New Zealand’s Heaphy Track packs eco adventure

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One trek, four kinds of wild

WORDS: KRISTI FOSTER

From rugged mountains to palm-fringed coasts, New Zealand’s Heaphy Track packs adventure. 

I was navel-deep in frigid tidal water, my pack hovering inches above the murky waterline of a flooded, prehistoric forest, when I found it. Just like the salt and fresh water that curdled around my waist as I slogged beneath Jurassic-like palms and limestone cliffs, it seeped quietly into my soul.

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Ahead of me, Reg Pennels, a fellow trekker from Christchurch, had also paused mid-primordial soup to take photos. Usually focussed on herding our group and keeping team spirits high, it was a sure sign that he was as transfixed as I was.

As I tiptoed forwards like a top-heavy penguin, I realised that time moved differently in this place, becoming less important the deeper I waded, until even the chill water around my waist numbed in comparison to our alien surroundings. I sensed that when we emerged from this prehistoric world the hands of some giant clock would start ticking again, the moment would cease and something unnamed would be forgotten. It was the enchanting calm that comes from being so utterly absorbed in your surroundings that you have time to remember yourself.

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Four ecosystems in four days

Once traced by early Maori in search of pounamu (greenstone) and 19th century gold prospectors, the 78.4 kilometre Heaphy Track covers rugged mountains, expansive tussock downs and lush forests before dropping to meeting the wild West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The variety of landscapes alone makes you feel like you’re crossing an entire continent.

The Heaphy Track is buried deep within Kahurangi National Park, making it more challenging to get to than some of New Zealand’s Great Walks but also less populated, attracting trampers of all skill levels and a baseline sense of adventure. After sharing a Trek Express trip to Brown River Hut with a group of Australian mountain bikers, I spent most of the trek with a group of co-workers from Christchurch questing for a new challenge.

On day one, the track snaked steadily up a route once surveyed for a road, offering glimpses of Aorere Valley and Mount Taranaki/Egmont (once mooted for the Hobbit’s Lonely Mountain). Near the end of the 17.5-kilometre climb, I emerged from the track at Flanagan’s Corner, the highest point on the Heaphy at 915 metres, where a 270-degree vista wrapped around me. This was wilderness wrought in large scale: mountains whose sharp edges hadn’t yet been dulled by erosion covered by bizarre vegetation that juxtaposed alpine browns with subtropical greens.

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Setting out from Perry Saddle Hut on day two, I was greeted by an entirely different landscape. The Gouland Downs – a sea of stunted tussock cradled between mountaintops – grow in shallow, nutrient-depleted soils from some of the oldest rocks in New Zealand. With the sparse, open landscape and a path that curved back and forth on itself amidst mist-shrouded hills, it took little imagination to conjure up Tolkien’s orcs among distant patches of beech, as if I were racing through bogs towards the gates of Mount Doom.

When the clouds finally released their watery hoards, the landscape transformed before my eyes. Streams and tributaries swelled, drinking thirstily from the water-logged grasslands and spilling over their bounds to etch a new riverine map around me. I joined the group from Christchurch to cross rising streams with arms linked. The rain chased us all 24.2 kilometres to James Mackay Hut (the Heaphy’s flashiest upgrade), where we stumbled in to warm ourselves with fire and food.

Fighting for New Zealand’s forests

Descending from James Mackay to Lewis Hut, nīkau palms slowly invaded beech forest, offering glimpses of the swollen, brown Heaphy River. Emerging from the muted colours of the nutrient-poor downs, this forest seemed impossibly lush, alive and unexpected.

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Past Lewis Hut and across the Heaphy River we entered lowland forest of rimu pines and giant northern rātā (part of which can flood after rains at high tide). As we emerged from the submerged path, Aimee, another tramper from Christchurch, greeted us with a grin that could only mean one thing: a carnivorous land snail. Roughly four inches from feelers to tail tip, the purple-grey body of this Powelliphanta looked just like a tongue after a blueberry-flavoured slushie. Found only in the Gouland/Kahurangi area, these earthworm-slurping nocturnal species are threatened by non-native predators including possums, pigs and rats.

The Heaphy Track’s striking landscapes give the impression of pristine wilderness, but it is not so. What you don’t see is the quiet battle New Zealand’s native forest dwellers are fight against alien predators like rats, stoats and possums. Kahurangi National Park is home to an abundance of native birds including tui (a songbird), kereru (New Zealand pigeon), kea (a mountain parrot) and the nationally vulnerable whio/blue duck, as well as roughly 50% of all New Zealand plant species, several of which are threatened by introduced pests. The Gouland Downs also provide habitat for the country’s largest kiwi species, the roa/great spotted kiwi, many of whose chicks are killed by invasive predators.

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If it weren’t for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC), work to control pests like possums, the battle might have been over years ago. DOC Ranger Richard Rossiter puts the pest problem in perspective: “I’m catching about 20 rats a week, just around the Heaphy Hut,” he says. Given the vast scale of wilderness, DOC uses the best approach available – aerial baiting by helicopter, aided by hand baiting – using a biodegradable toxin. Because baiting can be controversial, bringing visitors through the park not only helps fund DOC’s work, but raises awareness of New Zealand’s complex problem nationally and internationally.

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Back to nature

Standing on the beach in front of Heaphy Hut, the swirling currents at the junction of river and sea left no doubt as to who is in charge in this unpredictable place, where the sea can be glass one moment and a roiling, churning confluence the next. On our fourth and last day, the landscape shifted yet again, following a sandy, windswept coast through rata and karaka trees, amidst groves of nīkau palms. Not a metre from the track we passed a restless seal pup, squirming impatiently for its mother. The path took us around rocky points and across swing bridges before delivering us in an exhausted, exhilarated heap by the mouth of the Kohaihai River, souls filled with adventure, lungs filled with ocean air and minds already plotting our next trek.

From start to finish the Heaphy Track grips you, asking you to think only about the next bend, the next view, the next challenge. Somewhere between Flannigan’s Corner and the coast, away melt expectations, obligations, tomorrows and yesterdays, replaced with the immediacy of each moment. If you let it, this place strips down the unnecessary and mundane, refuelling you with something totally unexpected: your own sense of self. This is a place that will stay with you long after your pack is emptied and your blisters gone, to remind you of what’s important and worth conserving.

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At a glance

Duration: 4-6 days (2-3 days by bike)
Distance: 78.4km (one way)
Season: all year
Mountain bikes permitted: 1 May to 30 September

Getting there

Located on the tip of New Zealand’s South Island, the Heaphy Track can be tramped in either direction, starting from either Brown Hut, Golden Bay (about 28 km from Collingwood) or Kohaihai, West Coast (15 km from Karamea). If you’re short on time, try a two-day return trip from either end, or, for a longer challenge, tramp one way and then retrace your steps back to your starting point.

Bus, taxi and air services are available to either end of the track, but bus services are limited in winter so you may need to share with another group to hire a charter service. Be sure to read up before you start as some sections of the track are prone to flooding from tides and/or rain.

Accommodation

Customise your walk by choosing from seven DOC-operated huts and nine campsites along the track, which must be booked in advance all year-round. Huts cost $32 per night (17 years and under free) and have bunks, mattresses, water, toilets and heating with fuel. Larger huts have lighting source and basic cooking facilities with fuel (and often cooking utensils). Campsites cost $14 per adult per night (17 years and under free) and offer basic facilities including toilets, sinks and a water supply.

For more

New Zealand Department of Conservation  (DOC)
Great Walks
Heaphy Track – campsite bookings

Images: courtesy © Richard Rossiter, New Zealand Department of Conservation 

KRISTI FOSTER

Kristi FosterTrained as a conservation biologist (previously geologist), Kristi has worked across four continents to promote projects that benefit people and nature. From the National Autonomous University in Mexico, to the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya, Fauna & Flora International in the UK, Ecotourism Australia and Crees Foundation in the Peruvian Amazon, Kristi’s passion for sustainability has inspired her to communicate tourism as a tool for conservation and development. With travel to 23 countries and counting, she is always discovering new adventures that benefit people and planet.

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