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My Latest Heaphy Hike (and a flight back over the Dragons Teeth)

Published
March 27, 2021
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MOST people tend to do the Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand's ten Great Walks, from the eastern end, which you reach by way of a road from Collingwood that runs up a valley called the Aorere Valley.

This eastern start is preferred by most people because you get the rather steep climb up to the highest point in the track, Perry Saddle, at 880 metres or 2,887 feet, over on the first day, followed by a gentle descent westwards.

It's also generally easier, less strain on the knees, and safer, to ascend steep terrain than to descend, if you've got a choice of directions. But the hike up to Perry Saddle isn't so steep that you can't go the other way if you want.

Frankly, I also suspect people do it from the eastern end simply because that end is the more touristy end and it's where people are more likely to start out from simply because they are in the Nelson or Tākaka area already.

I've done the Heaphy a couple of times from that end. So, this time (March 2021) I decided to go from the west, for a change, and also because I was on the West Coast already. I hastily booked a flight with a firm called Golden Bay Air, which also does scenic flights, to take me back to Karamea when I'd finished. And then I started walking from the Kōhaihai Shelter and Campsite, where the track terminates in the west.

Organising Transport

The Heaphy Track was originally blazed by Whakatū (Nelson)-area Māori prospecting for pounamu (greenstone, or New Zealand jade) on the West Coast. It later came to be used by miners looking for other minerals, especially gold. Karamea was originally a mining town, but most of the people eventually went down to Otago where there was more gold. Even farming did not yield much return in this area: most probably because there is just about no flat land, as you can see from Golden Bay Air sign above.

The original idea was that the Heaphy Track would be made into a proper road connecting Collingwood and the West Coast. But in view of the marginal nature of the region's economy, that never happened.

That's the thing with the Heaphy Track by the way. It would have saved a lot of travel time if, Heaven forbid, a road had gone through. Now we can enjoy hiking the preserved wilderness. But the flip side is that hiking the Heaphy involves some logistical difficulties.

As you can see in the map with which this post began, the two ends are a lot further apart by way of the rest of the road network than on foot. The 78 km length of the track becomes 463 km by road, a seven-hour drive.

It can cost as much as NZ $370 to $500 to have your car relocated by a driver, unless you manage to strike a lucky deal with someone going back anyway. The alternatives are to take one of the local bus services back to where you have left your car, or to fly. A full list of all passenger transport services in the region, both by road and by air, is provided on heaphytrack.com/transport-services.

I decided to fly back in order to save time and, also, to view some of the amazing terrain of Kahurangi National Park from the air.

The huts were 80% full this time around. The track is heavily popular, though not as crowded as the other Great Walks, and in fact the campsites were pretty vacant when I did it this time.

But you do have to book the huts (which are cheap) if you want to use them. And the hike itself only costs $34.

Starting from Kōhaihai

The Kōhaihai Shelter and Campsite, where the track begins in the west, is only about a ten minute drive from Karamea. The surrounding beach is beautiful and there are plenty of daywalks from that spot. I really liked the nīkau palms, and the beaches are really wild.

Sign at Kōhaihai

On a pedestrian bridge across the Kōhaihai River, with the Kōhaihai Bluff behind, right at the start

People often forget that something quite a significant part of the length of the Heaphy Track is actually along the coast, from Kōhaihai to the Heaphy  River.

This coastal stretch including Karamea supplied the only video I managed to make, as the weather soon got worse!

From Kōhaihai, there are also campsites along the coast at Scotts Beach and Katipō Creek, before you get to the Heaphy Hut and Campsite beside the tea-coloured Heaphy River, or Whakapoai. Maybe it's not always tea-coloured, but it was then.

Katipō Creek was a really good halfway place. I sat there and had some lunch in the shelter, with the usual cheeky weka hoping for titbits. The coastline was amazing, with driftwood all over the place. I looked for seals but did not see any. The Karamea coast has its own microclimate. And the bush reallly was a rainforest.

The Heaphy Hut and Campsite: not too many campers this time around

Whakapoai, or the Heaphy River

Heaphy Hut was large, too big for me at 32 bunks. The river nearby was lined with more driftwood.

Heading up the River

I hiked toward Lewis Hut, inland along the flats of the lower Heaphy River/Whakapoai, where I spent my first night on the track.

Rumour has it Lewis was built on a dumpsite. It was shortly due to be demolished, partly also because it was too close to the river

‘Not only did the sandflies bite but there were also signs warning of eels biting! There were supposed to be kiwi, but I could not see any.

There were many families doing the hike, I noticed. But of course, not many foreign tourists in view of Covid.

I met a couple on their second honeymoon in their sixties, with six kids. Like a lot of people they couldn't travel overseas right now. They were having a few issues with their gear, not really prepared enough for the increasingly bad weather.

I also met a woman from Nelson who wanted to see jungly rain forest as it is actually unusual in the South Island. Most of the forest in the South Island is beech, which in New Zealand means the southern hemisphere beeches that all used to be known as members of the genus Nothofagus, though some have been reclassified lately.

I met another woman who had learnt Māori but been discouraged from doing so on the grounds that it wasn't as useful for finding work as studying accountancy or something like that. Ironically, she now has no trouble getting jobs as a Maori translator! Meanwhile it's tougher being an accountant.

You meet lots of fascinating people if you are by yourself (but bring a personal locator beacon, of course).

Onward up the hill, and out of the coastal rainforest

From the Lewis Hut, the track headed uphill to the James Mackay Hut and Campsite, which sit at an altitude of about 700 metres or 2.300 feet approx., with incredible views out over the valleys and coast, and of Mount Perry. It had indoor flushing toilets and separate accommodations for New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) staff.

At the same time, the landscape changed from coastal rainforest to beech forest as you went from the lower hut to the higher one. It's a gradual climb, absolutely beautiful.

What the Heaphy Track looked like while you were still in the jungly rainforest west of the James Mackay Hut. And heading uphill, as you can see!

I pushed on past the James Mackay Hut  to the Saxon Hut, a distance of some 24 km overall. I pushed onto the Saxon hut, also at 700 metres or so. There was a really neat group there, but it was so hot that I found it hard to sleep, as they'd cranked the fire up.

Onto the Downs

There was a takahē wandering around outside with a monitor on, a clue to the fact that after Saxon Hut the hiker enters a third ecosystem. From coastal rainforest and beaches resembling a tropical Pacific island, through more temperate-looking beech forests, the hiker is now out into open tussock downs. For takahē live on tussock, after all. These downlands, into which you emerged from the forest at Saxon Hutt, are called the Gouland Downs.

Saxon Hut amid the beech-tussock transition

Beware of the Takahē!

The  takahē are not really fierce, of course. They are actually more like small feathered sheep, with very similar grazing habits.

That's one of the attractions of the Heaphy Track. Namely, that you go through so many different sorts of environments.

It was great to see the takahē, once thought extinct, being brought back to this area.

This terrain also reminded me of Codfish Island or Whenua Hou, one of the last strongholds of the kākāpō. Indeed, the the kākāpō, the famous flightless parrot of New Zealand, the world's fattest parrot and also a rather blinky and slow-moving one, was indeed once quite common in these parts, to the point that one of the local ridges is even named after the kākāpō.  Some of the trails in these parts were also first blazed by the kākāpō as they ambled back and forth, like goats.

Kākāpō Spur, Kahurangi National Park (not on the Heaphy Track). LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY-SA 4.0. North at 60 degrees clockwise from the top.

Like the dodos of Mauritius, the kākāpō were caught and eaten in large numbers by hungry miners. Guys would shoot seven kākāpō at a time for dinner. This no doubt hastened their extinction locally, especially if every single one of them waddled along the same trails as the miners.

Here's a photo of the trail in these upland parts, which I took shortly before the weather packed in (more on that below). You can see the ominous cirrus, and what looks like an advancing tsunami of wet clouds beneath.

From Saxon Hut I went on to Gouland Downs Hut, a historic hut from bygone days which was really basic, with no gas rings or anything. You're now on quite exposed tops, though with an area of wooded limestone outcrops, caves and waterfalls that's known as 'The Enchanted Forest'.

The quality of the huts varies widely and that is worth bearing in mind when you book one. There's another cheeky weka in the photo by the way. On the other hand, the next hut at Perry Saddle is a really flash one, erected in 2013.

Gouland Downs Hut

Past Gouland Downs Hut I suffered from the onset of very bad weather. From Saxon Hut to the eastern end of the trackat Brown Hut was 30 km, torrential and freezing most of the way.The Downs are very exposed, of course. My waterproof pants and jacket were not water proof and was good to find this out on a reasonably safe track with plenty of passing company, though uncomfortable at the time. (You always have to be aware of the dangers of hypothermia in New Zealand.)

The streams and rivers got higher and higher. It took me an hour and a quarter to Gouland Downs, and then another hour and a half to Perry Saddle.

I got wet to the skin and by the time I got to Perry Saddle it was freezing.

Not Scotland: a rising stream somewhere before Perry Saddle

There are magnificent views from Perry Saddle as well, in fine weather. You can see the Dragons Teeth, an impressively jagged set of peaks on the Douglas Range, which runs north-south between the Cobb Valley and the Aorere Valley. According to a story in Wilderness magazine,

“The Douglas Range contains perhaps the most spectacular tramping country in Kahurangi National Park – and in a 450,000ha wonderland, that’s really saying something.”

I would get to see these peaks from the plane as we flew over, and I've got photos below.

At some point along the way, I spotted a seat marking the boundary between the Nelson/Marlborough and West Coast Tai Poutini conservancies of the Department of Conservation. Presumably one crew looks after one end of the track and the other the other and this is where both get to sit down, their respective duties done.

The track gets much rockier past Perry Saddle, back down through beech forest to the road end on the eastern side, where Brown Hut marks the end of the track, and its beginning for hikers coming the other way. But the track is well formed in most places. It took me about four hours to get down. There was water on the track, a lot of beech and dracophyllums – beautiful. There's also the Aorere Shelter partway down, suitable for campers, if the journey to Browns Hut or vice versa is judged too far.

I'd done the track several times and was rushing things a bit, with only two nights on the track, at Lewis Hut and Saxon Hut. If you're doing it for the first time, I'd recommend booking four nights, or making arrangements to camp for the same number of nights.

There were a lot of retired people, and two young people from Queenstown who were thinking of leaving because they thought their jobs could go down. But hardly any young backpackers from overseas right now, of course. I met a deer hunter who grumbled that there was no-one on the track. I think he had an eye for the pretty young foreign girls, who weren't there any more!

All the same, when I got to Brown Hut at the end, there were ten Aucklanders talking in different languages but no fire (I'd been looking forward to one). I don't think they knew how to get a fire going in wet weather. By this stage my phone was pretty much destroyed as well.

The Flight Back

From Brown Hut, I got a shuttle bus to Tākaka where I bought a new phone, as my phone was pretty much destroyed by the wet. I didn’t even know where the local airport was, I'd been in that much of a rush to organize. But it turned out to be nearby. The next day I went to the airport where I found that there was a group of us all ready to fly to Karamea.

The pilot was named Luke. He'd formerly worked for Cathay Pacific pre-Covid even though he was only 24. There was plenty of summer flying work in Tākaka, apparently, but it seems that in winter things get a bit slow. Certainly as compared to Hong Kong, I bet.

Once again, I got talking with the other passengers, about how many amazing changes had happened in their lives just in the last year or so.

Here's a view of the Dragons Teeth, part of the Douglas Range. They are perhaps even more impressive from ground level, where from certain angles they actually do look more like a row of fangs rising up into the sky. They are all hiding behind one another in this view.

Imagine trying to farm terrain that looked like that in the old days! In fact I'm sure nobody even tried, this far up the back of beyond.

And here's a view over Arena Creek, Darby Pond and Boulder Lake (the bigger body of water), with Colosseum Ridge in the foreground, looking toward Clarks Peak, north of the Douglas Range and closer to the Aorere Valley. There's a track into Boulder Lake from the Aorere Valley via a road that branches off before you get to the Brown Hut end of the Heaphy Track, and a hut stands beside Boulder Lake. But much of the high country of the Douglas Range is without tracks or marked routes.

At Karamea, I got driven up to Kōhaihai, where I'd parked my car at the campground. I was driven by Karamea Express, a little family firm run by a couple of people named Phil and Danelle. But to reiterate there are quite a few services that provide transport at either end, and they all seem to be listed on the excellent website Heaphytrack.com, put together by an enthusiast named Paul Murray.

I'll also be doing a separate post about Karamea itself at some stage.

Must-read DOC guides, which include safety info:

The comparatively easy nature of the Heaphy Track may lead to a false sense of security, as some areas are potentially hazardous.

DOC guide to the Heaphy Track: doc.govt.nz/heaphytrack

DOC guide to Kōhaihai area short walks: doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/nelson-tasman/places/kahurangi-national-park/things-to-do/tracks/kohaihai-area-short-walks/

DOC brochure on Karamea area walks: doc.govt.nz/Documents/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/west-coast/karamea-walks-brochure.pdf

DOC guide to the Douglas Range: doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/nelson-tasman/places/kahurangi-national-park/things-to-do/tracks/douglas-range

It also sounds as though it is possible to get lost and fall down a hole in The Enchanted Forest.

If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.

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