Mountaineer, explorer, writer, and entrepreneur Tim Macartney-Snape has been hiking Australia’s walking tracks longer than most – so we asked him what he thought of the recent trends in trail building. Strap in.


We humans have a genius for travel, continually inventing faster and more diverse ways of doing it. Trains, planes and automobiles, bikes, kites, skates and boats. All these inventions for getting around yet, when it comes to travelling through country, none can beat our primary, original and simplest means of locomotion – walking.

For a holistic package of physical and mental health, walking or running through nature tops the list. You don’t need no fancy wheel, wing or hull, just a pair of functioning legs!

Well OK, apart from the barefoot brigade, for most of us, putting our feet into a decent pair of shoes helps a lot and these days shoes are amazing, light as air (well almost) and comfy as.

And there’s another thing that makes walking through the wild more of a pleasure than a battle – a well-designed track. Some country is easy to walk through but there is much wild country that isn’t (which is the main reason it has remained wild!).

Off Track Forrays

Let’s first talk about walking off-track, something I’ve spent plenty of time doing.

As a sometime mountaineer, I’ve covered a lot of ground over rock, snow, moraine, and scree, but also seemingly endless amounts of bush.

From the near impenetrable bamboo, rhododendron, nettle and leech infested thickets of the Himalaya to the montane forests of East African volcanoes where lush plants feed some very large animals that in the panic of surprise can easily squash or impale you.


On Walking Tracks in Australia, Tim Macartney-Snape, mountainside, steps, donkey

Steep village track, Western Nepal. Typical of the vast network of trails that have existed for centuries in the Himalayan foothills

From waterlogged beech forests of Tierra del Fuego to the counterparts in Fiordland and south-west Tasmania, I’ve come fully acquainted with the misery of being cold, damp, and a long way from home.

Inching over spiky spinifex covered jumbled rock, I’ve roasted under the tropical Kimberley sun, craving for a cool pool to collapse into.

Perhaps most uncomfortable are the prickly, unyielding, itch-inducing, tangled sub-alpine scrubs of south-eastern Australia.

They’ve given me plenty of anguish, especially if you throw in the occasional pain-missile of a jumping jack or bull ant sting.

Tracks Made By Nature Itself

Why, might you ask, would I walk off track at all? Simply put, it’s to satisfy my curiosity about what lies over the horizon, or around the bend, and if I can’t find a path, which is common for the places I like to go, I’ll make my own.

However, like an animal, I do try to find the line of least resistance, where the scrub parts or the rocks are stable and more level.


On Walking Tracks in Australia, Tim Macartney-Snape, bamboo, hiker, path

Following animal trails through dense mountain forest is better than bush bashing, until you meet the trail maker!


If there are herbivores, then following their footpads or game trails for as long as they travel in my desired direction is always my default option because they’ve an instinctive ability to follow the path of least resistance – and some are great path makers.

By trampling and browsing a game trail, their forebears made the original paths which our forebears would have followed too.

As you can imagine, elephants make the widest, flattest game trails that make for deluxe walking tracks, but it’s best to be aware of the possibility of meeting one!

Should you be lucky enough to be walking along such a trail, and if the trees are dense, like say on the flanks on Mt Kenya, you might well surprise one, or someone else making use of that highway.

Worst case, as happened to me, was finding a mob of Cape buffalo, a species known for their crankiness as well as their persistence in chasing down a perceived threat.

Luckily for me back then, they crashed off into the forest while my heart rate nearly blew the top of my head off!

My first memory of paths was on the upland savannah of southern Tanzania where I was born.


On Walking Tracks in Australia, Tim Macartney-Snape, mountains, rainforest, hike

The Kilembe trail meanders up into the heart of the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda


Roads there were few and primitive, dusty in the dry season, and quagmires during the wet, but there were footpaths everywhere.

A vast network predating the wheel by tens of thousands of years stretched across the whole African continent linking small encampments, hunting grounds, and larger settlements.

The Most Natural Rate of Movement

Like the game trails that came before, then coexisted with them, they meandered through the landscape taking the path of least resistance. Even on a flat plain they were never straight as they wound their way around copses of thorn trees and termite mounds.

The single file path of earth and stone has been such for time immemorial. Indeed it must be ingrained in our soul where instinct resides.


On Walking Tracks in Australia, Tim Macartney-Snape, treeline, mountains, hike

Approaching the tree line on the Staircase Spur track on Victoria’s highest peak Mt Bogong. So far this popular track has been maintained in traditional style with natural surfaces using local materials


Intrinsically, travel on such paths always invites anticipation of what’s around the next bend or over the horizon.

Walking a natural path always comes with a sense of anticipation that’s in sync with your speed of travel. What dangers or delights lurk around the corner are inevitably front of mind, as is where the next few steps are to be taken.

Instinctively the eyes go ahead of the feet, precisely taking in where and how the feet must land. But there’s also the time and space to absorb your surroundings.

This simple, casual, timeless act of walking a natural path helps us reconnect with a long-lost past, calming our busy, pre-occupied brain to a point where we become more receptive to the detail and subtlety of our immediate surroundings.

That’s why I’ll always look for the less trodden and more natural path. Whenever I’m guiding treks I’ll do this too because I love opening people’s eyes to the difference between a game trail-like path and a road-like one.

‘It feels like I’ve woken up and become more alive.’ is a refrain I’ve often heard, whenever we step onto a more natural walking track.

The Unique Australian Bush

OK we don’t have elephants in Australia, or any native megafauna for that matter, as all their marsupial equivalents disappeared not long after the First Peoples arrived. Consequently, those First Peoples started using fire to take on the job of controlling the vegetation that the giant kangaroos and wombats once did.

The regular use of fire brought substantial change to the whole continent, a practice that over time changed the vegetation in favour of fire adapted species and even fire promoting species.


On Walking Tracks in Australia, Tim Macartney-Snape, hiker, bush, track

A naturally-evolved foot pad made from generations of walkers


While that’s substantially another story, this did have consequences that relate to the difficulty of getting through Country now.

When the early people’s regular, peripatetic burning practices died out (and sadly their network of walking tracks and Songlines) after European settlement, the fire adapted vegetation, especially in the understory, took over with gusto leading to the conditions we have today.

As every bushwalker knows, walking through fire regrowth can be a scratchy, sweaty battle that makes hours seem longer and kilometres further. But stumbling upon an animal trail, can bring some welcome respite.

But the antipodean peculiarity is this; despite kangaroo or wombat pads criss-crossing the bush right across Australia, their game trails can be a challenge to walk on.

Kangaroos stoop and wombats with their stubby legs are like bush submarines, preferring to barrel under rather than over, so consequently these trails are such that an upright human must constantly step around low hanging obstructions.

Also unlike their placental mammal counterparts – such as horses, cattle, deer and pigs, their softly padded, rather than hooved feet, make these game trails sometimes difficult to follow.

Which brings me to the point – in Australia especially, we need more walking trails to make our wonderful and luckily still extensive bushland more accessible.

Not All Walking Tracks Are Built Equal

However, this is the thing; there are soulful walking tracks and there are ones that aren’t. Soulful ones are the magical ones that resonate with our origins, that calm the mind and invite wonder. They are the ones that mimic game trails.

The ones that meander unobtrusively through the landscape, gradually revealing the way. The ones that have a natural, uneven, ever changing surface.


On Walking Tracks in Australia, Tim Macartney-Snape, hike, mountain, bush

This track has evolved over decades of walkers using this ridgetop walk, cleared and cut only by foot traffic. It’s a joy to walk on and being on a durable surface, needs minimal maintenance


These kinds of tracks that keep the landscape looking wild are fun to walk on. Making these requires an eye for aesthetics, an artistic sensibility, and a lot of skill and sweat.

And then there are those that are an eyesore on the landscape and aren’t so much fun to walk on at all. The ones that mimic urban footpaths or roads.

The ones that prioritise engineering rather than aesthetics, brutally functional rather than being sensitively and unobtrusively built to keep with the surroundings.

The ones that use prodigious amounts of imported or manufactured materials not just for durability but also perhaps, ‘because it’s in the budget and if we don’t spend it this year, we’ll lose the allocation’.

The ones with hard, homogenous, and unyielding surfaces that make your feet sore too soon, with more straight lines than curves, that you can see stretching into the distance, leaving no mystery as to where they will take you and making the walk more of a chore than a joy.

The ones that have taken the ‘health and safety’ mantra to the extreme with steel balustrades and an endless monotony of standardised steps.


On Walking Tracks in Australia, Tim Macartney-Snape, snow, stairs, hike

Stairs leading to a mountain lookout, great for a shopping centre fire escape but perhaps inappropriate for a wild place


Or the ones that are repurposed roads, with an alignment suitable for a four-wheel drive, not a bi-pedal primate with an inquisitive brain desirous of escaping the urban jungle that has increasingly become their habitat. You get my drift.

Sadly it seems to me, the single file, as natural as possible ‘fun to walk on’ tracks are being increasingly superseded by the urban footpath type and are going the way of our extinct megafauna that made Australia’s original paths.

Why are we increasingly losing our natural tracks?

A factor contributing to this recent trend of ‘industrial’ track building may be political, because the political capital gained in announcing and carrying out a bigger infrastructure project is greater.

I would argue that our taxes would be better spent by diverting the high cost of the modern style, so called ‘iconic trails’ towards the lower cost of properly built low-key tracks, using the money saved on boosting local economies by giving permanent track maintenance jobs to locals.

Another factor used by proponents of these constructions is that they’re built following recommendations given by consultant ecologists who seem to operate on a narrow set of chiefly academic parameters that disregard a bigger, more holistic picture.

Certainly fragile areas such as swamps and wetlands that are unavoidable need to have raised walkways but, in most cases, paths should be routed to follow the most durable and least erosion prone terrain.


On Walking Tracks in Australia, Tim Macartney-Snape, mountain, river, snowy

Part of the Main Range Track, Australia’s premier alpine walking circuit. Originally constructed for vehicle access it is far from ideal to walk on


This task can only be done by extensive on-site exploration and is best done by someone who not only has a good handle on the local ecology but has, by long experience or an innate ability to connect with the landscape, a ‘good feel’ for finding a route (in my experience, this would be a wonderful role for Indigenous rangers).

Looking overseas, there are abundant examples of low-key natural looking tracks constructed of local materials that have stood the test of time and blend into the landscape without damaging it.

Long term employed, skilled track workers do an excellent job of keeping erosion at bay, despite many of these places experiencing more traffic, more rain and snow, and traversing steeper country.

Then there’s the old ‘health and safety’ excuse. As a society, again we should look overseas to see how other countries handle the issue of personal responsibility.


On Walking Tracks in Australia, Tim Macartney-Snape, track maintenance, person

Keith Scott, instigator of the modern volunteer track clearing gang for the Hannels Spur walking track


There the mantra is more likely to be ‘enter at your own risk’ rather than our overbearing and adventure stifling nanny-state approach where any place with the slightest potential for a mishap is barricaded like a zoo or fenced off.

Let us accept that on occasion people can stumble, trip and otherwise do silly things through absent mindedness but overall everyone has a strong instinct for self-protection and is well capable of judging their own acceptance of risk and managing themselves accordingly.

Lastly, I’d like to propose another benefit of tracks in general. The fire problem of our eucalypt forests has meant that most of south-eastern Australia’s forests are, or should be, criss-crossed by fire trails cleared to give access for fire control.

These trails are maintained at enormous ongoing costs. While many of these are kept locked to keep out irresponsible, erosion causing 4WD drivers and rubbish dumpers, many are also used by walkers but like all roads, they’re not great to walk on for all the above-mentioned reasons.

They’re also used by mountain bikers, but as with walking, mountain biking is much more enjoyable on a single track.

I’ve long argued that well-maintained single file trails should be considered as lower cost and practical additions to the fire control network.

After all, a well-maintained walking or mountain bike track makes a good barrier from which to back-burn in the right conditions.

There can be little argument that constructing a simple walking track has a far smaller overall cost and environmental/aesthetic footprint than a fire trail, especially where streams and rivers come into the equation.

In addition they are best maintained by teams of people with hand tools and small machines, rather than one or two operators on large machines.

Single Tracks for the People

Recently whenever I’m on a popular walking track, I see more walkers than ever before, a lot more.

This is great to see, but I sense that many of these walkers are looking for something extra.


On Walking Tracks in Australia, Tim Macartney-Snape, path, bush, hiker

‘Old school’ more naturalistic, meandering, variable surfaced walking track reinforced where needed with local stone, is the gold standard

Indeed friends visiting from overseas often ask me for recommendations of walking tracks that are more remote and away from the crowds. It’s a shame to tell them that the options are slim.

There are the popular and increasingly urban footpath style tracks and fire trails but there’s very few options of the more natural trails that they are seeking, especially ones that avoid backtracking and do a circuit.

Luckily in Australia, there’s no shortage of wonderful, wild places to walk to, but getting to many of them safely and avoiding an epic requires more experience and local knowledge than most of these people have.

And even for those with enough experience, there’s probably too much bush-bashing for their liking – and often mine too!

So please, land managers, can you spend our money more on natural walking tracks and perhaps a little less on the big, ugly ones?