Easter Break Pt 2: The Heaphy

Emma Lodes University of Otago, New Zealand


May 10, 2015

As I mentioned in my last post (Easter Break Pt. 1: Collingwood), leaving Collingwood for the Heaphy wasn’t easy after getting to know the Barhams. Although it was only for three nights, the luxury and ease of living with a real family – one that graciously fed us, entertained us, loved us and surrounded us with wholesome family vibes – was something I didn’t realize I missed as much as I did. The family inspired me to live my life the way they do – focused on family, connected to the land, simple and resourceful.

On Monday morning, Riz and I loaded our packs – stuffed with food and gear for 4 days of hiking – into the family’s sedan, and Marta drove us twenty minutes along a winding country road to the start of the Heaphy. The familial and taken-care-of feeling I had had the last three days, exacerbated by the fact that I haven’t been home in so long, peaked as we said our goodbyes: Marta was a mama bird releasing her young into the wild, to walk off along a dirt trail into the forest. Suddenly I was a kid again and unsure if I really wanted to brave these woods, when it felt like I could go back home to Collingwood. But I knew (and I would be right) that the Heaphy would be absolutely spectacular.

The Heaphy is a four-day, 80 kilometer long hike that begins in Golden Bay’s lush Aorere Valley, cuts through the remote, protected Kahurangi National Park, and finishes off near Karamea, a small town on the West Coast. Four different environments on the Heaphy each span 20 kilometers, splitting the track into even quarters. On the first day of the Heaphy you walk through ancient Alpine beech forest, on the second day you traverse golden Alpine tussock grassland, on the third you descend through lush rainforest, and on the fourth you pass along a tropical coastline lined with primeval nikau palm groves.

The Kahurangi National Park encompasses the South Island’s entire northwest lobe, and no road runs through the entire park. As I wrote in my last blog, Highway 60 ends in Collingwood, and likewise, highway 67 ends in Karamea. The only path linking the two towns is the Heaphy. The 6, which joins the 60 much farther east in Motueka and the 67 farther south in Westport, carves a wide arc around Kahurangi as if it’s tiptoeing around a delicate, sleeping beast. From 1950 to 1980, the New Zealand government made repeated attempts to build a road through Kahurangi, along parts of the Heaphy track. The local populations supported the creation of a road, as towns in the far northwest of the South Island are isolated; they also thought that a road would bring more tourists and trampers to the northwest, and increase the popularity of the track.

At the same time, a campaign to save the Track arose, mostly motivated by fear that road construction would harm sections of ecological importance, like fragile nikau palm groves along the coastline. Ironically, the campaign to save the track ended up attracting hordes of hikers to the Heaphy and increased tourism in the northwest without need for a road. Now people are attracted to the Heaphy for its remote nature and ecological diversity, and it’s an integral member of the Great Walks possy. Responding to growing popularity, the Department of Conservation added and rebuilt most of the huts; now, the Heaphy’s huts are the best I’ve seen so far. It’s considered the best Great Walk by a good amount of people, mostly because it combines such astonishingly diverse environments in one four-day walk.

Before leaving, we had arranged with Bri to pick us up on the other side of the track, in Karamea. Because there aren’t roads through the Kahurangi, it would take her seven hours to drive from Collingwood to Karamea along Highway 6. The plan was that she’d rent a car in Golden Bay and after picking us up, we’d continue down the West Coast in the car, and eventually wind up back in Dunedin to have made a full circle of the South Island for spring break.

On the first day, Marta dropped us off in the forested foothills of the Tasman mountains, and we walked into the wild to start our first quarter of the journey. We’d sleep at Perry Saddle hut, which sits at the highest elevation of the hike. We started at around 1:30 pm (like I said, it was hard to get out of Collingwood) and the hours and daylight slipped by fast as we climbed our only ascent of the trip through lush green forests.

Around dusk, I stopped dead in the trail – a large flightless bird was on the trail in front of us. A kiwi?! We stood in a frozen hush as the bird hopped frantically off the trail and dove into the bushes. The sighting had been so brief, we couldn’t be sure, but it had to be a kiwi, right?! A few minutes later, we stopped dead again: a hundred meters or so up the trail, a giant animal was screeching and rolling around in the leaf litter. A giant squirrel?! Cautious but enthralled, we edged closer and saw that it was actually two large, flightless birds wrestling. And they definitely weren’t kiwis. They looked more like chickens– beady, evil eyes, short, sharp beak, and shiny, flat feathers, and a whir of flapping wings, biting beaks and scratching claws.

Turns out our fighting birds were wekas, another one of New Zealand’s large flightless birds. They’re about the size of a kiwi and are often confused with kiwis, but they’re much more common, especially on New Zealand’s northwest coast. They have a distinct whistle-shriek, and are carnivores – they’ll eat rabbits. Unlike kiwis, they walk around during the daytime, while kiwis are strictly nocturnal. While kiwis have a long beak, wekas have a short, sharp one they use as a weapon. They’re pretty scrappy, ugly fellers. And we were watching a pair of them fight in a lurid show of violence and domination! We watched until they were done, jaws agape, not about to cross the path in front of the claw-and-beak show. One of them finally ran away, and the other stalked after it through the bush like an evil, menacing chicken. Yikes. We moved on, bummed we didn’t see a kiwi, but feeling as if we had gotten our fill of bird entertainment.

The sun set before we arrived at our camp on Perry Saddle. And as soon as we started to set up our tent, the rain began. Not again. It started with a drizzle, but to be safe, we set up our tent on the little wooden outdoor platform, with wood planks beneath us rather than sodden grass. Stupidly, we thought the dinky wooden roof above our heads would provide us with some shelter, and headed inside the hut with our cooking ingredients.

The Perry Saddle hut was the first of a series of three spectacularly luxurious huts. We cooked up hearty bean burritos and made friends with a pair of Australian best friends who were doing the hike in six days, and had brought along white wine and real wine glasses (how were they managing to carry all the food?!). Outside, the rain hammered down harder and the wind picked up. By the time we popped back out to camp, the rain was torrential and the wind howled furiously, blowing the rain up, down and all around, soaking the tent from all sides. Without stakes, our tent looked like it could fly away. We huddled inside and tried to ignore the howling wind and flapping tent walls, but after a couple hours realized we would never get to sleep.

I had remembered seeing open bunks in the hut. Why shouldn’t we just sneak inside? In a rush of storm-induced adrenaline we stuffed sleeping bags and clothes into a garbage bag and sprinted into the hut, and then ran back outside to set down the tent, cramming it into another garbage bag. We slid silently into unused bunks and slept like rocks from 1am to 8am. It was a very worthwhile steal and would set our standards of comfort and sneaking abilities for the rest of the trip.

When we woke up the next morning, the rain was, if anything, more intense. It didn’t just fall hard, but swarmed the environment in a chaotic storm of wind and wet, obliterating any sight more than a couple feet in front of you and ruining our chances of seeing the second day’s beautiful golden Alpine tussock land. We procrastinated in the hut for as long as we possibly could that morning, jealous of the lingering Aussie pair who only had 5 kilometers to walk that day. Finally we donned our rain jackets – useless against the mess outside – and stepped out into the gail.

Day two was a mental challenge to keep on tramping through the cold and wet, but it was interlaced by gems of excitement and beauty. Every half hour or so, we would come across a river to cross – some narrow creeks that had spilled over the trail because of all the rain, and some wide, rushing rivers with tumbling white water, which you could cross on a seasonally erected hanging bridge. It was quite the adventure. At certain points, the trail became an elevated walkway, raised a meter or so above the swampy grassland. But because of all the flooded rivers, the water level hovered just over the walkway, creating a mystically aquatic trail and making us slosh through a couple inches of water for kilometers at a time. The grassland, like the yellow fields on the Routeburn, was savannah-like, and covered in short, twisting African-looking trees. We passed by limestone caves and strange, animal-like limestone boulders along the way, but didn’t have time for many stops; we had gotten a late start and wanted to make sure we reached the hut before dark.

By the time we reached the “one kilometer left until James Mackay hut” sign we were immensely relieved. The sun was about to go down, we were drenched, cold and exhausted, and 100% set on sneaking into the hut that night. The rain had not stopped and it wasn’t due to stop the next day; there was no way we were trying for another night in a storm. So when we got to the hut we walked directly in, counted about nine empty bunks, and made ourselves at home. This hut was equally gorgeous, brand new, and occupied by a raucous family reunion. The family – all kiwis – apparently plans a tramp every year in different locations, and has done so for decades. They invited us to participate in their quiz night, which we readily did, once again loving the family vibes and energy.

The next morning we left late again, around 10, and the rain continued to dribble down. It was much, much better than the previous day, and we anticipated it’d fizzle out. Day three was dominated by a decent through dense, lush jungle to the wide, meandering Heaphy River, which was reminiscent of the Amazon. We walked amongst thick vines, fern trees, palms, and the very best: Giant rata trees! I believe these are now my favorite tree: they’re giant forest trees endemic to New Zealand, and grow taller then 20 meters. They begin as hemiepiphytes, or plants that germinate in a forest canopy and initially live harmlessly on another tree. But then the rata sends its roots downward to make contact with the ground; over hundreds of years, their roots hug, or “girdle” the host tree’s trunk until the original tree rots away, to eventually form a hollow “pseudo trunk” out of all of its roots and vines intertwined.The result is a giant, magical-looking fairytale tree with a hollow trunk and twisting vines, which seems to always host other plants and vines and animals on its thick, mossy branches.

Once we arrived at the Heaphy River, our descent from the mountains was complete and the next step was to walk to the ocean. We’d end our day where the Heaphy River meets the ocean. When the tide comes in, the outward flow of the river clashes against the incoming tide, creating a dynamic dance of marine and terrestrial energy in opposition. As we followed the wide, calm Heaphy, blood red from its iron content, the rain stopped. We crossed arching bridges and passed tranquil riverside beaches. The closer we got to the ocean, the more palms appeared amongst the foliage.

Again we arrived at the hut at dark, but still popped out to the river’s edge to get a look at the ocean. That night in the hut, we lit candles and played cards with a Kiwi and his Spanish cousin who was traveling on a round-the-world ticket. The environment had changed: it was warm, humid, and tropical now, as if we had traveled from the Alps to the Amazon in one day.

The next morning, the view through the Heaphy Hut’s windows topped any luxury resort I’ve seen: a pristine snapshot of ocean, blue skies, palms and forested cliffs. A layer of fog shrouded jungley hills that fell directly into a turquoise swelling ocean. The entire fourth day passes along the coast. Aside from the sandflies (like mosquitos but even more annoying), the coastal stretch was magical. The sea roared and sprayed to our right, the cliffs rose to our left, and we ducked under the bent and sagging trunks of exotic nikau palms. Stretches of the path ran along the beach, and we had to run to avoid the tide and swells. We could have been on a deserted tropical island out of Castaway.

When we arrived in the parking lot near Karamea that ended the Heaphy, I didn’t want it to be over. We had tramped through alpine forest, tussock land, dense rainforest and tropical coastline – what could be next? After four days completely out of civilization, I was not ready to see cars and a parking lot. If Bri wasn’t about to come pick us up, I would have wanted to turn right around and do the whole thing again.


New Zealand