The Heaphy Track – Perry Saddle Hut to James Mackay Hut
Hiking on an empty stomach was never going to be an enjoyable experience. After ejecting all of the previous day’s sustenance while hiking up the mountain, the lack of appetite meant setting off on day 2 of the Heaphy Track tired, exhausted and dehydrated. I was still a little nervous every time I took a drink from my water bladder, but the sterilising tablets had done what they needed to and thankfully, there was no repeat of the day before. But it was to be a long day traversing the ridge from Perry Saddle Hut at 860m to James Mackay Hut at 700m, a 6.5hr walk according to the Department of Conservation (DoC) signage. The earlier risers at the hut meant I was on the track at the back of 7am, but I was sure that I was going to struggle maintaining a decent pace, and my pack was weighing heavy on my shoulder as I followed the path through the forest.
Following the contours of the mountain, views were sparse through the canopy, an occasional glimpse up to the hillside next to the track, or an occasional broader view across a valley. Streams and bridges were crossed and after an hour, the forest finally opened up to the moorland of Gouland Downs. It reminded me of Scotland, the heather-like shrubbery at shin height, and the wind whipping across. Rain clouds threatened from a distance creating a faint rainbow as I walked. This was takahe and giant snail country, both endemic and rare wildlife that could be spotted here. I passed signs alerting to look out for both but saw none.
As the trail dropped down a little towards a stream I came across a totem pole littered in hiking boots. I’m not sure what possesses someone to abandon their hiking boots in the middle of nowhere, but clearly lots of people have done so, as there was a myriad of shoes strung up on the pole, leading to a sign declaring the spot as ‘Boot Pole Corner’. Beyond here, the rain clouds appeared to be dispersing and I saw the rainbow once more as I got nearer the first of the day’s huts, Gouland Downs Hut. This small hut lay in a flat section which was supposed to be one of the best places to spot the takahe which had been released into the wild here. Hiking alone often gives me the best chance to spot wildlife, but although I had the place to myself, there were no birds to see.
I’d taken a little longer to reach the hut than the signs had predicted, but I was neither surprised nor put off doing the side tracks here. A little past the hut are some side tracks that are only obvious when you are looking for them. The first led into thick forest where a couple of caves could be found among the undergrowth. When the main track went into the forest, a network of arches cut under the track making for a neat little exploration into the limestone landscape, and at the end of the forest, a track led down into the low vegetation and round a corner to reveal a large open cave with a waterfall dripping down the front of it.
What followed was a series of river crossings as the track remained mostly flat across a mostly open section. It seemed on the map like the next hut wasn’t that far away but my energy was flagging with every turn in the trail that didn’t bring it into sight. Finally the 1km marker popped up and I pounded the trail in anticipation of a break, arriving at the exposed Saxon Hut which was full of people enjoying the sunshine to eat some lunch. These were all people that had stayed at Perry Saddle, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet many of them yet due to my ill health. I still wasn’t hungry but forced myself to consume a small cup of hot soup in an effort to boost my energy a little. It was all I could manage, and so I pushed on, feeling weighed down by all the food I wasn’t consuming.
My destination for the night was still 3hrs away according to the DoC sign and to begin with the track continued through tussock and wetlands, close to the Saxon river. Turning and climbing up onto a ridge, a bench in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere denoted the division between the Tasman District and the West Coast District. I struggled as the track continued along a long and winding ridge following the contours of the land. Aside from that small cup of soup, I hadn’t kept a meal down since breakfast the day before, and I was really leaning on my poles as I dragged one foot forward and then the other. My pack was such a burden on my back and my patience was getting thin as the winding seemed never ending and it became difficult to work out on the map how far I’d actually come. At one point I realised that my jumper had fallen off my pack strap where I’d slung it, and I cursed myself for having to back track to find it.
Finally I reached the dual crossings of Blue Shirt Creek which was at least somewhere recognisable on the map. The curve and dip in the landscape offered a broader view across the landscape than I’d had for a few hours, and after a brief rest by one of the bridges, I felt a bit more motivated to get moving again. Finally, the trees parted to reveal Mackay Downs, and the track became boardwalk as it crossed a slightly alien-looking landscape. This section can apparently flood quite badly in heavy rain but it had been such a sunny day so far, the ground appeared relatively dry. At one point, the track passed some unusual boulders before finally a marker denoted the hut was near.
The final kilometre to James Mackay Hut felt like it took forever. I arrived at 4.30pm, over 9hrs after leaving Perry Saddle Hut behind. There was still plenty of hours of daylight left but I was exhausted and still feeling dehydrated. But the hut gave a sneaky peak of the rest of the hike, with the Tasman Sea crashing onto the west coast just about visible in the distance. I couldn’t even consider having dinner, there was just no desire for food whatsoever. Whatever bug I’d picked up had hit me good, but I was just grateful to not be throwing up, and happy to still be on the trail despite it. There was a definite sense that the next day would bring a change, with signs that the landscape would change quite a lot. But for now, it was time to rest again, and attempt to block out the snorers ahead of the next 2 days of hiking.