As lovely as the Heaphy and Routeburn tracks are, wouldn’t running and walking them day after day become boring? Matthew Pike finds out by speaking to those who do just that
More than a decade ago, Golden Bay resident Derry Kingston had a lightbulb moment.
He was walking the Heaphy Track, preparing to drop a pack of food for a friend who guided along the track, before continuing to the other end.
Knowing what a logistical nightmare organising a trip on the Heaphy can be – it’s a seven-eight hour drive from one end to the other – he reasoned that a lot of walkers would find it convenient to have their car waiting for them at the other end. After all, who wants to backtrack for seven hours when they’ve just finished four days of walking?
Why not, Kingston thought, drive their car round to the other side? Great idea – the only issue being how to get back. Travelling in convoy with a second person would make the process too expensive. Most people walk the track from the Golden Bay end so being able to return in another customer’s car is unlikely. And if you think you can rely on public transport or to hitch a lift from Kohaihai to Golden Bay then, as the Aussie kid in the ad says, ‘Ma-ate, ya dreaming’.
“The most reliable way to get back home is to walk,” says Kingston. “And I still enjoy leaving the car and just walking back to Golden Bay.”
He ran the track in one go the first few times he relocated someone’s car, but soon realised this was pointless, as it made him very tired and involved him running through the night, not arriving until the following day anyway. He soon realised a far better idea was to walk the first six hours, stay at Lewis Hut, then walk the final 13 hours the following day for his wife Helen to pick him up from the other end.
This is a routine he’s had for more than 1000 trips. And despite turning 70 in October last year, he’s not slowing down. “Walking the Heaphy keeps me fit for my hobby, which is long distance walking,” Kingston explains. “I soon realised I had lots of stamina for longer walks.”
Starting with a trek from Bluff to Farewell Spit via the West Coast, Kingston has since walked Land’s End to John O’Groats in the UK, the length of the North Island, and much of the Appalachian Trail in the US, only stopping due to contracting the potentially debilitating lyme disease. He still has ambitions to complete the Appalachian Trail and to also walk the Pacific Crest Trail.
But his day job, which is more year-round than it used to be thanks to the introduction of mountain biking during the winter months, is going from strength to strength, relocating between 135 and 150 cars a year.
And it’s not a track he ever gets bored with. “I notice something new each time, whether it’s progress on track work, changing vegetation or seeing kiwi.
“I once heard a ranger say a particular rock close to Blue Shirt Creek looks like Dino the Flintstones dog. I see him every time now and often stop for a bite to eat with Dino.”
There was also a time when a whale was washed up on the beach and Kingston could enjoy the delights of a slightly stronger stench each time he passed it.
Kingston plans to continue relocating along the Heaphy and the Abel Tasman Coast Track (which he does occasionally) for at least another five years and he’s never suffered an injury on the trail. The only issues he’s had have been with sub-standard cars.
“There was one group of students who had an old bomb for a car. I was told I needed to go easy over the hills because the clutch was slipping. I didn’t get as far as Tapawera when the clutch burnt out completely.” Kingston had to hitch the rest of the way.
Earlier this year he had the alarming experience of the back wheel falling off a campervan he was driving. “The van was swinging and had a kayak on the roof. I had to continue driving beyond a barrier and nurse it off the road.” Fortunately, he could sleep inside overnight.
Kingston’s business venture has inspired others to take advantage of similar logistical difficulties on other Great Walks.
Mike Stone and Kiyomi Sada met the Kingstons for dinner and left with their own plans to set up a similar business along the Routeburn Track. They set up Trackhopper and typically transfer cars from the Routeburn Shelter (close to their Glenorchy home) to The Divide and run the 32km back. The whole process can be completed in an eight or nine-hour day.
There are added benefits for Stone, too. “When we started, I could run the track in 3h52m and feel terrible at the finish. Now, my fastest time is 3h11m and I feel great at the finish.” Stone has won five of the last six Routeburn Classics in the Masters category. Kiyomi is certainly no slouch on the trail either, clocking a fastest time of 4h15m. And, like Kingston, they never get bored of their commute.
“We love crossing Harris Saddle and seeing the beautiful hanging valleys up towards Lake Wilson and down towards Falls Hut,” says Stone. “Heading across the Hollyford Face in spring and early summer with the alpine flowers on display is another favourite. Kiyomi calls it her flower garden.”
Stone enjoys the challenge that the track, and variable weather, can bring. “My favourite bit is the challenge of trying to run up the switchbacks above Lake Mackenzie without stopping.
“I was once in a storm where I couldn’t stand without being knocked down and the wind was lifting the water vertically off the track. I helped out three hikers who were struggling with the conditions that day.”
Things have become so busy that they employ a third person to help with relocations for three months each summer. And one thing that has pleasantly surprised them is how many Kiwis use the service, considering the popularity of the region for tourists. “A third of our clients are Kiwis, though we’ve noticed a significant increase of Chinese hikers over the last year,” explains Stone.
With people starting the track from both ends, it means Mike and Kiyomi spend more time on the road and less time on the trail than Kingston does. But it appears no matter how many times someone with a passion for the outdoors runs or walks a track like the Routeburn or the Heaphy, their adoration for the place only seems to increase. It has to be a better commute than crawling through nose-to-tail rush-hour traffic, after all.
Heaphy Track Help charges $290 (plus fuel) for a car relocation for those travelling towards the West Coast. Anyone walking in the opposite direction has a chance for a discount, particularly at peak times.
Trackhopper charges $250 (plus fuel) for relocating a car from Routeburn Shelter to the Divide ($265 if booked after October 1). It costs $230 to relocate a car from the Divide to Routeburn Shelter.