GREAT WALK: HEAPHY TRACK
The Heaphy Track passes through the diverse scenery of the Kahurangi National Park in the north western corner of the South Island, leading over expansive tussock downs, through lush forest and sub-tropical nikau palm groves, and alongside the rough seas of the West Coast.
The 82 kilometre 4-6 day walk starts at the junction of the Brown and Aorere Rivers near Collingwood in Golden Bay and leads south west down to Kohaihai Bluff just outside the West Coast town of Karamea. The track follows the Pounamu Trail, used by the Maori people of Golden Bay to travel to the West Coast to acquire pounamu or jade to make tools, weapons and jewellery. The track is named after the draughtsman Charles Heaphy who with his companion, the surveyor Thomas Brunner, was the first European to walk the coastal section of the track, accompanied by a Maori guide, Kehu.
The national park is home to a wide variety of native birds, including kiwi, weka, tui, bellbird, wood pigeons and robins. The rare great spotted kiwi can be heard calling at night from the Heaphy's inland huts and campsites. While walking on the track during the day you may see signs of kiwi - look out for kiwi feathers caught in vegetation, kiwi footprints in the snow, or probe holes which the birds have dug with their long beaks while searching for grubs and worms. The park also shelters the huge nocturnal land snail, powelliphanta, which comes out on damp nights to feed on native worms.
The track is the longest of the Great Walks and logistically one of the most difficult, with its two ends 463 kilometres apart by road. You can make this an excuse to have some fun by parking at Karamea and taking a helicopter ride over the track to your starting point near Brown Hut. There are plenty of other options, though, including buses and taxis, and flights through from Wellington and Auckland. Two companies offer guided walks on the track - Bush and Beyond Guided Walks and Kahurangi Guided Walks. The Department of Conservation has offices in Motueka, Takaka and Karamea. The Heaphy Track brochure can be downloaded from their website. The Kahurangi National Park map is available from the Visitor Centres, or online from Craig Potton Publishing or Clearwater Tarn.
The track can be walked all year round, and you need to be prepared for cold and wet conditions at any time of year and snow in winter. There are seven Department of Conservation huts on the track and nine campsites. All the huts have heating, toilets, bunks, mattresses and water, but only some have gas cookers. The huts and campsites must be booked all year round, and overnight stays are limited to two consecutive nights. There are sandflies on the coastal section of the track, so remember to take plenty of insect repellent.
The Heaphy Track can be walked in either direction, depending on whether you want to tackle the long uphill slog between Brown Hut and Perry Saddle at the beginning of your trip, or the end. This track description follows the Department of Conservation guide in going east to west, with the long hill at the beginning. Brown Hut is almost at the eastern end of the track, about 35 kilometres from Collingwood.
Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut (5 hours, 17 kilometres): The track leads across the Brown River and over a grassy flat before winding gradually up through red and silver beech trees to the Aorere Shelter for good views of Golden Bay. It's another three kilometres to the highest point on the track, the 915 metre Flanagans Corner, where a short side track leads to a lookout for more great views. From here, it's another 1.5 kilometres to the Perry Saddle Hut.
Perry Saddle Hut to Gouland Downs Hut (2 hours, 8 kilometres): The track follows Perry Creek and then up a small rise on to the Gouland Downs, a 700 metre high peneplain. The rolling, red tussock-covered downs can be eerie when the clouds lower. Flax, stunted shrubs and small herbs live among the tussock, and sundews catch insects on sticky droplets in boggy places. The track passes the boot pole, where trampers have traditionally tied old boots, and on to Cave Brook, where a bridge crosses the limestone gorges of the creek over to Gouland Downs Hut.
Gouland Downs Hut to Saxon Hut (1.5 hours, 5 kilometres): Leaving the hut, the track crosses the northern part of Gouland Downs. The tussock country is an atmospheric place to walk, but can make you disorientated when the mist lowers. Saxon Hut, the newest on the track, is near the end of the downs.
Saxon Hut to Mackay Hut (3 hours, 14 kilometres): From Saxon Hut the track drops down to grassy flats beside the Saxon River, then climbs gently up to a broad ridge, which marks the boundary between Nelson and the West Coast. The track skirts the edge of Mackay Downs to Mackay Hut, winding in and out of several small streams. The hut is just above the track and has views out to the coast and the mouth of the Heaphy River.
Mackay Hut to Lewis Hut (3.5 hours, 13.5 kilometres): Beyond the hut, the downs end and the track starts on a gradual 12 kilometre descent to the Heaphy River. The track leads through beech trees at first, and then into the thicker forest characteristic of the West Coast. The hut is at the junction of the Heaphy and Lewis Rivers. There is good swimming just upstream along the Heaphy River.
Lewis Hut to Heaphy Hut (2.5 hours, 8 kilometres): The track crosses several swingbridges, and leads across a river flat of flax and cabbage trees before returning to the forest. The track remains in a forest of nikau palms, kowhai and northern rata as far as the Heaphy Hut, with tantalising glimpses of the river through the trees along the way. The hut is in a beautiful spot on a grassy bank near the mouth of the river, and offers the prospect of a tranquil amble around the lagoon on a fine evening.
Heaphy Hut to Kohaihai River Mouth (5 hours, 16.5 kilometres): From here it's a gentle walk through trees entwined with vines and nikau palm groves to Kohaihai. The clearing at Scotts Beach is a good place to rest before the short climb over the Kohaihai Saddle, down to the Kohaihai River bridge and on to the car park at the end of the track, where there is a telephone for calling a taxi from Karamea, 16 kilometres away.