The Heaphy Revisited

I seem to do the Heaphy Track once every 25 years. The last time was in 1973 (don’t ask me about the time before that if you value your life!); the most recent time was earlier this year at Waitangi weekend when Austin, Andy Sweet, Suzi Penny and I took an extra day off and did the track “advanced” style.

Advanced” tramping was a concept introduced to the world a year or two ago in the pages of this journal in an article by Kirsty Woods. It is a new category of tramping, over and above the usual grades of E, M, F; and FE; or more accurately, it represents a totally new dimension of classification, at right angles to the standard grades. The essential ingredients of “advanced” tramping are to travel in style, to eat well, and to have a good time. We did all three.

We certainly traveled in style, courtesy of Takaka Valley Airlines. An hour after leaving Wellington airport we were in the Takaka Valley – no mucking around with crowded holiday weekend ferries, hectic scenes at the Picton luggage conveyor belt, and long bus or hire van journeys through the night. An hour later – a mere two or three hours after leaving work – we were pitching the fly outside Brown Hut at the start of the track, looking forward to four days of “advanced” tramping.

Next morning we set off up the wide, well-graded old pack track, winding our way at a steady grade up the hillside towards Perry Saddle. Halfway up, where the track does a big zigzag across the hillside to gain height, we took the old, steep short-cut track to remind our-selves of what non-advanced tramping is like. We stopped for lunch at a small shelter hut, which I’m sure wasn’t there 25 years ago. Up at the saddle, Perry Saddle Hut was how I remembered it from the dim distant past. Then we wound our way down from the saddle to the wide-open rolling tussocklands of the Gouland Downs, across Cave Brook, which seemed much smaller and much less deeply incised than I remembered it, and up to the old Downs Hut where we camped for the night. Downs Hut – a real tramping hut, not one of the modern Lockwood monstrosities which are littering the landscape too much these days – was much as I remembered it from quarter of a century ago, although I don’t know if it used to have the roofed-over outside porch area which it now sports.

Next came the second requirement of an “advanced” tramp- the food. Austin broke out the cheese-board and crackers, while Suzi produced the wine. Afterwards I explored some of the caves and the amazing limestone formations in the band of bush lying behind the hut.

Next day we wandered across the downs and had lunch at Saxon Hut, which definitely wasn’t there 25 years ago. On the way I had a bit of a run-in with a ranger asking to see my Great Walk pass. “You don’t need a pass to walk in a National Park,” I told him. We had a little bit of a debate about freedom of access to the public lands of New Zealand, and eventually he either saw my point of view or gave up, and I continued on my way. Actually I had a Great Walk pass in my wallet all along but I wasn’t going to reveal that because I was looking forward to an argument on the subject! And since we didn’t spend a single night in a hut, as far as I’m concerned that’s four nights I’ll spend for free in huts in the Tararuas with a clear conscience. (Okay, we did use the huts a bit, even if we didn’t actually stay in them, so I’ll make it three free nights in the Tararuas. DOC, are you listening?) .

In the afternoon we meandered on past Blue Duck Creek. A short while later we came to an old signpost marking the boundary between DOC’s Nelson and Westland conservancies. Suddenly the wide, well-graded track deteriorated to a rough, muddy track, and stayed that way for quite some distance. It was easy to guess which of the two conservancies has the most money!

We gradually wound our way up to MacKay Hut, which, when we finally got there, turned out to have all the attractiveness of an industrial site, the smell of a sewerage farm, and nowhere decent to pitch a fly. When I do the track again in another 25 years I don’t think I’ll go all the way through to MacKay; I’ll stop and camp somewhere a few kilometres short of the hut.

Next day we wound our way down the track to Lewis Hut on the Heaphy River where we stopped for lunch and a swim in an inviting pool. After lunch we forded the river and headed down the track towards the mouth of the river.

Campsite at Heaphy River mouthThis area has an amazing tropical feel to it. The whole area seems to have its own climate, distinct from the rest of the country. The Heaphy River, at least in its lower reaches, is wide and deep and lazy, just like you imagine a tropical river ought to be. The bush is of a rich coastal lowland variety, with tropical-looking nikau palms arching overhead, shedding their palm fronds and sprouting colourful bunches of seed-pods.

We eventually arrived at Heaphy Hut, set in an extensive grassy field overlooking the Heaphy lagoon and the Heaphy Bluff beyond. We set up the fly then went for a walk along the ocean beach with huge pounding waves, followed by a swim in the lagoon.

Our last day dawned with another hot sunny day. The layers of thermal gear in my pack were proving to be useless dead weight. We set off along the track down the coast. This section of coast consists of a series of beautiful sandy beaches, separated by rocky sections and headlands. You can either walk down the beach or follow the track through the bush at the back of the beach. We followed some of the beaches in the morning, but by the middle of the day it got so hot that it was a relief to go back on the track in the shade of the bush and the nikaus.

Finally that afternoon we came to the evil-looking Kohaihai Bluff. A well-graded climb brought us to a lookout where we had a final view back up the coast from where we had come. Then it was down the other side, across the Kohaihai River, and out to the carpark.

We walked into the shelter and swung our packs off. The trip was over. It had been a very pleasant trip with good weather and great companions – a perfect “advanced” trip. And for me personally it brought back some memories of 25 years ago. Thanks Austin for organising such a great trip!

But there is a postscript to this story – the saga of our journey back to Wellington. We were just thinking about calling up a taxi to take us into Karamea when we were offered a ride on the back of a ute. We were deposited outside the Last Resort Inn and were settling down to a beer. Andy called up Takaka Valley Airlines to confirm our flight out of Karamea back to Wellington early the next morning. I was looking forward to turning up at work and announcing casually, “just come from the Heaphy Track this morning”. But when Andy came back the plans had altered. There was a storm coming and we had to get to the airport immediately if we didn’t want to get stuck in Karamea for a few days. (Actually, the thought of being stuck at the Last Resort in Karamea for a few days rather than returning to work was rather appealing but I didn’t say anything.) Out at the airport we were met by a young pilot who looked barely out of nappies, and piled aboard his little plane. He tried the starter motor but nothing happened. Again he tried; again nothing happened. “It was working earlier,” he muttered to himself. Eventually he went out and manually spun the propeller, like something out of a World War One movie. The four of us inside looked at each other and wondered what we had got ourselves into. The engine suddenly sprang into life, the pilot jumped back on board, and we took off down the runway.

For the next half hour or so we had an aerial tour back along the track, effortlessly flying over in minutes what had taken us four days to walk, while the plane bounced around and air streamed into the cockpit through holes in the fuselage. It was with some relief that we eventually landed safely at Takaka. After a wait at the locked and deserted terminal building the main Takaka Airlines plane turned up from Wellington. We got aboard and took off in the last of the evening light (we needed daylight to take off as there are no navigation lights at the Takaka airstrip). An hour later we were back in Wellington. In a few short hours we had traveled from the tropical palm trees and beaches of the Heaphy to the grey drabness of Wellington. Back in the office the next morning, the previous four days already seemed like a distant dream. So maybe I’ll have to go back and revisit the Heaphy again sooner than another 25 years from now.


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