Surprise packet

By Justin Walker 27 September 2016
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New Zealand’s Heaphy Track packs so much into its 74.8km length it’s surprising more walkers don’t put it at the top of their list

SOME OF THE MOST memorable moments in life are the unexpected surprises that sneak up on you. You may have already been aware of them, but consigned them the back of your memory. Or you might have dismissed them entirely because, at the time, something else looked like a better option. Or you may have ignored them because of your own uninformed preconceptions. I have to admit, New Zealand’s Heaphy Track qualifies as one of these memorable moments in my outdoor life.

The Heaphy – all 78.4km of it – traverses the upper section of Kahurangi National Park, at the top of NZ’s South Island. The track runs between Kohaihai Inlet on the west coast and Brown Hut in the east, passing along beaches, through lush west coast forest, across rivers and up and over sub-alpine moorlands and mountain ridges. It is New Zealand’s longest Great Walk but, for some reason, is one I have ignored; not intentionally, but somehow the Heaphy has always been overshadowed by its more “glamorous” (think snow-capped peaks, etc.) southern Great Walk siblings (the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler tracks) when I have been planning a trekking holiday across the ditch. I don’t know whether it was because of what I perceived as “better”, or because I thought the Heaphy was harder to access (which it’s not). Either way, more fool me…

heaphy track

The first surprise

I am walking the Heaphy with Southern Wilderness guiding company, with Angus and Sarah my guides, and two other Aussie clients, Richard and Jo. It’s been a while since I have been part of such a small group and it makes for an awesome dynamic. Angus has already impressed me with the level of service by meeting me the previous night to go through what to expect on the walk and check I have all the gear I need. He also springs a small surprise: I already know we’re walking the Heaphy in four days, which is one less than “the normal” five, but we’re also tackling it from Kohaihai, on the west coast side. I am not usually a fan of last-minute surprises but this is one I am pumped for, as the weather here is brilliant – hot, even – and the thought of walking along a beach with blue skies and warm weather brings a big smile to my face. A smile not even wiped away by the news of a very early start in the morning.

West Coast dreaming

Even though I arrived late the previous night, I don’t sleep on the six-hour bus ride to the west coast. Between the stopovers for coffee (and awesome breakfast) in various beautiful small villages along the way, and chatting with the rest of the group, I am still wide-awake when we reach the Kohaihai River mouth. It’s beautiful, and not too busy. Only a few groups of trekkers are here at the track-head, with all of them except us actually finished, having walked the Heaphy east-west. I admire the fact most of them look still pretty fresh after five days on the track, but am even more captivated by the size of both Angus and Sarah’s backpacks. Southern Wilderness prides itself on the gourmet foods it feeds clients during walks, and even though I cannot see into each of the guides’ packs, the size of them suggests we’re not going to go hungry over the four days.

Richard, Jo and I fill our backpacks with snacks and fruit and not more than 15 minutes after arriving we’re off and making our way toward the first of many swing bridges we’ll encounter: the bridge over the Kohaihai River. The bridge is massive, the views below and to each side even more so. The river runs a rich emerald-green in colour and is incredibly clear – and I have no doubt it’s incredibly cold, too. Leaving the bridge we are straight into dense rainforest. On the west coast of New Zealand, the annual rainfall is very high, with the resulting lush vegetation in complete contrast to what we’ll find “over the other side” of the mountain range at Brown Hut.

heaphy track

We move upwards initially and it’s not too long before Sarah calls lunch and we’re stopping next to a small lookout and its large tables for what can only be described as a sumptuous spread. The food is fresh and filling and the view below, north toward Scotts Beach and Crayfish Point, is picture-perfect.

A day on the beach

The walk today is 16.2km and most of it is, pleasingly, right on the beach as we’ve timed it perfectly to be here at low tide. The beaches are wide, sandy-white and clear of any people, and populated only by driftwood and rocks. There’s nothing quite like the roar of the Tasman Sea crashing beside you to make you realise you’re in a wild place, and the amount of timber – and the size of some of it – is a clear pointer to how rough the seas can get here. The loud crashing waves make a great contrast to the subtle ripple of flowing water at Wekakura Creek as it flows between a jumble of boulders into the sea. We’re sitting beside it, taking a break before the final section of the day’s walk to Heaphy Hut, and I am wondering if this is the beginning, how much better can the track get? This whole section has been fantastic, weaving in and away from the beaches and the coast into dense rainforest with tall palms that go right to the sand, offering us a respite from what has turned into a steamer of a day.

There’s nothing quite like the roar of the Tasman Sea, crashing beside you…

We reach Heaphy Hut in the late afternoon and it is a welcome sight. The sandflies are starting to become more than overly vociferous so it will be nice to escape their persistent harassment, plus it is looking like a beautiful sunset is on the way and the hut’s position, overlooking both the river mouth and the beach, make it the perfect photographic viewpoint. Interestingly, the hut isn’t overcrowded either, which I have become used to on NZ’s Great Walks. The few groups here – barring an elderly gentleman and his young grandson – have all walked in from our next night’s destination of James MacKay Hut, and it is cosy and more intimate than some of the huts I have stayed in on the busier walks to the south.

The climb

Surprisingly, I wake with nary a sore foot, calf muscle or back. Considering the distance – and the heat – of yesterday, I am feeling chipper, and keen to get going as we have a big 20.5km day ahead, with an ascent of around 800m before we reach James MacKay Hut. It sounded fearsome when I read over the itinerary, but Sarah and Angus assure us the climb is nice and gradual. I also think to myself if it is anything like the previous day, we will all be too preoccupied gawking around at the scenery anyway, while our boots just tick over the kilometres.

The first two hours tick over slowly, but include some memorable highlights, such as the two absolutely massive giant rata trees we encounter before our first meal stop at Lewis Hut. This hut is one of the older ones on the track, and its slightly worn appearance gives a hint as to the many walkers’ tales it must have witnessed over the years. Just like Heaphy Hut, Lewis is situated near-perfectly, right beside the confluence of the Lewis and Heaphy rivers. Both rivers are running slowly during our visit, but you can see the many overturned trees and other flood damage along the banks that hint at the power of these waterways after a big drop of rain.

The climb up is magnificent. As Angus and Sarah promised, it is gradual more than steep, allowing us plenty of time to check out our changing surrounds. As we gain altitude, the nikau palms and rata give way to ubiquitous beech forest and moss-covered rocks and logs – a true fairyland. We do still spot the odd rata; some of these even still have their red blossoms, a beautiful contrast to the surrounding shades of green that dominate the track sides. Various viewpoints allow us to stop and take it all in – and take in how far up we’ve come. When the Lewis River looks like a tiny strip of green/brown, I know we are high up.

As we gain altitude, the nikau palms and rata give way to ubiquitous beech forest

These views, though, are nearly put to shame by the amazing one from the verandah of James MacKay Hut, a brand-spanking hut only opened in 2014. We reach the hut around 6pm, so there’s still plenty of light and the view back down to the coast – and the shimmering Tasman Sea – is spectacular. It has been hot again today and the final part of the climb to the hut took a little bit more effort, but I am already forgetting any hardship, just soaking up the picture in front of me. A picture only matched – in an entirely different way – by what my face must have looked like when Sarah and Angus pulled out fresh salmon fillets for dinner. All I can say is Angus and his team at Southern Wilderness pride themselves on their food, and you won’t hear anything to the contrary from me…

Four into five does go

In my diary at the end of each day I start my notes off with the line: “Another big day”, and this third day – our longest – will prove no different. We have 24.2km to walk, with more ascending, on the way to Perry Saddle Hut. It’s the consequence of walking the track in four rather than five days, I guess, but I have not felt in any way rushed; Richard, Jo and I have all travelled at our own pace, with plenty of time for photographs and to look around. This day of walking in the higher country of the track is yet another sunny one and, with this type of weather, you are too busy enjoying it, and the landscape, to be concerned with distances – there’s just so much to see.

When people mention the Heaphy Track, you invariably hear about the sheer variety of terrain you walk through, and today we’re seeing yet another example. Up at these higher elevations it is a combination of low trees, moorlands and heathlands, with tussock predominant. We wind our way through this country for a few hours, stopping off at creeks to both cool down and, in one, to check out a small freshwater crayfish, before we reach Saxon Hut, our lunch stop (and yep, more delicious food). In contrast to our previous night’s lodging, this hut is another “oldie” but still well preserved and with a great view across tussock covered plains. Richard and Jo take the chance to duck down to a nearby creek to cool off but I forsake a wash; the water would be too cold for this big wimp.

The downs and beyond

As we move into the Gouland Downs area, the landscape opens right up, with tussock dominating. This area – and more so, around Gouland Downs Hut itself, is known as a great place to view great spotted kiwi. A sighting is not easy but, if you opt to stay in the small Gouland Downs Hut, you may hear them during the night, which would be awesome.

For us, this hut is another quick stop; we have a bit more of a climb up to Perry Saddle Hut. Again, the terrain changes as we move from the wide expanse of the Gouland Downs, into the sub-alpine again, and more beech forest. We also pass a number of limestone arches in this section; the remains of an ancient cave system. Oh, and yep, there’s the odd waterfall or two. I even hear a kakapo as I tackle the last steep section before Perry Saddle Hut. I must have been a scary sight – all focused on the track ahead – because the birds stayed hidden when I was there but Angus scored big-time with close-ups of the curious parrots as they moved nearer to the track.

heaphy track

I distract myself from the last few kilometres of walking by trying to get my head around the variety-packed walk the Heaphy has been so far. We still have a day to go and I reckon I have seen more NZ vegetation and terrain in the three days to date than on any other track. The downs we just passed through are totally unexpected – and even more so now I am back in the more familiar beech forest. It is like we have entered and left a series of different but intangibly linked worlds. The only thing that has remained constant has been the huts and, as I take the final steps to Perry Saddle Hut and its comfy bunkrooms, warm kitchen and common area, I can only say that is a great thing. As is the paella that Angus and Sarah cook up for dinner…

Straight down

I am in no hurry to leave Perry Saddle Hut. The morning is a cracker – sunny but cool – and the ambience in the hut is one of quiet and calm. I don’t think I am the only one reluctant to leave; the rest of the group is taking it easy, not in any rush to pack and don boots. It had been an epic day yesterday; 24km is a fair walk in anyone’s language and the sumptuous dinner and wine that night had also helped me enjoy probably the best night’s sleep I have experienced in years. It’s only the promise of what we’ll see – and what we’ll walk through – on the track today that gets me out the door.

And it doesn’t take long. After half an hour Angus calls us to pull up, drop packs and follow him on the twisty sidetrack through the bush, over rocks, to Flanagans Corner (at 915m the track’s highest point) and, yes, more spectacular views. This time we can see the Dragons Teeth and the Douglas Range, a jagged silhouette of grey, rugged rock against today’s brilliant blue sky. You can trek the Dragons Teeth – only experienced trekkers/scramblers need apply – but it is enough to just see them today in the distance.

By the time I reach the bottom, my knees have decided that they’ve had enough of the constant thumping of four hours or so downhill, but that’s my body’s only complaint. Considering we walked the Heaphy Track in four days, at a not-rushed but not-slow pace, I am feeling remarkably fresh, both physically and mentally. Of course, good food always results in contentment – and Angus and Sarah delivered on their promise there in spades – but I reckon I can attribute my sense of wellbeing to the fact that the Heaphy Track packs so much pleasant distraction into every one of its 78.4km that you just don’t notice the tiredness.

The essentials

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Wellington. From Wellington, Air New Zealand
also offers direct flights to Nelson. See

The adventure: Southern Wilderness offers a variety of Heaphy Track experiences, ranging from this four-day one, to a five-day Heaphy Track walk, as well as an Extended version that includes a night at the Alpine Lodge in Nelson Lakes National Park. The company also offers guided experiences on other Great Walks and tracks in the Nelson area. See or call 1800 355 768.

More information: For all things New Zealand, see