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Source: Department of Conservation

Mount Somers Track is a very popular 26 km circuit track located in the beautiful Hakatere Conservation Park, Canterbury. Due to the trail’s proximity to Christchurch and the relative ease of the walk, the 26-bed Woolshed Creek Hut and the 19-bed Pinnacles Hut were often the unwitting destinations of the ‘Weekend Surge’. This is best described as a frenzy of keen-as trampers heading up the hill on a Saturday (as many as 60 people) hoping to secure a bed at the end of their hiking day. To help combat the weekend overcrowding and the resulting frustrations, the two huts were added to DOC’s booking system on 1 October 2019.

The view down to Woolshed Creek Hut. Photo: Becs Crilly

Within 8 weeks of the online launch, at the beginning of what the Geraldine based DOC staff consider to be their summer season, bookings were 173% higher than for the same period for the 2018-2019 summer. These projections were validated when the actual figure reporting was released earlier this month, confirming 729 visitors during January, up from 420 visitors in January 2019. This includes an increase in trail-runners, day walkers and hunters utilising the area.

Staff have reported other notable benefits such as less jostling on the track, compliance checking is now much easier and record-keeping is significantly more accurate.

Lead Hut Warden, Becs Crilly, managing wasp control. Photo: Becs Crilly

Rebecca (Becs) Crilly, nearing the end of her second summer season as the Lead Hut Warden for the area, echoes these benefits. “Having bookings has taken a lot of stress out of the warden role. We are able to spend more time with trampers, sharing information about the local area and interesting landmarks to visit while they’re walking. Trampers are more engaged with us too, as we’re not perceived as ‘just compliance’ anymore. The interactions are a lot friendlier now”.

Chatting with trampers. Photo: Becs Crilly

Working alongside a second Hut Warden and a bevvy of volunteers, Crilly stated that including the Mt Somers facilities on the booking system had been well overdue and the response from trampers to date had been one of “overwhelming joy”.

 “Trampers are now able to pace their walk and enjoy the outdoor experience without the time pressures of needing to get to the hut first. They know they have a guaranteed bed at the end. There is clear signage at both entrance carparks informing people they have to book a bed before they head up, but we won’t ever turn anyone away either. We just make it clear that bookings will always get priority. There hasn’t been any issues so far this season.”

Mt Somers Track. Photo: Andy Osborne

Both the Woolshed Creek carpark and the Sharplin Falls carpark have reception, providing the opportunity for a booking to be placed from a mobile device. And further up the hill, Hut Wardens use their mobile devices to complete online check-ins, confirming exactly who is onsite.

As a direct result of having certainty of visitor numbers, Crilly says she has been able gain some more structure and productivity from her days. She plans to be available at the huts around the times walkers will start arriving and is able to schedule track maintenance activities for the quieter days.

A quiet Woolshed Creek Hut. Photo: Becs Crilly

When queried about the downsides of the booking system, Crilly reported very few. Some ‘Back Country Hut Pass’ holders are still learning the huts must be booked first although many are already familiar with the process for claiming their refund. The booking system itself has some quirks too. There is currently no self-cancellation option, meaning folks who aren’t able to make the trip become ‘no-shows’, if they haven’t rung DOC to cancel. Sometimes there is a ‘same-day booking’ glitch when using a mobile phone to book from the entrance carparks, although this is resolved quickly by the wardens at hut check-in. Another feature Crilly is happy to utilise.

“We have noticed a shift in the demographic of people who are walking too. This walk is the perfect introduction to overnight tramping. Families have confirmed accommodation so they can travel with less gear, at a pace that suits them. Woolshed really isn’t the party hut it used to be.”

Following a recent ‘Dads and Lads’ tramp, Andy Osborne agrees with this comment. He and a family friend took their respective sons (aged 7 (just) to 11) for an overnight stay at the Woolshed Creek Hut. “We knew that the hut needed to be booked prior and the system worked well. Everyone who was staying in the hut overnight had also booked, so there were no extras sleeping on the floor.”

Dads and Lads. Photo: Andy Osborne

Of the experience itself, Osborne said they walked in via Rhyolite Ridge, commenting it was “a bit tough for the boys with packs on” so they cooled off in the waterfall gorge swimming hole about 20 minutes from the hut, before heading back to the hut for the evening. “It was a great experience overall”.

DOC is continuing to improve the booking service it can provide to customers and in April all existing bookable campgrounds and huts, that sit outside the Great Walks, will transition to the new booking service. The new service provides significantly more flexibility for customers, enabling them to make an account and then have full control to book, modify and cancel their own accommodation online. It will also enable Back Country Hut Pass holders to use their passes at time of booking.

From April, bookings at campgrounds and huts for stay-dates from 1 July onwards will be made on the new application, with the existing booking system still being used to make bookings for stay-dates up to 30 June. More information is available from booking.doc.govt.nz

MIL OSI