Finest Walk in the World,” they call it. The famous reputation was started by a magazine publisher who had never set foot in the country, much less the Milford Track, but was evidently a very good businessman. 111 years on, the phrase remains writ large on websites, blogs and the sides of tour buses. Despite the dubious coining of the phrase, I believe it. I’ve had the crazy good fortune of having walked the track fifteen times this summer for my job; and each time offers enough heart-stopping moments to worry anyone’s fitbit. Often I try to describe the scenery, but it invokes such preposterously cheesy language that I can’t bring myself to type it up in the cold light of town.
Often people ask if I ever tire of coming out here. To be honest, it feels more like a relief. During my urban intermissions I’ve caught myself holding my breath walking down Queenstown’s busy Gorge Rd. I notice every exhaust pipe blowing at me as it goes past. Stepping off the boat and back into Fiordland, filling my lungs with fresh air, stepping unavoidably away from everything- social media, emails, queues and crowds; feels instantly more peaceful.
And yet being out here, while I refer to it as “wilderness,” is far from it, really. Few of us would enjoy the surroundings if it weren’t for the helicopters dropping off food (or the well-stocked supermarkets on the way in), the diesel-run generators, the neatly cut and maintained track. The polarisation of conservation land and productive land is certainly a fascinating one; though not often talked about. Catherine Knight describes in her excellent book how the contrast seems so innate to us but is actually a uniquely kiwi concept. The regulations surrounding conservation land are so strict that it’s almost impossible to live in harmony with it as a functioning part of the eco-system. Both guided and independent walkers are reliant on the “outside world,” our little bubble pierced occasionally by the sound of helicopters flying in chocolate from Porirua or bananas from Ecuador. Rubbish and sewage are flown out -to where, I don’t know; and is rarely asked; the diesel is sourced from an equally unacknowledged site, one much less fortunate it it’s status than Fiordland. Apparently, the main barrier to running micro-hydro or solar power out here is the difficulty of obtaining permits from Doc. Despite that, they allow roughly two tonnes of CO2 per week released from each lodge’s generator.
It is interesting to compare this tightly controlled “pristine” environment with different definitions of rigorous sustainability. Camp Glenorchy, not too far away, is a certified Living Building. It creates more energy than it uses, contains planted wetlands to filter grey water to reuse for irrigation, it contains odourless compost toilets, and collects its own water. Every single part of it, right down to the glue, is biodegradable; and built to be as energy efficient as possible. Is something like that affordable, preferable, or even possible, in our national parks? A smaller ecological footprint in Fiordland would likely mean veggie gardens, worm farms, even chickens. The last vestige of “Pure NZ” would certainly be compromised by escaped chickens roaming around; or lettuce seeds spreading through the valleys; but… is that so terrible? I don’t know the answer, but it is an interesting question. Perhaps as the price of carbon goes up (which it must; sooner or later), this may become a more pertinent issue- as helicopters become too expensive; as diesel becomes too precious a resource.
This speculation doesn’t end here- it is a microcosm of a much bigger picture. Shipping waste out of our treasured National Parks for the rest of the country to deal with is not so different from shipping waste out of our treasured NZ for the rest of the (third) world to deal with. Equally for importing resources.
About a year ago I watched a great documentary called “Living the Change.” One concept that stuck in my brain is that of taking responsibility- an interviewee was talking about it in terms of compost toilets; dealing with our own effluent rather than expecting it to disappear down a pipe and be never seen again. However, this idea of taking responsibility could transcend so much of our lives- our daily rubbish; where our food comes from; our energy, our clothes. Here in New Zealand we have the unfortunate trait of trying to “fix” others while ignoring our own problems. We publicly advocate for human rights while importing phosphorus from occupied territory in Morocco. We blame China for their pollution while we demand they make us ever more cheap junk. We lobby other nations to stop fossil fuel subsidies while simultaneously increasing our own. We fret about sea level rise in the Pacific while we visit on heavily polluting planes and cruise ships. We export plastic-coated products to the world and blame them for not having facilities to deal with the rubbish. We need to take responsibility, as individuals but also commercially and politically. While some still argue that there’s no use us tackling any environmental issues while the likes of India and China continue to pollute, the fact remains we have one of the highest rates of emissions per capita in the world. While arguments continue about the nitty gritty of methane or the difference between .5 degrees warming, at the end of the day we can all just try to be more self-sufficient, more locally orientated, more aware of where our resources come from and where our rubbish goes.
Fiordland is the most magical place in the world to me, but it is difficult to reconcile its splendour with the neighbouring “productive” land. Obviously, there is a line which conservation land should not cross. But if our bottom line, non-negotiable, is that we must have clean air, clean water, and clean soil in order to survive; perhaps this would bring a fresh perspective to all our land categories- conservation or otherwise.