The Heaphy Track is known for its beauty and diversity. For 82 kilometres it crosses a range of landscapes in Kahurangi National Park, from the junction of the Brown and Aorere Rivers, over expansive tussock downs to the lush forests and roaring sea of the West Coast.
The track takes 4 to 6 days. Classified as a walking track it is well formed and suitable for most people. All rivers and major streams are bridged.
For many generations, Golden Bay Maori travelled to central Westland where they sought pounamu (greenstone) for tools, weapons and ornaments. They followed a trail over Gouland Downs from the Aorere to the Whakapoai (Heaphy River) and also travelled the treacherous coast north of the Heaphy rivermouth, risking wave-swept beaches and rounding huge bluffs using flax ladders.
The track is named after Charles Heaphy. In 1846, while a draughtsman with the New Zealand Company, he and Thomas Brunner (a surveyor with the company) were the first Europeans to traverse the coastal portion of the modern track. At the time they were on an exploratory trip along the West Coast with a Maori guide, Kehu.
The inland portion of the route remained uncrossed by Europeans for more than a decade after Heaphy's coastal trek. A gold miner named Aldridge is believed to have traversed it first, in 1859, followed in 1860 by James Mackay, a warden on the Collingwood goldfields. Over the ensuing years the route was developed to a pack-track standard by prospectors, but by 1900 it was overgrown and infrequently used. With the 1965 establishment of the former North-west Nelson Forest Park, the track was cleared again for use by the public.
Controversy arose in the early 1970s over a proposed road from Collingwood to the West Coast. The former New Zealand Forest Service improved the track facilities and now a route with a long tradition of use for commerce has a new life as a premier tourist attraction.
Kahurangi is a geologically complex area. Much of its rock is sedimentary, laid down in an ancient sea, then faulted, uplifted and scoured, in places, by glaciers. Parts of the region are limestone or marble, riddled with caves and characterised by bluffs, natural arches, sinkholes and water-worn outcrops. You will see some of this 'karst' landscape on the Heaphy Track.
Over half of New Zealand's native plant species live in the park, including 80 percent of all alpine species. To the east beautiful forests of red and silver beach predominate. Tiny orchids grow on the forest floor, many of them flowering in summer. At higher levels the trees are stunted and mountain beech appears near Perry Saddle.
Gouland Downs, is an eroded, nearly-flat area known as a peneplain. At 500 million years, the rocks here are among New Zealand's oldest. Red tussocks, the occasional patches of stunted silver beech, flax, stunted shrubs and small herbs can all be seen. In boggy places tiny sundews catch insects on sticky droplets, absorbing valuable nutrients from their quarry. Several plants found on the downs occur nowhere else, including a yellow-flowered lily and a small native foxglove.
To the west, below 300 metres, podocarps start to appear. The most common is rimu, but miro, kahikatea, and matai are also present. Other broad-leaved species in the canopy include rata, mahoe, kamahi, pigeonwood, hinau, pokaka and pukatea. Undergrowth is generally richer than at higher altitude too. Kiekie and supplejack, twist their way upwards, while many small shrubs jostle for light near the forest floor.
The coastal forest is lush with many large-leafed glossy plants and vines. The nikau palm gives a subtropical feel to the place in contrast to the cold sea and tight clumps of wiry shrubs bent by the strong, cold, coastal winds.
Native bird species readily found include weka, pipit, tui, bellbird, pigeon, and robin. With luck and a bit more commitment it is possible to see, or at least hear the great spotted kiwi, morepork, rock wren, and blue duck.
Long-tailed bats are seen more rarely, coming out at dusk to feed in the open on insects. This bat and the rarer short-tailed bat were New Zealand's only land mammals before the arrival of people. Both are now threatened by habitat destruction and introduced predators such as rats and stoats.
Kahurangi harbours half of New Zealand's 40 species of carnivorous land snail (Powelliphanta). They can be seen on the Heaphy, particularly near limestone outcrops. They shelter during the day and come out on damp nights to feed on native worms that can grow up to a metre long.
A number of animals brought to New Zealand by European settlers are established in the park. Deer numbers are low but possums are causing problems especially on the West Coast where they have severely damaged trees like rata. Possums are also known to feed on Powelliphanta.
The eastern end of the track is a 28 kilometre drive up the Aorere valley from Collingwood. Three small creeks must be forded on the way. In flood conditions these can become impassable blocking access to and from the track. The western end of the track is 15 kilometres north of Karamea on the West Coast.
Bus and taxi services are available to both ends of the track from nearby towns, and regular bus services link Nelson and Westport. Air services make it possible to walk the track and return by air to near your starting point. Air services are also available to Golden Bay from Auckland and Wellington. Accommodation is available in all the local towns.
Telephones have been installed at both track ends; local calls for transport are free.
This is an east to west description of the track. Times are approximate only and will vary according to fitness, pace of group and direction of travel.
Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut 5 hours, 17 km.
Brown Hut has bunk space for 20. About 180 metres upstream from the hut cross the bridge over the Brown River, then a grassy flat before winding up a well defined track and into the bush.
The track climbs gradually following a route once surveyed for a road. After three hours Aorere shelter is reached. From here the Aorere valley is seen extending northwards and on clear days it is possible to see Taranaki/Mt Egmont. Just before Perry Saddle Hut a short track leads to a viewpoint at Flanagan's Corner. At 915 metres this is the highest point on the track.
Perry Saddle Hut is 880 metres above sea level, and has bunk accommodation for 26. Near the hut in Gorge Creek is a deep but cold pool popular for bathing.
Perry Saddle to Gouland Downs Hut 2 hours, 8 km
From Perry Saddle Hut cross the saddle and sidle above Perry Creek through tussock clearings and patches of beech. Soon the valley widens and the track climbs a small rise to where the open downs are revealed stretching out to the west.
The track meanders easily down to Cave Brook, passing the famed pole to which trampers have tied old boots over the years. Just beyond the brook is Gouland Downs Hut which has 10 bunks and lots of atmosphere.
Nearby a small patch of beech grows on a limestone outcrop that has escaped erosion. This area is worth exploring. The track crosses one of several limestone arches that are the remnants of old caves. Nearby a small waterfall flows out of another cave passage.
Gouland Downs Hut to Saxon Hut 1½ hours, 5 km.
Beyond Gouland Downs Hut the track is relatively level as it crosses the northern part of Gouland Downs. The tussock country and riverbeds make for good exploring, but when the mist lowers the featureless downs can be confusing and it is easy to become disoriented.
Saxon Hut, nestled near the end of the downs, is the newest on the track. It sleeps 16 and is named after John Saxon, who surveyed the track in 1886.
Saxon Hut to Mackay Hut 3 hours, 14 km.
From Saxon Hut the track drops slightly to grassy flats beside the Saxon River. This short section of the journey floods in extremely wet conditions, making it impassable and quite dangerous. Walkers should wait for the water to recede.
After the flats the track climbs gently up to a broad ridge which joins Gouland Downs to Mackay Downs and marks the boundary between Nelson and the West Coast.
The track now skirts the edge of delightful Mackay Downs to James Mackay Hut, winding in and out of several small streams, just before they tumble off the downs and fall to the Heaphy River on the left. The vegetation is alternately tussock field and shrub-fringed patches of beech forest.
The hut is named after the explorer who first pressed for a bridle track to be established between Collingwood and the West Coast. It has 26 bunks and is situated just above the track on an open terrace. The Tasman Sea and Heaphy river mouth can be seen from here, 15 km to the west and 750 metres below.
Mackay Hut to Lewis Hut 3 hours 30min, 13.5 km.
Beyond Mackay Hut the downs landscape ends and a gradual descent to the Heaphy River begins. The track is through beech forest at first but soon the richer and taller forest typical of the West Coast becomes dominant.
Occasional tantalising glimpses of the Heaphy River below are seen through the forest; the sounds of rushing water grow louder and suddenly the hut is reached, at the junction of the Heaphy River and the smaller Lewis River.
Sandflies and the first nikau palms appear around Lewis Hut which sleeps 20. Charles Lewis was a Collingwood surveyor who in the 1880s was first to investigate Mackay's proposed bridle route.
Lewis Hut to Heaphy Hut 2½ hrs, 8 km.
From Lewis Hut, head back up the track for a short distance to a junction, Turn left and walk over a ridge to a footbridge. Cross the Lewis River here then follow the right bank of the Heaphy River to another bridge.
The track crosses the Heaphy here and continues along the left bank to the river mouth through a forest of kahikatea, rimu and rata. Glossy-leafed shrubs perch precariously in the tall trees, flourishing in the abundant light and extracting nutrients from humus (accumulated plant debris) in their hosts' branches.
In dry spells the river meanders along peacefully. Towards the mouth nikau palms become more common, the sea's incessant roaring grows louder and in some conditions, small waves can be seen running up-river! Heaphy Hut is situated close to the river bank and far enough back from the sea to be spared the worst of the winds. It accommodates 20.
The rivermouth is at the junction of two pounamu (greenstone) trails and archaeological work has uncovered evidence of occupation by Maori that extends back 500 years. In 1905, an extensive European settlement was surveyed in the lower valley but it was never built.
Heaphy Hut to Kohaihai River Mouth 5 hours, 16.5 km.
The Heaphy rivermouth is an exciting place. The river surges out through a narrow gap into the sea; in-coming waves halt the flow and the churning of salt and fresh waters is spectacular.
The track south to Kohaihai is through forest although beach walking is possible in some places. Some of the small streams are not bridged and can be dangerous after heavy rain. The forest has rata and karaka trees, many vines and groves of nikau palms. Be careful of the stinging nettle that grows in places.
Just beyond Katipo Creek is Crayfish Point. The sea here is very dangerous. Use the high tide track unless you are there within two hours either side of low tide. There are tide tables in Heaphy Hut and Kohaihai Shelter.
Soon Scott's Beach is reached, the clearing here is a good spot to rest before climbing over Kohaihai Saddle and down through wind-blasted shrubs to a bridge across the Kohaihai River. The track follows the riverbank for 400 metres to Kohaihai carpark where there is a shelter and phone.
The seven huts along the track have bunks, heating, water and toilets. It is best to carry your own cooker but there are gas cookers at all huts except Brown and Gouland Downs. Trampers are expected to leave the huts clean and tidy.
Campsite passes can only be purchased for the three designated campsites. These are on the coastal section of the track at Heaphy Hut, Katipo Shelter and Scott's Beach. At the Heaphy Hut, a campsite pass can be upgraded to a hut pass after 6pm on payment of the difference to hut wardens.
It has proven impractical to provide quality campsites elsewhere on the track, therefore, only hut passes are sold for other locations. There are very basic camping areas adjacent to other huts but these should be used for camping by holders of hut passes on the rare occasions a hut is over full.
A Great Walks hut or campsite pass for the Heaphy must be purchased before entering the track and must be visible at all times. The hut pass does not guarantee a bunk and there is a two-night limit on staying at each hut. Children under 11 do not need passes. Youth rates apply for school children aged 11 and over.
The campsite pass can be upgraded to a hut pass after 6pm on payment of the difference.
Passes are available at hostels, outdoor equipment shops, visitor centres, DOC offices in the Nelson and West Coast regions and from private bus operators.
Back country hut tickets and annual passes are not valid on the track.
Passes not purchased before starting the walk will be charged at premium rates. Premium rates apply to all passes purchased on the day from hut wardens and other DOC staff on the track.
Have a safe and enjoyable trip
The weather on the Heaphy Track is changeable. Heavy rain can occur with little warning and even small streams are dangerous in flood. The downs are exposed to cold winds, thick mist and rain. Make sure you are properly equipped and well prepared:
Make sure your group has a capable leader and that everyone is carrying a sleeping bag, sufficient high energy food (with some spare for emergencies), waterproof raincoat and overtrousers, gloves, a hat, and several layers of warm clothing. You will also need a portable cooking stove and fuel. Boots are the recommended footwear for the Heaphy. Please check at the nearest Department of Conservation (DOC) office for up to date information on track and weather conditions.
Giardia has not been found in waters along the track but it may still be present. To avoid giardia water should be boiled, chemically treated or filtered. Keep to the track. It you become lost stop, find shelter, stay calm, and try to assist searchers.
And please remember
No hunting is allowed on the Gouland Downs or within one kilometre either side of the track. Firearms may be carried on the track to other areas where hunting is encouraged; a permit is required and can be obtained from local Department of Conservation Offices. All native wildlife in the park is protected. Taking live snails or their empty shells is prohibited. No rubbish facilities are provided. All rubbish must be carried out of the park. Mountain-biking is not permitted on the Heaphy Track. To protect ground-dwelling birds, no dogs or other domestic animals are permitted on the track. Fire is a major threat. Use portable stoves rather than fires for cooking.
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