With my daughter Henrietta, I spent the period after New Year exploring the many tracks in the Mahu Whenua Open Spaces Covenant at the back of Arrowtown and the Roaring Meg Track. Thank you Mutt Lang for opening up the Mt Soho, Coronet Peak and Glencoe Stations to the public by firstly making them QE II covenants and then clearing, signposting and marking a comprehensive network of tracks. And thank you Anne Nielsen and Dave McLean for working with the Walking Access Commission to re-open the lower end of the Roaring Meg Track through their Lowburn Valley Station to walkers. Mutt Lang demonstrates that overseas purchases of New Zealand high country can work out extremely well.

While many people may think DOC controls the track standards in New Zealand, especially in the South Island, it is educational to note that the Mahu Whenua tracks have their own track grading system and road-end signage that is informative and, I think, it works rather well. The tracks are good, interesting and well maintained. Because the stations have been retired from grazing and so sheep measles is no longer a concern, the Mahu Whenua tracks are open to dogs. Henrietta’s dog Baxter enjoyed that.

It is not just sheep that are on the way out:  the local pest eradication groups are busy in the area, too. The Wakatipu Wildlife Trust is busy trapping four-legged pests and there is consolidated work by the Arrowtown Wilding Group going on, to deal with the wilding trees. There is plenty of evidence that they are a hardworking bunch. That said, anyone venturing up the valley heads and along the ridges can see that they have a daunting task ahead of them and there is no shortage of wilding trees still to hammer. Well done guys, all the same!

Aircraft Noise

As we walked up the Roaring Meg Track, it became evident that the valley is also used by jet planes, albeit a few thousand feet above us, on their approach to Frankton Airport. To be honest it wasn’t too much of an intrusion, with their noise lasting no longer than two minutes and in short spells every hour or so. The jet-plane noise isn’t as intrusive as it is from helicopters, for some reason. By comparison last year, when I was in Chamonix, a pretty good match to Queenstown in many ways, the nearest airport was two and a half hours away by bus or train and no one complained, or thought it unusual. In Chamonix, helicopters are only used for SAR. Their park management work is limited to two helicopter flights a year, and because a small book of justification is required to do those, even that quota is seldom used. That and making down-town Chamonix car-free means that the area feels very relaxed and peaceful, despite the bustle. We have a lot to learn.

As a way to manage aircraft noise, DOC has introduced the concept of a Tranquillity Map in their draft Westland/Tai Poutini and Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park Management Plans. As an idea, it is potentially pretty good as another tool to inform the modified Recreational Opportunities Spectrum model they use to manage Public Conservation Lands. But, the Tranquillity Map has a long way to go before it can be reliably used. Yes, I would guess that one on the scale of one to ten is Heathrow Airport and that the Sea of Tranquillity, which has only ever had one landing (coming up to 50 years ago), would score ten, but who knows what Invercargill Airport would score, let alone the Takitimu Mountains?


There was no shortage of wilding pines on some of the more demanding Mahu Whenua tracks, but there was no one really sharing them with us. On the other hand, there was no shortage of people on all the easier tracks, with Kiwis making up about half of them. Front-country walks definitely are popular with locals, dogs and tourists alike.

We had some German friends of friends stay with us at our Arrowtown crib for a night, who arrived in their campervan. The penny dropped that I would need to cut down a few branches of my cherry tree so that they could get up our driveway instead of parking at the kerb, where they would be liable for a $400 fine for freedom camping. We loved taking them on a hikoi up Twelve Mile Creek for a picnic to show them an area we love, and getting to know them.

It seemed to me that the Central Otago road-ends, roads and sights were congested and I simply don’t have enough imagination to work out where another million tourists each year (say, 5,000 extra tourists a day), a target due to be reached in a couple of years, are actually going to fit.


From my prior experience building huts, tracks and manual telephone exchanges, I know that sorting out toilets presents the biggest engineering and logistics problems you can hope for. We spent more money on the toilet than we did on the hut for Esquilant Biv, for example. A moderately sized road-end toilet that won’t pollute can cost $500,000 to build and maybe $100,000 per year to keep operational, for road-ends are seldom found close to where builders and operational staff are based. Take it from me, you had better allow a couple of years to get one funded, geo-teched, designed, approved, consented and built, so you need to start early. 

And who should pay for a toilet at the Council road-end for the walking track across a farmer’s paddocks to Public Conservation Land beyond? (Trick question—no one!) Actually, there is some interesting maths for calculating the number of toilet stalls you need:  Mr. Erlang’s queuing formulae will tell you how many you need, once you have decided how long the average person can stand in line waiting with legs crossed (any application of science has a certain amount of judgement in it). My concern is that no one has decided how long the queues should be at Tongariro Crossing and so forth, before the tourists decide that they can get a better run for their money elsewhere. (A friend Ron’s solution of tying bowyangs when returning from a South American climbing trip with an upset tummy is not for everyone!).

The Sustainable Summits Conferences in Chamonix last year and Mt Cook two years earlier, specifically addressed the problems of toilets at high altitude, where microbes find it too cold for too long to break down poo. The results can be both culturally and internally upsetting. A concept raised in the national park management plans mentioned earlier, and no doubt carried through from the conferences, is to eventually require everyone to use carry-out poo pots above the permanent snowline. At first, the idea of poo-pots hadn’t sat well with me. At the Chamonix conference, Dawa Steven Sherpa said he won over his porters — who initially were equally unenthusiastic about the idea — by pointing out that you either have the poo inside you in front of your spine, or in your pack on the other side and conceptually there isn’t much difference. It’s not a bad way to get your head around it. The technology to ensure that you can confidently keep your digested dinner away from your undigested dinner on a long trip exists and now it just requires our support to make it happen.

Thank You

I want to finish by thanking our previous editor, Shaun Barnett, for his tolerance and forbearance with this column. His three-monthly desperate, stern and friendly (not necessarily in that order) reminders of deadlines were appreciated and eventually responded to, and he invariably managed to edit out the worst of my blunders with aplomb. In his last editorial he asked if this was a Column or a Corner and wondered if it much mattered. I confess I don’t know either; anyway, it’s always nice to have a change from time to time.

Ka kite,

Robin McNeill
85 Sunrise Drive
Seaward Bush, Invercargill


This article was re-published from the March 2019 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit www.fmc.org.nz/aboutbackcountry. We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Uncle Jacko’s Cookery Column here on Wilderlife.