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Tramp or mountain bike the Heaphy Track?

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

It was the first Great Walk to be opened up to mountain bikers, but there’s still no easy answer on whether to lace up your boots or pump up your tyres.

The Heaphy Track has become one of the country’s premier multi-day mountain bike trips. It’s still a summer tramp, but from May 1 to November 30, it’s also a ride.

Since 2014, the track’s huts and bridges have been upgraded and unrideable rooty and rocky surfaces have been smoothed over.

Although faster, mountain biking is by no means an easier option. The climb to Perry Saddle Hut is a grunt, as the rocky track requires momentum and stamina to climb steadily. In winter, the frosts are usually gone by mid-morning, but there is a satisfying ‘crunch’ as tyres break through frozen puddles.

The sinuous gullies over Gouland Downs are easy riding. Dipping in and out of the manuka forest, accelerating through the straights and balancing over the boardwalks makes for exciting riding.

But it’s the long descent to Lewis Hut which is the reward for that first day’s climb. There are few rides in New Zealand that can beat weaving through the rainforest, dropping 700m in altitude over several kilometres.

The undulating coastal section is a delight with the pump of the waves encouraging you on and the smell of the Tasman Sea filling your lungs.

But on a bike the consequences of a fall at speed are severe, especially given the isolation of a backcountry track and difficulties of a medical evacuation. The focus required to stay on your bike makes it difficult to truly appreciate the surroundings. The rainforest on the descent to Lewis Hut passes in a blur.

The slower pace of tramping allows a much greater appreciation of the landscape. You’ll be able to listen to the birdlife, examine plants or take photographs. You’ll get to know the takahe near

Gouland Downs Hut more intimately.

With a bike, it’s about the ride; on foot, it’s about the place.