Route Guide: Heaphy Track
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The Heaphy Track is a classic crossing of the geologically and biologically diverse northwest corner of the South Island.
Beginning inland from Golden Bay, the track crosses over to the West Coast and heads south along the palm-fringed coastline toward Karamea. The track surface is consistently wide and smooth over its entire length and the track is popular with family groups. While easily walked in either direction, the traditional route is from east to west and it is clear the track has been designed this way, which would be very marginally easier.
The Heaphy combines well with the Wangapeka Track which crosses the national park further south, beginning near Tapawera and ending just south of Karamea. It should however be noted that the Wangapeka track is significantly more difficult than the Heaphy. As one of New Zealand's Great Walks, there are certain regulations in place. Camping is allowed only in the vicinity of each hut and at other designated campsites. There is a limit of two nights stay at any one hut. Accommodation in huts or campsites must be purchased in advance as Great Walks tickets.
While there is good swimming in rivers around most of the inland huts on this track, walkers should not attempt to swim in the sea on the track's coastal section. Many lives have been lost in these dangerous waters.
While the track itself is around 80km long, the distance by road from end to end is around 470km. There are a number of trampers' transport services between the track and Karamea on the West Coast and Collingwood, Takaka, Motueka, and Nelson in the Golden Bay / Tasman Bay region. Air services are also an option between track ends and from Wellington. Information is available from nearby visitor centres and DOC offices. Telephones at both track ends are available free of charge to arrange transport. In summer you will find buses meeting both track ends around midday. The gravel road leading to the eastern track end crosses several fords which can become impassable in wet conditions.
Brown Hut-Perry Saddle Hut: 4 hr, very easy
The wide and very smooth track begins here, winding briefly through forest and over the Brown River on a sturdy footbridge. After crossing the grassy valley floor the track moves into regenerating kanuka scrub and begins its remarkably shallow but long climb to the track's highest point. The forest soon becomes mature beech, and a side track down to Shakespeare Flat is passed after a little over 1 hr. Aorere Shelter is passed after a further 2 hr, where there is good grassy camping. ½ hr beyond the shelter, a rough 5 min side track leads off to a lookout at Flanaghan's Corner. This is the highest point on the track at 910m, and provides a panoramic view of the river valleys here. The next hut is nearby, after a shallow ½ hr descent. Swimming is cold in the nearby creek.
Perry Saddle Hut-Gouland Downs Hut: 1½-2 hr, very easy
Following Perry Creek westward through forest, the track soon crosses bridged Fawn and Quintinia Creeks (Westland quintinia, a tree with handsome wavy edged leaves, is indeed very common here) and moves onto the flat and open Gouland Downs. This 700m high peneplain is a Cretaceous granite erosion surface formed between two orogenies (periods of uplift and mountain building). At some time this plain has been underwater and overlain by measures of coal and limestone. Limestone is still present in patches over the Downs. Red tussock is common here as it thrives on damp ground, although tiny pockets of beech forest occupy the gullies. Crossing some sections of slate and handsome grey limestone, the track drops past the celebrated pole of boots (!) to a bridge at Cave Brook. Blue ducks may be seen here in the morning. A small hut is nearby. Behind the hut is a small elevated landscape of karst where a slab of the limestone remains. The forest of beech perched on the mossy wrinkles of limestone is a captivating area worthy of exploration. There are many caves to discover in the vicinity of the hut.
Gouland Downs Hut-Saxon Hut: 1¼ hr, very easy
The track crosses the tongue of karst, breaking into the open after a few minutes. A cairn here marks a vague trail off to the right. This trail leads to the high mouth of a large cave gaping in the hillside and spilling a curtain of water. If you can climb up to this cave you probably won't get back down (a low passage escapes out the back into the bewildering and dangerous karst). The main track drops back onto the Downs and crosses Shiner Brook and Big River with both fords and swingbridges available at each. After Weka Creek the track follows the northern edge of the Downs for ¾ hr to Saxon Hut. The low Slate Range rises a couple of hundred metres in a line at the edge of the Downs to the north.
Great spotted kiwi may be heard calling here at nightfall and early morning (especially if you are camping). Any nocturnal noises are probably attributable to kiwi. The female shrieks, while the male whistles, occasionally making a noise that sounds exactly like "kee-wee." While you will hear them calling and answering around all of the inland huts, it is unlikely you will see one.
Saxon Hut-Mackay Hut: 2½-3 hr, very easy
Crossing the Saxon River and Blue Duck Creek on small bridges, the track follows the Saxon northward off the Gouland Downs and climbs gently into forest. The track becomes a little rougher, with slightly muddy and rocky patches all the way to Mackay Hut. A sidle through low, light bush leads onto the rolling Mackay Downs. Light forest inhabits the irregular, island mounds of land, with tussock filling the hollows. Yellow and white daisies are visible, and sundews inhabit the banks at the track side. Beyond Monument Creek the track traverses tussock flats, meeting Deception Creek and climbing a little to reach the hut. Mackay Hut is situated in a low scrub of kanuka and boasts views stretching to the coastline and the distant mouth of the Heaphy River. Camping is on stony ground between the tussocks.
Mackay Hut-Lewis Hut: 3-4 hr, very easy
The track descends gently and continuously from the Downs to Lewis Hut. (For west to east travellers it is a tedious but easy climb with little water available.) A light forest including quintinia, neinei, kamahi, celery pine, toro and beech gives way to high podocarp forest dominated by rimu and rata as the river comes into view below. Eventually a junction is met. The Heaphy Track continues to the right, while Lewis Hut is reached after a couple of minutes walking to the left. Lewis Hut is situated at the confluence of the Heaphy and Lewis Rivers. The Sandflies will welcome you and there is little camping space. Swimming is excellent a few minutes walk upstream along the Heaphy River. White limestone bluffs and blazing red trees of northern rata create a remarkable view across the river.
Lewis Hut-Heaphy Hut: 2½ hr, very easy
From the hut you can return along the track to the junction and a bridge over the Lewis some distance upstream, or you can ford the shallow Lewis directly outside the hut to a track opposite. The track crosses the Heaphy River on a long bridge that catches the wind. A massive rata stands at the end of the bridge. The walk from Lewis to Heaphy Hut is for many the most memorable section of the track. Edging between the bluffs and the river the track passes some massive blocks of limestone. Care should be taken in an exposed section where the river cuts directly below the track. A high swingbridge soon crosses the deep, brown Gunner River. The bridge is anchored to a limestone block, and a wooden staircase leads down to the ground. Beyond the small Murray Creek swingbridge the track cuts over a river flat of flax and cabbage tree briefly before returning to the forest beneath the bluffs. The track remains in the handsome forest of nikau palms, kowhai and northern rata, with glimpses of the river through the trees, as far as Heaphy Hut. This hut, the last on the track, is located on a large grassy bank at the mouth of the wide, brown river. There is ample space for camping on the grass and roaming on the wide, white beach.
Pure stands of nikau are common on the narrow coastline south of here. The floor beneath the trees is covered with dead fronds and a grass-like mass of seedling palms. The nikau is the southernmost naturally growing palm in the world and New Zealand's only palm, a relic from warmer times. The mauve flower spikes form in a boat hull-like spathe beneath the massive leaves. The flowers are followed a year later by bright red berries. Epiphytes hang from the rata and nikau along the coast. Bamboo orchids may be observed flowering between September and December.
Heaphy Hut-Katipo Creek Shelter: 1¾ hr, very easyFollowing the silent river briefly through nikau forest to the coast the track turns south and passes a long pond of raupo and frogs situated behind old forested dunes. A sign marking Heaphy Beach is soon encountered. Most of the track south along the coast can be walked along the beaches. The track itself meets the beaches regularly and is never far away. Walking on sand is of course hard work. The grassy track reaches the far end of Heaphy Beach ½ hr from the hut, soon entering coastal forest and crossing the wooden bridge over Wekakura Creek. 1¼ hrs from the hut the track drops briefly onto Twenty Minute Beach, taking up again a minute later. Over a little creek, Nettle Beach begins. The track lurks in the forest. A wooden swingbridge is nearby at the end of the beach, crossing Katipo Creek to the damp shelter, roughly half-way along the coast. There are a few campsites tucked amongst the palms. The only water available is from Katipo Creek (follow a small track directly beside the bridge). Twin Beach is just a minute or two south of here, an excellent spot to eat and watch the setting sun and the crashing waves. The smooth round boulders north of here and along the coast are of Karamea granite, the crumbly salmon pink rock crossed regularly on the coastal section.
Katipo Creek Shelter-Kohaihai Shelter: 2¼-2½ hr, very easy
Beyond a brief section of beach walking, the track crosses flax-covered Crayfish Point and hops across the little Crayfish Creek, ½ hr from the shelter. Koura Beach is passed next before the track turns into the forest, passing twisted, ancient rata hanging with epiphytes. Beyond Swan Burn Bridge is Scotts Beach, 1½-1¾ hrs out from the shelter. Some massive and dangerous specimens of ongaonga are situated near this camping area.
The striking wedge of land that is Kohaihai Bluff is prominent to the south. The track cuts inland climbing gently 20 min onto Kohaihai Saddle to avoid this feature. A short side track leads to the Scotts Hill Lookout with a picnic table and views north along the coastline. A further 15-20 min walk leads down through nikau, flax, tree fern, and astelia to the two ends of the 40 min Nikau Walk and the Kohaihai River bridge. Passing the Zig Zag Lookout track to the left, the Heaphy Track ends in a minute or two at the shelter and camping area by the river mouth.
Apollo The Heaphy changes from half day to half day. There is always something new to see and photograph.
It was relativly vacant over the Christmas period but those we did meet were great company (funny enough I meet the in-laws of one of my workmates from Chch at the first hut). I would definatly add another day to spend at Heaphy hut if I were to go again.
There is enough to the Heaphy to amuse experiences trampers and even more for those who have done little at all.
8 March 2006
piglet We did it east to west, in 4 days over new year 03/04. It was surprisingly uncrowded - plenty of hut space. I thought the tramp was terrific. I've done a fair bit of tramping and although the Heaphy is not spectacular in an alpine kind of way, the wide variety and frequent changes of bush and plant life kept it interesting all the way - especially with everything blossoming at this time of year. Gouland Downs hut was certainly the most charming though we did not stay the night there as the timing of arrival there (just 2 hours after leaving last hut) did not work for us. I actually swam in the sea - but very carefully! In hindsight I would have added an extra day in as a day or rest/swimming/hanging out.
5 January 2004
kereru We did the trip after the Wangapeka from West to East and consider that this is actually the better way to do it. The first climb is from Lewis to MacKay and then it is generally downhill all the way to Gouland Downs. Another gentle climb from Gouland Downs to Perry saddle is the only other uphill. The traditional direction has a climb from Brown to Perry saddle and althoug gentle it is long and tedious - especially on a hot day. There is more climbing from Blue Duck Creek and on a hot day this is not very pleasant.
If you are an experienced tramper then do not do the Heaphy Track. You will meet family groups that make a noise, totally ill prepared foreigners some of whom look more like travelling tinkers than trampers and scatterbrained people The track is never less than 1 m wide on a very gentle gradient and in fact the hard compacted nature of the surface makes for harder walking than when tramping in the bush. The scenery may be beautiful for those who have done no tramping but those of you have been in a wide vareity of NZ on your tamping trips will see nothing on the Heaphy that you haven't seen already and it is generally better elsewhere in NZ ( eg Whirinaki for forests, Tararua for forest & tussock )
You will need a tent. Just prior to Xmas we met at least 20 people each day on the track and had to camp out once. Gouland Downs now only sleeps 8 people but is definitely the nicest hut on the track. Lewis Hut would rank second for bush scenery & river.
1 January 2004