Post­cards from Kaik­oura The Hea­phy Track

Rugged Ram­bling to Rus­tic Ro­mance


Her “Let’s do the Hea­phy Track...” Me “Or, I could pull the fam­ily jewels up over my head and you can use me as a piñata.” Her “No se­ri­ously… let’s do it.” Me “No! Se­ri­ously!”

This was the point in the con­ver­sa­tion where I should have won. But that isn’t how any­thing works in my world. I was primed with rea­sons why I shouldn’t have to do it. Firstly, I don’t like walk­ing very much - which was coun­tered very quickly with “but you play golf ”. Swish, Strike 1. Sec­ondly, I have al­ready done at least one other forced march around Lake Waikare­moana, so I have now re­tired my walk­ing shoes. The re­sponse to this well-rea­soned piece of logic was, that means you don’t have as many Great walks of New Zealand left to com­plete the set. Swish, Strike 2.

I knew be­fore the words fin­ished rolling off my tongue, “but I’m lazy and I don’t wanna”, that my pack was al­ready be­ing mea­sured for me and I was about to be granted the ig­no­min­ious ti­tle of “Pack Mule.” Swish, Strike 3 and you’re out.

The one upside of be­ing the most be­grudg­ing side­kick since the Lone Ranger sent Tonto into town to talk with drunken cow­boys, is that I was ex­cused from ANY plan­ning.

Those that know me recog­nise this as a smart move for all in­volved. Let’s just say I have a some­what ca­sual ap­proach to de­tails (if it isn’t ac­tual work I’m be­ing paid for).

This fact has got me out of more plan­ning than the de­sign­ers of the wa­ter­tight com­part­ments on the Ti­tanic. So be­fore I knew it, four days of Easter re­lax­ing was off and I had been tagged, bagged and sad­dled for an­other long trek. I al­most es­caped on a tech­ni­cal­ity... but no such luck. The flights lined up and it was de­cided for me that sleep­ing was be­ing greedy. I would have to just suck it up for the sake of the trip.

My work travel sched­ule meant that there was a mere seven hours from the time my late night flight from Aus­tralia landed in Welling­ton to when I had to be sat on a Golden Bay Air flight head­ing to Takaka.

I love fly­ing and our flight over was in a six-seater. Even tur­bu­lence suf­fi­cient for me to hit the roof of the plane didn’t stop me en­joy­ing the ride.

At four to six thou­sand feet, the views across Cook Straight re­ally are won­der­ful and cruis­ing over the ridges and is­lands of Marl­bor­ough sounds makes you re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty of New Zealand.

Takaka air­port is not ex­actly JFK, so with no wait at all, we came in for one of the smoothest land­ings I have ever had. Our pi­lot then switched roles to that of tour guide and we drove the hour or so to the start of the Hea­phy Track.

Day One The Hea­phy Track is lo­cated in Kahu­rangi Na­tional Park and is the long­est of New Zealand’s Great Walks. From end to end it is 78.4 kilo­me­tres, but for all its length it is rated as one of the less de­mand­ing Great Walks. Tram­pers can start at ei­ther end (it is not a loop track) so when you fin­ish you need to find a way back to your car, or in our case very small plane.

My armed guard, (sorry, I mean Susie), had de­ter­mined that for us to be able to com­plete the walk over the Easter break, we should start from the Takaka end at the James Brown Hut and fin­ish on the West Coast at Ko­hai­hai.

Al­though the brochures for the track sug­gest four to six days, we had four and no wig­gle room.

Long ago, I was taught by my par­ents the im­por­tance of a good ed­u­ca­tion. I there­fore of­fered the not unin­sight­ful com­ment that, based on my maths, that was near on 20 kilo­me­tres per day (Swedish round­ing, al­ways round up when you are talk­ing about dis­tances you have to walk and the sizes of things).

“No, don’t worry,” was the re­ply. “We walk 17km on the first day and 12 on the sec­ond.”

Nu­clear warn­ing level alarm sirens were now go­ing off in my head.

I may have even stopped breath­ing for a few min­utes, while my fourth form maths was again called into ac­tion.

“Umm, that means we have 50 kilo­me­tres to do in the last two days...”

This was fol­lowed by a some­what sheep­ish re­ply of “Ah yes... the third day we’ll have 32.3 kilo­me­tres to do.”

I must thank (read “shoot”) the guys at Mac­pac for fit­ting my new pack for me. They were bril­liant (read “evil min­ions in league with my cap­tor”) and my pack fit­ted per­fectly. If you are not a tram­per, your pack is... well, it is a bit like an over­stuffed can­vas stor­age locker that is filled with ev­ery­thing needed for an apoca­lypse or ice age.

Sleep­ing bag, check, food for a year, check, ther­mal body suit, check, emer­gency lo­ca­tor beacon, check, pho­tos and record­ings of loved ones, check, and my last will and tes­ta­ment. Ready.

From James Brown Hut, our first sec­tion of the track took us to Aorere shel­ter.

The ac­tual track that you are walk­ing on is re­mark­ably well main­tained and for the most part it is more than a me­tre wide.

This first sec­tion is clas­sic New Zealand bush and it is all up hill. So it soon felt like I was haul­ing 400 kilo­grams straight up the side of a moun­tain. We were in bright sun­shine that speck­led through the trees and (be­ing the start of au­tumn) the leaves were turn­ing shades of red, or­ange and yel­low in amongst the green.

We fi­nally came across the shel­ter af­ter close to three hours. We did take small breaks ev­ery hour or so when my curs­ing got loud enough to be heard, but find­ing the shel­ter was cause for a lengthy col­lapse.

In the past when I was younger (and far stu­pider) I com­peted in the Kepler Chal­lenge a num­ber of times. This is both the most sat­is­fy­ing chal­lenge I have com­pleted, as well as pos­si­bly the most ridicu­lous in­sane thing I have ever done. It is 60km of run­ning, stum­bling and walk­ing in one day. The cur­rent edi­tor of NZTODAY ( Ed. That

would be moi!) was a sup­porter one year and can at­test to ex­ten­sive use of the cat­tle-prod to get me to the fin­ish line

Whether it was the power nap or the food and drink, I’m not sure, but we got go­ing again and soon reached the high­est point of the climb. From there on we were head­ing slightly down on the 5 km trek to Perry Sad­dle Hut, our first “Ho­tel” ac­com­mo­da­tion.

To be fair, the Perry Sad­dle Hut is fan­tas­tic as tramp­ing huts go. It is less than a year old and has flush toi­lets. In the bush that is lux­ury as surely as a spa bath is in a down­town Auck­land ho­tel. The hut even has lights but they go out about 9pm, so from then on the head­lamps come out and the room starts to re­sem­ble a Welsh min­ers con­ven­tion.

I must tip my hat to my chef, she has a gift when it comes to cre­at­ing de­li­cious tramp­ing meals that can be made us­ing only a por­ta­ble gas stove. Across the four days while fel­low tram­pers were eat­ing all man­ner of ghastly look­ing de­hy­drated meals, we had such fare as na­chos, savoury pan­cakes, corn frit­ters and toasted sand­wiches. She gained al­most enough brownie points with each meal to get me to the next hut.

As we munched our way through corn frit­ters I did a lit­tle “people watch­ing”. The hut was al­most full for our first night with about 24 oth­ers stay­ing, all look­ing like oddly coloured refugees from the bar­gain bins at Kath­mandu and Ice­breaker. The tramp­ing world truly is the land that style for­got. Af­ter a long day we re­treated to our bunks and were soon out like the cur­few light­ing, barely aware of the rest of the hut that was be­gin­ning to re­sem­ble a multi­gen­er­a­tional py­jama party.

Day Two Sounds of New Zealand for­est and bird life woke me well be­fore I was ready and the idea of leav­ing a warm sleep­ing bag wasn’t even re­motely palat­able. Un­for­tu­nately once I was awake I au­to­mat­i­cally needed to go to the loo.

For those who haven’t tried it, putting on your socks while still in your sleep­ing bag looks a bit like a python swal­low­ing a kan­ga­roo. If you add in try­ing to do it qui­etly, to avoid wak­ing oth­ers up, then it can be quite a mis­sion. I was prob­a­bly lucky not to fall out of the top bunk but I’m sure the sleep­ing bag would have stopped me stick­ing the land­ing.

The al­ter­na­tive would have been no socks, but I didn’t want to con­tract frost­bite from the wooden hut floor. It was about two de­grees in the frosty dawn light and pon­der­ing the day to come I made a men­tal note that if I ever gave up the rat race it would not be to live in a hut in the moun­tains in early win­ter. I am con­fi­dent that if Griz­zly Adams had his time over he would have said “stuff this, I’m go­ing to Tahiti”.

Re­turn­ing to the hut, the fire had been started and a num­ber of people were be­gin­ning to get break­fast. Af­ter wolf­ing down five or six small pan­cakes and a hot choco­late the world seemed a bet­ter place.

We de­cided to make an early start and head for our next lodg­ing, Saxon Hut. This would be our short­est day and with only eight booked into Saxon Hut, I liked the idea of a lazy af­ter­noon with noth­ing to do but re­lax and read with­out 20 or 30 tem­po­rary flat­mates dis­turb­ing me.

It may have been the pan­cakes or the sun com­ing out, but my shoul­ders started to hurt less and my stride be­came longer and more pur­pose­ful. This was partly due to know­ing we had only 13 kilo­me­tres to hike and partly be­cause it was be­com­ing a glo­ri­ous day.

The track soon turned onto the area known as Gouland Downs. New Zealand’s Top Tracks pub­li­ca­tion called it an ex­posed moor­land basin. The track was de­scend­ing slightly and kept re­veal­ing more and more of a sweep­ing vista across the val­ley.

It felt as if we had been trans­ported to Scot­land or the Moors. Red tus­sock for miles and sub alpine plants mixed in with patches of beech trees.

Up un­til this point we had not yet en­coun­tered any of the famed gi­ant snails that the track is famed for. Per­son­ally I blame the view and not my clum­si­ness for the fact that the first snail we en­coun­tered was by way of my trail shoes. John 1 snail 0. From then on I was on con­stant alert, ready to leap side­ways mid-step if re­quired.

We soon passed the fa­mous “Boot Tree” and stopped for the com­pul­sory tourist snap. It did make me won­der, what level of crazy do you have to be to carry ex­tra shoes on your tramp just to throw them into a tree?! Al­bert Ein­stein may de­fine it dif­fer­ently, but I call that in­san­ity. Af­ter a cou­ple of hours of walk­ing and pon­der­ing shoe throw­ing tech­niques, we made it to Downs Hut.

As the Hob­bits in the Lord of the Rings would agree, it was time for sec­ond break­fast and a chance to dump the packs. The track ranger had sug­gested ex­plor­ing of the lime­stone caves near the hut as they are very in­ter­est­ing – and I can at­test that they are quite amaz­ing, even with the mul­ti­tude of spi­ders and we­tas in­side.

The rest of the morn­ing to Saxon Hut was marked by cross­ing hang­ing bridges and easy walk­ing. Toasted sand­wiches for lunch and read­ing was all I man­aged for the rest of the day.

It was a very re­lax­ing night with only 6 of us in the hut. With al­most 31 kilo­me­tres to walk the next day we wanted to get un­der­way by 6am so we were in bed by 8.30pm. As we tried to sleep we were kept awake by owls, ki­wis and other night crea­tures mov­ing around and call­ing un­til late in the evening.

Day Three The 31kms on our third day was bro­ken into three parts start­ing with a 12 kilo­me­tre early morn­ing sec­tion to Lewis Hut which took in one of the last up­hill sec­tions of the track.

As we left Saxon Hut we crossed Blue Duck stream and ac­tu­ally saw a pair of the very rare blue ducks call­ing to one an­other as steam rose off the wa­ter. The track winds through more typ­i­cal New Zealand bush and we were on a bit of a mis­sion to knock some kilo­me­tres off quickly as the skies were threat­en­ing.

Af­ter three hours we were search­ing for the sign post with a snail on it as it in­di­cates one kilo­me­tre to go to the next hut.

It fi­nally ap­peared as did the start of the rain, so it was al­most at run­ning pace when we fi­nally made it to the shel­ter.

As we dropped our packs to the floor in Mackay Hut, the west coast lived up to its rep­u­ta­tion as one of the wettest places on the planet.

On came the jack­ets, wet weather pants and hats. We tried to wait it out, but it be­came clear it was go­ing to be around for a while. So the plan was to go as quickly as pos­si­ble down the hill un­til we reached the tree­line and some cover. This was a good plan ex­cept for the tor­ren­tial rain that drenched us.

The rest of the eight kilo­me­tres down to Lewis Hut was on again off again with rain and wet weather gear. I was be­gin­ning to feel like some sort of wilder­ness strip­per.

As we ar­rived at Lewis Hut, we met up with most of the other tram­pers we had shared the first night with at Perry Sad­dle Hut. There were three or four fam­i­lies with herds of loud, noisy chil­dren.

I briefly con­sid­ered stay­ing out­side and suf­fer­ing the mos­qui­tos in pref­er­ence! For­tu­nately they were pack­ing up and we again had a hut to our­selves.

Lunch helped but aching feet meant the last 12 kilo­me­tres to Hea­phy Hut were a grind. There was how­ever, some beau­ti­ful scenery and rivers that were start­ing to roar a lit­tle louder with all the rain.

Hea­phy Hut sits near the mouth of the Hea­phy River and is an­other hut less than 12 months old. There is plenty of space and grass around it and re­lax­ing is very easy there.

As we fi­nally ar­rived, my feet were scream­ing and mus­cles were cramp­ing. Even in all my pain, I still got a gig­gle from watch­ing all of the people with cell phones head­ing for the beach to get their fix of the out­side world. A line of people all hold­ing their phones into the air try­ing to find a sig­nal is an amus­ing sight on a west coast beach.

The rest of the evening was spent try­ing to dry out our gear and eat as much food as pos­si­ble be­fore the last day.

Day Four Af­ter three days I was fi­nally get­ting into my groove as a tram­per. Lots of nuro­fen and some voltaren cream on the shoul­ders, plus bandaids on the toes. I was be­gin­ning to feel held to­gether by duct tape and hope­ful thoughts.

Even with all my aches and pains, the walk out from Hea­phy Hut to Ko­hai­hai was my favourite leg of the trip.

For long pe­ri­ods we walked par­al­lel to the wild west coast beaches and snaked our way through nikau palm groves and over un­du­lat­ing rises that made the views even more im­pres­sive.

The weather wasn’t done with us and it rained as hard as at any point on the trip for about an hour be­fore the sun came out and we started to dry off. Bridges over rivers were sud­denly much more im­pres­sive and with the end in sight, we pushed on with more pur­pose in ev­ery step.

The last breath of the Hea­phy track is Ko­hai­hai bluffs which rise rapidly from sea level to 300 me­tres in no time at all. I may not have got past them if we had started the track in the re­verse or­der, but with only a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres to go, it was eas­ier to suck it up. I wanted to run down the last two kilo­me­tres to get to the end and I would have paid 20 dol­lars for a Coke had there been any­where to buy one.

Vis­ually the track is stun­ning, the ac­com­mo­da­tion very good and for those people who love walk­ing, it is well worth the trip. If you are like me and a re­luc­tant forced marcher, you will still see things to widen the eyes and make you ap­pre­ci­ate na­ture in your own back­yard.

To make it back to Welling­ton we had two flights with Golden Bay Air, from Ko­hai­hai to Takaka then Takaka back to Welling­ton. We traced the path of the track dur­ing the flight back to Takaka, which was a great way to see where we had been just days be­fore.

The flight home was thank­fully smooth and clear. Land­ing in Welling­ton in a plane that has an en­gine the size of an elec­tric tooth­brush mo­tor is very dif­fer­ent to a 737, but you can’t beat that view… sort of like the rest of the trip.

Scotts Beach and the fi­nal climb over the point in the dis­tance.

Marl­bor­ough Sounds.

The long grind from Brown Hut on day 1.

Great views are every­where.

Aorere Shel­ter Day 1.

Gouland Downs.

Saxon hut look­ing out.

I didn’t step on this snail.

Care­fully cross­ing one of the many swing bridges. Be­low The shoe tree.

Just wow! Be­low About to get soaked.

The Chef.

Tor­ren­tial rain fill­ing the rivers.

Nikau Palms from the beach. Be­low Na­tive New Zealand.

Wet weather gear on the last day.

Beau­ti­ful West Coast.

Fi­nally fin­ished.

The ever present Weka.

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