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Heaphy Track: A change of scenery

Image of the September 2020 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
September 2020 Issue

Believe the hype: the Heaphy Track is the most diverse Great Walk, with something new around every bend.

There’s a shyness to the Heaphy you don’t find on other Great Walks. Reserved and secretive, it doesn’t have the intrepid tops of the Kepler, or the jaw-dropping valleys of the Routeburn. Instead, like a library, it rewards the curious, and reveals its wonders to those who seek them out.

Walk or bike the track without straying, and its highlights will be missed; the weta-filled caves of Gouland Downs, the 1238m Mt Perry summit, and nocturnal powelliphanta oozing along in the dew, to name a few.

I tackled the mammoth 78km track with six others over New Year’s in 2018/19, camping along the way to save money – and in the process ruin our feet and knees.

Planning the trip gave me my first sense of the track’s scale. From its beginnings in Golden Bay to its completion at the West Coast, nearly 500km of winding roads separate the track ends – the first obstacle to be hurdled for any would-be Great Walker.

For me, the joy of the Heaphy is in its anticipation of the ocean, and I couldn’t imagine walking it in reverse, from sea to summit. From the track start, the Heaphy reels you in, and every day proves better than the last. Anything else would be anticlimactic.

The first day is all about the climb; a seemingly endless – and mostly viewless – gradient leading to Perry Saddle Hut. It’s relentless, and with four days of food packed, it’s a day for questioning your motives, and dreaming of the coast.

When the battle is over, the rewards start flowing. Crossing the Gouland Downs as the sun lowered itself into the west was when the Heaphy stopped feeling like hard work, and started feeling like the adventure I’d craved. The thin ribbon of track winds its way through golden tussock land, with intriguing copses of beech huddled in steep valleys, confined to water catchments. I’d have loved to spend days exploring each nook and cranny, but like the rivers, we were on an inevitable journey to the sea.

At halfway, the new James Mackay Hut provides views of the next day’s walk, all the way to Heaphy Hut at the mouth of the Heaphy River.

The descent from here is a farewell to the tussock and an introduction to the messy, scrappy rainforest of the west – a jungle of vines and palms, alive with titipounamu, robin and pekapeka. That there have been possible sightings of the ‘grey ghost’ – South Island kōkako – in this wilderness, feels totally believable.

The Amazonian Heaphy River – dark with tannin – is followed to its dramatic conclusion at the Tasman Sea and the stunning Heaphy Hut.
As far back as the 13th century, Māori called this place home, and archeological evidence shows a village once existed near the hut. How anybody managed to occupy the land without toxic lashings of Deet, I’ll never know.

Sandflies guard the coastline with menace, in numbers enough to hold you hostage in your tent and draw blood through clothing. The bites accumulating on my hands and neck drove me sideways, but the Heaphy Hut ranger assured me ‘you just get used to it’.

The final leg to Kohaihai Shelter is one of my favourite days of any Great Walk – pure exhilaration.

It’s the meeting of two worlds, where nīkau palms sprout from sand, rivers meet the sea and ocean-blown clouds dive into the mountains trailing thin fingers of mist.

On a typical day, the Tasman roars in all guns blazing, smashing into the foreshore and grinding boulders audibly in the tremendous push and pull of waves. The air stings salty, the forest breathes fresh, and every sense is tested.

Around every headland, a new view is earned, vibrant forests of green, ochre and yellow easing into the sea. If you’ve ever driven the magnificent SH6 between Westport and Hokitika, you’ll know the drama you’re in for.
Flying back to the trailhead in Golden Bay, it was hard to believe I had walked all that way, but as soon as I get the chance, I’ll do it all again.

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In the neighbourhood

Alternative track: The 4-6 day Wangapeka Track crosses Kahurangi National Park, east to west and finishes near Karamea.

Since you’re already here: Visit the Oparara Arches Basin in Karamea to explore New Zealand’s largest limestone arches.

Just got a weekend? Make a return trip to Heaphy Hut, walking during the golden hours of morning and evening.

Where to stay: A stay near Wharariki Beach will be worth the extra drive time, or choose from a range of accommodation options in Karamea.

Where to stock up: Karamea on the West Coast or Collingwood in Golden Bay.

Walking the Heaphy Track
The Heaphy Track is best walked in four days or ridden in two or three from Golden Bay.

Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut
17.5km, 5hr
The adventure begins at the 16 bunk Brown Hut, resting on the edge of Brown River. Trampers may wish to spend a night here to get an early start on the tough first day – a relentless 800m climb to the track’s highest point of Flanagans Corner. Views on the way are sparse, though there are a few windows in the bush that overlook Aorere River and Mt Olympus. The climb is consistent, but it’s rarely steep enough to tire the legs. From Flanagans Corner, the track undulates easily towards Perry Saddle Hut, which boasts impressive views across the valley, and a nearby swimming hole.

Perry Saddle Hut to James Mackay Hut
24.2km, 6-7hr
The track’s longest day begins with an easy descent to Gouland Downs. The vegetation changes immediately west of Perry Saddle, and soon peters out to the golden tussock of the downs. Keep an eye out here for takahē, a recent addition to the park. Within a few hours, the quaint Gouland Downs Hut is reached – painted in its Christmas colours of green and red. From here, the track delves into a mossy forest, with several caves to explore for the curious. At the forest edge, the landscape again opens up and continues west to eventually reach Saxon Hut – a good spot for lunch and a swim in a nearby swimming hole. Continue west, sidling past Mt Teddy and over boardwalk to reach James Mackay Hut, perched on the slopes of Otepo.

James Mackay Hut to Heaphy Hut
20.5km, 6hr
Finally, with views of the coast to fill your sails, the downhill begins – an easy descent through bustling forest with occasional views of the Heaphy River. After three hours, Lewis Hut is reached, beautifully situated on the riverbank a stone’s throw from the 148.8m Heaphy River suspension bridge – the largest ever built by DOC. The next 2.5-3 hours passes eventfully, with stunning views of the river, limestone formations, caves and impressive coastal forest – including ginormous rata. Heaphy Hut sits at the mouth of the river.

Heaphy Hut to Kohaihai
16.2km, 5hr
The Heaphy’s final chapter is also its most riveting. The track follows dramatic coastline over a number of rugged beaches, diverting only to sidle over headlands. The mountainous forest – laden with nīkau palms – feels more Pacific Island than Aotearoa, but the track remains mostly flat. Don’t let the easy terrain fool you, however – there’s one final push over Kohaihai Bluff before the track’s end.

Distance
78.4km
Total Ascent
4068m
Grade
Moderate
Time
4-5 days. Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut, 5hr; To Gouland Downs Hut, 2hr; To Saxon Hut, 1.5hr; To James Mackay Hut, 3hr; To Lewis Hut, 3.5hr; To Heaphy Hut, 2.5hr; To Kohaihai River Mouth, 5hr
Accom.
Brown Hut (16 bunks), Perry Saddle Hut (28 bunks), Gouland Downs Hut (eight bunks), Saxon Hut (16 bunks), James Mackay Hut (28 bunks), Lewis Hut (20 bunks), Heaphy Hut (32 bunks). Multiple campsites.
Access
From Aorere Valley Road end, Collingwood, or Karamea Kohaihai Road end, West Coast
Map
BP23, BP22

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