It’s 9.30 on a Sunday morning, and after an hour’s drive north west of Takaka (up through Collingwood, then along the Aorere valley), we’ve passed the last sign of civilisation, the quaint Langford store at Bainham, crunched another 16km up the gravel road crossing creeks with creaking little wooden bridges and the sandflies are already biting at Brown Hut. This marks the start of a 4-day hike across the Kahurangi National Park to Kohaihai & Karamea on the West coast. This is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks – the Heaphy Track.
I’ve never walked the whole of one of New Zealand’s classic tracks before, although I’ve recently done a mini-warm up with a sunny day’s walk on the final section of the Abel Tasman track from Totaranui to Wainui Bay. But there’s no better way to get up close and personal with New Zealand’s varied landscapes and wildlife – my rucksack is stocked with food and camping pans to see me through the next few days, staying in the mountain huts (you can also camp, but must book in advance either way, as numbers are limited each day).
The wonderful thing about the Heaphy Track is that every day you are walking in a different landscape, and all of it is simply beautiful, wild and, apart from the mountain tramping huts and ranger stations, you don’t pass another house the whole way. Kiwis laughed when I repeated my incredulity at this fact! The first day is a steady uphill climb, as the track windingly rises above the Aorere valley, in the shade of red and silver beech and twisting Manuka, with mosses climbing the track sides and tiny orchids on the ground. The weka (bush hens) scuttle in and out of the undergrowth, whilst silvereyes, fantails, tomtits and other small birds flit in the tops of the trees, occasionally venturing to branches overlooking the paths to investigate the humans.
There’s a wonderful view of the whole valley from the track’s highest point – Flanagan’s Corner, 915m into the hills.
It was about 5 hours walking to get to my first overnight stop, the Perry Saddle Hut, one of a new breed of larger, modern and very spacious comfortable huts on this route. I realise that one of the ‘comfort’ tricks of these walks is arriving at the huts in good enough time to grab the best bunks – I’ve been dawdling looking at views and birds, and only just manage to squeeze into a corner!
I take a very quick dip in the “mountain spa”! This is a small, deep rocky pool in a bubbling, sparkling stream reached by scrambling down a tiny muddy path, over tree roots and rocks. I say quick, because the water is crystal clear and freezing cold! I spend a lot of time quietly squeaking as I gingerly go in deeper, and just about manage a few strokes for posterity, before my hands turn blue. But I feel much cleaner (except for muddy feet from the scramble back up again) and definitely refreshed! As the sun goes down, there is a beautiful rosy glow on the mountain tops.
On Day 2, it’s a 24 km hike which starts in the woods, with tiny stream crossings before suddenly and gloriously opening out into the vast expanse of the Gouland Downs. I pass a shoe totem pole, to which shoes of all shapes and sizes have been tied. Just for fun don’t you know.
There are plenty of broken walking shoes and sandals, but I tipped my hat to the joker who carried a high heeled stiletto all the way up there for the sole purpose of adding to the artwork, and a pair of tiny sparkly ballet shoes also catches my eye. Just past the Gouland Downs hut (one of the smaller, older ones, no gas cooker, sleeping mattresses on one communal wooden platforms) there are a series of caves. I climb down into one of them. Later, as I reach the river plain, I glance back to see I had passed a much bigger one – walkers going west to east would not miss it! The next part of the track used to be quite a marshy, wet affair, crossing the river beds but now there are wonderful bridges and boardwalk sections.
The odd hardline tramper may sniff at these tracks becoming like motorways and way too easy, not like the ‘old days’ of wading through thigh high mud before sleeping in flea-bitten dark, smoky huts, but this NZ tramping virgin just feels happy and slightly awe-struck at the way such hostile terrain has been made so navigable, safe and comfortable for people like me to pop our tramping cherries! Saxon Hut is my lunchtime stop – an older, smaller hut, this one seems very cosy with a wood burning fire, and I’m later told by other trekkers it has the comfiest mattresses too! It’s definitely the one to aim for if you want to split the journey over 5 days not 4, and have two shorter walks on the second and third days.
But I’m going for the Big Day option instead and press on another 12km and almost three hours across the river valleys, the tussocky bog marshes, past wonderful rock formations in the valleys to reach James Mackay Hut. This was built just in 2014, sits just above the track, and has fantastic 270 degree views all the way down to the coast – even better if you climb the 200m above the Hut to the lookout rocks.
Heavy rain has been forecast for Day 3, but it hasn’t arrived by the time I wake the next morning, so am back on the track by 8.15. The first section is a slow, steady descent into the Heaphy Valley. The river slowly comes into view, twisting in its grey shingly bed. New Zealand robins hop on the path ahead, and once I spot a tiny rifleman, New Zealand’s smallest bird – I follow it darting up the tree trunks with my binoculars. Helicopters are also buzzing overhead today, delivering more hardcore and gravel onto the track. Down by the river floodplain at the Lewis Hut the sandflies are out in force. This is where the helicopters are loading and refilling the giant blue hoppers with gravel, flying up and down the valleys to where construction workers can get the drop onto the right bit of track. It’s a super slick operation, the changeover from empty to full happening in seconds as they hover overhead – of course it’s very costly to have to maintain the track so needs to be speedy!
The afternoon walk from Lewis to Heaphy Hut is simply delightful – my favourite section so far – first across a long swaying suspension bridge, past an enormous Rata tree and into an increasingly jungle like, nikau palm-fringed route becoming more plentiful, gorgeous trees bursting out of rock faces, and tui birds sing overhead from the tops of the trees in gorgeous gurgling bursts.
The Heaphy Hut lies right at the estuary of the river, with the West coast waves crashing on the rocks. Swimming is restricted to the river here, as the sea contains dangerous rips and currents and we hear that a woman drowned further down this stretch of coast just three days earlier. Weka casually stroll across the grassy incline down to the shore, and down in the shallows there are gulls, oystercatchers, herons and Paradise shelducks. This would be a great place to watch the sunset, but not tonight, as sadly it’s too cloudy.
Day 4 – the final Heaphy to Kohaihai leg – starts before dawn when we hear a great spotted kiwi calling outside. We quickly dress, don our head torches in red lamp mode and creep outside. The kiwi has gone silent, but Oh My! The Stars! Jupiter blinks brightly, we make out the Southern Cross, the Milky Way stretches and twinkles, and a satellite skims across our view, there are even a couple of shooting stars. We can hear the distant hoot of the morepork, New Zealand’s only remaining endemic owl. We’re about to give up when the kiwi’s call breaks the silence. Scanning around the back of the Hut, there it is, its enormous back end swaying slightly in our dim red light as it slowly walks back into the undergrowth. We’re thrilled!
The track from Heaphy to Kohaihai hugs the coastline, occasionally climbing the cliff edges to get round the points between the glorious beaches, where the waves are pounding the sand and rocks, sending up a spray that bathes the view in an ethereal mist. It’s a glorious day to be weaving across the creeks tumbling into the river, and there are a couple more suspension bridges, plus an old style crunch across the rocks at Crayfish Point (can only be done when tide is low). The only fly in this paradise ointment is a literal one – the relentless and viciously itchy bites of sandflies, who attack the minute you stand still for more than 30 seconds. A final bridge crossing across the Kohaihai river and around the bend the campsite appears in view – I’ve made it! 78.4km in four days – no houses, no phone signals, no TV or internet, no cars, no bathrooms or hot water.. Just wilderness and walking. I’ve loved it. A freephone call and the Karamea Connections shuttle comes to take us from Kohaihai camp into town, where the Rongo Backpackers provides an exceptionally warm welcome and friendly zen-like atmosphere, the perfect relaxing end to rest my tired and slightly blistered feet after truly a great walk.