How Not to Hike the Heaphy Track
An unsettling feeling hit me shortly after lunch. As I hiked, the feeling got worse, a familiar and unwanted sensation brewing in my stomach, building as I made my way up the mountain. Finally it overwhelmed me and I grabbed a nearby rock to steady myself as I vomited. Immediately I felt better and I was relieved, returning to the hike. But it wasn’t long before it was back and over the next few hours as I slogged my way up in altitude, I had to stop again and again to purge my stomach, a hint of misery building as time went on and my destination failed to come into view. Having been dropped off by shuttle some hours before, I was 3 nights away from my car, and as my misery worsened, I contemplated my options: crawl back to the middle of nowhere and hope for a phone signal to call for a pick-up, or continue to traverse the mountains to reach my car. I’ve been called stubborn on more than one occasion, but never foolhardy. I’m not sure which one of these I was being (perhaps both), but I decided to push on, feeling the dizziness of dehydration creep in as I continued to be sick on the trail.
I’d spent Christmas day in 2019 packing and prepping for the hike ahead and early on Boxing Day I’d set off on the long drive from Christchurch to Kohaihai on the edge of Kahurangi National Park on the west coast of the South Island. Here marks the end of the Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. I spent the majority of the drive in my own World, admiring the gorgeous scenery that the country is famous for. I paused briefly in the Buller Gorge to take some photographs before hitting the west coast and turning northwards. On a whim I picked up a hitchhiker who was heading to Karamea, something which I had never done prior to living in New Zealand but have done a few times since living here. She recommended the campsite she’d just stayed at and it turned out she’d just come off the track that I was about to start. Once I dropped her off and continued onward to the end of the road, it wasn’t long till I was stepping out in gorgeous sunshine to the sound of crashing waves on the beach.
I had 40 mins to spare until my shuttle was scheduled and after a walk on the beach, I watched the weka wandering about the site, admired the pohutakawa trees which were in full bloom and readied my hiking gear together to join the large group of people that waited at the shelter. My shuttle arrived a little early and before long we were all bundled on for the long and tedious drive to Nelson. As the crow flies, the start and end of the 4-day Great Walk are only on opposite sides of the national park, but the road network meant the logistics of track transport were going to take over 24hrs from leaving home to reach the start of the trail. It had already taken 6hrs to drive there, and now I had a 6hr bus drive back through the Buller Gorge and north to Nelson. But the shuttle was also responsible for picking up hikers and bikers on several tracks and so we wound our way from main road to back roads as we offloaded and loaded people in various parts of the region. Finally, well into the evening, we pulled up in Nelson.
Aside from my hiking gear I’d brought the remains of a bottle of wine I’d started on Christmas day, and obtaining a pizza, I sat out on my hostel balcony and chilled out in the summer evening air. I’d wanted to walk the Heaphy track for some time and was excited about the hike to come. I rose early and readied my gear, unwittingly sealing my fate for the hike ahead, and headed back to the bus stop to jump aboard the shuttle once more. This time we circled through Abel Tasman to pick up and drop off those doing the trails in that National Park, before finally those of us walking the Heaphy were dumped at a car park in what felt like the middle of nowhere. Roughly 28hrs after I’d left home, I was on the trail.
The start of the trail is an easy walk through lowland forest and grassland past a hut near the bank of the Aorere river. With everyone starting at almost the exact same time there was a bit of queue to sign in on the Department of Conservation (DoC) track book, but thankfully everybody spread out quite early on. Whilst I don’t mind socialising at the huts in the evening, I much prefer hiking solo. Not only does it let me get into my own head space, an act which helps me unwind from the stress of daily life, but I find I see more on my own, be it wildlife on the trail, or some random piece of beauty like the dew on a flower, or the dappled light of sun breaking through the foliage. Within half an hour of leaving the start point, the long climb up the mountain began.
Being summer it was a hot day, and I started throwing the water back as the trail wound its way up and up the mountainside. At a starting altitude of 140m, my destination for the night, Perry Saddle Hut was sitting at 860m, and the DoC sign stated 5hrs to get there. On these great walks, the distance signs tend to be an over-estimate, so I kept a steady pace, in no particular hurry, knowing I’d make the hut in good time. Every now and again a break in the foliage would afford a view across the valley to the nearby mountain range, but mostly I was among thick forest, passing through dappled sunlight as it peaked through.
But after stopping for lunch washed down with a big guzzle of water, I started walking again only to realise I just wasn’t feeling quite right. I worked out pretty quickly what the problem was and realised this was not a small issue. The day before when I had been packing, I’d gotten out my water bladder to discover I’d somehow left some water in it from a previous use and the water was bright green. I’d washed it first with soapy water then when my UV water treatment light failed to work properly, I sterilised it with boiling water, but clearly this wasn’t enough to get rid of whatever bacteria had brewed in the watery remnants. Having filled the bladder full in Nelson that morning, I’d given myself water poisoning and I was an idiot. It was a hot sunny day and I had a 4-day hike to do. I needed water to drink and I needed a receptacle to put it into. The more I was sick, the more I needed water and yet I couldn’t drink any. My increasing misery was self-induced and I staggered on in whatever stubborn foolishness took over me.
Eventually I reached the Aorere shelter after 5hrs. I should have been at the hut by now, but a vat of rain water allowed me to ditch my water supply and boil some water to replace it with. It wasn’t ideal as clearly boiling hadn’t worked the first time, but with my UV light refusing to hold its charge and with a need to drink some water, this was the best that I could do. The sign stated an hour to the hut, but this final section felt like it went on forever. Knowing though that I might not be back here again, the stubborn streak came out and I still made the most of the sidetrack to a lookout which afforded a view to the mountains to the south. Shortly after, I reached the highest point of the trail, and yet as I looked at the topographical map, I inwardly despaired about the distance in front of me.
It was approaching 6pm, over 6hrs since I’d started walking, when I suddenly saw a post stating the hut was 1km away. When at last I reached the hut, it was bustling with life and I headed straight to the bunk room to lie down. People came and went, and as I lay prostrate on the mattress I felt the awful sensation in my stomach return. Leaping off the bed to get outside I started retching before I’d even reached the door. Hand over mouth I was almost in tears as I pushed out into the boot room where I immediately threw up on the floor. I only made it as far as the decking outside before I was violently sick again in front of everyone walking past. My misery was overloaded with embarrassment, but I hovered there for some time as the feeling subsided. When at last it passed, I sheepishly went back inside to wash the floor of the boot room and flush the decking. This wasn’t the hike that I’d planned.
Huts of any kind are a great place to meet like-minded people from all around the country and all around the World. That night I was eternally grateful for the kind soul who provided me with sterilising tablets to treat my water bladder, which thankfully meant I could start drinking water again. Between my dehydration and a horrendous snorer in the same room, I got little sleep that night, but by the time morning arrived, I’d managed to keep my stomach contents inside my stomach for nearly 12hrs. I hadn’t eaten since lunchtime the day before and that hadn’t stayed down, but although I was no longer being sick, I couldn’t bare the thought of breakfast. I still contemplated heading back down the mountain, but not for long. As the hikers gradually packed up and moved on, I too set off across the ridge. Had things been different, I possibly would have taken the summit route up to Mt Perry, but as it was I had a long day ahead. On an empty stomach, dehydrated and tired, I started day 2 of the Heaphy Track.