“The Heaphy Track had been on my bucket list since I did the Routeburn in 1981, but a career and then a growing family with different interests meant it was nearly 40 years before I ticked this one off. I went with my adult daughter, a great way to spend quality time together.
My notes relate to staying in huts! Camping requires another level of preparedness altogether!”
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW TO HIKE ‘THE HEAPHY TRACK!’
The Heaphy has a long history reaching back to the 13th or 14th century. Evidence of a native village from this era has been found at the Heaphy River mouth. More recently Maori traveled through here to gather pounamu (greenstone), and still later gold prospectors inhabited the area until they realized that there was no gold to be found.
The track was upgraded from a walking path for greenstone hunters to a packhorse track for gold prospectors in the late 19th century. In the ‘60s through the 80’s there was talk of putting a road through from Golden Bay to the West Coast, following the line of the Heaphy track, and parts of the proposed road were actually surveyed. This was vigorously opposed by locals who feared the loss of the nikau forest and other sensitive ecosystems and eventually the idea was abandoned.
Map by B Jankulosi- Wikipedia
Booking Huts and Transport.
Hut bookings are much easier to come by for the Heaphy than most of the other Great Walks. I was able to book huts for a mid-February trip in the second week of January. There may be a few reasons for this.
It is not a loop track; the start and finish are 463 km apart by road, so coordinating your transport becomes more complicated and expensive. Add to that, both ends of the track are in out-of-the-way corners of the country.
Hardened trampers can be a little dismissive of the Heaphy with its (relatively) gentle gradients and ‘highway’ track surface. Those who turn up their noses at the Heaphy are missing out on a special experience with its mix of unique and beautiful ecosystems.
Click here to book the huts on DOC (Department of Conservation) The track is open all year, but from May 1 to November 30 you will share the track with mountain bikers.
SUNSET AT HEAPHY HUT
Before you book, you need to decide in which direction you will travel. We opted to go north to south, starting from the Golden Bay end and emerging at the Kohaihai shelter just north of Karamea.
Kohaihai is at the very end of SH 67 which travels up the West Coast from Westport. Going in this direction allows you to get the main climb, and the least interesting part of the track, over with on the first day.
However the track can be travelled both ways and either way is great!
There are currently seven huts; Brown, Perry Saddle, Gouland Downs, Saxon, James Mackay, Lewis and Heaphy (although in April 2021 the Lewis Hut will be pulled down and replaced with a day shelter) and 10 campsites.
You can cut out the whole distance in 4 days / 3 nights, which means walking an average of just under 20km a day. If you are not constrained by time 5 days / 4 nights is a more leisurely option, with the extra night spent at Gouland Downs or Saxon.
Brown Hut is at the start / finish of the track at the Golden Bay end, and you can camp at Kohaihai at the Karamea end. My daughter was restricted by work leave, so we took the 4 day / 3 night option, staying at Perry Saddle Hut, James Mackay Hut and Heaphy Hut.
Photo by Takuya Tomimatsu
Getting There & Back Again
Photo – Thanks- The Heaphy Bus,
We flew into Nelson the night before we started the track and stayed another night in Nelson after we finished, before heading back to Wellington bright and early the following morning. Many of the accommodation options in Nelson will allow you to leave a bag with them while you are on the track.
There are a number of transport options from Nelson and Westport. We caught ‘The Heaphy Bus’ from downtown Nelson to the start of the track at Brown’s Hut. The bus left Nelson about 7.30 am, and the trip takes about two and a half hours. We started walking by 10.30 am; plenty of time to make it to Perry Saddle Hut that day.
The return bus trip from Kohaihai to Nelson takes about five and a half hours, arriving back in Nelson by 8 pm. (If you have a car, you could leave it at Kohaihai, take the bus back to Nelson, then bus to the start the following morning and your car will be waiting for you at the finish.)
Instead, we booked ourselves on a flight from Karamea to Nelson with Golden Bay Air. They can fly you to either end of the track from Wellington, Takaka, Nelson, or Karamea and provide a connecting shuttle service to the start/finish. We called them on their 0800 number when we arrived at the Kohaihai shelter, and they picked us up and delivered us to the Karamea airfield. We were very fortunate to be the only passengers on the flight that afternoon and scored a commentary on points of interest from the obliging pilot.
What to take!
Be Prepared for the Weather: Our trip was in the middle of February so we hoped for warm weather and we were lucky enough to get it. However even at that time of year, it is not guaranteed, so you must be ready to pack for any weather extreme. In the last day or two before you start you may be able to modify your gear list according to the weather forecast, but you still need to be prepared for cold spells. Click here for a weather report for the Heaphy Track
Clothing: You probably need fewer clothes than you think! You can get away with a minimum of one set of clothes for walking and one set of clean and dry clothes for wearing in the huts. However, if you get wet you will need to dry your walking set overnight. Merino is the best; it doesn’t get smelly, breathes, and retains body heat. You should have enough layers to keep you warm if the weather turns nasty.
Sleeping: Add a good sleeping bag suitable for the season. The huts have mattresses but not pillows so you may wish to take an inflatable one-or just stuff a bag or packing cube with spare clothing.
Food & Water: Take all your meals and snacks for the 4 or 5 days, and a water bottle. Remember you are going to be carrying it all, so keep it as light as possible. There is plenty of advice and great ideas on the internet.
First Aid: Take a first aid kit with plasters, blister pads, and Panadol on top of whatever medication you can’t do without. Don’t forget sunscreen, and insect repellent for the voracious sandflies. Click here for a “make it yourself” First Aid Kit
Footwear: Good hiking socks (preferably Merino in my opinion) and well-fitted, roomy hiking boots or shoes are essential! You won’t make it with sore feet.
Waterproofs: This is a high rainfall area (over 4000mm annually), and it is very likely that you will get wet at some point. Pack a waterproof outer layer, at least a raincoat, and maybe rain trousers as well. A waterproof pack liner is a good idea. If you don’t have one a plastic rubbish bag will do the trick.
Swimming: There is somewhere to swim at each hut so it’s a good idea to have something quick-drying to wear and a microfibre towel if you are going to swim. This was one of the highlights of the Heaphy for us. It was wonderfully rejuvenating to plunge into the icy water of the swimming holes at Perry Saddle and James McKay.
The river at Heaphy Hut was not quite as cold, but just as refreshing. Don’t swim at the river mouth or in the sea though; there are rips that make it extremely dangerous.
Cooking: The huts have gas for cooking and cold running water. There were cooking pots in all the huts when we were there, although the DOC website does advise you to take your own. Don’t forget matches or lighter.
If you’re planning to stay at Brown’s or Gouland Downs Huts you will need a portable gas cooker as these huts do not have cooking facilities.
Toiletries: Toothbrush, toothpaste, and whatever you need in the way of deodorant, moisturizer, soap, etc. Wet wipes are handy for a freshen-up at the end of the day, but you will need to carry out the used ones along with all your other rubbish.
All huts have toilets, either flush, long drop, or composting. They also have toilet paper, but it is advisable to take a roll or at least a pack of tissues just in case.
NOTE: The huts do not have electricity so you will need a headlight or torch, and a power pack for recharging your phone, camera, or kindle.
Day One: 17.5 km. Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut- Gradual uphill climb
The first day takes you from approximately 150 m above sea level to just under 1,000 m, and most of the 17.5 km is uphill. This makes for a continuous slog that, while not steep, is relentless. We found this the least interesting day of the trip.
The track zig-zags up through beech forest eventually becoming somewhat monotonous but the excitement of starting out and eagerness for the delights ahead kept us going. Perry Saddle Hut was built in 2013 so is relatively new, with spacious decks and wonderful views.
A short scramble down a rocky slope takes you to a swimming hole in Gorge Creek. Well worth the effort! There is a track to the Mount Perry lookout, said to provide spectacular views, but we didn’t get to see them as the weather had closed in.
Day Two: 24.2 km: Perry Saddle Hut to James Mackay Hut.-
Long undulating track
Gouland Downs by Pierre Lavaurs en Wikipedia
The second day was the long-anticipated walk across the Gouland Downs which didn’t disappoint. After the Downs and immediately beyond Gouland Downs Hut the track enters the ‘enchanted forest’, a short section of limestone bluffs and caves, forested in native beeches dripping with moss, which you can read about here- https://i.stuff.co.nz/environment/109817413/the-heaphys-enchanted-forest.
You can explore a number of caves off the track (being careful not to get lost). We didn’t do this but it is definitely on my list for when I go back. More open down sections alternating with bush bring you to James Mackay Hut. The newest hut on the track, James Mackay was built in 2014. It is situated for the view all the way to the West Coast.
After a dip in the swimming hole below the hut we climbed the short track to the summit where you are treated to a panorama of descending hills all the way to the Heaphy River mouth in the distance, tomorrow’s destination, looking impossibly far away.
Day Three: 20.5 km: James Mackey Hut to The Heaphy Hut
Downhill with some flat sections
James Mackay to Heaphy was a long gentle descent to the Heaphy River. We lunched at little Lewis Hut next to the confluence of the Heaphy and Lewis Rivers. This under-utilized hut is about to be pulled down and replaced with a shelter. From there on we met with the first of the Nikau Palms and the stunning giant Ratas. There are several swing bridges to cross.
The track runs alongside the Heaphy River and is prone to flooding; although there had not been a great deal of recent rain, the track was under water in places. We took a quick detour to the underground caves and admired the glow worms.
Heaphy Hut was a welcome sight. Built in 2013 it is the largest hut on the track, and also takes in a gorgeous view, this time of the beach and river mouth. We couldn’t wait to jump into the river near the hut, followed by a stroll on the beach.
The sandy banks of the river here are dotted with beautifully speckled pink, green and grey stones, polished smooth by the action of the water. It was very tempting to take a collection home but the thought of the extra weight in the pack meant we abandoned that idea. Later we sat by the hut’s front windows and enjoyed a spectacular sunset.
Day Four : 16.2 km : Heaphy Hut to the finish-
Forest & beach -small climbs – one longer climb before Kohaihai
The final day was the coastal leg. West coast beaches are stunning, edged by the Nikau palm forest and punctuated by sparkling stream crossings. It could almost have been a tropical island, and yet not quite. It is like no other, a place delightfully unique.
The wild west coast breakers under stormy conditions and high tide can be a hazard to walkers so be aware of the conditions and the state of the tides before you start this leg.
Perry Saddle, James Mackay and Heaphy Huts
These are fairly new, all built since 2013. They have large living/cooking areas with plenty of seating, great views from picture windows, and expansive decks. There are several separate bunk rooms, separated from the communal area.
All have outside toilets. They have individual bunks, Heaphy has 32 and the other two 28 each. They also have insulation, double glazing, and insect screens. Nevertheless the older huts are adequate and have a sense of history. They are likely to be quieter and less crowded.
There are 16 platform bunks (2 long platforms with 16 mattresses supplied), stainless steel benches, a sink with running water, a fireplace with wood supplied, and a long drop toilet. There are no gas cooking facilities. There is a phone provided here, so you can call for transport if you need it. It is 5 minutes from the start of the track.
Gouland Downs Hut
Another quaint older hut, it has 8 platform bunks (mattresses are arranged top-to-tail rather than side-by-side), a wood heater, long drop toilets and an outdoor sink with tap, but no gas cooker.
Larger and more modern than Brown and Gouland, this hut has 16 bunks on 4 separate platforms. There is a sink with tap, a gas cooker, and a wood fire. The toilets are long drops. It is said to be a good place to hear and maybe see the Great Spotted Kiwi.
You will have to be quick if you want to stay here, as it is to be removed in April 2021 due to potential flood risk. It has 20 platform bunks (2 long platforms and 20 mattresses), indoor sink & tap, gas cook top and long drop toilets.
There are a number of special NZ native birds you should look out for as you walk. The rarest and most elusive is the beautiful slate grey South Island Kokako. These birds are ‘functionally extinct’ but there have been sightings reported in the Golden Bay area and specifically on the Heaphy Track.
There is hope that the species might be saved if some birds can be captured and a breeding program established. If you can manage to get a photograph of one you can claim a $10,000 reward.
Another rare bird is the Takahe. A number were released on the Gouland Downs in 2018. These weird-looking, purple feathered and red beaked birds are typical flightless NZ natives. They have been saved from extinction by captive breeding programs and have been released in a number of conservation areas.
You may also see Whio or Blue Duck on or near the waterways. These native ducks are the white water rafters of the duck world, living only near fast-flowing, pristine rivers, and streams.
The Great Spotted Kiwi can be found within the National Park, particularly from Perry Saddle to James Mackay. You may hear kiwi calling at night although you are unlikely to see one.
Kea and Kaka are also about, watch out for cheeky kea who will steal your gear and destroy your belongings given half a chance.
You may also see or hear the more common native birds such as Kereru, Tui, Bellbird, Weka, and many others. To prepare yourself to identify different birds visit www.whatbird.co.nz. This website has photos, descriptions, and most usefully, audio recordings of the calls of each species.
Not a bird but an equally fascinating and endangered NZ native is the giant carnivorous snail, Powelliphonta. These snails live on slugs and earthworms, sucking them up like spaghetti. They can be as large as your fist and may be spotted crawling on the track between Perry Saddle and James Mackay Huts.
We have proved unfortunately useless at spotting rare birds, but we did come across a Powelliphonta on the track.
Both long and short tailed bats, NZ’s only native mammals, may be seen at dusk.
A feature of the Heaphy is the range of different types of vegetation you move through. Starting with dry beech forest, you pass through the red tussock downs, then podocarp forest (rimu, kahikatea, and matai), and finally the lowland rainforest featuring most obviously, the Nikau palms and massive old Rata trees.
Botanists can seek a number of tiny plants that are found nowhere else such as a lily with yellow flowers and a native foxglove. Tiny orchids are found on the beech forest floor and carnivorous sundews in boggy parts of the downs.
Check out https://www.southernalpsphotography.com/Plants/Flora-of-Kahurangi/i-wxZzpwX to see some of the plants hiding in plain sight.
About The Author
Amy Imgram is a retired veterinarian living in rural New Zealand. Recent Great Walks completed as well as the Heaphy include the Kepler, Lake Waikaremoana and soon the Tongariro Northern Circuit.