Forests of the Heaphy

The centerpiece of our New Zealand trip was the Heaphy track. At around 80 kilometers, it’s the longest of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and located at the far northern end of the south island. The Heaphy promised great variety, from alpine forest to coastal beaches, and as a Great Walk featured huts and well-maintained tread. 80k isn’t all that far, especially over four days, but with M being pregnant and my parents not having the best of joints anymore moderate seemed like a wise move.

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Logistics for the Heaphy are daunting. New Zealand topography does not lend itself to straight roads, and the country is nowhere near densely populated enough for second-generation roads, straightening curve and moderating grades, to have gone in. Major highways regularly feature one-lane bridges and the kind of irregular, off-camber corners rarely seen on anything besides back roads in the lower 48. Thus, the 463 kilometers of road which separate the trailheads can easily take 8 or more hours if you don’t want to make your passengers ill. We used Derry Kingston at Heaphy Track Help, who will drive your car to the end and give you back your keys as he meets you while hiking the trail in reverse back to his van. He’s an AT thruhiker, has hiked the Heaphy over 400 times, and his service is a very worthy investment.

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The Heaphy starts in temperate rainforest along the Aorere River. The first 20k is a gentle, 900 vertical meter climb up to the Perry Saddle Hut, where we’d spend our first night.

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It poured rain as we drove to the trailhead and began our hike, which seemed appropriate given the surroundings but meant few photos got taken along the way. At times the downpour was as intense as rain gets.

The whole Heaphy is now machine-built trail, and allows mountain biking during the less-crowded winter. I’d love to go back and ride it.

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M was hitting the wall pretty quick, after only an hour or so. She’s light and lightly muscled and doesn’t have the power reserve to move the added weight of a four month-old fetus up big hills at her normal pace, to say nothing of the chaos of the new metabolic regime pregnancy dictates. I lashed her pack to mine for most of the day, which got some good comments as we rolled in to a very full hut during a bit of clearing late in the afternoon.

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The three huts we stayed at just happened to be three of the newest huts in New Zealand, and were all built to very high standards by a local contractor. Bunks for two dozen, gas cookers, running water from a rainwater tank, and coal stoves are standard features. If ever there’s a good time to camp at such a hut, it’s after a day of soaking rain, and we took advantage.

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The forecast for the next day was mixed, all while we got underway under a light shower the day was for the most part sunny and pleasant. We wove our way through gorgeous forests and out into the grasslands and peat bogs of the Gouland Downs.

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Variety of the name for the day, and indeed for the whole trip. Kind weather and easy walking allowed for lots of gawking around.

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M likes to make fun of me when I’m effusive about trees, but even she had to admit that the profundity of the Heaphy forests was exemplary.

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Gouland Downs hut. We booked the three new huts simply due to spacing for a four-day schedule. They were very nice, but the smaller, older huts had a bit more of a cabin-y feel which would have been welcome.

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Oftentimes at ent sighting would not have been out of place.

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The only native New Zealand mammals are bats. Australian possums and english stouts are a particular menace to native birds, and rodent fecundity being what it is, New Zealand has for a number of decades been the world leader in the use of compound 1080. It’s a political and ideological issue; there isn’t a viable alternative when it comes to controlling the rodent populations, but with a range and frequency of use beyond any previous precedent worldwide, it’s impossible to know what the potential long-term affects will be on an ecosystem level. Signage like this was copious.

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Day two, which ended at the months-old James Mackay Hut, was the longest and most varied, and probably the most scenically enjoyable.

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From the common room we had a distant view of the ocean and mouth of the Heaphy River, where we’d end the day tomorrow.

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Day three featured two distinct sections; a long descending traverse down to the suspension bridge across the Heaphy River, and a flat track through the thick woods alongside down to the Heaphy hut, within sight of the ocean.

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Weka, a native mostly-flightless bird, are the Heaphy equivalent of marmots or racoons. Very curious, they were a consistent presence around huts and the trail the last two days.

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Crossing the big bridge over the Heaphy River made for a startling transition. First, it was already a big river, amazing since we had hiked above the very headwaters midway through the day before. Rainforests, obviously, make rivers quickly. Second, the flora along the floodplain was enormous and abundant. The last half of the day went very quickly, with endless stuff to look at.

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After all that you get to the hut, drop your gear, change, and go for a stroll on the beach.

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Or just enjoy the view from the hut (inside, due to sandflies).

That evening the ranger came by and invited us along for a short hike to a cave.

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As can easily be imagined, the off-trail hiking was thick, and a guide very welcome. The cave was short, but tall, active, and very clean with plenty of airflow and light from the many openings.

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The next morning we were down to the last dregs of food, and all the stood between us and beer/food/showers was 16 km of coast.

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The whole experience of the Heaphy, from the huts to the terrain to the biome, had been novel in the extreme, and the coastal walking just drove that point home all the more emphatically. Most of the time we even had enough breeze to keep away the sandflies.

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That is the whole point of traveling, I suppose, doing a familiar thing in an unfamiliar place, and using your base of comfort as a headstart to better understand something altogether new. In this way, and just about all others, the Heaphy was perfect. It was a great walk, ideal for our group in terms of length and difficulty, and one of the most varied and memorable backpacking trips I’ve ever done. All without needing a tent.

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6 thoughts on “Forests of the Heaphy

  1. Lightly muscled??? Jerk.

    I wasn’t hitting a wall, I was walking slowly. And if you were a more patient person it would have been just fine. But no… me walking at a normal, human pace, was just not acceptable… besides, my pack strapped on top of yours still weighed less than that other guy’s pack all by itself πŸ™‚

    Plus, all you normal people, with your normal people appetites, and normal people eating schedules… ya’ll were practically starving me!!!

    While I was appreciative of you taking my pack, because it was pouring rain, and having the day take an extra 2 or 3 hours wasn’t appealing, I am Totes Hard Core!!! You leave me, and my fetus, and my backpack alone… so there…

  2. So great to see places so different than what we’re used to. Big congrats on the new family member. Learning what’s enjoyable and appropriate for pregnant backpacking is all part of the fun πŸ˜‰

  3. Pingback: The next big pack | Bedrock & Paradox

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