Heaphy Track Highlights: Heaven in the Highlands

Heaphy Track Highlights: Heaven in the Highlands

The Heaphy Track was our first official Great Walk during our six weeks in New Zealand, although we had already found our tramping feet by way of the Cable Bay Walkway in Nelson, just a week earlier. As we set off on our five day journey, never did we anticipate the amazing variety of landscapes and environments we would encounter. In terms of natural wonders, there are too many Heaphy Track highlights to mention.

A Brief Introduction to the Heaphy Track

Located in the Kahurangi National Park on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South island, the Heaphy track is a non-circular trail that connects the beautiful Nelson/Tasman and West Coast areas, specifically Golden Bay and Kohaihai. While end-to-end the trail is only 78.4km, the drop-off points are 463km apart by road, requiring some pre-planning on your part to coordinate transportation to and from the trail.

Traditionally a Māori travel route, and later used by gold prospectors of the 1800s, the Heaphy Track passes through a variety of natural and distinctive environments. Beginning in the lush forests of the inner West, and ending with nīkau palms hugging the rugged and wild West coastline, the scenery is unique, diverse and simply breath-taking. At the higher elevations of the trail, maximum elevation 915 metres above sea level at Flanagans Corner, trampers are also presented with the opportunity to witness the expansive tussock lands – another unique and beautiful sight.

Our Tramping Rundown

  • Day One: Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut – 17.5km
  • Day Two: Perry Saddle Hut to Saxon Hut – 12.4km
  • Day Three: Saxon Hut to James Mackay Hut – 11.8km
  • Day Four: James Mackay Hut to Heaphy Hut – 20.5km
  • Day Five: Heaphy Hut to Kohaihai – 16.2km
  • Total distance: 78.4km

Heaphy Track Highlights

The Department of Conservation provides very informative and useful guides of the each of the Great Walks, as both online and printed brochures, so it is not my intention to give you a moment-by-moment run down detailing every aspect of this tramp. My Heaphy Track highlights are the aspects of the trip that most stand out in my mind. They are the stories I still tell people when sharing my adventure and, while you may have a totally different experience to mine, I hope that you find them insightful and inspiring to take on the track yourself.

It’s All Uphill From Here

As the morning of Day One dawned, we awoke with excitement and anticipation to hit the trail. A shuttle bus would take us from our accommodation to the inner west trailhead of the Heaphy Track. The shuttle bus in itself was a fun experience as the driver shared stories and trivia on the track and surrounding area.

Arriving at the beginning of the trail I was eager to get started. Who knows why I had so much enthusiasm for 17.5km of hiking uphill, with almost 900 metres of vertical elevation, but I certainly wasn’t complaining. We recorded our details in the trampers book and set off on the well-trodden path – our first Great Walk had begun!

It's all uphill at the start of the Heaphy Track.

Which way are we going today? Up!

Lush forest lined the wide and steadily inclining trail. Just when I thought our legs could go no further, a fit and energetic older gentleman came into vision, hiking towards us at a quick pace. Was this the legendary man I had read about, who hikes the Heaphy in a day and has completed the trail hundreds of times? While we didn’t have time to ask in our brief encounter, he did inspire us to take the detour and climb to the spectacular viewpoint at Flanagans Corner. After climbing a rooty, narrow trail, we were rewarded with an amazing view.

The view from Flanagans Corner.

Big smiles for a great view and the end of a long day’s climb.

Emerald Forests and Tussock Downs

One of the spectacular standouts for me came on Day Two of our tramp along the Heaphy Track. You know when you enter one of those natural environments that is so rich in colour, so full of life, that you simply will not be able to capture it on camera? Well, that’s the vivid memory I have of the moss-laden forest we walked through on the Heaphy. It was like something out of Labyrinth, with tunnels and overpasses, hidden sanctuaries and winding paths, all blanketed in glorious shades of green.

Funnily enough, as quickly as we entered this beautiful setting, it seemed as though we were leaving again. So, while I have such a strong sense of the place when I close my eyes, it is only a short moment in time.

Greens faded to yellows as we entered the tussocklands of Gouland Downs. Tussocks, those pompom like tufts of native grasses that cover vast spans of the Heaphy Track, do make for their own beautiful environment – which, on the Heaphy, is often protected with the use of boardwalks. A pleasant walk saw us navigate a couple of fun water crossings (but nothing like what was to come) and lead us to one of the Heaphy Track’s star attractions.

The tussock downs of the Heaphy Track.

Taking in the views.

The Infamous Boot Pole

Now, this wouldn’t be a Heaphy Track Highlights post without at least mentioning the infamous Boot Pole. Yes, it is just a post with shoes attached, but when you stop and take in the variety of footwear up there, it really gets you thinking. Who in their right mind was willing to hike a Rollerblade all the way out there – just to add it to a pole? When people hitched up their hiking boots, what did they continue the remainder of the trail in? So many questions spring to mind. And then you’ll hear the tales from hut wardens and other trampers; like the ambitious fellow who set out to complete the Heaphy barefoot, who was so blistered and bruised that by the time he reached the Boot Pole he took down what looked like the best pair of hiking boots he could see. However, as his feet were too long for the shoes, he had to cut open the front to allow his toes to hang over the edge!

The infamous Heaphy Track boot pole.

Those boots weren’t made for walking.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

They say that you should be prepared for anything when exploring in the great outdoors. Yet, when you are carrying five days worth of supplies on your back, you start to prioritise your ‘anythings’ and how prepared for them you want to be. As luck would have it, since we had organised to tramp the Milford Track at the end of our New Zealand trip, we were very prepared for the rain. ‘Oh, you’re hiking the Milford, prepare to drown,’ was the common sentiment from people when we’d share our travel plans with them.

As we woke up to the cool air and misty surroundings on Day Three, ominous looking grey clouds loomed in the distance. A slight drizzle set in as we quickly packed the tent in the hope of keeping it as dry as possible. We set out after breakfast and made good pace towards James Mackay Hut – and then the rain came. For the next few hours, we walked through the downpour. I remember getting to the point of singing to myself, out loud, just to try and keep the spirits high (and maybe I was slightly delirious from the whole situation). Thankfully, we had the shortest distance to cover on this day.

Approaching storm clouds filled the sky above the Heaphy Track.

Storm clouds bringing the rain.

By the time we reached the hut and nearby camp ground, strong winds added a horizontal element to the torrential rains, and I distinctly remember saying to Jase, “We can’t camp tonight – we’ll drown!” We made the decision to try change our booking to stay in the hut that night, so we entered the hut and started the fire, waiting for the warden to arrive and tell us that would be okay.
We were in heaven! The warmth, dryness, peace and quiet of the hut were an absolute safe haven, our own little slice of ‘luxury’ in the mountains. We hung out our clothes to dry, ate warm meals at a table and proceeded to fill the afternoon with reading, journaling and cups of tea – so civilized!

As afternoon turned to evening, 5 young Germans arrived at the hut completely soaked to the bone. It made me thankful we had invested in dry compression bags for our clothes and sleeping bags, and waterproof shells for our rucksacks. After they hung up literally every item they possessed, in the hope that at least their sleeping bags and an outfit would dry by nightfall, we shared stories around the table as the candlelight flickered round the room.

Enjoying the comforts of the hut and the indoors.

Making the most of hut life.

The Raging West Coast

While the rains had calmed since Day Three, we had been informed by an experienced tour guide that it would be prudent to set out for the final leg of the journey early in the morning. From memory, it had something to do with the tides and the potential water run off from the previous downpour. Regardless, we were ready to have a shower and sleep in a bed, so weren’t going to miss our shuttle no matter the how early we needed to get started.

As the early morning sun first began to shine its light on the trail we set off for our last 16.2km of the Heaphy Track. As far as memorable moments are concerned, Day Five certainly had its share of the highlights. We soon discovered that, despite the lack of rain on Day Four, water was still gushing down from the highlands above, making the trail quite unrecognisable at times. As we proceeded further down the track, the water crossings we were wading through became progressively deeper and faster flowing. We took the challenge in our stride and saw the humour in walking through water up to my waist, until we came across a plaque in memoriam of lost trampers who were washed out to sea. Ouch, sh*t got real.

Navigating a water crossing on the Heaphy Track.

I got this.

Thankfully surviving the water with no more than saturated socks and shoes, we reached the coastal forests and took in a moment to observe the raging sea – a true force to be reckoned with. The thunderous sound of crashing waves filled the air as white water smacked hard against the jagged, rocky coastline. Forests of rātā and karaka trees lead to groves of nīkau palms, and we were blown away with some truly amazing specimens of trees.

We finally arrived at the trail’s end and waited for our ride in the cold, sandfly infested shelter as pesky weka scavenged the area for something to steal. Time passed with the help of fellow trampers, who were also waiting for transport, as we shared stories of our water crossings and relived our favourite Heaphy Track highlights.

Nikau palms on the west coast of the New Zealand.

Nikau palms made us feel a world away from our starting point just four days earlier.

On To Karamea

Tramp One down, four more to go! The Heaphy Track was an amazing initiation into the world of Great Walks and, after some well-deserved downtime, we were looking forward to the next walk on the itinerary.

Are you planning to hike the Heaphy Track and looking for the inspiration to get started? Don’t let the uphills, raging waters or carnivorous snails (oh yeah, they have those too) put you off – it’s an amazing hike that certainly deserves its Great Walk title. Be sure to ask questions in the comments below if there’s anything you’d like to know about planning for the Heaphy Track.

Completed the walk already? We’d love to hear about your Heaphy Track highlights too, so please share them below.