Scott Kennedy gets ready for a mountain bike ride 15 years in the making
We always love what we can’t have. It’s something to do with human nature – the forbidden fruit is always the sweetest.
Fifteen years ago the Heaphy Track on the West Coast of the South Island was closed to mountain bikers. Backcountry bikers took it hard; one of the best long distance rides in the country was now off the menu.
But starting from May and running until the end of September, the Heaphy is back on the mountain biking menu. It’s a three year trial, so this is the mountain biking community’s opportunity to be winter stewards of this amazing track. Take care of the track, take care of each other and this cycling adventure of a lifetime will be a wintertime must-do for a long time to come.
The trouble is, for a whole generation of riders this track has been a no-go zone. Everyone has that same question: How the hell do you do it?
The Heaphy isn’t your average day in the hills mountain bike ride. There’s nowhere to pull the pin midway through and glide back to the car. This is adventure riding. Add to that the fact the track is only open to riders in winter and the commitment level is as high as anything in New Zealand.
So how do you do it?
Terrain: The track itself is a Great Walk so you can expect the path to be wide enough for riding. Having said that, those familiar with the track say there are a few technical sections along with some slippery rocky bits to contend with. The biggest challenge is the elevation gain – there are some big hills to tangle with, both up and down.
How Long?: At 82km it’s too long to ride in a day. It’s been done and will be done again in a day – but why rush it? Most parties will ride the track in two or three days. There are several huts along the track, so plan on sleeping inside.
North or south?: It really is the big question: Which way do you ride the track? Consensus states north to south is the preferred way. Why, when the bell-shaped elevation profile means you’ll have hills to climb regardless of which way you go? By starting at Brown Hut you’ll spend the first day climbing and the second (and third) either going downhill or on the relative flat. This means you can wait for a good weather window and hit the most challenging section of the track when you know what the weather should do.
Suggested Route: Start at Brown Hut, head south and climb steadily. Stay the first night at Perry Saddle Hut – at 17km, the distance isn’t that severe, but the 800m of elevation gain will help you earn your supper.
The next morning get up early and make the most of the day. Head along the tops towards James Mackay Hut. At around 25km this is another short day, but the terrain and views make for enjoyable travel.
From James Mackay Hut you get to enjoy the 12.5km downhill to the valley floor. Exhilarating riding but be careful of frosty rocks and trampers, who still have access to the track. Once you get to Lewis Hut the track is pretty much flat all the way to the end at Kohaiha.
One of the major considerations when DOC finally allowed mountain bikers on the track was the safety of snails. The Powelliphanta giant land snail and spotted kiwi frequent the area so it’s important for their safety that you only ride in daylight hours.
What to take: Most mountain bikers don’t think about overnight riding – let alone backcountry riding in winter. The biggest consideration is the lack of daylight and the temperature. It’s going to be cold – t-shirts and rugby shorts are out. Think layers that you can ride in and enough warmth to keep you smiling if you have to stop to fix a flat tyre.
Having said that, be careful about bringing too much gear. You are going to have to ride your bike with all this stuff. If you’ve ever tried to ride a tricky trail with a weekend pack on your back, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
One option to make life easier is to let your bike do some of the heavy lifting. A small rack is an ideal way to carry some of your gear. Full suspension bikes rarely mesh well with racks, but there are some racks on the market that clamp to your seat post and allow the rear suspension to do its thing.
Forget traditional style panniers, they’ll just get in the way. Opt for a kayaking dry bag strapped to the rack. A 20-litre bag will hold some of your kit without weighing the bike down too much. The rest of the gear should go in a small daypack.
Bikes: Let’s be clear, this isn’t the Central Otago Rail Trail. You are going to need a bike that is as up for the challenge as you are. Front and rear suspension cross-country bikes are the best option. You won’t need the massive travel of a downhill bike – or the excess weight. Likewise, an ultra-light hard tail may pay the price. Remember, you’ll have a bunch of gear with you – it’s like piggybacking a five-year-old for the weekend: flimsy or un-loved bikes tend to chuck their toys under the abuse.
Pre ride preparation: Like any serious undertaking, preparation is the key to success. Fitness and being in good biking shape is always a good place to start. The track is graded a moderate 3, but that is in ideal conditions. Cold weather, short days and long distances up the commitment level. Practise riding with your bike loaded up and a pack on your back. Sort out your cold-weather biking kit and get your bike serviced before the big trip.
Logistics: The hardest exercise of this trip isn’t on the bike – it’s the mental juggernaut of trying to figure out how to actually make the logistics work. Whether you start from the north or the south you’re going to end up half a world away from your car. There are a few transport options to get you back where you started. Escape Adventures out of Takaka have put together a transport service where they will get you from Nelson and back again for $195 per person. They also offer guided trips and bike rentals for those that are interested.
If you’re short on time you can catch a chopper from Karamea Helicopter Charters for $250 per person. Leave your car in Karamea and they’ll drop you off at the start of the track on the north end, all you have to do is ride back. Golden Bay Flights will do the same thing in a fixed wing for $200 – so air options abound.
DOC has limited group sizes to six so invite your best mates, not your whole address book.
Heaphy Track – a short history
The track is named after Charles Heaphy, who in 1846, along with Thomas Brunner, was the first European to traverse the coastal section of the track. James Mackay may have been the first European to use the inland route in 1859 and by the middle of the 1860s, a crude track had been cut. This was soon upgraded to a horse track, facilitating travel for traders and miners between the goldfields of the West Coast and the Collingwood areas.
The Collingwood and Buller Councils maintained the track until the Forest Service took over and the general area was formalised as the North West Nelson Forest Park in 1965. Under the Forest Service, the track received a big upgrade with new huts and the track recut and realigned into the Gouland Downs using a D4 bulldozer. The threat of mining and pressure to turn the track into a state highway saw the formation of Kahurangi National Park in 1996. Now, a general policy review of bicycles as vehicles in parks has finally swung in favour of mountain bikers.
There has been a long history of cyclists riding the Heaphy Track with locals and cycle tourists using it as a fun way of joining the dots between Golden Bay and the West Coast. When mountain bikes first arrived in New Zealand it was only natural that they would gravitate to the Heaphy Track. In late 1985, a group of us were returning from a Heaphy caving trip and we spotted a couple of Canadian mountain bikers winging their way down the coastal section of the track, and they were having fun. Good MTBs were hard to come by in those days, but we all managed to purchase some and the Heaphy Track became one of our early adventure rides.
– Dave Mitchell
The Best Bits
The Best Climb
At the end of the Aorere Valley Road from Collingwood, a short gravelled road takes you to Browns Hut. This is great accommodation for a late night arrival and early morning departure. The track soon climbs from there on a wide bench to the Aorere Shelter. This is a long climb you can really get stuck into and develop a nice peddling rhythm. It continues upward all the way to Perry Saddle Hut, at 900m the highest point on the track. The track surface is well graded with a free draining rocky base.
The open tops allow a glimpse of the Gouland Downs and great views back towards the Haupiri Range and Mt Olympus.
The Best Technical Bit
This starts from Perry Saddle where you ford a number of small creeks on the way down to the open tussock limestone country of the Gouland Downs. It’s a bouldery and challenging descent through patches of beech forest and alpine shrubs. Dry caves reside near the Gouland Downs Hut and between Cave and Shiner Brook where the track dodges blocks of limestone. The downs can be a cold and windswept place in bad weather. Three bridges and a raised strip take you across the wet downs to the bottom of the Slate Range. From there the track climbs gradually to Saxon Hut.
The Best Mountain Views
Saxon Hut has bagged a sunny spot with stunning views, making it a favourite place to spend the night. From the hut, the track wanders between rock outcrops, eventually crossing Blue Duck Creek. It then climbs into the forest, following the Saxon River to the base of Mt Teddy and back up to the 800m mark. The track traverses into the Mackay Downs and across a number of small streams before a gradual downhill then a climb to James Mackay Hut. This is perched in a wind-swept spot on the edge of the downs, providing the first beautiful glimpses of the West Coast.
The Best Downhill Section
The downhill starts gradually, building momentum on the long ridge that runs south-west from Otepo No 2, the peak behind James Mackay Hut. This section of track required some serious machinery to bench and drain from its wet, rutted and swampy origins. When we first rode it back in the 1980s we spent more time off the bike than on, clambering over slippery logs, through deep creeks and around sticky bogs but we loved it all the same, knowing there was sweet single track coming up to meet us. The shorter alpine beech forest makes way for the taller trees as altitude is lost. The Heaphy River comes into view on the lower section of the descent and Lewis Hut arrives soon after. It’s camped at the confluence of the Lewis and Heaphy Rivers and can be a bit of a fridge in the winter.
The Worst Short Bit and the Best Positioned Hut
Above Lewis Hut, a rough track leads to the Lewis River swingbridge and then on to the Heaphy River swingbridge. If the river is low it may be better to ford the river just below the hut. The track returns to a better surface and follows below a chain of limestone bluffs, through a forest of nikau, massive rata, rimu, and supplejack. The Heaphy River is wide and slow, sandwiching the track tightly between it and the bluffs in places. After crossing Gunner Stream, the smell of the coast becomes apparent and soon Heaphy Hut arrives. It retains a commanding position opposite Heaphy Bluff with a large front lawn with views across the sandy beach, estuary and out to sea; just like a holiday bach. On a sunny day this is a place you may want to live, but staying the night is a great option.
The Best Section of Coastal Track in NZ
From the hut, superb single track follows the coast south through sand hills behind Heaphy Beach and into a forest of nikau palms that never leave the track edge. A bridge over Wekakura Creek and one next to the shelter at Kakapo Creek seemingly join the dots to the coast’s mid point. Twin, Koru, Big Rock and Scotts Beach soon follow in a blur of sea, sand and the distinctive trunks of the nikau palm as you flow south. You never want this section to come to an end, and in fact it should have been cloned all the way down to Haast.
A final climb exits Scotts Beach, ascending steeply above Kohaihai Bluffs with views down to Kohaihai River mouth and estuary, and the DOC road-end camp behind. The downhill and massive swingbridge soon delivers civilisation, as we know it. A rest in Karamea and return ride is always tempting or maybe just another fling along the coastal section of the track?
The mountain biker’s code
To help ensure the Heaphy Track remains open to mountain bikers after the three year trial expires, read up on, and apply, the mountain biker’s code:
- Stay in control. So you can safely avoid others and keep yourself intact.
- Give way to walkers.
- Use a bell or greeting when approaching others. Most negative feedback from walkers on shared-use tracks concerns being surprised by bikers approaching without warning.
- Ride shared-use tracks in small groups. A ‘bike-train’ with a dozen riders displaces other users. Six to eight, or less, is a better number.
Respect the rules
- Only ride MTB and shared-use tracks; stay off closed tracks – including those that are seasonally closed to protect the surface or minimise conflict with other users. Land managers are generally pretty reasonable so talk with them about issues or ideas you may have.
- Be prepared – take food, water, tools, First Aid and warm clothes. Plan for the unexpected – a change in the weather, an accident or getting lost and late.
- Obtain permission from private landowners before you set out.
- Leave gates as you find them either open or closed to keep stock where they are intended to be.
Respect the track
- Don’t skid, cut corners or make new lines. Skidding creates water channels and causes erosion. Use both brakes to slow down without skidding as you approach a corner. Cutting corners is cheating and damages fragile ecosystems.
- Avoid riding in the mud and rain. Both bikes and walkers damage soft, wet tracks.
- Clean your bike to prevent spreading weeds like gorse and didymo.
- Take rubbish home – like banana skins, old tubes and snack wrappers. Rubbish in the outdoors detracts from everyone’s experience.
– Scott Kennedy