Chris Barnes spent 20 years in the investment industry and then 16 years as a property developer. But it was his years volunteering for DoC that led Chris to his recent VSA assignment: building walking tracks – and capacity – in Samoa.
‘‘I have no idea how you’re going to turn this into a story,” says Chris on the phone from Samoa, where he’s packing up to return to New Zealand. “The rantings of a broken-down track builder!”
But this broken-down track builder has just managed to knock off in six months a job that was scheduled to take at least two years: restoring the walking trail up Apia’s Mt Vaea.
The burial place of writer and poet Robert Louis Stevenson – his tomb is right at the top, alongside the ashes of his wife, Fanny – Mt Vaea attracts thousands of visitors a year. At the base of the mountain is the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, and the hope has long been that the museum and the trail could become a major tourist attraction for Samoa. Trip Adviser reviews of the museum tours rave about the experience, but until recently many were not venturing up the hill to the tomb.
Part of the problem was the state of the tracks. Before Chris began his assignment in March 2018, the entrance from the carpark to the first bridge was shabby and created a poor first impression, and the two tracks leading up the mountain – one short and steep, the other longer – were patchy at best; dangerous at worst.
When Chris arrived in Apia, he observed the tracks for a few days and found they were used mostly by locals for exercise: “There’s a big push here for healthy living, and this thing’s right in the centre of town. It’s about an hour and a half up and back to the carpark.”
He estimated around 100 people a day were walking the trail: about 30 tourists and 70 locals.
Now, with the improvements to the shorter track, he believes the number of walkers has doubled to around 200 a day. “And the museum manager told me ‘we haven’t had a complaint this year – everybody’s writing in the guestbook ‘what a great track’.”
One recent review on Trip Adviser comments that ‘the homestead is wonderful and the walk up to his tomb was easy’, while another notes ‘…the walk up the hill to the RLS grave site is not to be missed.’
The plans for the trail restoration were begun in 2016 by another VSA volunteer, John Marsh, and helped along by the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) Ken Bradley who reported on the state of the trail in the same year.
But it was Chris who really managed to get things moving when he was recruited to volunteer as a trail development adviser with Samoa’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE). His brief: to improve critical areas of the trail, and build the capability of locals to continue the restoration work and maintain the tracks after he has gone.
Within six months, Chris and his small crew of local MNRE workers had completely restored the 1300m “short” track, enhanced the walk from the carpark to the first bridge and improved the 2km “long” track.
Chris was no stranger to building tracks – he’d been doing volunteer track maintenance for DOC in Fiordland for 10 years. And working as a property developer had made him “handy with a hammer”. But he says of his VSA stint: “I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I’ve been on the end of a shovel every day since I got here”.
Although the job description had him as an “adviser”, Chris says you can’t really just tell someone how to build tracks. And he’s not one for standing watching while others work anyway. So each day, Chris would join the two or three Ministry employees who’d turned up and together they’d dig side-drains and lug 27kg timber box-steps and 13kg bags of gravel up the mountain.
A few weeks in, however, the 400 steps and 2000 sacks of gravel that needed to be carried up – in temperatures averaging 29° Celsius – started to look like an impossible task.
That is, until Chris hit upon his “cunning plan”.
He decided to erect a sign at the bottom of the hill that said “Help us upgrade the track. You can help by carrying a bag of gravel up the hill. There are drop-off spots. Carry as far as you like. Please stack them on the side of the track.”
The result was staggering.
“We’ve had a ridiculous amount of support from people. And in fact, we can’t stop them carrying the bloody bags up. We’ve had to put a sign up saying ‘Stop carrying the bags up the hill’, because now they’re all at the top!”Chris organised all the materials for the project, including importing the timber from Auckland and buying the gravel, shovels and picks locally VSA has spent around $NZ1200 keeping the project going.
VSA’s target is for work on the longer trail to now be completed by the local workers Chris has trained, who he says are now excellent track builders.
“I am 100% certain they have the ability to continue on and build a good track, anywhere they’re required to. They know exactly what to do now. They know how to order the material, they know how to prepare the material and they’ve got all the contacts… they just know everything.”
He’s hopeful that the guys he’s worked with – who he now considers friends – will get the job done. “They know I’m coming back for a week in February to scope out this other job, and I said ‘this bloody track better be spotless when I’m back in February’.
“And they were like ‘so what week are you coming Chris?’
He laughs. “I said ‘I’m going to get a beard and moustache and a walking stick, you’ll never know it’s me.’”