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Stingy tourists walk into trouble

SARAH-JANE O'CONNOR
Last updated 05:00 21/06/2014

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Tourists actively avoiding coughing up hut fees and relying on websites and social media over expert advice before tackling the country's toughest tramping terrain have forced a Department of Conservation (DOC) re-think on safety procedures.

DOC is seeking advice on how best to operate its southern Great Walks - the Milford, Kepler and Routeburn tracks - in response to the death of an Indonesian tourist.

Yessica Asmin, a 22-year-old international student at the University of New South Wales, died last month after being swept down a river while walking the Milford Track.

Asmin lost her footing while crossing a flooded creek on May 19 and was swept into the Clinton River. Her body was found two days later.

Fellow walkers criticised DOC after the tragedy for not providing adequate safety warnings.

DOC Southern South Island director Allan Munn said the department was reassessing procedures after Asmin's death.

A key area for consideration was adapting to the digital age, as tourists were now heading into areas having only consulted websites or social media for information.

"More and more they are just turning up to do things and never having spoken to anybody," he said.

There were also questions around language barriers and travellers on a budget avoiding DOC offices in an attempt to "minimise contact with people who might be trying to charge them".

DOC hut fees on the Routeburn and Milford tracks start at $54 a night.

In reports following the death, German backpacker Sebastian Keilholz, who met Asmin and her boyfriend, Sean Mcnabb, that day said the group was not aware there would not be bridges. They had no choice but to cross the river, he said.

In 2005, German tourist Johanna Kuchelmeister, 23, died trying to cross Fiordland's Mistake Creek.

Many of the bridges on the Milford Track are removed during winter to prevent damage from avalanches. Munn said areas like the Pompolona Creek, where Asmin was swept away, could be affected by avalanches twice a year.

Fiordland Tramping and Outdoor Recreation Club president Andrew Hill said DOC was "between a rock and a hard place" because it was trying to make money from tourists walking tracks that could at times be dangerous. Those who did not understand the danger could easily get into strife by being unprepared for the conditions, he said.

While people needed to take personal responsibility, some responsibility did lie with DOC because it was "pushing people into those areas" through publicity of the Great Walks.

He approved of bridges being removed from avalanche-risk areas during winter but said there needed to be a "very good system for letting people know".

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MSC outdoor land safety programme manager Nathan Watson said people's desire to reach a destination could sometimes result in poor decisions.

"No-one should ever feel they have to cross a river. There are always options available . . . Even a river that might look safe can present a significant challenge."

Watson said because New Zealand's mountains were subject to a maritime climate, the weather could change rapidly. "This often surprises people as a good day can become very bad, very quickly," he said.

CROSSING ADVICE

Stop before you cross, take time to compose yourself and assess the conditions.

Think 'do I need to cross', ‘where could I cross' and ‘how should I cross'?

If the river is in flood, has obvious discolouration, has debris floating down it or is moving at a speed faster than normal walking pace – question whether it is safe to cross.

If you decide to cross, use the mutual support technique.

Details can be found at: www.mountainsafety.org.nz/rivers

Source: Mountain Safety Council. 

- The Press

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