The longed for Christmas break of 2020 was getting very near and everyone around me was talking about their holiday plans so I thought I should make some of my own too. I put it entirely on the events of the past year for taking my reluctance to plan ahead to a whole new level. Serendipitously, around that time, I got wind from my friend Laura that she was going to walk the Heaphy just before Christmas. To my greatest delight she was happy for me to join her. As the borders remain closed there was still availability for campsites and huts that late in the day. If I was ever going to do this epic Great Walk, now was the time.
The logistics of the Heaphy Track
The Heaphy is a non-circuit track stretching from the Golden Bay in the east to the mouth of the Kohaihai river on the West Coast. It could be walked in either direction. We were going to walk east to west. Although the walk itself is around 78 km the distance between the two ends of the track is 450 km, which is about a seven and half-hour drive. Anyone who has looked into the logistics of this walk will attest to the transport challenges involved, especially if you wanted to use your own means of transportation. There is the shuttle option which takes out the hassle but it is understandably costly considering how long the ride is to either end of the track or anywhere in between that is not going to leave you in the middle of nowhere. Options have been further limited by the severely reduced public transportation these days due to the lack of overseas visitors.
Laura was going to drive up from Queenstown so we played all possible scenarios and in the end she decided to leave the car at Kohaihai where we were going to finish the walk. She was going to hitchhike up to Nelson where we were going to meet and make our way to Brown Hut. Sounds like a sensible plan but if you look at the map there is not much between Kohaihai and the first major settlement in the area, Westport. The distance is over 120 kilometres. Laura was pretty relaxed about it and said it was going to be fine. Well, if there was anyone to be able to hitchhike it, that’s Laura. Laura is a people’s person and complete strangers very often would somehow sense this and stop over for a wee yarn with her.
On the morning of Laura’s departure for Nelson I messaged her to check how she was getting on and somehow she had managed to make it out of the campsite at Kohaihai to Westport by 10 am. I was a bit more relaxed afterwards but still couldn’t help myself and ask her to text me the number plates of the cars she got lifts from. Not sure how this could be executed but at the time it sounded like a sensible request. No number plates were messaged over to me but Laura still managed to get to Nelson pretty much at the same time I did. I would most certainly not recommend making the same transport “arrangements” to others.
I flew in from Wellington and met Laura at the Nelson iSite centre where we were going to catch a shuttle to Takaka. I was happy to see that Laura had had a very happy time hitchhiking and was full of some great stories the people she had met had shared with her. As we were sat on a bench waiting for the departure of the shuttle to Takaka, an older woman walked by and stopped to have a little chat with Laura. Naturally, said woman was a complete stranger, of course. As they were chatting away the minutes were ticking by and just like that it was time for us to get on to the shuttle for our next leg of the trip. Two hours later we were in Takaka. We spent the night at one of the hostels which was uncharacteristically empty for this time of the year. We pretty much dived into bed as soon as we got there.
The next morning after a tremendously good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast we started the day by walking around Takaka and trying to source a place to have a nice coffee and possibly some treats in the form of raw desserts. We got our fix from the GB Organics shop. Our timing could not have been more perfect as they got a delivery of freshly baked goodies, including sourdough cinnamon rolls from Bacca bakery. I find it impossible to control myself at the sight of a freshly baked cinnamon roll so I had to have one.
After we had our coffees and treats we decided to pay a visit to the DOC and iSite visitor centres to check, if there were any shuttles going out to the Heaphy that day. We had no luck with the shuttles. We were told what we had already known (as we had checked before) that the shuttles were going every other day of the week and today was a none shuttle day. However, it turned out that there had been a shuttle earlier in morning but it was already gone. That was news to us as I had contacted the Nelson iSite centre for the possible transportation options but obviously they only relayed information about the options out of Nelson. I was also going to upgrade my booking for the second night of the tramp from a campsite spot at James Mackay to a bed in the hut. I was going to be camping but the weather forecast was for about 40mm of rainfall that night. I was in luck as I got the last available bed for that night.
It was already close to midday and with no other options for getting to the Heaphy we readied ourselves to hitchhike. My first time ever hitchhiking! I would have found it quite daunting under any other circumstances but Laura put me at ease. We walked towards the end of the town and Laura instructed me to smile and just hold up one of the signs she had prepared in advance. We waited for about 10 minutes when the guy who had delivered the freshly baked cinnamon rolls earlier this morning pulled over. He said that he could give us a lift to Collingwood but it was going to be a ride with a few detours as he needed to pick up fresh produce for some delicacies he was going to be making. A tour to the organic treasures of the Golden Bay – this did not sound bad at all. It was quite nice to meet some of the locals and see what they were up to. It was a beautiful sunny day and the people we met looked relaxed and happy, going about their weekday business. The guy dropped off his purchases at the bakery where we met his gorgeous dog and then drove us up just past Collingwood where we had better chances at catching a ride.
Again we readied ourselves and not before too long we got a lady with her two children pull over. Our second lift was by the lady who owns The Historic Langford Store and Post Office. She had taken her children for a day out as it was already the school holiday. We found out that the shop had been previously owned by her late grandfather and she and her husband have been running it for the past 10 years or so. It is a coffee shop and has an interesting collection of contemporary and antique art pieces on display and for sale. It is pretty fascinating to think that the shop has been owned and operated by the same family for almost 100 years.
Once we got to the shop we had a peek inside and I could not resist getting a glistening nut bar, coated in some sugary deliciousness. I over-treated myself but I was alright with that. We got our backpacks and crossed over to the other side of the road. And as soon as we held our sign up one of the other customers came over to us and offered to give us a lift to Brown Hut once he was done with his coffee. He happened to be visiting friends who have a lodge near the beginning of the track.
Day One – Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut, Tuesday 22 December 2020
We were at the beginning of the track by 2 pm and were immediately greeted by the ever enthusiastic West Coast sandflies, I have deep unloving feelings for the species. I had made the egregious mistake of wearing shorts and a short sleeve tee which did not go unnoticed by the little brutes. I was swarmed by them within seconds. As I had so far stuffed myself with treats and coffee and nothing more substantial I had a quick bite. And oh my, the sandflies – they had a feast. I was keen to get going as these guys are relentless in their pursuit of fresh blood. We got started on the track around 2.30pm. The track is very well-formed and the incline is very, very gradual. It is through the bush and the trees offered plenty of shade, which was most pleasant as it was a hot day, with the sun shining bright in the clear sky. As it was quite late in the day we were the only trampers on the track. The first day is only about 5 hours of walking and time seemed to fly past us as not before long we were at Flanagans Corner, which is about 30 minutes before the Perry Saddle where we were staying the night. There is a little side track here which takes you to an opening in the bush, offering some beautiful views. We spent some time cloud watching as massive clouds were rolling in above the bush line. We made it to Perry Saddle Hut around 8 pm. Here we separated with Laura for the night – she disappeared into the hut and I spread my things throughout the shelter as I was the only one camping that night. I also had the luxury of picking the most even and grassiest patch to pitch my tent. Despite the luxury of having the best camping spot I did not have much sleep that night.
Day Two – Perry Saddle Hut to James Mackay Hut, Wednesday 23 December 2020
The next morning, I was up and out of my tent by 5.30 am. I was woken up by the morning chirp of the birds. The morning chorus is one of my favourite things about camping in New Zealand – it is just incredible. Also, one more benefit of making it out of my sleeping bag so early was that I could enjoy a stunning sunrise where the sky was lit a glowing pink. As I was having my breakfast a lone takahe swung by to have his. All in all, it was a glorious way to start the day.
Laura came round at around 7 am to join me and takahe for breakkie. We got walking by 7.30 am as the weather forecast was for the rain to come in at around midday. The first hour or so of the walk was relatively dry. We were walking through a beech forest and as soon as we got into the vast open tussock clearings the rain started its gentle patter. It got steadier and steadier and by the time we got to the Gouland Downs Hut it became increasingly clear that it was not going to hold off until midday. We had a wee stop at the hut where a DOC Ranger showed up not long after. We asked him about the weather forecast for the next couple of days. His update was that it was going to be pretty wet until about midday tomorrow. We got going as I was feeling pretty cold because somehow my tee had gotten wet. I could not figure out if my waterproof was no longer waterproof or if it was condensation or sweat. Did not find the answer but got better once we started walking.
It was interesting to see some sections of goblin forest along this part of the track. The Heaphy does offer a very varied landscape. We had another stop at Saxon Hut. Luckily, there were two other trampers who had lit the fire. It was taking it’s time to get going so we did not hang around for too long and were soon on our way again. We just kept walking through the rain as there was not much else to do. By the time we got to James Mackay Hut we were considerably drenched so I was quite glad I had upgraded my booking from a campsite spot to a bed. We walked into a hut full of people and a roaring fire.
The Great Walks have excellent huts. They offer a 5 star hut experience as far as tramping goes. They are spacious, high ceilinged and have excellent glazing. The loos in this hut could be flashed too! Perhaps too much detail but it is very unusual and made a lasting impression upon me.
We got to the hut around 2 pm so we had plenty of time to do hut stuff, such as eat our food, chat and play cards. I do not know that many card games but Laura had a couple up her sleeve, Bismarck and Casino. The rules are quite complicated and although luck has some role to play in winning either of those games if you are a good player you can still win even if you were dealt a pretty crapy hand to begin with. To my delight I won the first two games of each. In hindsight, I think Laura let me win so I would get hooked and she could beat me each time we played thereafter. It was an early night as I was very keen on catching up on sleep and making the most of the comfortable mattress.
Day Three – James Mackay Hut to Heaphy Hut, Thursday 24 December 2020
The weather forecast was for the rain to stop at midday. So we decided to wait for the weather to clear before we set off on our third day of walking. Everyone else left the hut before 9 am and we had the whole space to ourselves which was rather wonderful. With the long hours of waiting for the rain to stop stretching ahead of us we picked up the cards. At around 10 am as we were playing two people of one of the other groups came back to enquire if we happened to have a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). Turned out one of their mates had twisted her ankle 2 kilometres down the track from the hut. Unfortunately, we could not help them much as we did not have a PLB. An hour or so later the woman who had twisted her ankle and her partner showed up. They were going to have a little rest, see how the swelling was going and probably attempt walking again later in the day. From what I could see her ankle did not look good at all.
The hours were flying by and midday came and went but it was still raining and did not look like it was going to stop. We started talking about our options. We were hoping that a DOC Ranger would turn up and give us a more up-to-date weather forecast as it had been raining for quite a bit and we were not sure how the track was looking. We had been told that sections, around Lewis Hut, get flooded and are impassable after heavy rains. After midday people, who had walked from the other end of the track, started turning up and we got more info about the situation. They said it was pretty wet and some streams were overflowing but it was fine. We were still not super sure if we wanted to have another wet day of walking but at this point we had become a little tired of the cards (I was most certainly tired of losing) and gotten a jigsaw puzzle out. I tried to take interest in it but it has never been something I enjoy doing so I was quite keen to get away from it. Hence, I asked Laura if she would not mind getting on with the walk. The tramper with the twisted ankle and her partner were also getting ready to leave. From what I could see the swelling had not subsided but she wanted to get going and catch up with their friends. It was past 2 pm when we left James Mackay. We had a great stay here. The only downside of the weather being grim was that we could not enjoy the views of the Tasman Sea from the Hut. It is meant to be rather splendid.
This leg of the track cuts through the bush with plenty of trees on both sides of it which meant that it was quite sheltered and we barely felt the rain. We walked and skipped over streams overflowing with water and it was rather nice to be out of the hut and away from the jigsaw puzzle. We made it to Lewis Hut relatively quickly where we stopped for a quick rest. By this point the rain had stopped and the skies where clearing. The track was totally fine so we could continue on. The section of the track after Lewis Hut gets very interesting. There are some interesting rock formations, often intermingled with tree roots and all sorts of other bush vegetation. Just about under a kilometre from the hut there was a fairly considerable slip. We went around it alright. And about 200 m further down the track we came across two DOC Rangers who were out to check it out. We updated the rangers with the latest info we had about the tramper with the hurt ankle. The rangers told us that they were going to arrange a helicopter to pick them up from James Mackay the next day if they had stayed there for the night. That was not going to be needed as they managed to make it to Heaphy Hut and for that matter all the way to the end the next day. Must be said that this tramper was a pretty tough cookie. I think I would have taken it easy and hoped for some help and a helicopter ride.
The rangers talked Laura out of her plan of having a dip into the Heaphy River. The Heaphy Hut is the confluence of the Heaphy River and the Tasman Sea – it was complete rambunctiousness that day. The DOC rangers tipped us that we could use a hose cum shower right behind the shelter near the campsite where I was going to camp that night. I would love to like cold showers but I do not. Anyhow, in the interest of hygiene and out of respect for my travel companion I had a sprinkle with the hose. I did feel better for it. After I’d showered I set up my tent and sat down to have dinner. As I was putting my dinner plates away one of the DOC rangers came round to invite me to spend the night in the hut as there were spear beds and it was Christmas after all. It would have been incredibly rude to decline the offer so I gathered my camping bits and bobs and trudged into the hut to find Laura and spend another nigh of blissful sleep on a very comfy mattress.
Day Four – Heaphy Hut to Kohaihai campsite, Friday 25 December 2020
The last day of the track winds through a forest of most exotic vegetation, predominantly Niaku palms, with miles upon miles of sandy beaches right next to it. It was a most beautiful sunny day and there was nowhere we needed to be after we were done with the walk so we took our time enjoying the stunning environment we were walking through. We veered off the track to the beach to have lunch. There the sandflies were waiting for me but I was prepared this time, with my legs and arms covered I felt pretty invincible. They still went for my hands, though – the little nasties. Laura recorded her Christmas greetings. She takes this stuff very seriously since she is from the native lands of good old Santy. I think I was nominated chief elf or some other very senior and serious role.
This section of the track is truly stunning. We had the perfect weather for it and had a most enjoyable time. We got to the Kohaihai campsite where Laura’s car was waiting for us full of nice food. Laura had planned a shared Christmas lunch for us. We made a delicious curry with triple the normal amount of coconut cream (I recommend this wholeheartedly). It was a delicious way to finish a Great Walk. The only thing that was not so great about it was that it was over a little too soon and since it was Christmas I made a wish for another Great Walk. I think taking on the responsibility of Chief Elf greatly helped in making my wish come true. More about our second Great Walk in part two of this series.