DOC worker, Twin Beach

A DOC (Department of Conservation) worker on the path above Twin Beach, on the Heaphy Coast, a few miles from the end of the walk

Date completed: 26th – 28th February 2013

Weather conditions: Superb throughout, the only interruption being some mist on the second morning, and that cleared itself beautifully (see the picture below). New Zealand is in the middle of one of its warmest, driest late summers in memory, and in fact some places are beginning to suffer a water shortage (the Lewis Hut on the walk had run out of tank water). It isn’t always like this.

Distance: The Heaphy track is around 80km, or 50 miles long. (Reports of the distance vary slightly but this is a figure around which they gather.)

Morning mist clears from the Slate Range, hills to the north of Gouland Downs (day two)

Morning mist clears from the Slate Range, hills to the north of Gouland Downs (day two)

Total ascent: The main climb comes right at the start with an ascent from the 100m altitude Brown Hut to 915m at Flanagan’s Lookout, the highest point on the walk, 10 miles in. But it’s a very well-graded climb and never steep. The other significant ascents are from Gouland Downs Hut (610m) up to the vicinity of Mount Teddy, between Saxon and Mackay huts (around 800m) and then – a real killer – a final 100m pull over Kohaihai Bluff at the very end.  Add some other sundry bumps and knobs – of which there are not many, the walk often being fairly flat – and let’s say around 1,150m, or about 3,770 feet of ascent. (Add another 100m if you do the walk starting at Kohaihai shelter, which is at sea level.)

Start and end points: The Heaphy is a linear track, starting (or ending) at Brown Hut, which is about 30km south-west of the little town of Collingwood, at the top-left (north-west) end of New Zealand’s South Island. The other end is the Kohaihai Shelter on the west coast, about 16km north of the town of Karamea.

The 'boot pole' near the Gouland Downs hut. Note the high-heeled shoe visible near the top, which someone must have carried there (at least a day's hike from anywhere resembling civilisation)

The ‘boot pole’ near the Gouland Downs hut. Note the high-heeled shoe visible near the top, which someone must have carried there (at least a day’s hike from anywhere resembling civilisation)

Although the track can obviously be walked in either direction, in my opinion it is better started from Brown Hut, because then you get the spectacular coastal section at the end. It makes a fitting climax, and if done the other way around, you would have the best day first, and a rather dull final 10 miles.

At both places, local bus companies make a living ferrying people to and from the trailhead. Note that there is no direct road access between these two points – you have to drive 460km – so the logistics of the walk can be difficult. Look at web sites like or to plan your trip.

Pub at end: No refreshments, except water, are available at Kohaihai shelter, but in Karamea there are options. I drank at the Karamea Village Hotel, which does decent (if fairly standard) food as well.

Route Card: Topo50 maps BP22 (Heaphy Beach) and BP23 (Gouland Downs) cover the whole route. The Trailblazer Guide: New Zealand: The Great Walks was also very useful in route planning.

View from Perry Saddle

View from the Perry Saddle hut

Route: No route-finding is actually necessary, as the path is unloseable. It has been used as a route over these hills for over 130 years (by Europeans, anyway) and was substantially cleared in the 1960s, then given Great Walk status. But here are some notes on what to expect.

Discounting the Brown Hut, which is at the very start, there are six huts spaced along the track at regular intervals, each of which can mark the end of a particular day. In order from east to west these are Perry Saddle; Gouland Downs; Saxon; Mackay; Lewis; and Heaphy huts. I did the track in three days, having originally intended to take four, breaking my journey at the Gouland Downs and Mackay huts (Heaphy was to have been the third). This was, obviously, practical, but did lead to a very long third day (see the commentary). Four days will be more comfortable for most people, and five days if you really just want to take your time over it.

Remember, though, that these huts just provide basic accommodation; you have to take a sleeping bag as well as all the food and other supplies you need: although, unlike on the Rakiura Track, there is toilet roll and gas stoves at the huts (with the exception of the Brown and Gouland Downs huts, where you do need to have your own gas. Note, also, that there is no camping gas on sale in Collingwood – unbelievably, for a town which sees so many trampers pass through). The longer you take, the more food you will have to carry. Huts must be booked in advance: see . Also remember to take insect repellent, a basic first aid kit (particularly to treat blisters), a torch, and a good book to read in the evenings. You can also camp at each hut if you are willing to take a tent as well; rates are cheaper than for bed space.

Aorere Valley

The valley of the Aorere River. Farewell Spit, a 30-mile long sandbar, is visible on the horizon.

Hut-to-hut, the route breaks down as follows – distances are approximate:
Brown to Perry Saddle: A constant, but never steep, ascent for around 17km, or 10.5 miles. You climb up through forest, with occasional views of the Aorere Valley (see picture).
Perry Saddle to Gouland Downs (6km): A descent, the last part of which is in the open country of the downs.
Gouland Downs to Saxon (7km): Relatively level walking through the downs country. The most exposed section, so wear sunscreen in good weather.
Saxon to Mackay (14km): Some more climbing through forest, then a level walk through scrubland. Good views around Mackay, including a first sight of the west coast. Incidentally, it is worth at Mackay taking a look at the summit just above the hut: take the path up behind the DOC staff hut, push on through the vegetation and you come out to a trig point after about 15 minutes, which has the best panoramic view on the whole track. The picture below is taken from part-way up this path.
Mackay to Lewis (13.5km): All downhill through forest: no views to distract, so fast progress can be made.
Lewis to Heaphy (7.5km): Mostly level walking through very thick forest, but with frequent views of the Heaphy River.
Heaphy to Kohaihai shelter (16km): The most spectacular section, walking right by the shore of the Southern Ocean, lots of palm trees and ‘desert island’-style views. The thunderous power of the waves is very impressive. (Do, however, heed warnings about sections made dangerous in high tides, and check tide times before attempting them: they are posted in the Lewis and Heaphy huts and probably in Kohaihai shelter too.)

Mackay hut

The James Mackay hut

Many of the river crossings are now equipped with solid wooden bridges, though they do still bounce in a mildly alarming fashion as you cross. However, there are still one or two wire bridges to cross, which those who have a problem with heights are not going to enjoy. No choice though: just keep your eyes focused ahead of you and get on with it. I believe that these are scheduled for replacement soon anyway.

Otherwise, there are no hazards on the walk, but don’t daydream: there is often a steep drop-off at one side of the track, and tree roots may trip you up if you don’t pay attention.

A weka - and George, a fellow hiker - at Gouland Downs hut. This bird was an accomplished thief, by the way.

A weka – and George, a fellow hiker – at Gouland Downs hut. This bird was an accomplished thief, by the way.

There is some good birdlife to be seen along the route. Look for weka, a flightless bird unique to New Zealand, looking somewhat like a brown duck, with a beak rather than a bill. Some have taken to hanging around the camp sites and huts, and at Gouland Downs one was definitely after our food. I saw a family with three chicks at one point. You may see kiwi too, but they are quite rare and only come out at night.

I also saw plenty of New Zealand robins (differently coloured, but just as fearless as their European counterparts) and, at Heaphy River bridge, some very impressive falcons (see picture). The pleasant, melodious call of the bellbird will be frequently heard. Kea (highland parrots) and morepork, a.k.a. ruru (a kind of owl) may also be seen or heard.


Falcon at the Heaphy River bridge

Unfortunately, New Zealand also has a major conservation problem when it comes to introduced mammal pests, particularly stoats, rats and possums, all of which cause major difficulties for native birds. In fact this is probably the single biggest environmental problem faced by the country at the present time, it being otherwise a generally environmentally-conscious nation when it comes to looking after its many wild places. You will see many traps along the route (in the form of wooden boxes with bait inside); you may also see warning notices regarding the distribution of ‘1080’, a poison. It is fair to say that opinion is divided on the use of this substance.

Commentary: The Rakiura Track was a warm-up, a starter, for this main course. Having bought the ‘Great Walks’ guide in Keswick back in January, I’d settled on the Heaphy Track as the second walk I would do because it was long enough to provide a multi-day challenge, yet also not as crowded as some of the more famous walks to the south, like the Milford; it also got me up to a different part of the South Island.

Scotts Beach

Scotts Beach, at the very end of the walk. The finish is behind the point of Kohaihai Bluff; so there’s a bit more climbing to do yet.

The logistics were not easy, though. I’m not geared up for these multi-day walks and I kind of went on instinct when it came to packing food. If it was full of calories, economically packaged and small, it went in. I did become quite taken with chocolate and honey ‘One Square Meal’ bars during this trip, but it was also partly the thought of a third consecutive evening meal involving tuna and pasta that got me pushing through to finish the walk in three days rather than four. At least I could get some of the heavier bits of my luggage – mainly my computer – transported independently to Karamea thanks to one of the bus companies who work this particular market. ($30 was worth the cost – I had at least 12kg on my back as it was, another 7kg or so would have been far too great a burden.)

I arrived in the Brown Hut at about 6.45pm on the night of Monday 25th February: there were just three of us in there, myself and two New Zealander guys, the sort who despite being in their sixties you look at and guess they’re probably rather more capable of running a marathon than you are – or, indeed, hiking 50 miles over the next few days. I didn’t sleep that well, although I don’t really think it’s possible to in these huts. A mouse was also moving around somewhere near my head for much of the night. At least, I hoped it was a mouse.

Gouland Downs scene

First real view gained of the Gouland Downs, as you finally emerge from the forest after Perry Saddle.

The first morning slightly dispirited me because I had my fill of tramping through unyielding forest on the second day on the Rakiura, and the climb up to Perry Saddle offered only more of the same. Did I just sign up for four more days of this, I wondered? But once at the Saddle, the views open up and I did enjoy the rest of the walk. The first highlight was Gouland Downs hut, the smallest of those on the track (only 8 bunks). Its location is spectacular and there were a good group of people gathered there on the Tuesday night, all individual travellers. We were entertained both by the daring pilfering of the local weka, and the endless hiccuping of Robert, one of the German hikers. He was still at it the next morning, I felt kind of sorry for him in fact. A glorious, enormous full moon also made the evening a memorable one, though I failed to photograph it adequately. (I had to be more sparing than usual with my use of my camera, knowing that I would not be able to recharge the battery until Karamea.)

Sunset from Brown Hut

Sunset view, from Brown Hut at the start of the walk

I felt less sociable in the Mackay hut, on my second night, however: at that point I just wanted a ‘quiet night in’ and spent most of it hidden up on my top bunk listening to my iPod.  It was also noisy the next morning, with everyone who wanted an early start making sure that everyone else would have the same early start too. I wasn’t keen on repeating this experience (with most of the same people) at the Heaphy hut the next day, and was also very keen on having a beer of some sort by this point.

So when I realised I was feeling quite sprightly at the beginning of day three, and the descent down to Lewis hut was very fast (I left Mackay at 7.30 and was in Lewis by 10am), I took the possibly foolhardy decision to push through and complete the final 37km (23 miles) of the walk in one go. The beauty of the coastal section did sustain my energy for a while, but at about the crossing of the Wekakura Creek (8 miles to go) I did feel the first inklings that I had hit the wall, and by Crayfish Point (3 to go) I was just shuffling along in a desultory fashion, still moving only because it was easier than stopping. But plugging in my iPod and putting on some banging tunes did give me a boost, which was necessary, because the final pull over the Kohaihai Bluff could not be avoided. I did it all, though – the longest I have ever walked in one day (the Heaphy Track itself is not my longest-ever walk, however, which still remains the South Downs Way at about 80 miles, completed in my teens).

Mist on Gouland Downs

Another scene on the Gouland Downs, in the morning mist of day two

No more long walks for a while, however: I do have some work to do. And my feet hurt (though kudos to my boots, which got me over the track with only the tiniest, single blister on my left little toe). I hope to get a couple of day walks done in Australia over the remainder of my time there, however. But let me say in conclusion that I have really enjoyed New Zealand and even though I know the weather isn’t always as good as this, it has spectacular scenery, friendly people, good beer (better than Oz), clean landscapes – yes, even if it is difficult to get to, I would say it is worth it. I wish I had more time here and will definitely be back one day.


2 Responses to “Heaphy Track, Kahurangi National Park, South Island, New Zealand”

  1. […] details on the Heaphy Track page, as I continue to blog about my international walks. I have very much enjoyed my time in New […]

  2. Deb Waters said

    Well done Drew for tackling the wire bridges. You truly are an intrepid explorer (I’m gonna stick to the hostels I reckon) See you in Brisbane.

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