The Heaphy Track - Walking New Zealands Longest Great Walk
Written by Anna Cochrane
When 2020 decided to turn upside down and I found myself back home in New Zealand, I made the decision that I would get out and explore as much as possible.
Fast forward to the decision to head to Nelson for Christmas and my brother saying ‘you should do the Heaphy Track before Christmas and then the Able Tasman after!’.
Great… So I thought at the time, I’ll do it!
Now, little did I know at the time that work was going to go slightly insane in the lead up to Christmas and I’d be working right up until I left to drive to Takaka.
I decided to hike the Heaphy from the West Coast back to Takaka, and as I learnt quickly on day 1 this is something most people don’t do and there is a good reason for that - It’s all uphill!!!
However… let’s rewind to before I made that realisation.
Arriving in Takaka, I rocked up to Golden Bay Air and said ‘I’m here!’, and the pilot said ‘great lets go!’, giving me no time to worry about the fact the plane was tiny and I was about to get dropped off to spend 4 days walking back to my car.
The flight was amazing and something I would highly recommend, whether doing it to get to the start or back from the track. To fly over this part of New Zealand and see untouched wilderness below you, was just magical!
Next up was my true blue ‘coaster’, as I soon realised when I got into the shuttle to get to Kohaihai Shelter, with his jokes about the ‘boys collecting the coconuts from the palm trees’ - they don’t produce coconuts, to his ‘we only let Aussies and Aucklander’s swim out there!’ - due to the undertow and currents sending them home again ;) . However, he was hilarious, genuine, cared, full of knowledge and so encouraging as I set off, even gave me an extra gas canister as he was worried I would run out - turns out he didn’t need to as I still came home with my full one and his not empty yet.
This is where the fun begins, it was around 230pm when I set off and had a 5 hour hike in front of me to get to Heaphy Campsite (where I had no idea the level of sandflies in store for me!).
It was stunning! Walking through insane Nikau Palm forests, over rivers and looking up valleys, to the coastline where the mountains genuinely meet the sea, it made me feel like I was in another world, not the New Zealand I knew.
15.5 km and 5 hours later I made it to the campsite to be greeted by millions of sandflies, Wekas, Kereru and more of our native birds, setup camp and headed to the river for a swim… ok, so I ended up just rinsing off the sweat as the Heaphy River was freezing! After cooking dinner - ok so boiling water for a Back Country dinner… and being attacked by sandflies it was time to retire to the safety of my tent… Only to be woken at 1am by the best alarm ever!!! A Great Spotted Kiwi beside me chatting with his mate in the distance - I couldn’t believe it, and only wish I could have gotten out to see him before he ran away.
Day 1… This coastline is simply beautiful!
Day 2 was to be a day like no other, a lovely 2 hour stroll to Lewis Hut where it was perfect to stop for a coffee and water refill, then… a gruelling 5 hour hike up to James Mackay Hut, a climb that just kept going and going and going, sure I stopped for lunch and another stop to chat to a little Robin, and it started raining… however it was testing and had that have been day 1 I likely would have turned around and gone home, but I was committed and in a much improved mindset over day 1.
Getting up to the hut was a welcome site, I found the right spot for my tent and went to the river for a swim - ok again, a rinse as it was even more freezing.
Chatting to the Ranger I learnt a few things:
- The Heaphy is really tough on your feet, the ground is packed hard and it hurts everyone
- Walking South to North, meant when you look back you can see how far up you’ve climbed from the Hut (approx. 700m)
- There is a daytime Kiwi that sometimes appears 2km down the track, unfortunately for me he wasn’t in a social mood that day
- And… that all DOCs huts are going to have to install a water purification system! Crazy! Which also means that those back country huts that currently have water, aka a rain filled tank, will likely have it removed and hikers will need to get water from the rivers. Enter stupid Government decisions…
Somewhere on the climb up to James Mackay Hut
Now back to the track…
Day 3 was a beautiful 30km approx. day… from James Mackay to Aorere Shelter, and I started it waking to rain - not cool mother nature! I decided just to pack down, the tent wouldn’t dry and I needed to get moving early, so I was on the way around 7am and from then on not a rain drop in sight!
Today was the day I saw the most changes in the landscape and terrain, from swamp flats, to forests, to limestone caves and vast open spaces, it was beautiful!
They say the Heaphy is NZ’s number one Great Walk, and having only done this one so far, I’d have to agree. Giving its extreme change in landscape from the Ocean to the Mountains for a start, then the varying array of forests, just mind blowing.
I have to say this day was tough, by now I had a blister under the already popped blister (and I never get blisters…), my achilles is rather grumpy and just generally sore from hiking with an extra 15kg on my back. But, my mindset was in a great place and every 1km marker I saw leading up to a hut was a welcome sight - although I swear DOC sent out someone 7 foot tall to measure the 1km, as they seemed very inconsistent, they were however gratefully received.
This was my day to see a beautiful NZ Takahe… I saw the signs, was told by the Rangers where to see them and I was hopeful! But alas… no Takahe was to be found, bar the signs saying they could be there… I was told on day 2 by people going the other direction, that they had seen Takahe, Kaka, Kiwi and more… I guess it’s like winning lotto with wildlife.
After a good break for lunch with a lovely family at Gouland Downs Hut, it was time to head to the Shelter… I caught the Ranger on her way up and she told me to sleep in the shelter which was chilly, scary and also well outside my comfort zone! She said to me ‘don’t worry about the screaming, it’s just the Kaka’s out and about’ - so glad she said this as in the shelter the night was blacker than black. If you haven’t seen a Kaka, they are similar to the Kea, only smaller and they won’t go above the treeline, hence not an alpine bird like the Kea.
This being my last night had me contemplating how far I had come, not just in terms of kms but also my mindset, as it was terrible on day one. I was doubting I could do it, wondering why I was doing this and especially by myself.
But, at this stage I only had 11kms to go and all downhill how tough could that be… right…
Well… Day 4 Mother Nature strikes again, 5am wake up and it was raining and not just raining but the kind of dramatic rain that in a normal circumstance no one leaves their homes… However, I had to. So I packed up, and at 6am started the 4 hour trek down to Browns Hut, very grateful I didn’t have to do the extra 4 km and 1 hour I had done the night before.
Hiking in the rain is great if you have the right gear, and thankfully I do. From my Mont raincoat, to Lowa Boots, the Osprey cover for my pack and my headlamp that was fine with the rain, and again mother nature showed me the way… where the water flowed was the easiest place to be walking and meant a good pace down the mountain. I kept thinking though, this view must be amazing when you can see it, as the forest was simply beautiful in the mist and rain.
Arriving down at Browns Hut I did a dance at the 1km to go marker and then instantly also felt sad that it was nearly over, and then as I got closer I got to see the Brown River in full force! The amount of rain we had had meant it was flowing and flowing fast, thank goodness for DOCs amazing swing bridges as otherwise you’d be pitching a tent and waiting for days to cross, it made me wonder how people did it back in the day before DOC added the bridges.
Once at the hut the boots and socks were off, a change of clothes was in order and it was time for coffee, breakfast and chatting with those in the hut heading up and starting their adventure, these were the people that decided to get the 5 hour climb out of the way day one and enjoy downhill for the next X amount of days… Smart people!
I can’t recommend the Heaphy more highly to those who want to see a beautiful untouched part of New Zealand, amazing scenery, ever changing weather, cool bird life, horrendous sandflies and just to challenge themselves, it certainly was all that and more for me.
It is not a track to be rushed, it is a track to be enjoyed and appreciated.
Now thanks to the Heaphy I didn’t get to do the Able Tasman as both my Achilles were super grumpy at me and came right about 10 days later, the rest of me happy and ready to go, but the crucial part of being able to walk not so much. So much so, my lovely brother gave me a proper wooden walking cane for Christmas.
Tips for the Heaphy…
- Carry as little as possible, especially if camping as you’re naturally carrying more weight.
- Top up your water at the huts, they all say to boil but I was fine
- Stop and take the photo, have that moment as it goes by too fast
- If you see a Robin - scratch the ground in front of you and it will come looking for bugs and you’ll get a cool photo
- Go for the swims, it makes you feel so refreshed
- Chat to those you pass on the track, at minimum say hi
- Walk North to South… It should be easier walking gradually downhill for 80% of the track
- There is nothing that will stop the sandflies at Heaphy Hut/Campsite - so book the Hut!
Would I do it again - heck yes! I met people on day three who had walked it 25 years prior and I hope I can be like them, still hiking in my 70s and enjoying what New Zealand has to offer.