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Heaps to see on the Heaphy

Image of the October 2018 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
October 2018 Issue

Beech forest, coast, rainforest and tussock - the best word to sum up the Heaphy is variety.

If there’s one word to summarise the Heaphy Track, it’s variety. From the beech forests of the upper Aorere and the craggy pinnacles of the Douglas Range, the track climbs towards Perry Saddle and the lookouts framed with mountain neinei. Then the wide expanse of Gouland Downs open up. These eroded peneplains are the stumps of former mountain ranges and are now colonised by tussock. Gullies of manuka weave over the undulating landscape, concealing hidden worlds of green. Giant powelliphanta land snails, kiwi and now takahe roam in this habitat.

Then another Rubicon is crossed after James Mackay Hut and the luxuriance of a West Coast rainforest enters the mix. The long descent towards Lewis Hut is accompanied by a thickening of the vegetation, until once at the valley floor a surprise slice of limestone geology nurtures a jungle-like forest of nikau palms. At the mouth of the Heaphy River, a site of Maori habitation, the wild

Tasman Sea throws huge breakers onto the shore.

It takes some time to digest this tramp, such is its depth and rapidly changing landscape.

1. Aorere Shelter

From the Collingwood road end, the track climbs steadily, with occasional benches offering views out of the hard beech and rimu forest. After winding around spurs and past the detour to Shakespeare Flat, the first major viewpoint is from Aorere Shelter. There’s a bench which keeps the sun to late afternoon and views down the Aorere Valley all the way to Mt Taranaki/Egmont on a good day.

2. Flanagans Corner Lookout

Before reaching Perry Saddle, the highest point on the track is marked at Flanagan’s Corner (915m). A five minute detour leads to a view with the imposing granite peaks of the Douglas Range and the notorious Dragons Teeth. Mountain neinei, with their pineapple-like leaves, are like scenes from a Dr Seuss book.

3. Gouland Downs 

On the recommendations of early naturalists such as James Drummond, the Gouland Downs area was declared a sanctuary in 1915. More than 100 years later, 18 takahe were reintroduced to the area. It may take some time to spot the birds, but their fibrous tubular scats are everywhere. Witnessing the birds, with their prehistoric red beaks and bizarre blue plumage, grazing around Gouland Downs Hut is your best chance to see them in their natural habitat.

Reader Tip:
“The Heaphy is a lovely walk but the surface of the
track is hard – a bit like walking on tarmac.
Boots that normally give no trouble may be challenged by this surface,
so pack blister packs and apply at the first sign.”
– Anne Webber

4. Mackay Downs

The intimate gullies through Mackay Downs traverse creeks, pass monolithic boulders and manuka groves. At night from Saxon or James Mackay huts, take a torch and search for powelliphanta snails – monstrous in size, glossy in lustre and carnivorous in diet.

5. Rainforest descent

Huge northern rata, towering matai and lush broadleaved species such as mahoe, pigeonwood and pukatea accompany the descent along a spur between the Lewis and Heaphy watersheds.

6. Limestone country

Across the Heaphy River at Lewis Hut, a bizarre architecture of sculpted limestone sits beside the track.


The logistics
The problem is this: The distance between road ends at Collingwood and Karamea is 463km.

There are 3 solutions:
1. Add an extra day for travel.
2. Arrange for a party or friends to start from the opposite end and swap keys in the middle (the cheapest option).
3. Pay an operator to fly back. Many will organise shuttles to Brown Hut and Karamea airfield as well.


7. Heaphy River mouth

Archaeological excavations near Heaphy Hut in the 1960s revealed moa bones, middens, post holes, fireplaces, cooking shelters and huts. Adzes, fish-hooks and darts were among the artefacts found. Subsequent and more thorough digs have unearthed greater details, with Maori occupation assumed over centuries from as early as the late 1300s. Unusual examples included flaked nephrite tools and stone pavements.

8. Nikau forests

Much of the coastal track section passes through a forest of nikau palms. The nikau is the most southerly naturally growing palm in the world, with leaves up to three metres long and two metres wide. The coral-like flowers grow on spikes below the crown and above the trunk, ringed by closely-spaced leaf scars. It takes 20 years for a nikau to get out of the ground. It then loses 3-4 fronds a year, each leaving an equatorial scar. So to age a tree, count the scars, divide by 3 or 4 and add 20.

9. Wild West Coast beaches

High coastal cliffs tumble directly into the Tasman Sea. Their green mantle reaches right to their wave-whipped toe. Granite sand beaches, bouldery promontories and steep bluffs are all buffeted by the consistent swells which crash onto these shores. This is the epitome of the Roaring Forties. Active erosion is compromising the track and trampers often must walk along the beach. This means some sections are now tidal. There’s a final climb over Kohaihai Bluff before hitting civilisation again.

When to walk

Driest period: February-April (less than 174mm of rain)
Wettest period: September-November (more than 204mm)
Warmest month: February (12.2-21.7°C)
Coldest month: July (3.8-13.1°C)
Quietest period: Only about 150 trampers were on the trail in October/November, while numbers peak in January with 913 trampers.

Best time: February
The Heaphy Track is one of the quieter walks, but February still has far fewer people than December or January, with just 660 on the trail. February is also the warmest and driest month.

Temperature and rainfall figures are monthly averages from the Arapito weather station. Tramper numbers from DOC data from the 2016/17 season.

Total Ascent
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
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.
From Aorere Valley Road end, Collingwood, or Karamea Kohaihai Road end, West Coast