The Heaphy Track

beach Heaphy Katipo

Heaphy Track

Located across the Kahurangi National Park in New Zealand’s upper South island, the Heaphy Track spans the Nelson/Tasman and West Coast districts. It is one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks‘, which DOC describe as their ‘premier’ tracks. Generally, these tracks are easy to follow and well-graded and take you through some of the most spectacular wilderness scenery New Zealand has to offer.

Note that on the great walks, you must pre-book your accommodation, and generally, it is sold out months in advance. Amazingly, we only booked our camp spots just a few days before departure for a 2nd January start. DOC recommends 4-6 very leisurely days to walk the 78.4 km track and a couple of days to bike it (winter only). We hiked it in 2 full days, plus a couple of hours on the third day.

  • Day 1 – Brown hut to Saxon hut campsite: 7.15 am – 3.40 pm
  • Day 2 – Saxon hut campsite to Katipo Creek Shelter Campsite: 8.00 am – 6.00 pm
  • Day 3 – Katipo Campsite & out: 7.15 am – 9.45 am

There are lots of words to describe the Heaphy track. Being a great walk, ‘great’ immediately springs to mind, alongside ‘variety’ for the ever-changing landscapes, or ‘spectacular’ for its wild and deserted West coast beaches. But the word I would use to describe my Heaphy experience is SANDFLIES !!. You have been warned…

Getting There Heaphy Track

The Heaphy Track is one of the more difficult great walks to manage logistically because it starts so far out of major towns. We started the track from the Northern end in Golden Bay which is 156 km out of Nelson. It finishes in Kohaihai on the West coast 110 km North of Westport. There are a range of transport options – flights, busses etc.. We drove the van in, and got a hitch out, leaving the van at the car park to collect later.

Upon reflection, staying overnight in the van in the car park just before Brown hut (to get a good night’s sleep) wasn’t our best idea. We definitely should have stayed or camped at the hut. As soon as we started cooking dinner we were inundated by sandflies. There is no getting away from these tiny, vicious beasts in most of New Zealand. They are particularly rampant in these parts, so we donned our long johns and long sleeves in the sweltering summer evening heat. Dinner was spent swatting and sweating like crazy.

Bedtime was a disaster. It was a ridiculously hot night, and I inadvertently let about 50 sandflies and 30 mosquitos into the van, through a side window I opened just a tiny crack to let some air in.

Day 1 Heaphy Track

Brown Hut to Saxon Hut

The next day began with exactly the same inundation, so we headed out as quickly as we could. We were on the trail by 7.15 am.

Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut

The track was wide and beautiful, with a gentle gradient through the forest. Over a lengthy distance of around 12 km, we climbed up to 750m. We surprised ourselves by making better time than we thought, reaching Aorere shelter by 10 am.

A beautiful start to the Heaphy Track from Browning hut
A beautiful start to the Heaphy Track from Browning hut

We noticed lots of birdsong in the forest, which was a highlight. Later, the DOC warden at the hut told us that it was a ‘mast year‘ so the bird population was high. He also told us that invasive pest animal numbers would be high too (rats, mice and stoats) and that unfortunately an upscaled program of predator control hadn’t been confirmed for that particular zone at that time, so there might actually be a decline in bird numbers here over time.

One of many Weka on the Heaphy Track
One of many Weka on the Heaphy Track

We reached the highest point on the track without really breaking a sweat and laughed about it, given the slog we’d undergone to reach the same elevation in the Richmond Ranges a couple of weeks ago.

Towards Perry Saddle hut on the Heaphy Track
Towards Perry Saddle hut on the Heaphy Track

By 11.30 am we were enjoying lunch at Perry Saddle hut. It was a lovely sunny day and we got some great views of the ‘dragons teeth’ on the mountain tops in the distant Douglas range. I added it to my list of hikes to read up on, with a view to coming back another time.

We initially planned to camp at Gouland Downs hut (the next hut from Perry Saddle) but we were making such good time that we asked the DOC warden if we could change our booking. Saxon hut was the next hut on from Gouland Downs, and we knew we’d easily make it there tonight. Luckily there was space so it was no problem to change.

The Douglas Range in the distance
The Douglas Range in the distance

Perry Saddle Hut to Gouland Downs Hut

We left Perry Saddle at 12.30 pm and the trail took us out of the forest and through the flatter, open and very beautiful Gouland Downs.

Gouland Downs - Heapy Track
Gouland Downs – Heapy Track

We crossed some nice rivers (bridged of course – this is a great walk!) and enjoyed the expansive views over the red tussock landscape. Apparently, some of the rocks in this area are over 5 million years old – some of the oldest in NZ.

The boot pole - Heaphy Track
The boot pole – Heaphy Track
Towards Gouland Downs hut - Heaphy Track
Towards Gouland Downs hut – Heaphy Track

We reached Gouland Downs hut at 1.55 pm. While we were at the hut we saw 2 rare ground-dwelling takahe birds. There are only around 350 of these endangered birds left, but a number of pairs were recently re-introduced to the area and are thriving. It was a real treat!!

Takahe at Gouland Downs hut - Heaphy Track
Takahe at Gouland Downs hut – Heaphy Track

Gouland Downs Hut to Saxon Hut

On the way out from Gouland Downs hut, we went to investigate the limestone caves nearby. We looked up into the cracks on the roof and saw a couple of giant cave weta (a member of the cricket species). They were huge!! We likened them to the size of small lobsters.

One of many beautiful, bridged river crossings - Heaphy Track
One of many beautiful bridged river crossings

We reached Saxon hut pretty early at 3.40 pm. It was almost empty except for a party of two couples in a massive beach tent, and a lone hiker who had the 16-bed hut to herself (!)

The view from our camping platform at Saxon hut - Heaphy Track
The view from our camping platform at Saxon hut

We set up our tent, and kept a close eye on our belongings, as several cheeky Weka birds were around. Weka will take anything you leave lying around, there are stealthy little things – be warned!

We walked around 30 km today with approximately 900m of elevation. That wasn’t bad progress we thought, and we had really enjoyed the day. We fell into bed at around 8.30 pm happy trampers.

Day 2 Heaphy Track

Saxon Hut to Katipo Creek Campsite

We were kept awake until late by the giggling and screaming of the people in the large tent next door, who were oblivious to any camping etiquette.

Saxon Hut to James MacKay Hut

We left around 8 am after much faffing about (on my part). It had rained lightly all night, and we left in the mist under a gentle rain shower. We didn’t get much of a view, but the trail was pretty enough around us, with a few little ups and downs.

A drizzly start from Saxon hut - Heaphy Track
A drizzly start from Saxon hut

We arrived at the James Mackay hut approx 12 km later at 10.20 am. Someone had left a few cans of food there, which we decided to take with us. We also found some jandals under the table, so I carried them with me thinking they might belong to one of the girls who’d left the hut as we arrived.

Misty forest near James Mackay hut - Heaphy Track
Misty forest near James Mackay hut

James MacKay Hut to Lewis hut

We left James Mackay hut at 10.50 am. It was a painless amble downhill to Lewis hut through the misty forest on a beautifully cut track. We reached Lewis hut 12.5 km later at 1.20 pm. There were loads of people there (and loads of sandflies too!).

* Update Dec ’21 – Lewis hut has been removed and replaced by a shelter.

*Update Feb ’22 – See the DOC brochure for partial closure of the track due to storm damage. It is not currently possible to through-walk the Heaphy track.

No one claimed the jandals, and we ate a can of the chicken we’d taken from the previous hut. It was terrible.

One of today's river crossings - Heaphy Track
One of today’s river crossings

Lewis Hut to Heaphy Hut

As we were making such good time again today, we asked the hut warden at Lewis hut if there was room at the Katipo Creek campsite for us tonight. We were grateful to be able to change our bookings and amazed that there was availability during these holiday times.

The cloud starts to lift - Heaphy Track
The cloud starts to lift

Straight out of the hut we crossed a lovely bridge. Then it was downhill 8 km all the way to the Heaphy hut and campsite.

This next section of the Heaphy was amazing – and definitely my favourite part. We were now into a completely different kind of forest with giant,  Northern rata trees, metres in diameter, around every corner. Bright green Nikau palm trees began to appear, giving the trail a distinctly tropical feel.

Tinytramper next to the Huge rata tree on the Heaphy Track
Huge rata tree on the Heaphy track
Beautiful twisted, rata trees line the Heaphy track
Beautiful twisted, rata trees line the track

This morning’s rain cleared and we got some incredible views as we followed the Heaphy river for the last few kilometres to the Heaphy hut.

This feels a lot like the tropics - Heaphy Track
This feels a lot like the tropics!

We eventually crossed the river and got down to the river mouth. The beautiful bright green Nikau palms which this part of the Heaphy Track is famous for were prolific.

Up in the canopy - Heaphy Track
Up in the canopy

The River opened wide and we saw the white sands of the beach at the river mouth. It looked incredible against the blue sky & bright green palms.

Nikau palms along the Heaphy river
Nikau palms along the Heaphy river

We stopped at the Heaphy hut for a break, around 4 pm. We sat in the hot sun and marvelled at the views of the long green lawn leading down to the beach. I took a little stroll on the beach. It was filled with piles of driftwood – a spectacular sight with the river mouth to the right, and the crashing waves on the beach beyond.

The view from Heaphy hut
The view from Heaphy hut

The large (32 bed) hut was filling up fast. Many walkers stay overnight here, as it’s a convenient stop if you’re walking in from either direction of the track.

The Heaphy hut
The Heaphy hut

Heaphy Hut to Katipo Creek Campsite

The next section, from the Heaphy hut to the end of the track at Kohaihai was another of my favourite parts of the track. The trail took us above the white sand West coast beaches and through the forests of rata, palms and vines. It was beautiful in the late afternoon sun.

Beyond Heaphy hut towards Kohaihai shelter
Beyond Heaphy hut towards Kohaihai shelter
River crossing between Heaphy hut and Katipo Creek campsite
River crossing between Heaphy hut and Katipo Creek campsite
Stunning beaches between Heaphy hut and Katipo Creek campsite
Stunning beaches between Heaphy hut and Katipo Creek campsite

We reached Katipo Creek shelter campsite around 8 km and a couple of hours later. There were a few young Kiwi lads camping there already, but plenty of room for us. We set up camp and cooked dinner and kept a close eye on the resident weka family.

Katipo shelter and campsite - Heaphy Track
Katipo shelter and campsite

After dinner we walked the short distance to the beach to see the sun slowly sinking, then we got into bed early again to escape the masses of sandflies. There were hundreds of them in between the inner and outer fly of the tent. It’s funny – if you’ve ever been in a sandfly swam situation, you’ll know that very particular sound that hundreds of little bodies make as they fly around, trapped in that little gap.

As we debriefed the day, we realised we walked around 40kms today.

Day 3 Heaphy Track

Katipo Shelter and Campsite to Kohaihai

We woke early and were up and out by 7.15 am – the sandflies were horrendous. It was just a short 8 km walk out to the end of the track towards the Kohaihai campsite.

Katipo Creek to Kohaihai - Heaphy Track
Katipo Creek to Kohaihai

The track continued behind the beautiful beaches almost all the way out to Kohaihai, and the thundering waves were our constant companions.

Katipo Creek campsite to Kohaihai
Katipo Creek campsite to Kohaihai

There was one section that required some forethought (that we hadn’t thought about at all). Because of some slips on the track, there was a short detour section of trail right on the beach which could be impassable at high tides in rough weather. Luckily the weather wasn’t rough, and it wasn’t quite high tide, so we were fine, but it would definitely be worth checking the tide times and track status beforehand.

Scotts beach from Kohaihai bluff
Scotts beach from Kohaihai bluff

This section of trail is popular with day walkers, and we meet a few coming in from Kohaihai. Towards the end of the track, there was a small climb over a saddle by Kohaihai Bluffs. This gave us some amazing views of Scotts Beach.

We crossed the bridge at the Kohaihai River mouth at 9.45 am. From there it was a quick stroll to the Kohaihai campsite. It was a beautiful campsite, full of campervans and tents. We chatted to some campers who told us that the sandflies had been just as bad here too.

Kohaihai river Heaphy Track
Kohaihai river
The Kohaihai river mouth Heaphy Track
The Kohaihai River mouth

After the Heaphy Track

We had a toilet break (lovely toilets) and a quick break, then began the road walk to Karamea, 15 km away. We were hitching down to Seddonville around 80 km away, to go straight into hiking the ‘Old Ghost Road‘. As it turns out, we walked 4 km then got a hitch all the way!!

We thoroughly enjoyed the Heaphy track. Each day is different, there are some amazing landscapes and it’s a pretty cruisy walk. I’m pleased we went North to South, as we definitely saved the best for last.

For more information on the Heaphy track see all the details and how to book on the DOC website.

On the road to Karamea from Kohaihai campsite
On the road to Karamea from Kohaihai campsite

Check out the links below for more tramping ideas in Kahurangi and the West Coast

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