The 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 10 ‘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 recommend 4-6 very leisurely days to walk the 78.4Km 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.
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…
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 156Kms out of Nelson. It finishes in Kohaihai on the West coast 110Kms North of Wesport. 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 carpark 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 way from these tiny, vicious beasts in most of New Zealand. They are particularly rampant 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 – 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 7.15am.
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 12kms we climbed up to 750m. We surprised ourselves by making better time than we thought, reaching Aorere shelter by 10am.
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 that invasive pest animals 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, so there might actually be a decline in bird numbers here over time.
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.
By 11.30am 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 iit was no problem to change.
Perry Saddle hut to Gouland Downs hut
We left Perry Saddle at 12.30pm and the trail took us out of the forest and through the flatter, open and very beautiful Gouland Downs.
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.
We reached Gouland Downs hut at 1.55pm. 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!!
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.
We reached Saxon hut pretty early at 3.40pm. It was almost empty except for a party of 2 couples in a massive beach tent, and lone hiker who had the 16 bed hut to herself (what unbelievable luck!)
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 30kms 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 8.30pm happy trampers.
Day 2 – Saxon hut to Katipo Creek campsite
We were kept awake until late by the screaming and giggling of the two couples in the large tent next door, who were oblivious to the ‘hut etiquette also extends to tent etiquette…’ rule of tramping. i.e. showing consideration to your fellow hikers.
Saxon hut to James MacKay hut
We left around 8am this morning 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.
We arrived at the James Mackay hut approx 12Kms later at 10.20am. 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.
James MacKay hut to Lewis hut
We left James Mackay hut at 10.50am. It was a painless amble downhill to Lewis hut through the misty forest on a beautifullly cut track. We reached Lewis hut 12.5kms later at 1.20pm. There were loads of people there (and loads of sandflies too!).
No one claimed the jandals, and we ate a can of the chicken we’d taken from the previous hut. It was terrible.
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.
Straight out of the hut we crossed a lovely bridge. Then it was downhill 8kms 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.
This morning’s rain cleared and we got some incredible views as we followed the Heaphy river for the last few Kms to the Heaphy hut.
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.
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.
We stopped at the Heaphy hut for a break, around 4pm. 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 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.
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.
We reached Katipo shelter campsite around 8kms 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.
After dinner we walked the short distance to the beach to see 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 – Katipo campsite to Kohaihai
We woke early and were up and out by 7.15am – the sandflies were horrendous. It was just a short 8km walk out to end of the track towards the Kohaihai campsite.
The track continued behind the beautiful beaches almost all the way out to Kohaihai, and the thundering waves were our constant companion.
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.
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 9.45am. From there is 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.
We had a toilet break (lovely toilets) and quick break, then and began the road walk to Karamea, 15Kms away. We were hitching down to Seddonville around 80kms away, to go straight into hiking the ‘Old Ghost Road‘. As it turns out, we walked 4Kms 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.