The heaviest thing James ever had to lug along the track wasn’t his pack, but his guilty conscience.


It was hanging over me like a dark storm cloud, keeping my heart anxious, and stopping me from really frothing the beauty of the great outdoors.

Normally when I’m outside, everything is bliss. I breathe easier, my steps bounce with energy, I think clearer thoughts, and the worries of the world are left back in the car. But not today.

The weather was beautiful, the ocean shining, and my eyes kept darting the horizon for whales.

It should have been perfect. But it wasn’t.

Today, rather than leaving my worries at the car, the car was my worry.

I’d decided on a last minute exploratory jaunt to a national park near my house. I only had a few hours, so I was going to spend some time checking out a new trail and seeing what I could find. Idyllic, right?

The other thing you need to know is that I’m frugal – tight-arsed, some would even say – and I hate paying anything more than the minimum.

The carpark at the trailhead was empty when I arrived. I pulled into the spot nearest to the information board, right in front of a sign. It was a reminder of the need to pay the park entrance fee – $8 for a day pass.

Some national parks have boom gates where entry is impossible without buying a ticket. Today wasn’t one of those. It was an honesty policy, with ticket dispensers located at the parking lot.

I looked around.

What are the chances the ranger comes out here today? There’s no one else around at all.

‘I’ll be right,’ I thought, I’m only here for a few hours.

I got ready for the hike.

Read more: Remember to leave no trace!

An Uncomfortable Feeling

But as I started hiking, something didn’t quite feel right. Normally if your shoes aren’t comfortable, you feel it in the first kilometre. It wasn’t that. There were no hotspots on my feet, nor rubbing from my pack. As I tried to figure out what was wrong, I realised I had a hot spot on my mind – an icky feeling that was just rubbing a little more with every step I took.

It was the fear that I’d return to find a parking ticket on my windscreen.

I pushed on along the track, faster – trying to be done quicker, get back to the car sooner, and get out of here before getting fined by a ranger.

The path was beautiful, the route seemed newly restored, with boardwalks in the necessary locations of bogginess, and freshly-laid wooden sleepers as steps up the inclines.



The walk was marvellous, but I was enjoying it less now, panting and rushing, and picturing the ugly white slip under my windscreen wiper.

Around a bend in the trail, the track abruptly halted. Well, I thought it did at first. A small excavator was blocking the majority of the path, surrounded by white bags that must have been helicoptered in.

No one was working the site, but it was obvious the work that was being done. The pristine trail, well-maintained with new infrastructure, stopped and the path I followed, which squished past the worksite, deteriorated into a little more than an animal track through the bush. I’d obviously stumbled upon ongoing track repairs.

The walking became tougher, the path harder to find and far less enjoyable.

Like peeling off a shoe to reveal the sticking oozy blister you’ve been feeling as heat on your heel, suddenly I came face to face with my guilty conscience.

Yes, I still feared the ranger giving me a fine, but more than that, I was struck by the reality of exactly what I was skimping out on.

Where does the money go?

National Parks list three things the money from park passes and parking tickets goes to support:

  1. Maintaining and improving visitor facilities
  2. Protecting threatened species and their habitats
  3. Conserving historic sites and places of culture significance

Not buying a ticket was ripping-off the park I’d come to enjoy.

I loved the newly done up path, but wasn’t even willing to chip in my $8 to help fund the maintenance and construction of the upgrades.



It wasn’t even my guilty conscience that ruined the day, it was the realisation that I’d betrayed my passion and my love. I felt like I’d let down the outdoors I so dearly cherished, tried to skimp rather than stand up and help protect it.

I felt like a fraud.

Do we take parks for granted?

As a We Are Explorers reader, you’re probably getting out there all the time, or if you’re not, you’re at least dreaming about it.



We don’t have to pay for much, as outdoor lovers. Cinema tickets cost money, so does a night out at a restaurant, but nature is ‘free’. I love that about the outdoors, and it means it’s inclusive to all.

But it’s important to remember the outdoors needs protecting, managing, maintaining and conserving.

Our National Parks do a fantastic job of that, which I took largely for granted until that day.

Read more: The Hidden Cost of Free Camping

Flustered and humiliated, hoping no one would see me and connect me to the car in the parking lot without a ticket displayed in the windshield, I rushed back to my car.

There was no fine on the windscreen, and there were still no other cars around. But I almost wished there was a fine, something to atone for the guilt I felt.

The new path I uncovered was a gem—something to definitely note for later adventures. The lesson I learnt, however, was not the paths I discovered, but the significance of the national parks I love.

So what can you do?

Hike guilt free by buying a day pass, where necessary, or grab an annual pass.

They’re just $65 a year in NSW, supporting one of the best causes out there, and helping you enjoy the outdoors guilty-conscience-free.

What’s more, with an annual pass, your guilty conscience will be demanding you to get out more and use what you’ve paid for. We love a guilty conscience when it’s urging us outside!