Our love affair with the Great Walks started just over a year ago a few weeks after arriving in New Zealand. We learned about these incredible multi-day hikes during a dinner conversation with some new friends our first weekend here and since then have set out to tackle each and every one of the nine around the countries most beautiful national parks. Although it was nearly our first, the Heaphy Track ended up being our last and final Great Walk mostly due to its length and effort to get transported to and from the track.
Since we wanted to explore the Karamea area, we decided to do the track in the opposite direction most people take, going from the West Coast and working our way inland towards Golden Bay. So we set out on a cloudy Sunday morning for our 4 day, 80km journey!
We had heard a lot about the diversity of the landscape along the Heaphy Track, with visible changes every ~20km, and it was evident along the first section of the track we were venturing into the rugged west coastal section, filled with native nikau palms and wind blasted shrubs. As we climbed over the Kohaihai Saddle we could see the white sand beaches below.
As we got closer to the coastline, the thunderous sound of the crashing waves echoed through the forest. Several warning signs were posted near the shore, highlighting the extreme weather this rugged coastline often receives. With the tide at mid-level, there was no risk today, but as we passed by a small memorial, it’s easy to see why they’ve created high tide options along the track.
The path continued to crisscross into the native beech forests, passed small flowing waterfalls and back out to the coastline. With the clouds getting darker, we decided to quicken our pace in hopes of keeping dry.
After ~5hrs we reached the hut just before the rain hit. Nestled along the shore where the Heaphy River meets the Tasman Sea, the hut was one of the newest we’d seen along the Great Walks. Filled with ~25 people who were heading the opposite direction, we grabbed ourselves a bunk and tucked in for the night.
As the sun went down we chatted with some of the other trampers, reminiscing about travel adventures, the other Great Walks and hearing about their journey the past 3 days. It’s always fun meeting new people along these tracks and it’s surprising how often you meet someone who knows someone you know as well – such a small world really!
When we awoke the next morning the Heaphy River was raging, surging out through the narrow gap and into the crashing waves of the Tasman Sea. We went down to the beach to get a closer look, watching the river eroded away the sand spit into the fusing fresh and salt waters below. You could even see waves moving up river that originated from the whirling ocean waters. On a stormy day I can image this place is pretty intense. The graveyard of drift wood along the beach was an indication of the hardness of the wild west coast. Some trampers took the time though to use some of that abandoned wood to erect a large tipi on the beach – Jordan contemplated staying in it the night before but the weather changed his mind.
As we set out on our second day, the palms turned to rimu and rata trees as the terrain continued to change. Kahurangi National Park is home to nearly half of New Zealand’s 40 species of carnivorous land snails, and along the Heaphy Track is one of the best places to see the famous Powelliphanta snail. After seeing a few signs posted, we kept our eyes peeled and soon enough we stumbled upon our first of many along the track. Nearly the size of my palm, these slow, cool little creatures were quite fascinating to watch.
As the dark clouds passed, the morning sun began to break through and by midday blue skies were seen in all directions allowing us to take our time along the track and enjoy our last Great Walk. We passed over several rivers along a variety of bridges – from single lane wire foot bridges to the new large, 148m Heaphy Bridge over the brown waters of the Heaphy River (the largest DOC has ever built)
Just before we stopped for lunch at the Lewis Hut, we passed one of the biggest rata trees in New Zealand. It’s giant truck dwarfed me as a stared up into its towering branches above. This wasn’t the only large tree along the track – several times we stopped to admire the size of these gentle giants throughout the forest.
The last few hours of the day were spent making a gradual climb uphill towards the James Mackay Hut. The 12km didn’t seem so bad due to the minor incline the entire way – not something we’re used to as many of the other Great Walks shoot you straight up a mountain with a few switch backs along the way.
Just before the hut we passed a few friendly faces – tree carvings that greeted us as we neared the end of our day. When we reached the hut, we saw this beautiful new building perched at the top of the hill and as we made our way towards it realised it was the brand new hut about to open next week. Looking for the current hut, we actually ended up passing it, thinking it was the ‘wood shed’ of the new hut! I can definitely see why they felt it needed an upgrade! Either way we were happy to have a place for the evening and ended up sharing the hut with just one other guy from Japan. After a long 9hr day, we made a quick freeze dried meal and a hot chocolate before settling off to bed.
In the morning the sky was clear and we could see out over the forest all the way to the Tasman Sea. We set off onto the track through the Mackay downs along the boardwalk through the tussock field and shrub-fringed patches of beech forest, crossing several small streams along the way. We made a quick stop at the Saxon Hut for a snack where we were greeted by some curious Wekas. These funny little ‘hen-like’ birds were all over the Heaphy Track – popping out of the woods, making their funny noises and showing up everytime we stopped.
From here we made our way towards the famous Gouland Downs. A large featureless area, filled with grassy plains and flowing rivers, we crossed the open space that felt so different from the rest of the track. The oranges and reds of the tussock grass were a stark contrast to the surrounding green hills. The sketchy cable foot bridges were also pretty fun to cross as they were quite shaky in the wind (and looked like they’d been there for ages)
Kahurangi National Park is famous for its limestone archways so Jordan did some additional research and found out there were some secret caves along this section of the track. Since we were going in the opposite direction most people take, we could actually see in the distance a large black hole that resembled a cave (that would easily be missed coming from the other side) Jordan was now on a mission to get there, so we took off through the brush making our own path across the field and were soon at the bottom of a cool limestone cave with a small waterfall pouring through it. We ventured to the right in hopes of getting up into the cave, but didn’t get too far before we were stopped by the wall of rock.
Making our way back up towards the track, we ventured into what felt like the Golbin Forest. Filled with lush green trees and moss, I felt like a fairy might come flying around the corner at any moment. As we passed the labyrinth of moss-covered rocks along the path, I felt like someone was watching us – Can you see the faces?
Just below the path was a series of short caves which we explored as we made our way to Gouland Hut. Wet and quite muddy we didn’t stay long, but it was again surprising how easy this would have been to pass had we been walking the other direction. This small (maybe few hundred meters) of forest was by far my favorite section of the track as it had such a magical feel to it – seemed so out of place with the barren tussock fields on either side.
After stopping for lunch at the Gouland Downs Hut, we made our way upwards towards our destination for the day at Perry Saddle Hut. Along the way we passed the famous pole where past trampers have hung their old boots. Some looked like they had been there for decades – probably blew out while some poor chap was on the track. Others looked a bit out of place like the red velvet stilettos!
As we left the barren fields of Gouland Downs, the clouds began to roll in and the rain started to sprinkle down. Knowing we were less than an hour from the hut, we quickened our pace again and made the last section of the track in our rain gear just before it really started to pour down. We were greeted by a young German fellow who was on a mission to complete as many of the Great Walks as he could before leaving New Zealand. Just after dinner a crew from a local tramping club came in soaked from the rain, so we fired up the coal burning stove to dry out their clothes.
In the morning we were greeted by a pink sunrise as the clouds moved over the green hills in the distance which ended up giving us false hope for the conditions that day. Not long after that as we reached the highest point of the track at 915m and the rain started to move in. Luckily we were able to snap a quick celebratory photo for finishing the 9 Great Walks!
The next 5 hrs brought back memories of Milford Track as the rain was relentless, pouring down on us the entire way down to the carpark. Not the best way for a dramatic Great Walk finish, but we were happy we had completed our journey we had set out to do over a year ago.
Although the Heaphy Track lacked the stunning mountain views many of the other Great Walks offer, it made up for it with its beautiful diverse landscape and unique features along the way. Now that we’ve finished the premiere tracks around the country, we look forward to the many other amazing, less known, tracks to explore!
What’s your favorite tramp in New Zealand?