Walk 9 - Heaphy Track 'Great Walk'

The Heaphy, at 76 or 82 km long, depending on the guide, is the longest of the Great Walks, crossing the northern tip of Kahurangi National Park from mountains to coast in the sparsely populated north-west corner of the South Island. It is also a difficult track to access, the ends being 500 km apart by road, making for an interesting exercise in logistics to complete. Fortunately, we found a new company called DriveMeWild, which offered a transport service between Nelson and both ends of the track four days apart, leaving time for a 3-night crossing. As a result, we found ourselves sitting in a bus driven by Rob, the friendly owner of DriveMeWild, on a 5 hour trip through the beautiful hinterland of Nelson, the Buller River Valley and west coast forests, to the western trackhead at the Kohaihai River mouth, just north of Karamea.

Day 1: Kohaihai to Heaphy Hut - the wild west coast

After lunch overlooking the Kohaihai River mouth, we set off northward, crossing the river on the first of three swing bridges along this section of track and climbing up and over the Kohaihai Bluff in the shade of a quasi-tropical forest, resplendent with its nikau palms. At the bluff saddle, a short detour enabled us to look out along the length of the coastal walk ahead of us, the distant cliff-line hazy in the mist created by the incessant pounding of the Tasman Sea.

Looking north from Kohaihai Bluff

Kohaihai River mouth

West coast beach

View back along track to Scott's Beach and Kohaihai Bluff

Soon we were walking next to the coast line, passing a succession of beaches - Scott's, Big Rock, Koura, Nettle, 20 Minute and finally Heaphy Beach - alternating with small headands or boulder clad shore, to the constant roar of the surf on our left.

The track mainly followed a line just above the beaches, undulating slightly and passing variously under cool shady denser forest or more open palm-lined sections, opening out occasionally to wander through thickets of flowering flax or crossing sections of sandy beach and boulder beds on the shore.

Who said you can't get
water from a stone?

Small stream rushing to the sea

Boulders-strewn section of shore

Coastal nikau palms

Periodically, we crossed tea-coloured watercourses, from tiny trickles that flowed out of the adjacent rocks and barely disturbed the track to wide, swing bridge-linked boulder-strewn streams, such as Swan Burn and Wekakura Creek, carving their way down steep gulleys to the sea.

The mouth of Swan Burn

Boulder strewn Wekakura Creek

Small stream heading for the sea

Heading into a grove of nikau palms

On Koura Beach

Coastal forest near the Wekakura Bridge

20 Minute Beach (actually only 16)

Heaphy River mouth

View inland from the Heaphy River mouth

Eventually, we cut in behind the beach and angled across through one last dense patch of forest to emerge at a grassy clearing - to our left lay the edge of the Heaphy River, to our right the welcome sight of Heaphy Hut.

The Heaphy River mouth is a wild and turbulent place; the sea churns and foams as the incoming waves meet the outgoing freshwater flow, the broad sandy beach has become a graveyard of dead trees, with bleached-white wood from matchstick size to great tree-trunks scattered about in long tide-rows by the big seas. Water-smoothed granite stones, many with pink and orange flecks, line the shore where they had been tumbled down from the ranges beyond by the relentless river. This is a special place.

Dining out at Heaphy Hut

Heaphy sunset

Due to our late start, we were amongst the last to arrive and, with the start of the school holidays, the hut was humming with trampers - 18 of us stayed there that night; very cosy but not too cramped, and with the warm evening, we spread outside to eat our dinners and enjoy the last rays of the sun (sand-fly repellant permitting).

I have always thought that it is particularly nice to celebrate special events in unusual places and the Heaphy River Mouth on the wild west coast of New Zealand was perfect. With a plastic cup of good red wine, the fair Nello and I toasted one another; "Happy 30th wedding anniversary!".

Positions vacant

Sand-fly control franchise at Heaphy Hut

superb location with plenty of shelter and nesting places in nearby bush

excellent opportunity for enterprising fantail, robin or tom-tit

Apply at DOC ranger's hut
Trampers will be eternally grateful


Day 2: Heaphy Hut to Mackay Hut - River stream and mountain climb

The track from Heaphy Hut followed its namesake river upstream, quickly plunging into the cool dark nikau palm filled forest, across cabbage tree / flax flats, and back into more beautiful riparian forest in the narrowing valley nestled between limestone cliffs. Taller and taller trees became apparent, with large individual rimu, kahikatea and rata climbing above the canopy.

The Heaphy in a reflective mood

Still morning on the river

Riparian forest

Soon we reached the long swing-bridge crossing the stoney bed of the Gunner River shortly before it joined the Heaphy. Continuing on, the limestone cliffs soared higher as they squeezed up against the Heaphy River. We stopped for a bite to eat under a giant rata tree; the thick tangle of twisted conjoined trunks showing how, several hundred years earlier, it had germinated in accumulated humus in the crotch of another tree and reached down to establish itself in the soil before soaring to even greater heights, using its long dead host as a prop (phew! what a mouthful). In recompense, the rata now played host to scores of epiphytic plants in its spreading canopy.

Looking across to river flats

Limestone cliffs above the Heaphy

Nello next to the giant rata

80m swingbridge across the Heaphy

Tannin-stained Lewis River

A short walk from here saw us carefully swinging across the Heaphy River via four 80m long steel cables, held in place by interlacing wires and anchoring ropes. Another shorter swing bridge over the tannin stained Lewis River soon saw us sitting on the verandah of Lewis Hut for a well-earned break before the 700m climb up to the Mackay Downs.

Powellephantia snail shell - several species
of this giant predatory snail are endemic
to this area

Outlook from the deck of Lewis Hut

The 12 km long climb began as soon as we left the hut, following a well-benched track steadily up the long spur. Gradually the forest changed character as we gained height - the taller kahikatea and rata soon disappeared from the broadleaf/podocarp mixture, and the soft crunch of tiny leaves beneath our feet betrayed the first appearance of beech. Gradually the rimu became less common and the beech moreso as we continued up the gentle, but relentless climb. The track here is extremely well maintained and a channel drain keeps its relatively dry. A bonus of this is the incredible display of mosses colonising the drain and adjacent face cut into the slope; the changing textures and shades of green with occasional reddish and maroon tinges, together with the small mossy streams crossing the track, provided an endless source of pleasure for mossophiles, such as myself, on the long climb.

Big rimu towering above the canopy

Well-benched track climbing up the spur

Multicoloured display of mosses

One of several mossy streams

Finally the beeches became shortier and spindlier, indicating that we were near the top. A short section of scrubby tea-trees followed and suddenly, the welcome shape of Mackay Hut appeared.

You meet some strange characters
on the track

Mackay Hut on its scrubby perch

Did someone say there was a
job going at Heaphy Hut?

All day long there had been a battle between the clouds and the sun and, shortly after we arrived at the hut, the clouds won and the rain began to fall. It was certainly better being inside, in front of the warm pot-belly stove, playing cards with Marion from France and Maureen from Colorado, than out on the track. Others were not so fortunate and, as passing showers increased in intensity, increasingly wet and bedraggled trampers coming in from the east joined us in the warmth of Mackay Hut. Seventeen people were early to bed that night, looking for a good night's sleep - shame that the smoke alarm malfunctioned and peeped all night long - even a bigger shame we all thought it was someone else and didn't get up to do anything about it.

Day 3: Mackay Hut to Perry Saddle Hut - Down to the downs and back up again

The next morning a low fog hung over Mackay Hut and the surrounding hills - the strident calls of a nearby weka adding to the eeriness of the atmosphere. Gradually the sky lightened a bit as the sun tried to break through and we set off in the hope of a return to finer weather.

The track eastward undulated alternatively through a landscape of scrubby trees and grassy hollows, boardwalks protecting the more fragile bog communities.At times the stunted beeches and mountain pines looked like bonsai, and when growing alongside the moss-covered rocks of mountain streams gave the illusion of being in a Japanese garden.

Foggy start to the day

The mist lifts above Mackay Downs

The track passed by scrubby forest ...

.. past creeks draining grassy bogs ..

.... around Japanese gardens ...

...and along a pink granite road.

The baserock of this landscape was a pink-grey granite, and granite gravel has been used to provide an easy walking surface over this section. Eventually we entered taller forest again as the track crossed another saddle and descended gradually down through increasingly mossy beech forest, ringing with the calls of tuis and grey warblers. A sudden ecotonic change from forested slopes to tussock grass flats greeted our arrival at the Gouland Downs.

Blue Duck Creek

Taller beech forest on the descent from Mackay Downs

Forest-grassland ecotone near the Saxon River

We crossed the Saxon River, flowing across these open flats, passed through a patch of lower, scrubby forest and arrived for lunch at Saxon Hut, a modern hut on the edge of the downs, with superb views to the east of this prairie-like grassy landscape.

Track leading to Saxon Hut

View from the hut towards Gouland Downs

The red tussock grasslands of Gouland Downs

Road to Gouland

Cave entrance in limestone outcrop

Moss-covered rocks and trees on a
limestone outcrop just before
Gouland Downs hut
Sadly, our glimpse of the downs was all too short and we soon re-entered the bordering forest. Still, Mr Heaphy cut this track for the benefit of 19th century gold-miners hurrying westward to the fields in search of a fortune, not for 21st century trampers seeking serenity from a slow wander in this expansive landscape. Fortunately, we dropped back onto the Gouland Downs after another few kilometres, crossing a corner of them, a swing bridge and a ford, before climbing up on to a fascinating limestone outcrop, covered in moss-laden beech trees and riddled with caves and tunnels.

The setting of Gouland Downs Hut

Charming old Gouland Downs Hut lay just on the other side, too inviting not to stop for rest and bite to eat. Our travelling companions, Richard and Katrin, were already there so we joined them for afternoon tea.

Gouland Downs Hut - the oldest on the track

A last look at the grassy downs landscape

Cave Brook mini-gorge

From the hut, we dropped quickly down into the shallow but steep gorge of Cave Brook, crossed the bridge and climbed up back out of the gorge on the other side through a drier area, where red sundews and alpine daisies occurred in patches along the track.

The boots of those who didn't make it

Some flowers of the downs

The long steady ascent continued, and eventually we entered a bird-filled area of regenerating forest. Our feet were feeling very tired as we neared the end of a 24 km day and it was a great relief to see Perry Saddle Hut appear at the end of a long grassy flat. From here on it would be virtually all downhill.

Perry Saddle Hut

Grassy hollow at Perry Saddle (view from our bunkroom)

Some of the rugged ranges of Kahurangi
National Park - east of Perry Saddle


Day 4: Perry Saddle Hut to Brown Hut trackhead - Long descent home

The road home
We left a bit after 7 am, the early drizzle that had set in overnight having fortunately cleared up, though a cold westerly wind and 5ºC temperature ensured that we were well rugged up. An early start was needed to meet up with our transport home at midday and, with this weather, we were glad to be heading out rather than in.

Looking toward the upper Aorere Valley

Views over the lower Aorere Valley

Crossing the high point of the walk at 915m soon after our departure, we commenced the long 16 km descent down a winding forest road. Occasionally, gaps in the forest provided views over the cloud-topped ranges opposite or the green Aotere valley below. The temperature rose gradually as we descended, the dominant forest trees changed from beech to rimu and we changed from goretex to shorts and shirts.

Near the end of another Great Walk

I suspect that we were 'forested out" as our focus was concentrated on reaching the end of the track. A final steeper descent into open green pastures and one last bridge over the fast-flowing clear waters of Brown River brought us to Brown Hut and the end of our Heaphy Track crossing. Rob from DriveMeWild was already there, having just dropped off a new group of walkers, so we were soon heading off to Nelson on the bus, dreaming of hot showers and cold beers, and reflecting on a wonderful 4 days in the heart of the Kahurangi National Park.

Brown River

        Philosopher's Corner

Walking the Heaphy Track in the less often taken west-east direction meant that we frequently crossed paths with trampers doing the more normal east-west crossing. This reminded us that it is not only the remote locations, beautiful scenery and absorbing the sights, scents and sounds of wild places that make bush-walking or tramping such a great activity, but the camaraderie of the trampers themselves.

The many pleasant encounters, with their brief glimpses into other people's lives, values and cultures, add to the richness of the tramping experience - the family group from Auckland; Richard from France and Katrin from Germany who shared our reverse trek for 4 days; the English couple determined to swim in the icy Heaphy waters; Marion from France, in love with New Zealand, doing a walk with her friend Maureen from Colorado, who usually walks with her two-year old and partner; the two Japanese boys; the Australian couple who camped out in the rain at Mackay; the 15 kiwi party girls, walking with balloons on their packs after celebrating one of their groups 60th birthday; the fast-walking French couple determined to do the Heaphy in only 3 days though not as fast as two lycra-clad kiwi girls, hurrying through on a 12 hour mission to run the Heaphy; Joe the ex-teacher turned alpine guide who formed their support team; the three sisters taking their high-school children on the tramp, while husbands looked after younger siblings at home; the group of students walking the track to complete their Duke of Edinburgh awards; Englishman Mark on the 22nd month of an Antipodean adventure, and planning to work in Japan on the way home; and, most inspiring, the snowy-bearded 75-year old kiwi, who told me of his future plans to walk tracks in Europe, and his 70-year friend, carrying her gear in an ancient H-frame pack - such a broad cross-section of humanity.

We may be corporate executives, teachers, students, carpenters, shop assistants or labourers at home, but on the track we are all just trampers, and that is what makes it great. Trampers of the Heaphy, we salute you.