Happy on the Heaphy

By Alina Suchanski

Located in Kahurangi National Park near the northern tip of the South Island, the Heaphy Track connects the West Coast with Golden Bay and offers unique and varied scenery from magnificent beaches to lush rainforest, nikau palm groves, rivers, and mountains. But what sets this Great Walk apart from the nine others is a population of wild takahē roaming the tussock-clad valleys of the Gouland Downs. Alina Suchanski walks the Heaphy to tell the story.

In December 1846, explorers Charles Heaphy and Thomas Brunner embarked on one of the most arduous overland journeys in New Zealand's European history. Accompanied by a Māori guide, Kehu, they spent 560 days travelling from Nelson down the Buller River to the West Coast. From there, they went north as far as the Heaphy River and south to Arahura. The Heaphy Track in the north-west corner of the South Island is a reminder of this epic journey (NZ History, 2017).

 

By Alina Suchanski

Located in Kahurangi National Park near the northern tip of the South Island, the Heaphy Track connects the West Coast with Golden Bay and offers unique and varied scenery from magnificent beaches to lush rainforest, nikau palm groves, rivers, and mountains. But what sets this Great Walk apart from the nine others is a population of wild takahē roaming the tussock-clad valleys of the Gouland Downs. Alina Suchanski walks the Heaphy to tell the story.

In December 1846, explorers Charles Heaphy and Thomas Brunner embarked on one of the most arduous overland journeys in New Zealand’s European history. Accompanied by a Māori guide, Kehu, they spent 560 days travelling from Nelson down the Buller River to the West Coast. From there, they went north as far as the Heaphy River and south to Arahura. The Heaphy Track in the north-west corner of the South Island is a reminder of this epic journey (NZ History, 2017).

In pre-European days, generations of Golden Bay Māori travelled to central Westland in search of pounamu (greenstone). They followed a trail over Gouland Downs from the Aorere to the Whakapoai (Heaphy River). It wasn’t until 1859 that the first Europeans retraced their footsteps looking for gold (DOC, n.d.).

There was no gold to be found in the area and after thirty years, prospecting ended. By 1900, the track was virtually forgotten, and it became overgrown and seldom used.

Formal protection of the area began with the establishment of the Gouland Downs Scenic Reserve and Wildlife refuge in 1917. Other areas within the present National Park were gazetted State Forest from 1920 which resulted in the creation of the North-west Nelson Forest Park in 1965. This became Kahurangi National Park in 1996, which led to increasing popularity of the track (Grant, 2021).

In 1992, the Heaphy Track was upgraded to a Department of Conservation (DOC) Great Walk status. Following a two-season trial in 2011/12, it was the first multi-day track in New Zealand to allow cyclists in the National Park, albeit in the off-season only. The trial went well and today, hikers and cyclists happily co-exist on the Heaphy.

2018 saw another milestone in the history of the track when 30 takahē were released into Gouland Downs in an attempt to establish a second wild population outside of the Murchison Mountains in Fiordland.

That year my friend, Petrina and I joined the ranks of the thousands of people who hike this track every year.

Organising transport for the trip can be tricky and can add significant cost – but not if you have a friend who is keen to cycle the track in the opposite direction to you, swapping car keys on the way.

One sunny spring morning, Petrina and I found ourselves on the West Coast at the Kohaihai Beach shelter, the starting point of our tramp. There were nikau palms everywhere and plenty of weka mating noisily. We walked for six hours in the nikau forest along the beautiful wild coast, where golden sand beaches descended steeply into the emerald-green waters of the Tasman Sea. We passed beaches full of large, polished stones that resembled eggs laid by giant birds.

When we stopped for lunch, an opportunistic weka came out of the bush heading straight for our sandwiches. I hushed it away not willing to share my lunch. As the day wore on, my pack with five days’ worth of food began to weigh me down. The amazing birdlife was a welcome distraction; we saw and heard seagulls, tui, bellbirds, grey warblers, a tomtit, and a shining cuckoo, but I was still relieved to see the sign marking 1 km to our first hut.

Built in 2012, the Heaphy Hut looks new, spacious, and clean. A large deck overlooks the estuary of the Heaphy River framed by a tangle of native bush with the chalices of nikau palms raising above the windswept greenery.

The nearby bank of the Heaphy River was once a 13th to 14th century village, settled by early Māori ancestors. The first formal archaeological investigations took place in the early 1960s under the auspices of Canterbury Museum. These excavations uncovered stone pavements, fireplaces, postholes, moa bones, evidence of stone working, complete adzes, and other artefacts.

A further excavation was carried out in 2004 by DOC, the University of Otago, and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust in partnership with Kāti Waewae in response to concerns raised about the rate of erosion occurring at the site and the need to salvage information from the site before it eroded completely (DOC, n.d.).

We enjoyed the late afternoon, walking on the beach and soaking our tired feet in salty water. A stunning West Coast sunset was the perfect finish to an interesting and rewarding day.

Next morning, we set off on our way to the James Mackay Hut. We spotted a colony of shags nesting in the trees overhanging the riverbank. A little further, a flock of raucous tui in a grove of mature kowhai trees were getting drunk on the nectar of the yellow blossoms. Initially we followed the Heaphy River where nikau palms gradually gave way to mixed forest with ancient rata trees, impressively tall kahikatea, and rimu trees. After two hours, we came to Lewis Hut, where we stopped for morning tea before crossing the Heaphy River on a long sturdy bridge. From here, the track climbed steadily. The vegetation continued to change, red beech giving way to a mountain beech forest; a curious kākā observed us from a branch.

At 4 pm and after 7 hours’ walking, we reached the James Mackay Hut just as a group of four portly mountain bikers arrived from the opposite direction. The hut was amazing. Huge panoramic windows on three sides of the kitchen/dining area made the most of the magnificent views of the Tasman Sea and the mouth of the Heaphy River. It was satisfying to look 750 m down and 21 km away to see the place we had started at that morning.

The four jolly mountain bikers were aiming to cycle the Heaphy Track in two days, James Mackay Hut being their only overnight stop.

The following day was an easy one with only three hours to the next hut. We left mid-morning, but it didn’t take long before we were stopped in our tracks. We heard a rustling noise in the tussock a few metres away, followed by a booming sound. Suddenly, a rotund, blue-green bird with a bright red beak stepped out of the tussocks. Right before us stood a live takahē, one of New Zealand’s rarest birds.

As we continued walking, the vegetation changed again. Stunted beech trees now intermingled with broadleaves, bog pines, celery pines, and many other sub-alpine species. Large patches of red tussock provided the habitat favoured by the takahē.

We came across a bench and decided to make it our lunch stop. On a scraggly Coprosma bush, Petrina spotted a fernbird balancing on a thin branch. It’s great to walk with Petrina; she knows a lot about plants and birds, and if it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have noticed this rare, sparrow-size bird.

A takahē near the Saxon Hut

As we neared Saxon Hut, we heard the same quiet, booming noises, and soon another takahē came out to greet us. The welcoming party was joined by a weka and two welcome swallows flying low, their iridescent blue feathers shining in the afternoon sun.

Two weka hugging on the track with their eyes closed while making soft murmuring noises

We made a cup of tea and watched the birds outside the hut. A pair of takahē and a pair of weka entertained us all afternoon. After a stunning red sunset, we heard the call of a ruru (morepork).

I woke up the next morning at dawn and went for a walk around the hut with my camera to catch the magic light of the rising sun. It illuminated masses of sparkling dew droplets strung on tussock fronds.

A weka ran towards me like a chicken expecting its breakfast feed. At the thought of food, I went back to the hut to make my porridge, adding large chunks of dark chocolate for extra energy.

We carried on to the historic Gouland Downs Hut, where there were plenty of takahē droppings on the track. (Takahē spend most of their day eating and can poo up to nine metres in a day!)

When we stopped for lunch at a place aptly signposted the Picnic Table Corner, another of the ubiquitous weka came out to meet us. It hung around under the table and tried to ‘eat freckles off Petrina’s legs’ – “very gently,” she said.

After lunch, we climbed over Perry’s Saddle to the hut bearing the same name. During the afternoon, several groups of mountain bikers stopped at the hut, but eventually only 12 people remained for the night and spread across three bunkrooms. Petrina and I were lucky to have an 8-bunk room to ourselves.

A strange bird call woke me up in the middle of the night. I lay in my bunk listening. “Petrina, are you awake? What was it?” I asked.

“Oh my God, I saw a kiwi right outside our window. Come here, quick!” she whispered.

It was a bright, moonlit night and something was rustling in the bushes.

“I’m going to turn on my torch. Ready? One, two, three … ” she shone her red torch light in the direction of the noise, and there it was – a large ball-shaped bird with a long thin beak, just a metre or two away from the hut. Displeased by the light, it sauntered away unhurriedly. Wow! We couldn’t believe our luck – a fernbird, a kākā, a takahē, and now a kiwi!

Our last day on the track could not have been any better – blue sky, sunshine, and not a breath of wind. With our packs much lighter, we glided through the forest of beech trees, kamahi, kahikatea and rimu and after six hours, reached the end of our 78 km journey.

Of the seven New Zealand’s Great Walks I have completed to date, the Heaphy Track delivers the strongest contrasts. Every section of the track is vastly different from the previous one. You can do the Heaphy Track in two days on a bike, but if you have the luxury of time, why not enjoy the diverse birdlife, spectacular scenery, and lush vegetation of this unique and remote part of Aotearoa at a walking pace?

 

 

Sources: 1. New Zealand History; 2. Department of Conservation, Heaphy Track, History and Culture, doc.govt.nz

Photos: Alina Suchanski

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