Ever since our move to the South Island Francelle and I have been busting to do one of the great walks. This past week we got our chance. We teamed up with my sister Jane and her husband Rob to take on the Heaphy Track. It’s not for the faint of heart or weak-kneed. The 82 km track winds it’s way through the Kahurangi National Park, from the Golden Bay to Karamea on the West Coast. It can take anywhere from 4 to 6 days, depending on your fitness level and time available. We did it in four, staying at the Perry-Saddle, James Mackay, and Heaphy huts.
Scenically, it is quite stunning – which is why it attracts people from all over the world. We passed through forested mountains, native bush, beech forests and alpine tussock. We saw giant rata trees, limestone caves and cliffs and beautiful nikau palm groves. The bird life is also amazing – kakas, wekas, tuis, kingfishers, pukekos, and my night-time favourites – the moreporks. One of our fellow trampers reckons she saw a kiwi outside the hut and there was a mad stampede out the door to find it. But alas, the bedlam likely scarred the poor thing off!
Our first day, from Brown Hut to Perry-Saddle, was just magic: blue sky, no wind and nice temperature. One out of the box for tramping. It was a reasonable climb – 860m, so needless to say we burned up a few calories that day.
It’s been a few years since I stayed in a DOC (Department of Conservation) hut. I wasn’t expecting 5 star accommodation. When we arrived however, I mistook it for a resort. I walked straight past looking for something more, well – rustic. Then Rob explained since the Cave-Creek disaster DOC undertook a massive assessment of their tracks, bridges, platforms and huts and began upgrading. I don’t think the average New Zealander realises the benefits of this, but the tourists sure do! It makes me want to get out there and enjoy more of what we’ve got. Combine God’s beautiful creation with kiwi ingenuity with track, bridge and hut building, and you have a recipe for an all-round enjoyable adventure.
Staying at the huts is an adventure in itself. You learn to improvise with what you’ve got, sometimes eating out of the same thing you cook with. You also get to meet new and interesting people. We met Anna from France, Tom from Australia (who supplied me with a bunch of tea bags for the rest of the trip – thanks Tom!), and a couple from Dunedin who were travelling with their 2-year old (there’s no stopping some people).
You also get some ideas on some really cool gear that people have acquired, like soft green and blue LED headlights for making you way around at night (so as not to blind other people or wake them in their sleep), compact aluminium pots and billy’s and eating utensils. I made a few mental notes for future reference. As the sun lowered over the hills, the sky darkened and along with it, the inside of the hut. It was time to turn in for bed.
Our second day began with some light rain, so we donned on our wet-weather gear. Fortunately, some kind friends from our church lent us their new packs (thanks Glen & Leanne), complete with inner liners and waterproof pack covers. Well that saved our bacon, because once the rain started, it didn’t stop for the rest of the trip (except for a few hours of blessed relief here and there). I would add we were passing through one of the highest rainfall areas of the South Island, but even still it was a wetter walk than average. It’s in those sorts of conditions you have to make the best of it, enjoying what you can see, looking forward to a hot cup of tea and a warm fire at the end and chalking the whole thing up for experience.
It was a long hike from Perry-Saddle to James Mackay – 23 km. As the rain continued to fall, the track became more difficult to navigate, water began seeping in through our rain coats (I learned that even if you have a waterproof coat, sustained rain makes its way through pressure points) and our boots and shoes became more and more water-logged. By the time we reached the hut we were over it. Even though it was a full house, people were helpful and did what they could to make way for four cold and wet trampers. I tell you – that hot cup of tea and home-made sultana cake sure tasted good! We make dinner and were all in bed asleep by around 8:30pm.
We awoke on day 3 to more mist and rain and headed off to the Heaphy hut. No more climbing however; we were heading down. Even though it was miserably wet, the rain forest through this section was really something. Now I know where they get some of those West Coast pictures you see on place-mats and calendars. The only thing not covered by moss was the track we were walking on. It really was stunning – red and orange coloured leaves scattered along the path, copper-coloured rocks against the backdrop of every shade of green.
We were told look out for the famous West Coast giant snails (or Powelliphanta). These native carnivorous snails are the largest in the world. They suck up earthworms like spaghetti. We didn’t see any live ones but we did find some of their shells on the side of the track. Check out the size!
Shortly before arriving at the Heaphy Hut, the rain stopped, the clouds parted and suddenly there it was – the ocean! We made it to other side. It was nice to arrive at a hut not soaked through and have some time to catch up with our other travellers. We also met some new ones, like Matt from Denmark. He kindly gave up his bottom bunk for Francelle who was suffering from a sore knee and wasn’t too excited about climbing up and down from a top bunk (fast-moving trampers get the best bunks – something to keep in mind for future reference). I had some great conversation with Matt over dinner. His English was good and I asked him why. He has been working in New Zealand as a tour guide and wants to do it full-time. He then asked me what I do and well, that was an opening to talk to him about my faith and what, if any beliefs he had. This led into a great discussion about Christianity. I encouraged him not to let organized religion (which Denmark has a lot of) put him off faith in God and to focus on the reality and heart of it all, which is the person of Jesus. I encouraged him to read the New Testament in modern English. He said he would.
Day 4: the last 16 km, from Heaphy Hut to Karamea. This was my favourite part of the journey by far. Coastal views, with giant boulders, Nikau Palm groves and bush – interspersed with suspension bridges and streams.
It was just picturesque, with the sea spray rising up combining with the gentle rain sprinkling down through the tree branches above. Francelle however, wasn’t enjoying this part so much with her knee-joint starting to give way. I ended up taking her pack, which I carried on my front. It wasn’t that bad because now I was balanced back and front. Needless to say, that last 2km for both of us was a bit of a struggle. Hot shower and a good meal – here we come!
There are two ways to get back to Nelson from Karamea: a 5-hour drive by shuttle or a 20-minute flight. We chose the latter. The idea is you fly directly over where you walked, but we were prevented from doing that by the weather, and had to take the coastal route. In fact, it was touch and go as to whether they would fly at all. There was a break in the clouds about mid-morning; we got the call to get to the airfield as quick as we could. Even with the cloud build up, we saw some great views of the coast, parts of the Heaphy Track, and the top of Farewell Spit before turning for our last leg to the Takaka airfield. Lewis, our friendly pilot kept us entertained with jokes about plane parts not working and emergency procedures should we “go in the drink.” His landing was text box though – well done Golden Bay Air.
I took a ride on their shuttle to where we left our car at the beginning of the track. They were dropping off another load of trampers – a group of 7 ladies from Australia.
“How was the trip?” they asked.
“Great I said – fantastic walk.”
“And the weather?”
“Well, you know New Zealand…”
I heard the crunch of the tires on the gravel road. We were approaching the start of the track. Outside the drizzle was turning into steady rain. A minute later the floodgates of the heavens opened. They all went quiet. Oh dear, I thought. I threw my pack in the back of the car, turned on the windscreen wipers and headed home, thankful for a warm car and dry clothes.
 There are 9 Great Walks in New Zealand, 6 of which are in the South Island
 The Cave Creek disaster occurred on April 28, 1995 when a viewing platform in Paparoa National Park collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 14 people.