Tongariro tragedy will bring many questions to the fore

In my first year teaching, I took a mixed group of Form 3 and 4 students for a five-day tramp around Lake Waikaremoana. Another first year teacher and his wife made up the three adults. It was part of what the school called wider living week at the end of every second year when students had a choice of outdoor activities.

It was the first of many great experiences and whenever I come across former students, the things they remember the best are not the hours in the classroom but the experiences they had on tramps and camps. These trips can deeply enrich and extend their world dramatically in just a few days.

Nowadays, teachers must complete detailed risk assessments before any significant outdoor activity but there was no special training for teachers at the time of my first tramp. The fact I’d done the particular tramp before was seen as a bonus rather than a requirement. Common sense was seen as the best guard against tragedy and it remains so today.

Thankfully, I’ve only had one real scare taking students into the bush. I was with a group tramping up to Lake Waikareiti to stay the night before tramping out the next day. We found a lone possum trapper in the hut whose heart must have sunk into his boots when 20 teenagers and assorted adults descended upon his peace and quiet deep in the Urewera bush.

The following morning, we gathered for a final briefing and counting-off before setting off. At the front was a recently arrived Afghani boy who it turned out had not understood the instructions. He didn’t want to be constrained by the slower pace of the group and took off from the front and disappeared along the track. The first rule with an incident like this is to secure the group before dealing with the problem. We did so and the main group waited while myself and a couple of students dropped our packs and set off at pace to catch up with him. We didn’t. After five minutes it was clear he was still well ahead so we returned and got the main group moving again. The next four hours tramping out were possibly the worst of my time teaching. He could easily have missed the track at any number of places and become lost. It was a mixture of relief and anger to see his grinning face at the road end. He was probably more in danger from me than the bush. I could have throttled him.

Back at school, it became another thing to go on the checklist for future camps but despite the best planning and attention to detail there will be times when combinations of circumstances put students in danger in the outdoors. We can minimise the risks but we will never eliminate them. No matter what we learn from last week’s tragedy where six students and a teacher drowned in a flash flood at Tongariro, we need to remember this. But besides more attention to safety these days. there have been changes which are reducing opportunities for the bulk of students to enjoy the outdoors.

There is now a strong tendency for outdoor education to focus on high-energy, high-adrenalin events rather than the outdoor experience in its own right. Students tackle high ropes courses, canoeing, rock climbing, abseiling, canyoning, white water rafting etc. There is a feeling that unless the experience is seen as exciting and adrenalin pumping it won’t appeal to students used to the instant gratification of video-games, cellphones or digital movies.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these activities but they require specialist staff which pushes up the cost and they are out of reach of many. Needless to say schools are not funded to provide comprehensive outdoor education and at many schools it is an opportunity restricted to a few senior students.

In coming weeks, there will be many questions asked about the Tongariro tragedy which will focus on the skills of the teachers and supervisory staff, the quality of the equipment and the safety procedures. This is fine to ensure we keep outdoor activities as safe as we can but its likely to bypass the wider issue of why most New Zealand teenagers don’t get these opportunities.

There is a lot of talk about the outdoors being a birthright for every New Zealand student. This is true, but we need to rethink the types of outdoor activities and their funding so that all students get the chance to benefit. Outdoor education doesn’t have to imitate a movie. The best outdoor experiences speak for themselves.