The Heaphy Track – James Mackay Hut to Kohaihai
I believe most people take sunsets and sunrises for granted. I myself certainly do. For the sake of extra time beneath the covers, I would normally have no desire to get up early in my day to day life, and if I see the sunset at night, it is only because I may happen to be outside at the time. But when I’m on holiday, and especially when I’m hiking, I love to watch the turning of the sun, the rise above the horizon in the morning and its graceful fall at night, the accompanying change of colours lighting up the view.
As often happens in busy huts on the trail, the stirring of one or two people soon has the whole hut awake, and on this third day of the Heaphy track, I was up in the mountains at 700m. The west coast clouds thickened the air and rather weakened the effect of the coming day. It was now two days since I’d eaten a proper meal. I still didn’t feel like having breakfast and once more packed my bag and readied to set off with almost all of the food I’d started with. Before leaving though, I took the track behind the hut to a lookout a little higher up. Some streaks of light burst through the cloud as I stood there and in the far distance I could see my destination for the day, the mouth of the Heaphy river and beyond it the expanse of the Tasman Sea.
It was to be a long descent down the mountainside surrounded by gorgeous New Zealand bush. It shrouded the view somewhat but it was a pleasant trail to take. It is strange to think how these forests would have sounded before humans came and introduced the alien species that decimated the native bird populations. There was some bird activity though and as is often the case in forests in New Zealand, if I ever slow a little as my mind wanders off, it doesn’t take much encouragement for a robin to appear and keep me company. They are such delightfully inquisitive little birds, and unlike the piwakaka (fantails), they seem to like to pause for photographs, often cocking their head in anticipation, or watching closely as you interact. As a result, I will often stop to engage one if they come close.
Elsewhere as the trail got lower, a weka appeared. Depending on where you see them, these birds can either by easily spooked and take off at great knots, or they will be pushy and approach you looking for an easy meal. They, like New Zealand’s alpine parrot (kea), have a reputation for stealing hiker’s belongings. This one fussed around my hiking pole before getting bored and wandering off. As I continued I found the trail was blocked by a fallen tree. This is not an unusual occurrence while hiking, and even the Great Walks can suffer at the hands of bad weather, taking days or weeks to clear blockages. It was a bit of a scramble, but it was manageable to climb over it.
A few hours after leaving James Mackay Hut behind, I was in constant sunshine and gaps in the bush appeared. It seemed that I was still quite high up, but the wide expanse of the Heaphy river was now just below me, its tannin-stained water snaking through the valley. The vegetation was noticeably changing as I descended with more ferns appearing and a change in the tree type to reflect the typical west coast canopy. Another robin grabbed my attention, drawing me out the reverie that always accompanies my hikes. After what felt like a long time, I finally popped out at a clearing where the small Lewis Hut sat close to the confluence of the Lewis and Heaphy rivers. The flat lawn that surrounded it was strewn with hikers taking a breather in the glorious sunshine.
At last I felt like eating and managed a banana smoothie. It was a small triumph after feeling ill for so long. A couple of weka patrolled the lawn, walking from hiker’s pack to hiker’s pack, testing what they could grab and run. The river by my side was broad and brown, and had it not been for the inevitable sandfly annoyance, I could have stayed here for some time. The Department of Conservation (DoC) sign stated 2hrs to the next hut but it was yet midday and I was certainly in no hurry. But once I was ready, I set off reaching the longest DoC suspension bridge in the country to cross the Heaphy river, the valley shrouded in thick bush, the odd pop of colour from a flowering pohutakawa tree breaking up the green.
It was a glorious day for a hike with the sun lighting up the blue sky and the hillsides swathed in native flora. Now the trail was almost at sea level, winding its way along the Heaphy river valley. Shortly after crossing the bridge the track passed some giant trees whose trunks were wound in vines. There were several focal points on this final stretch. Aside from the bridge itself and giant trees, an area to the side of the trail was jagged and contained signs of upthrust from under the sea. I was on the look out for a cave which the ranger at the hut had told me about. Unmarked but apparently obvious once upon it, I walked and walked and failed to see it.
Another suspension bridge took me across the Gunner river and now I felt like I was in a jungle. Yet another suspension bridge appeared and still no cave. I asked some fellow hikers who hadn’t seen it either, and I assumed it had been missed. As I continued to head west, the nikau palms became more prevalent and all of a sudden there it was, a small, unassuming cave entrance next to a small bridge. It appeared that most hikers were overlooking it, but I dumped my bag at the side and took my boots off to get into the frigid water. Armed with my light I headed in in search of glowworms. I love exploring caves but I also feel a little frightened when doing so on my own. As much as I prefer hiking on my own, I typically do it without those that know me actually knowing where I am. So I always go underground with the knowledge that if a cave-in happened or I fell, nobody would know where to look for me. It tends to mean that I limit how deep in I go.
On this occasion I went far enough in to not see daylight anymore, spotting some cave weta in my light. Then I turned the light off and watched the twinkle of a handful of glowworms light up. The frigid water on my feet was painful and this also drove me back outside again. The hikers I’d spoken to at the bridge had just arrived as I exited so they climbed in as I climbed out. I later discovered that had I taken just one more bend I would have been surrounded by a mass of twinkling glowworms. Unlike most of the hikers on the trail I had at least gone in, but I cursed myself for my fear holding me back from getting the full experience.
From here onwards the trail was just delightful. The palm trees were everywhere and by now I was right on the bank of the Heaphy river which by now was very broad. The vegetation was thinning out here and I spotted shags resting on trees by the river. I could hear the roar of the ocean as I continued, and soon after the vegetation dramatically shortened to reveal the full extent of the river. Within minutes I found myself at Heaphy hut around 6hrs after I’d set off. This hut was glorious, set back from the river with a large lawn in front of it and looking out to sea. After securing a bunk, it was time to explore with hours of daylight ahead. The beach was littered with washed up tree debris, salt-weathered trunks strewn all over the place. I sunbathed for a while before the sandflies drove me crazy.
By this stage, I’d gotten chatting with a few people over the course of the days I’d been hiking, and although I managed only a small dinner, it was good to be eating again and it was great hanging out with fellow hikers sharing stories. As the daylight faded, several of us headed back down to the beach. The plan had been to watch the sunset but thick cloud had moved in over the end of the afternoon, so there wasn’t much hope of getting great colours. It looked dramatic though as the wind had whipped up creating the effect of spray down the coast. I stayed out as long as I could until there was just enough light to make my way back to the hut.
Unfortunately the cloud that had moved in signalled a shift in the weather and I awoke to a dull day with the threat of rain. Most of the hikers at the hut had to make the lunchtime shuttle from Kohaihai that I had used to get to Nelson a few days prior. I however had the luxury of time as my car was waiting for me at the shelter. But not wanting to get caught out if it did rain, I still got moving after finally getting to eat breakfast for the first time in 3 days. It felt utterly wild walking down the west coast of Kahurangi National Park, the grey sky adding to the blow and spray from the nearby sea. Through nikau palms the path snaked behind Heaphy beach, crossing streams and a suspension bridge as the track elevated slightly before dropping down again at Twenty Minute beach.
Where it was possible I walked along the sand, but mostly the trail sat a little elevated above it. The coast appeared shrouded in mist when looking north or south but thankfully any spots of rain never came to much. After Nettle beach, another swing bridge spanned a wide rocky gorge before the trail opened up a little at the Katipo Shelter. This rather exposed area was a campsite and a family there mentioned they had had some belongings stolen by the resident weka. I sat there watching the waves crash on Twin beach as these same weka nosied around my feet looking for an easy grab. I spotted a juvenile oyster catcher on the beach, still in its fluffy attire, not yet fully feathered, and as I went to leave I noticed the DoC sign had this campsite as half way between the Heaphy Hut and the end of the trail.
After traversing behind the two beaches that made up Twin beaches, the track skirted into a nikau palp grove once more, bringing me to Koura beach then Big Rock beach after yet another suspension bridge. Every single one of these beaches was empty, and had it been nicer weather I probably would have lingered for longer. The only other people I saw were those on the trail who were all hellbent on getting to the end of the hike as soon as possible. When I reached Scotts beach, there was only the expanse of the beach itself and a headland between me and the end of the hike. I wasn’t ready for it to be over yet so I dumped my bag and headed down onto the beach and sat there for some time, delighting in eating a snack whilst in a day dream.
After some time I eventually made the final move, climbing back up to around 100m inside the forest. After half an hour, a side track led to a lookout overlooking Scotts beach. Beyond here, the track descended down the other side of the headland, and as it dropped down I could see the car park and shelter where the hikers readied to board the shuttle bus. The threat of rain brought wispy clouds to the hillsides, slightly shrouding the view of the valley as I reached the final suspension bridge to cross the wide Kohaihai river. I sidled out the end of the hike to no fanfare, and with no-one waiting to acknowledge my achievement. I’d hiked the first 2 days on effectively zero calories, not to mention with dehydration, and I’d hiked the final 2 days on less than a day’s maintenance of calories. But I felt okay. The body is a remarkable thing, having carried me over 78km on barely any food and with a heavy pack on my back. I’d hiked out with almost as much food as I’d hiked in with, and as I sat on a washed up tree trunk on the beach, watching a red-billed gull saunter across the sand, I ate some of it, proud of myself for completing such a beautiful hike under less than ideal conditions.