It’s always a funny relationship that you have with your own backyard. After going around the world and walking various exotic trails, I came home for the summer quite embarrassed to admit that, no, even though I grew up right next door, I still hadn’t done the Heaphy Track. The plus side of this of course, was I had a wonderful new place to explore in my home town. I had grand plans of catching up on lots of New Zealand’s trails while I was footloose and fancy free, and what better place to start?
The hardest thing about doing the Heaphy is that it’s one of those end to end tracks that leaves you stranded a very long way from your car. The track runs from the Aorere Valley in Golden Bay, to Kohaihai up the coast from Karamea. The track itself is only 78 km, but Karamea and Golden Bay are both such end of the road places that the only road between the two trailheads is 463 km over multiple mountain passes, which makes the driving time between them close to 7 hours one way. There’s a shuttle that runs from Nelson which will save you doing the drive yourself and ending up with a car stuck at one end, but it’s still a lot of time on the road and limits your timeframe as it only runs once a week. Another option is to fly between Takaka and Karamea. Golden Bay Air runs a half hour flight between to the two tiny airports, and from there it’s a much shorter shuttle ride to the trailhead. The only downside is it can be pretty pricy, particularly if you’re going solo, but the airline has backfill specials when the plane is making a run anyway that work out a lot cheaper. To take advantage of them you’ll only be able to fly on certain days, but during the summer months there are so many people doing the track that your odds of finding one at a time that suites are pretty good, particularly if you don’t care which direction you do the track in. You don’t have to tell me twice. To the skies it is!
I luck out for my flight over, the plane is nearly empty so I get to ride shotgun up front with the pilot, where the views are best AND I can pretend that I’m flying the plane. I grew up in Golden Bay so I’m pretty familiar with the surroundings, but it’s a new experience seeing it from the air. Farewell Spit lunges out on my right side and Kahurangi’s jagged peaks loom up on my left. I haven’t mentioned to the pilot that I’m a local and he starts narrating the flight with interesting bits of local history…all of which I already know unfortunately. I don’t have the heart to tell him at first but eventually he actually asks me if I’m familiar with what he obviously thought was a particularly juicy story, and I have to admit that, yes, I’ve known all of his stories so far because I used to live here. He’s a bit put out at first but manages to dig out a yarn that I haven’t heard yet. Apparently there’s a dinosaur footprint somewhere in Westhaven!
The flight goes straight over the Heaphy Track and the pilot points out where the different huts are as we pass over them, which is a pretty cool experience. I’ve never had such a good look at the terrain pre-trail before. I can see what sort of country the track is going to run through and where I’ll be sleeping each night from high up in the sky, and by the looks of things, I’m in for a treat. Actually my treat starts now. Besides the sneak peek of the track, the views from the plane are absolutely stunning. We’re high enough to see lots of the gorgeous peaks in Kahurangi National Park, but still low enough to really feel a part of the landscape. No birds-eye views here. The jagged peaks are stark and imposing, towering over the little plane as we make our way past. The only downside is its pretty windy up above the mountains, and it’s a very small plane, so there’s pretty much constant turbulence for the entire flight. It’s not too scary and half an hour isn’t too long to deal with it at least, but I’m feeling pretty queasy by the time we land. Ah well, small price to pay for such a spectacular flight.
From Karamea Aerodome, a shuttle takes me up to the Kohaihai Shelter where I finally hit the trail. It’s getting on in the day a bit, but it stays light pretty late at the moment and I only have 5 hours to walk to today. The first leg is a fairly flat coastal walk. The track twists through wonderful sections of forest and along wild west coast beaches. I find this area fascinating, because on paper it sounds very similar to the Abel Tasman where I grew up. The New Zealand bush comes down to meet the sea just like I’m used to, and the same varieties of plants are hanging around the hills, but somehow the two areas are so totally different. There’s no clear blue waters inviting you to dive in here. The beaches are wild and wind swept. The waves crashing so violently that the wind takes the constant sea mist way up into the hills above. The sea froths and surges like a rabid animal and the wind sends sea froth spiralling in small tornadoes over the waves. The shoreline alternates between sand and pebbles, one beach of each as I hop over the hills to different bays. The sand and rocks here have an almost pinky color to them, which at times makes me think I’m back on the lonely granite coastline at Acadia National Park. The thick King Kong jungle up behind the shore is always a quick reminder of which country I’m in though.
The bush is different to the Abel Tasman as well. The types of trees are mostly the same but the ones here tend to be particularly giant. Huge ratas grow along the shore and even some of the nikaus look pretty monstrous with big fat bowls on them and massive beards of red berries.
Speaking of nikaus, no one does them quite like Karamea does. The swarms of them along the beaches look like an army of palms guarding the forest from the sea. We get plenty of nikaus at home, but they tend to hang out in gullies and in much smaller numbers. Seeing huge companies of them peeking their heads up as you make your way to their front-lines is a pretty awesome sight.
Everything about the landscape is stunning, but a lot of the fun of the west coast is the wildlife, and the Heaphy is no exception to that. There’s a wealth of fat drunk kererū and cheeky wekas hanging around along the track, neither of which I’m a stranger to, but it’s nice to see so many of them about. There are supposed to be carnivorous land snails around here as well. At one point I think I see one but it turns out to be a snail-shaped leaf, which on closer inspection, isn’t even that snail-shaped. Good one brain.
I make it to the Heaphy Hut right around dinner time. It’s in a nice spot, with a view of Heaphy Beach right out the window, but I find it a bit strange trying to socialise with the other hut goers who are all doing the track in the other direction. They’re all at the end of their journey while I’ve barely started. It’s a nice evening though, so I take myself down to the shoreline to perch on a picnic table, write a little, and watch the sunset over the beach. A cheeky weka comes to keep me company and, I suspect, steal my pen if he gets half a chance.
There’s too much cloud about the horizon for the dusk colors to be too spectacular, but the wind is keeping most of the sandflies away and there’s a fat moon rising over the nikaus. A wonderful scene to get absorbed in before resting up for the night. Tomorrow I leave the coast behind and make my way into the thick of the jungle.
Continue the adventure with day two.
Listening to: Bangor Mash – The Devil Makes Three