A blog about all things car-free walking - taking the bus or train to explore the glorious peaks and valleys of the UK

16 September 2008

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The world’s most famous car-free walk?

New Zealanders proudly proclaim the Tongariro Alpine Crossing as “the world’s best one-day walk”. It’s a challenging 18.5 km hike across dramatic volcanic landscape in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, where dark red craters with smoking fumaroles rise up amidst ancient lava flows that spread across the valleys. The sparkling Emerald Lakes provide the perfect lunch stop at halfway, followed by the Blue Lake and Ketetahi Hot Springs – the natural wonders along this walk get more spectacular with each step.

At times, the region seems like something from another world. It’s no surprise the mountains of Tongariro provided the setting for Mordor in the recent ‘Lord of the Rings’ film trilogy, with the textbook volcano of Ngauruhoe doubling as Mount Doom. With so much to see in one day, and the route being achievable for most walkers, the Kiwis have a strong claim to the “world’s best walk” title.

Another great feature of this walk is that it is easy to reach without a car. Many of the thousands of walkers who visit each year use the specially arranged buses that serve the start and finish of the walk. Early morning, buses drop the eager ‘trampers’ (the local name for walkers) at the Mangetepopo Valley – the start of the route. After a memorable day’s walking, the weary crowds finish at the foot of the Ketetahi Track. Sitting in a forest clearing, they can check the day’s photos as they wait for the pick-up buses.

This is how walking should be – taking time to explore stunning scenery, walking from A to B, with no need to back-track halfway around and return to the car. The linear nature of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – the famous geological features are handily spread out along the route – makes these buses essential to many visitors.

The transport system in this part of New Zealand runs so smoothly that few people even consider other options – a big achievement in a nation where many people are dependent on cars. Fourteen local bus companies collect people from nearby Turangi or Taupo – many of these are run by the backpacker hostels and guesthouses in these towns, making it an easy option for the backpackers that flock to New Zealand to go hiking. The several pick-up buses run throughout the afternoon and evening. This means there are no long waits for walkers who arrive earlier than expected and no rush to get a particular bus, allowing people to spread out along the route, going at their own pace.

It’s the same set-up for all of New Zealand's Great Walks – when you book up the route, the Department of Conservation staff will help you to arrange transport to and from the walk. For walkers, it’s a cheap, reliable and efficient system. For the park managers and local conservationists, encouraging people out of their cars helps to prevent congestion and pollution on the roads that take people to New Zealand’s wild and wondrous outdoors.

Could similar services run in the UK’s most popular walking regions? there are few services than run specifically to meet the needs of walkers – the Snowdon Sherpa being a notable exception. Many popular walks are circular by nature – the glacial valleys in the Lake District provide many famous ‘horseshoes’, such as Fairfield – and many people take the easiest or most popular route to go up and down mountains. Starting and finishing walks at the same point encourages people to go by car. But there are many, many routes in these islands that are crying out for their own, tailor-made walker’s bus service, which would reduce congestion and open up whole mountain ranges to the joys of linear walking – completing a ridge in one go rather than going round in circles. Here are a few possibilities that spring to mind:

The Brecon Beacons, South Wales
Most walkers tackle the three highest peaks – Corn Du, Cribyn, and Pen y Fan – as a circular walk from either Brecon or Storey Arms. A better day out is to complete the whole range in one go, continuing on to Fan Y Big and Waun Rydd . Buses could collect walkers from near the Talybont Reservoir and return them to the nearby towns, villages and campsites.

Aonach Eagach, Glen Coe
This fantastic ridge demands to be done in one direction; there’s no easy short cuts down. A dedicated and regular bus service for walkers could drop people off at Alt-na Reigh and collect them at the Clachaig Inn, which would also enable a linear traverse of the Three Sisters on the opposite side of the valley. This would reduce the number of cars speeding along the A82 and make the road considerably safer for everyone.

Of course, there are many pitfalls that would need to be overcome, such as cost recovery, reliability, seasonality and persuading enough people out of their cars to justify the service (a bit of stick as well as carrot would be needed). But with so many keen walkers in the UK, it’s hard to believe the potential demand is not there. More buses run specifically to meet the needs of walkers would also help to further promote the UK as an ideal walking destination, especially for tourists who visit without cars. And who knows, one of our mountain ranges could start to challenge the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for its ‘World’s Best’ title.

(Thanks to Jimmy Johnson at DOC for the photos)

7 September 2008

A tale of two valleys: my first car-free walk

Every weekend in the summer, people swarm to the Lake District’s myriad attractions. The campsites book up months in advance, spilling over with families, barbeques and guy ropes; crossing the field to join a toilet queue becomes an SAS-style mission. Fortunately for those who prefer to watch the sun set without a Frisbee flying across it, there are endless opportunities for wild camping – pitching your tent in the wilderness, miles from anyone else.

A long weekend away was also an opportunity to think through an idea for a new walking website. Whilst a few guidebooks and walking magazines now mention how to get to a route by bus or train, the nearest car park is still what most walkers look for. I wanted to create a website where people could share walks in the UK that could be reached by public transport. A few nights alone in the quietest corners of the Lakes would be the perfect opportunity to think through ideas, work out a plan and, most importantly, think up a name.

After booking some very cheap train tickets from London to Windermere (a bargain £19 each way with The Trainline), and packing a brand new Terra Nova tent into a well-worn backpack, I head north. I time my arrival in Windermere at late afternoon, when most walkers are trudging down from the summits. This is a well-known wild camping trick; just 30 minutes later on Orrest Head (an easy 238m ascent), there is no one to disturb the views across Windermere and the golds and russets of the fells provide the perfect backdrop for people enjoying England’s largest natural lake from their rowing boats.

Heading deeper into Troutbeck Valley along the Garburn track, the trickle of evening walkers dries up completely. As dusk settles, I pitch my brand new tent on the grassy flanks of Ill Bell alone – the Lake District to myself at last. Some inquisitive sheep wander over to see what’s happening, unused to intruders disturbing their peace at this time of day. The setting sun sends soft purple shadows across the silent valley, and the scent of wild grass and bracken just overpowers the smell of damp boots.

By 7am the next morning, I’m heading north towards Stony Cove Pike. The plan is to head towards Helvellyn and wild camp near Red Tarn. Three glorious hours pass before meeting the first walker of the day. He issues a cheery “good morning”, displaying the bonhomie that flourishes between walkers in Britain’s mountains. By mid morning, the crowds are out in force, jockeying for position around the famous Fairfield horseshoe. And ever more they come; on Helvellyn, after the 200th “hello” of the day, my good spirits are in dangerously short supply – the solitude of a wild camp can’t come soon enough.

‘Closing Time’ syndrome strikes again as the sun goes down, and the fells are soon deserted apart from a few stragglers carefully descending Swirral Edge. Dark clouds are gathering, though, and neither my new tent nor tired limbs fancy a cold, soggy night on higher ground, so I head into Grisedale Valley to look for shelter. Some hope. As the winds pick up and the clouds explode, the tent starts playing games – there hadn’t been this many poles last night, surely?

But 10 minutes later, the stove is bubbling and the boots are off. I sit in the small porch to watch the storm unleash its fury on Patterdale and Ullswater. And there’s no better way to enjoy the Lake District than sheltered by canvas with a whole valley to yourself, whether it’s lit up by lightning or a sunset.

Next morning, the inclement weather means an early start (the rain started at 5am) and a head-down, hood-up quick march back over Fairfield and into Ambleside, where warm pubs and foodstuffs other than cereal bars await me. Refreshed, it’s a short stroll for the final night’s camping – this time in the relative comfort of the campsite behind Rydal Hall.

The final day presents a situation that will be familiar to many other car-free walkers. Anxious not to miss my train (pre-booked tickets are rarely changeable), I was again off early over Wansfell, taking the scenic route back to Windermere station rather than walking alongside the A591. But arriving two hours early left a slight dilemma; how welcome would I be in the Booth’s cafĂ©, after three days of camping and little more than a splash in the sink as a token nod to hygiene? The scent of fresh coffee and the enticing smells of cooked breakfasts proved too strong; dropping my bag near the door, I sheepishly made my way to the counter to order. “Been out walking, love?” enquired the waitress. “You’ll be hungry, then. What would you like?” Clearly they are used to bedraggled walkers round these parts. The breakfast soon arrives, and I can stretch the weary legs and take out the notebook to write up my first car-free walk. Now, all I need is a name for this website