Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Heaphy Track

(Updated 11.16.09 with pictures)

Day 1

New Zealand is known for its Great Walks, one to multi-day hikes, some through a staggering amount of differing terrain. The Heaphy Track is no exception -- it’s a 4 to 6 day hike through Kahurangi National Park, and covers semi tropical rainforest, river flats, fords, beaches, bluffs, peaks, and valleys. I made arrangements to take a small plane from the local airport over Golden Bay to Takaka, from there I would take a shuttle to the Brown Hut, the beginning of the Heaphy Track. I woke up at 5:30 A.M. the morning of my 80 kilometer trek through the National Park, leaving enough time to get to the airport incase there was traffic. Left the hostel anxious to get started, walked across the street and through Wellington Railway Station to the connecting airport bus stop. Arrived at the airport at about 7:30, or rather, I arrived on the side of the road leading to the airport at 7:30, because the plane I was taking didn’t operate out of the main terminal, or any terminal for that matter. The driver dropped me off near the long-term parking garage, which I assumed was the closest he could get me to Golden Bay Air. Grabbed my pack, and walked the remainder of the way to check-in. It was 7:45 at the check-in point -- a small office with an 8 foot fence and barbed wire separating it from the runway. I tried the sliding glass door, but it was locked. Peered inside, but no one was home. Read a sign on the sliding glass door, “If the office is locked, someone will be with you at the time of check-in.” Check-in was at 9 o’clock. I had an hour and 15 minutes until someone would meet me, with nothing to do but stand beside a loud and windy runway. While I waited, I thought about how suspicious I looked, and was almost certain I’d be approached by airport security before the office finally opened. Fortunately for me, a small plane taxied towards the office at exactly 9 o’clock, and I wasn’t being interrogated by security. A short balding man met me at the door and let me in, he didn’t bother to ask me for my name, which I gave anyway, nor did he ask for any identification. With a slight lisp he told me we’d have to wait a few minutes for the refuel truck, and that I was the only passenger on the flight to Takaka. The plane was refueled, and I was given the option to either sit up front in the copilot’s seat, or in the back. I chose the copilot’s seat. The view was awesome. And what would have been a long ferry ride plus an equally long shuttle, was a quick 30 minute flight. I was at the beginning of the track soon enough, with 20 kilometers between me and the first campsite at Perry Saddle.

After almost exactly 5 hours of hiking, and with a heavier pack than when I started, I reached Perry Saddle. Knowing I’d be struggling to stake my tent if I rested for too long, I picked a spot and got to work. Within a few minutes I had the tent up, and could begin working on the most important decision of the day -- which freeze dried food in a pouch I would have for dinner. I set up on a slanted table near my tent, and struggled a bit to keep a flame lit in the wind so that I could boil some water. At this moment I met my first German traveler in New Zealand, and with out me hearing him approach, told me it’d be easier to boil my water over by the outdoor sink. Startled, I nearly lit my fucking face on fire.

View from the track on day 1

Camp on day 1

Day 2

I slept surprisingly well, despite being woken up a couple times during the night to what sounded like kids screaming (I later learned that the “screaming” was the call of the nocturnal kiwi bird.) During breakfast I met my German friend again, a second German, and a couple of Israelis. The first German I met, for the sake of anonymity, I’ll refer to as German #1, and the second as German #2, naturally. After a bit of breakfast conversation, I learned that German #1 spent some time in the military as a mountaineer -- which made sense, considering out of boredom he decided to climb Mount Perry after the first day’s hike. The two Israelis were on holiday, and told me that they worked security, a fairly dubious answer. I assumed they also spent considerable time in the military. German #2 was simply spending a year abroad in New Zealand, traveling and working part time (this is called “woofing”). He asked me if I was interested in climbing Mount Perry before heading out to the James Mackay Hut (our destination for the second night), to which I readily agreed. Note to future self: when you have 25 kilometers to hike in a day -- mostly uphill -- with 20 pounds on your back, climbing to a mountain summit to loosen-up is a terrible idea. And so we climbed and made it to the summit in a little over half an hour. Our campsite was nothing more than a pinprick from where we stood. Roughly halfway down the summit we passed German #1 doing the climb for the second time in 12 hours. Copious amounts of chocolate was the secret to his seemingly unending supply of energy, it’s the most essential food for a long hike -- eat enough of it and you’ll be able to walk well beyond the point of your feet demanding you to stop. German #2 and I reached the bottom unscathed, refilled our water bottles, and started what would be the longest hike (this still excludes the climb up Mount Perry) of what would ultimately become a 4 day journey to Kohaihai, the end of the Heaphy Track. We were hiking at a fairly quick and steady pace. We spotted the Israelis walking towards us from the opposite direction when we were about halfway to Gouland Downs (the first of two huts between Perry Saddle and James Mackay). One of the guys had injured his ankle, and instead of risking further harm, they decided to walk back to their car (their original plan was to walk the track twice, to the end and back, which is insane). This is also the point at which the sandflies began their unceasing attack on my ankles. I took the precautionary measure of spraying myself with a good amount of repellant, which would only deter most from biting -- some would rather have a taste before dropping dead. At what was ostensibly our first check-point, we joked about how we’d probably see German #1 sprinting down the track and past us at any moment. Sure enough, he caught up with us literally seconds after mentioning him. The three of us took a small respite, and as a larger party of three we headed to the Saxon Hut 5.4 km away, with a total of 17.2 km left to go that day. Time passes much quicker when you have company. I taught them some English phrases, and they taught me a bit of German. The conversation took my mind off of my tired feet. During this second leg of the day, we crossed the first of many suspension bridges. Most of the tracks around New Zealand, with the possible exception of Steward Island, give you the option to either cross the ford (a river crossing) if the river isn‘t too high, or take the dry path across a bridge. German #1 opted to cross the ford instead of using the suspension bridge -- he didn’t particularly like doing anything easy. All three of us decided to cross the second ford instead of taking the much drier path across the bridge. German #1 made it across with dry feet, German #2 slipped but only got a tad wet, I was about three feet from the opposite bank when I decided it’d simply be easier to wade across rather than jump, slip, and get completely soaked. By the time we reached the Saxon Hut, my shoes had reached a state most aptly described as very damp. We reached the hut ahead of a few other groups, all of whom were staying at that location for the night -- clever bastards. The three of us were pretty tired at that point, but we still had 11.8 km before we reached James Mackay (approximately 3.5 hours of hiking). To make matters worse, the last leg of the day was a very long technical incline, broken up by only a few short declines. After another one and a half hours of hiking, we made frequent time checks. We were getting impatient. After about two hours we were amongst low hanging clouds, hiking through a marshland at approximately 2,500 feet. More time checks. We had to be close. During the last kilometer it seemed as if we would never reach the damn hut, but when we did, and we found it empty. Despite German #1 and myself having tents, we all slept in the hut that night.

View from the track on day 2

Some shoes on a wooden post

A section of the track on day 2

Day 3

“Four seasons in a day“, is the phrase Kiwis use to describe the often rapid weather changes experienced in New Zealand. I had been lucky so far, everyday since arriving in Auckland had been sunny with only a few short bouts of rain. And because the weather can turn on you rather quickly, you are forewarned about having at least one day of rain every few days when in the backcountry (more often defined as “the bush“). After a much needed night’s sleep, the Germans and I woke up to a cloudy grey sky indicative of imminent rain. We set out for a long descent to the Heaphy Hut, situated a couple hundred meters from the Tasman Sea (an extremely rough a rocky coast). Despite the rain, and consequently, the muddy conditions, the third day was the most fun (even though my feet had several annoying blisters). I think my body had gotten used to the extra weight on my back … or maybe it was the Ibuprofen I took. The rain was heavy at times, and within an hour my shoes and pants -- halfway up to my knees -- were completely covered in mud. The entire decent was through semitropical rainforest, similar to the first day, but this particular section of forest felt primeval. The trees looked bigger, and every inch of bark was covered in a thick green moss. I spotted five or so trees that had combined into one mega-huge-tree (I got a picture with it). The rain cleared once we reached sea level, and the Heaphy Hut was only a few kilometers away. After camp was set, we checked out the hut where German #2 was staying (he didn’t have a tent, and the only food he brought were apples, bananas, and muesli bars). The group inside was eating dinner, which consisted of the largest array of food I had ever seen prepared at a campsite -- they were clearly traveling with a guide. Upon further investigation and jealousy, we learned that they also collected fresh mussels from the beach. Right then and there I was on a mission to find these mussels. We scoured the beach for about an hour, but found nothing. The bastards had taken all the damn mussels when they already had plenty of food to eat. I wanted to throw eggs at their hut … if only I had eggs … but I probably would have eaten them instead. There was a small open shelter where German #1 and I cooked our dinners. The previous night I had opened the wrong freeze dried food pouch, which I had rolled up and stored back into my pack. The contents of the open pouch had spilled inside my pack during the hike to Heaphy, so upon reaching for day three’s dinner, I spilled freeze dried food onto the ground outside the open shelter. I had plenty of food, so I wasn’t concerned about the waste, but I was concerned about the group of flightless Weka birds that immediately descended on my accidental offering, combined with the impeccable timing of the park ranger approaching our campsite. I got my story straight in preparation for the reprimand I would undoubtedly receive from the ranger for feeding the birds. Before he had an opportunity to speak, I told him that I didn’t mean to feed the birds, and that the food had accidentally spilled out of my bag. Luckily it wasn't a problem, because the native birds have to compete for food with a lot of the pests introduced by earlier settlers, i.e. the British and Irish, so feeding them was OK. The ranger left after checking our papers, but the birds remained long after.

Me crossing a swing bridge in the rain on day 3

Weka birds

A cave I discovered along the track

A giant Powelliphanta snail

Day 4

View from the track on day 4

View from the track on day 4

View from outside camp on day 4


  1. I'll be adding more to this post over the next few days. I also need to sort through a ton of pictures.

  2. "i chose the copilot's seat. The view was awesome." - you chose wisely. well played. you seem to be having a grand ole time out there. :)

  3. "Knowing I’d be struggling to pitch my tent if I rested for too long, I picked a spot and got to work."

    Really? I thought this was a family-oriented blog. For shame AdamDB. For shame.