Bushwalking in COVID times

Matt McClelland Activities Manager, National Parks Association of NSW

We can all agree that 2020 has just been, um, memorable, crazy, unprecedented, horrific, community building, community devastating and so much more.

We were still recovering from devastating bushfires and flooding when rumours started about a potential pandemic emerging. We had seen it before with Ebola and SARS that were clearly bad but never impacted day to day living in Australia. Somehow this felt different.

A quick timeline recap. On 23 January biosecurity measures for this mystery virus started in Australian airports and two days later the first case was detected. By the end of January, nine cases had been detected and a two-week quarantine started for all people entering from China.

February saw the Ruby Princess boat issues and a total of 14 new cases for the month.

March is when we started to get the feel for exponential growth and seeing the horror of what was happening in other countries, especially Italy. Cases started to escalate quickly in Australia, through community transmission, and we started to see people die from COVID-19. The world was gripped by the virus.

By 18th March, Australia had over 560 confirmed cases and a growth rate of around 25% a day. So the NPA published our COVID safe bushwalking guidelines. With the support of the activities committee, we were able to produce clear and very solid guidelines that were well received by leaders and members. We were also able to share the guidelines with bushwalking clubs across NSW. Although there was some resistance, by far the majority of people were very relieved to have a safer way to walk in the midst of so much uncertainty. Although things were moving quickly, I was confident that the guidelines would be in place for a fortnight before we would need to tighten them up, I was wrong

Just five days later, on the 23rd March, with over 1,700 cases in Australia, the NSW government urged us all to stop ‘non-essential activities such as … sporting events’. Gee wiz that escalated quickly. On one hand, the decision to suspend the program was easy, the numbers were clear, on the other hand, we knew how much the program means to many people, for both physical and social wellbeing. We suspended the activities program assuming that it would be closed until the beginning of June. I was really encouraged by the number of members who emailed and phoned acknowledging that it was sad, but the right decision and they were thankful for the clear decision.

Just because we could not meet physically did not mean we could not enjoy nature and our community. Our program shifted online. Our weekly email shifted immediately to encouraging safe hyper-local walking, exercising near home whilst discovering those remnant bush reserves. People quickly started sharing images and stories of their local discoveries. We started getting so many images we started compiling them as videos each week. Leaders started to produce and share virtual walks and favourite walks summaries. Our world had completely changed, but with the Bushwalking Bulletin email each week I was so encouraged to see how we could stay active and connected even though we were physically separated.

Come the 18th May and we were able to safely restart the program, earlier than expected. I would like to pause here and thank our leaders. Our volunteer leaders are the lifeblood of the program and responded remarkably well to the challenges of COVID safe practices. A bunch of leaders made the wise decision to not start leading until it was safe to do so. The decision to not lead is a very hard one, but incredibly important. Those leaders who could lead had to rethink group limits, choose physically distance appropriate walks, and think through the logistics of distancing and hygiene in the context of each of their walks. Although compliance has not been 100%, it has been very good and we continue to improve.

COVID-19 is here for some time to come. History shows it is very hard to rid the world of any particular disease. As a community, we will keep tweaking our COVID safe bushwalking guidelines to make them easier to manage and better at protecting our community based on medical evidence and advice.

There are so many lessons that we could take from the first half of 2020. One thing that has really stood out to me is the importance of stepping back from the ‘we have always done it this way’ thinking. We have done a lot of good things to keep our community safe, but we should also acknowledge that we have also been lucky. We have not yet had someone with a reported COVID case on a walk, so we have yet to test the practical side of all this. Although we are confident we have good systems in place, we are not going to be complacent and assume it is 100% watertight. We need to keep the eye on the ball around all safe walking practises and keep getting better at improving how we enjoy the outdoors safely. We need to be willing to accept that there have been times we have been lucky and work how we move forward building our expertise to keep walking safely.

So, let’s keep safely exploring and protecting these amazing places for many healthy generations to come.


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