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.
The long grind from Brown Hut on day 1.
Great views are everywhere.
Aorere Shelter Day 1.
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.
Torrential rain filling the rivers.
Nikau Palms from the beach. Below Native New Zealand.
Wet weather gear on the last day.
Beautiful West Coast.
The ever present Weka.