You could be charged to explore a national park

Fiona Morrison takes a break near Cape Pillar on Tasmania's Three Capes Track.
Fiona Morrison takes a break near Cape Pillar on Tasmania's Three Capes Track. Glenn Morrison

TERRITORY wilderness treks such as the Red Centre's Larapinta Trail and Nitmiluk's Jatbula Trail can be walked without charge, for now. But a new model of parks management in Tasmania has some counting the cost of free entry.

When the mercury peaks during February in Central Australia, it's good to take a breather some place cooler.

This year, my wife and I walked the stunning Three Capes track on Tasmania's south-east coast, starting from historic Port Arthur.

The coastal scenery was magnificent, the weather very civilised, and the before and after stays in Hobart a real treat, especially the amazing MONA.

And the seafood; well, don't get me started on the seafood.

My most outstanding memory of the four-day 46-kilometre walk was, however, the huge effort of planning and infrastructure development gone into achieving such a project.

The tracks, accommodation and various services provided (such as serviced toilet blocks from which waste is removed by helicopter) were planned and constructed in remote locations by Parks Tasmania with a $25 million investment by the Tasmanian Government.

Mind you, walkers pay a hefty fee for the privilege of walking the trail, $495 per person, which attracted considerable outcry when first touted, especially since walkers used to walk the region for free (but minus the facilities).

In return for the fee, Parks transfers walkers by boat to the start of the trek, where they stay in state-of-the-art cabins each of three nights, and where every effort is made to boost comfort with a nod to the environment.

Walkers carry their own food, clothing and personal effects, but have the luxury of an all-conveniences kitchen, amazing hi-tech toilets and comfortable bunk beds when they arrive footsore and tired at the end of a day on the track.

There is even a solar shower on day two.

And the trails themselves are extraordinarily well-crafted, in fact I took more than a few photographs as inspiration for my landscaping efforts back in Alice Springs.

Many sections were painstakingly boardwalked to protect vulnerable species of flora or fauna habitat.

There are yoga mats, a small but well-stocked library (the same books available each night), easy-chairs galore, even a ranger in attendance to play knowledgeable host.

Now such luxury is not everyone's cup of tea.

Wilderness purists will likely sideline the trail for its pandering to middle-class comforts.

For the trail unabashedly caters to a market wanting an achievable four-day adventure, then back to work.

Nonetheless, as I walked, I couldn't help but think of the parallels with our own Larapinta Trail, stretching 223km west of Alice Springs to Mt Sonder, in the West Macdonnell Ranges.

I had the feeling early planning for the trail had included the eventual constructions of cabins, but I wasn't sure.

Could a Three Capes model work here? I wondered.

The Larapinta Trail starts less than two kilometres from my front door, and over the years I have been walking it, more and more walkers are arriving to tread its desert paths and enjoy the unparalleled views.

During the walking season (from April to October) friends and friends of friends arrive at our place with some regularity from interstate or overseas to attempt the hike, which is no mean feat at an estimated 15-20 days to do its whole length.

The thing is, many, if not all, of them have said they would pay hundreds of dollars to walk the trail, in recognition of the considerable effort gone into building and maintaining it.

But the trail is free to walk, and to a man (and woman) our visitors are stunned to discover this fact.

The management plan for the trail was produced back in 2004 and is now hopelessly outdated.

There was apparently a 2010 Larapinta Trail Visitor Experience Plan, completed by Parks but never cleared for public release.

There aren't even any published statistics for visitor walkers to the park, although Parks and Wildlife are now collecting them and have promised to send through what they have.

NT Parks and Wildlife's Chris Day, director for Central Australian Parks, was able to shed a little light.

Mr Day estimates about 3000 people do the trail each year, but not everyone does the whole trail, and admits this is likely an underestimate.

Importantly, there are considerable differences between the policy environments for the Larapinta Trail compared with Three Capes; in the NT is an emphasis on attracting private investment versus government spending in Tasmania.

Also, there's little sense putting up cabins without much rain, except as a way to collect the little rainwater we receive, which is exactly what Parks does in the Centre with modest shelters and tanks.

And measuring walkers on the Larapinta Trail turns out to be no easy matter either, with so many different points of entry and exit.

Commercial bookings are much easier to monitor and this is done automatically through the operators.

Many walkers now book a group walk with a commercial operator, who picks out the best sections for those short of time.

"About 1500 of those [3000] walkers are commercial clients,” Mr Day says.

"The majority of whom do up to a six-day 'highlights' walk.

"There are some who don't want to carry a heavy pack, want a more comfortable bed, and not to have to cook.

"We have four reliable operators now who have invested quite a bit in infrastructure for this.

"Their clients pay quite a price for the privilege of having an extra level of comfort, but they're proving very popular.”

In fact, many of the assumptions permeating the original management plan have been scrapped, Mr Day says. And on the matter of free entry, some park rangers are having second thoughts.

The result is that fees could be back on the table, but only for multi-day walks and trails.

"We are investigating it at the moment, for the Larapinta Trail, Jatbula Trail at Nitmiluk and others.

"The Larapinta trail is one of the more problematic types of walks to introduce a fee for.

"A typical fee for Tasmanian walk is where you start at a point and finish at a point, and there are no other options.

"So it's easy to run a booking system; the Larapinta Trail doesn't lend itself to that.

"And you have to consider that when Three Capes was opened there was a very big outcry about having to pay.”

In fact, the Tasmanian Greens branded the project "a playground for wealthy tourists”. It's early days, of course, and such a proposal is yet to go to government, if it does at all.

But just think, before it even opened, Lonely Planet had named the Three Capes Track the world's hottest new travel experience.

Might be exactly what the Centre needs.

*Glenn Morrison paid his own travel and trail expenses to walk the Three Capes Track.

Topics:  national park

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