Upright, bi-pedal walking is a distinctly human capacity. It can be taken for granted, this wonderful way of getting about, defying gravity, getting a view and new perspectives, just by putting one foot in front of the other. It’s as natural a form of modal power as a human can get.
Walking is great for fitness, balance and burning calories. It’s good for your heart (physically and emotionally), it helps prolong your life, and plays a critical role in cognition and memory. It’s a social enterprise, part of who we are. The diaspora of humankind as we walked across the globe was a story of walking.
So why is it so difficult to walk safely? In towns and villages, we’re consigned to a few narrow concrete strips of rough surfaced concrete, often just on one side of busy and polluted roads, if we’re lucky.
Footpaths are rough and uneven, unsafe for walking before you even start to consider cars pulling out of a million driveways, pollution, rogue vehicles, the hazards of power poles and other infrastructure in the way. Human habitats are engineered so they are hostile to our most basic function – walking. It’s little wonder we have become car-dependent for even the shortest journeys. If you live in the country, you walk with cars and trucks if you walk at all.
Yet epic walks are also a thing. For many, “doing the Great Walks” is a rightful badge of honour. Getting lost in the forest (but not too lost) is a way to find yourself, to find peace, the beauty of nature, muscles you never knew you had. People walk for days with heavy packs in honour of our primordial selves. On genuine pilgrimages across continents, up or down the length of New Zealand, or beautiful parts thereof, despite technology, we’re still strongly motivated to walk, and all the better for it. Though how many people tramp or hike for days, but wouldn’t walk to the shop?
Despite massive population growth, wild walking opportunities in the Auckland region are much fewer than they were. Closures related to kauri dieback disease have closed most of the tracks in the Waitakere Ranges. Also tracks in the Hunuas and Okura, and many other smaller walks as well. Others, such as the Te Henga walkway, are closed due to slips.
Track upgrades and re-openings are welcome, but the trend is toward gold-plated over-engineered boardwalks on fewer tracks, instead of opening more adequate tracks gaining more steps for your money. We are ending up with high concentrations of people on flash new boardwalks. That feels like over-tourism and a separation from nature, not solace, silence and access to a simpler, rawer world.
New Zealand poets talk about the skill of standing upright, but walking is perhaps a miracle, because at every step we’re falling. Never mind the moon, on Earth every walking step is a significant act for humankind.