Paradise Lost: Inequality in the Australian Alps


Claire Jay

Accessing Kosciusko National Park in winter becoming difficult on a budget

A camp at Island Bend pitches itself right upon the mighty Snowy.

“Where the river runs those giant hills between”, goes Banjo Patterson’s famous poem, and inspiration drips with the morning dew.

The dawn light illuminates early morning mist, wafting off the gurgling winter waters as the fresh pale snow crunches under your boots.

From camp it’s a short drive to the Guthega power station carpark, or the Guthega village. Both give unfettered access to the backcountry of the often-overlooked Australian Alps, a region that deserves to stand out in a country of extreme landscapes. The Kosciusko National Park is Australia’s largest park, and for many Australians, their best chance to experience the snow.

Despite this, access to the park for the average Australian is becoming increasingly untenable. Over the past 3 years changes in campsite management within the park and car camping policy in the Jindabyne area have largely reduced capacity for budget accommodation. A draft amendment to the Plan of Management for the Snowy Mountains region was released in mid 2021, outlining a proposed plan for the region that will further disrupt options for budget accommodation.

One of the biggest logistical hurdles when visiting the Kosciusko region is where to sleep. The options for travellers have begun to shift and gentrify, leaving behind the one of the primary intentions of National Parks. Looking beyond the private ski resorts, a luxury out of reach for many, camping is the best option for budget accommodation. Campsites like Island Bend, Ngarigo and Thredbo Diggings collectively offer a large array of winter camping options, with facilities to cater for the crowds willing to embrace a night camping in the snow.

With the advent of Covid, National Parks introduced a booking system with a palatable $6 fee for camping, and a cap on numbers. The downside to this new system is that campsites are booked out months in advance of the snow season. However, those who turn up (as this author did) without a booking, will often find campsites that are close to empty. Punters are rolling the dice well in advance, and if the snow conditions are not optimal, forgoing the $6 booking fee and leaving the space unused. Those who fail to commit to such a lottery are left out in the cold.

A draft amendment to the Plan of Management for the Snowy Mountains region, made publicly available in mid 2021, clearly outlines an expectation that visitors to the area will increase dramatically in the next decade. The privately owned ski resorts of Thredbo, Perisher and Charlottes Pass are set to have their bed capacity increased by over 3000 places.

The aspiration for more comfort accommodation eclipses the equally growing need for camping space. The plan shows intentions to develop eco-lodges (up to 100 beds) in the Island Bend camping area, with huge chunks of the campsite outlined for potential development, filling in already precious camping space.

A truck parked on the side of a road
Car-camping setup in the back of a ute, in Kosciusko National Park. (Luke Robbins)

The best comparisons for expected prices are nearby Creel and Numbananga eco-lodges, which price between 500 – 1000 dollars a night during the winter season. Happy campers may have referred to their river front campsite as prime real-estate, but it was never meant to be taken literally. Increased camping space is mentioned within the draft amendment, with a sentence referring to “Guthega camping” but no elaboration or demonstrated zoning.

Those who are looking for a roof over their heads in town are more likely encounter a fiscal glass ceiling, with cheaper accommodation still in the hundreds of dollars. Jindabyne, the nearest town to the Kosciusko slopes, has recently made changes as to how individuals can stay in town. Car camping has been banned in the township and surrounding areas. With no purpose-built infrastructure for car campers, carparks such as the Claypits and the nearby yacht club were co-opted by the group. The ban is a result of local community raised issues relating to rubbish and overuse of facilities, with Covid again being cited as the final reason for a crackdown on the practise.

The problems that arose from the makeshift solution were well known, even to its users.

“You get a lot of division in the community. It’s understandable when you see people setup their “camping equipment” full-time, leave furniture and have parties in a main carpark. That’s a minority that can be managed though. They removed the ability to camp down at the lake due to the rubbish and human waste,” says Jono, a recreational snowboarder and previous car camper. The Snowy Monaro Regional Council indicates there are no plans to remove the ban, instead recommending the town caravan park where the most affordable option, a patch of grass to pitch your tent on, will set you back around $60 a night.

Jono argues that the money car campers saved would still be spent in the local economy.

“Having the flexibility allowed me to stay 10 days at a beautiful lodge at Smiggs, go air ballooning at Jindabyne, buy better food, purchase new snow gear and allowed me to spend the rest of the season inside my van.”

With tightly contested space colliding with the expectation of increasing visitor numbers, and a shorter snow season due to climate change, accommodation issues will worsen. The solutions currently being tabled do not account for those who previously relied on very cheap or free accommodation options in the area to make a snow trip feasible. Jono believes the solution for cheap accommodation in town is both simple and already in use elsewhere.

“I’m currently traveling Tasmania. A high majority of councils have free or affordable overnight stays, hot showers, and amenities. Some even have free powered outlets with fair guidelines and restrictions. It’s all part of tourism.”

In a publication by Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre, the authors proposed several theories as to why there are high rates of public opposition to development in National Parks, one theory being:

Perhaps the public considers that national parks are a public resource for public recreation and conservation, where everyone is on an equal footing; and not a component of the tourism industry where wealthier clients can obtain a higher level of service.

With the proposed direction of management for the Kosciusko National Park, the focus appears to be on increased capacity for resorts and developing some existing camp space for glamping and eco-lodges. Capacity for campers and car-sleepers is not in the scope of development for the park or Jindabyne, despite such options being the most affordable for accessing the National Park.

It begs the question, what is the point of a publicly funded and managed national park if it only caters to the wealthier sectors of the public?

This article was previously published at We Are Explorers.