Kahurangi National Park, New Zealand
Length: 48mi (78.4km)
Days: 3 to 5
Difficulty: Easy (well maintained, designated campgrounds / shelters)
Gear: Standard gear + insect repellent. You can leave a number of items behind if staying in track shelters
Completed: March 2019
In summary: The longest and most diverse of New Zealand’s 8 hikeable “Great Walks”, the Heaphy Track is a fantastic hike for trekkers of all ages and experience levels. The south island offers stunningly diverse scenery, rare wildlife, and a strong outdoorsy culture built around well maintained treks. I cannot think of a better option for those who want an exotic hiking experience, but may not feel entirely comfortable or capable of roughing it.
Preparation / Know Before You Go
The Heaphy Trek can be done year round. A moderate climate makes the Heaphy safe for walking year round. The peak season is the southern hemisphere summer from December to May, but off seasons do result in fewer crowds.
Permits / site reservations are required and can run out FAST. The “Great Walks” of New Zealand are a set of 9 outdoor adventures that are incredibly popular with locals and tourists alike. When we originally set out to backpack in NZ, our goal was to do the famous Milford Track. Sadly, even 8 months in advance, permits were sold out. Since the Heaphy Track is longer and offers more flexibility for your itinerary, permits are a little easier to come by. Still, you must have one and they do sell out. Friendly park rangers do walk the trails and patrol some of the campsites, so do not try to slip by without proper reservations.
The trailhead is far from any major city. Located near Bainham, the start of the Heaphy Track is a good bit off the beaten path. The nearest town of any size is Nelson, a bumpy 3hr. van ride away. The nearest major city is Wellington, which if you are familiar with local geography, you will know is on the North Island. Therefore, accessing the Heaphy Track is best done by coordinating with a tour company. We were able to secure our arrival through Golden Bay Air, which offered us not only a 5-seater flight from Wellington, but also a van ride to the trailhead. There are a number of operators that can assist with this travel, but be sure to arrange these well in advance.
Choose your sleeping accommodations. Save for a few exceptions (Lewis Hut, Scott’s Beach & Kohaihai), trekkers on the Heaphy will have a choice of each night of whether they would like to stay in a tent, or upgrade to a spot in a shelter or hut. When we completed the journey, campsites were $17NZD and huts / shelters $34NZD. Remember, this decision must be made in advance. For the most part, the campsites were very nice, but some such as Saxon and Mackay were on elevated platforms (hardwood). Also, know the difference between shelters and huts. Shelters are well maintained, enclosed buildings usually with running water and sleeping bunks. Huts on the other hand are open, and while offering raincover, they do not keep out sand flies / spiders (I personally would not pay for them).
Purify your water. Though most shelters and campsites have pumps or sinks, the NZ NP website mentions a giardia presence in the area. We saw signs in a few of the sites recommending water be boiled, so I would pack a filter and play it safe.
If flying, have a backup plan. If you fly in or out of the trek like we did, it is important to have a few days of slack in your itinerary. Even in the high season, occasional storms can make it impossible for small planes to service Takaka / Karamea. This almost burned us, so plan accordingly, pack extra ratios, and have backup plan!
Day One: Wellington to Brown Hut
Day One for us on the Heaphy Track was largely a day of travel. Since we didn’t know exactly how long it would take to get from Wellington to the trailhead on the South Island, we booked our first night at Brown Hut, no more than 1km. from the inception of the trail. The day began with an early morning drive from our hostel to the Wellington airport. As we arrived at our gate we were greeted by the friendly Golden Bay Air pilot, who then walked us out onto the tarmac and to our plane. The flight itself was pleasant, with great aerial views of the mountainous, vibrant green islands below. After roughly 40min. in the air, we landed on a narrow airstrip in the middle of a cow pasture. We stepped out into the sleepy farm town of Takaka, picked up some camping fuel that we ordered from the airline, and quickly boarded a van to the trailhead.
After a long and bumpy, but scenic car ride, we arrived at the trailhead and took a short walk to Brown Hut. It was no later than 1pm when we arrived, but as we had finished our walking for the day we spent the rest of the afternoon reading and exploring the nearby river. Our ability to enjoy the great weather and relaxing day was slightly dampened by the ever present sand flies, but nonetheless it was wonderful way to recover from the travel day. We resigned to our tents early, ready to tackle the first day of real hiking the next morning.
Day Two: Brown Hut to Perry Saddle (10.9mi)
Enthusiasm for our our first day on the trail pushed us out of our sleeping bags and out of camp before sunrise. We made pretty quick work of the day, spending most of it winding our way slowly into the surrounding hills and thick beech forests. After stopping for lunch and a sunny nap at the Aerore Shelter, we ran into a friendly ranger who checked our permits and cautioned us of the large, flightless birds called ‘Wekas’ that are known for stealing food or camping equipment. No more than 5 minutes after he left, did we catch a glimpse of one before it took off into the woods. The remainder of the walking was as before, a slow and steady hill climb through thick forests. Towards the end of the day, we came to Flanagan’s corner, the highest point on the official trail at 915m. (3,002ft.) This point offered us a quick, but mandatory out-and-back detour to a private picnic bench and fantastic vista of the Aerore valley below.
After a brief stop at Flanagan’s Corner, we knocked out the last mile or so and arrived at Perry Saddle. It was a fantastic campsite next to a modern hut, carefully tucked in between two mountain peaks. As we were making camp, we were greeted by a talkative ranger who told us about the area, including details about a swimming hole and great day hike up Perry’s Peak nearby. We saved the hike for the next morning, but made sure to check out the swimming hole before bed. It was, as expected, freezing, but a great way to end the day and restore our tired legs.
Day Three: Perry Saddle to Saxon (7.7mi)
Given we had a short day ahead, we took the ranger’s advice and elected to start the day with a hike up to Perry’s Peak (1,238m), but not before taking in some amazing views of the morning fog in the saddle. The total trip took about 2.5 hours, and as it was still morning it was a foggy trek. We left our packs at the hut, which was a smart choice given the steep and rocky journey to the peak. Fortunately, when we reached the summit, we were rewarded with 15 minutes of clear skies and amazing views as the clouds sunk into the lowlands below. After descending back to the saddle, we took one more dip in our beloved “mountain spa” and then departed for Saxon.
The weather was pleasant and so was the scenery. The path turned out to be relatively flat and this was a nice respite given our morning climb. After an hour or so in the woods, we emerged to Gouland Downs. The “downs” in NZ are large flat areas of tall grass and brown scrub brush that stand out against the contrast of the surrounding green hills. The Gouland Downs were the largest of the downs that we passed through, and the environment reminded me of photos I had seen of the African savannah. It was a stark change from what we had experienced thus far on the Heaphy. After traversing the plains, crossing winding streams, and almost losing my lunch to an emboldened Weka, we made it to Saxon. The campsite was set on uncomfortable raised wooden platforms to protect the scrub from tents, but there were no visitors in the hut so we spent most of the evening in there cooking and talking to two young German boys headed in the opposite direction.
Before turning in, we were blessed with the thrill of the trip when out of the down brush emerged a rare Takahe. Takahe are large, flightless birds endemic to NZ that were once thought to be extinct. We had been told to look out for them in the Saxon area, but were also cautioned by locals who had done the hike multiple times and had never seen one. Though it was dark and the bird kept its distance, we could not believe our luck and went to bed feeling both fortunate and accomplished.
Day Four: Saxon to James Mackay (7.3mi)
The highlight of day four came before we even emerged from our tents. I was startled awake by the sound of screeching Wekas and a commotion just outside our tents. When I drew my rainfly and peered out, I saw a Takahe just feet away, chasing away Wekas and exploring our campsite. Ben and I were stunned, and after watching for minutes from the seclusion of our tents, we slowly emerged to snap photos. The bird continued exploring, undeterred by our presence before disappearing into the brush again.
Due to the abbreviated day and some latent soreness from our summit the day prior, we made a slow exit from Saxon and spent much of the morning washing and sunbathing at a nearby stream. When we did depart, we found the hiking to be fast and pleasant. Like the days prior, we were treated to some incredibly diverse ecosystems. Moving between “downs” and small patches of alpine forest, our luck in spotting local wildlife continued. While walking, Ben’s sharp eyes detected both a Powelliphanta snail and a small owl along the side of the trail. Though not nearly as spectacular as a Takahe, the Powelliphanta are the world’s largest carnivorous snails and another one of the many unique species endemic to New Zealand.
Upon arriving at the James Mackay site, we found the accommodations to be modern and crowded. Though we were camping on the wooden platforms outside, we enjoyed the company of the Kiwi hut-goers nearby. We wrapped the day by bathing in a cold stream (the 3rd in three days!) while chatting with local hikers and taking recommendations from the resident park ranger for the days ahead.
Day Five: James Mackay to Heaphy Campsite (12.3mi)
Once again, day five on the Heaphy Track failed to disappoint in terms of biodiversity. We started early, hoping to separate ourselves from the other groups, and quickly transitioned from the hilltop hut into a thick beech forest. The hiking was mostly downhill as we worked our way to the coast, so we made quick work of the 12.3mi. day. As we reached Lewis Hut in the late morning, we popped out along a gorgeous, but sandfly-infested river. We tried to stop for lunch, but when the bugs became unbearable we continued along, criss-crossing a series of bridges before entering the coastal zone.
Had we hiked without delay, we could have easily made the Heaphy Hut by noon. However, we had been given a strong recommendation by the Mackay ranger to try some spelunking in an inconspicuous limestone cave along the way. Armed with a crudely drawn map, Ben and I made an unforgettable expedition.
After close to an hour of searching, we located the small cave with an outwardly flowing stream, perpendicular to a tiny bridge. We dropped our packs, affixed our torches, and cautiously ventured inside where we were immediately confronted by a cave spider about the size of my palm. We had been warned the spiders and crickets, though harmless, could reach the size of dinner plates so we were sufficiently on edge. Once deep enough, we flicked our torches off for as long as we could bear, and marveled at the thousands of fluorescent blue dots generated by tiny silkworms suspended from the cave ceiling. It was a beautiful experience similar to staring at a sky full of stars, but eventually we elected to leave the spiders behind and crawl out.
The remainder of the day was incredible. We knocked out the last mile of the day, finishing our journey on a pristine beach. We napped, clowned around in the pounding surf, and took independent walks down the beach to enjoy a little solitude. Refreshed, I fell asleep to the cacophony of nocturnal birds, dreaming about all the adventure we had just had.
Day Six: Heaphy Campsite to Kohaihai (10mi)
With heavy hearts, we reluctantly embarked on what would be our last day along the Heaphy Track. Though beautiful and coastal, there was little to report on our journey to Kohaihai. Most of the hiking traversed a narrow, pristine coastline. Though picturesque, the ever-presence of biting sand flies ensured that the beaches remain untouched. At the top of Kohaihai bluff, we found a nice picnic table and discovered that the strong, warm breeze was enough to ward of most of the sandflies. We used that as an excuse for a long pit stop before pushing on to Kohaihai.
Upon reaching the southern trailhead, we mourned the end of our journey while simultaneously celebrating our fortune as we had arrived just before a large set clouds rolled in and brought an accompanying storm. The last moments of the trip were spent hiding out in our tents, scratching our bug bites, and polishing off the supply of freeze dried hiker meals.
The next morning we boarded another tiny plane, and suffered through two turbulent rides back to Wellington. Despite the discomfort of skirting a storm in a 5-seater aircraft, we had run out of food and were thankful to be able to escape on time.
Overall, the Heaphy Track is a stunningly beautiful trek that I would recommend taking time to soak in. Admittedly though, the itinerary that Ben and I had laid out for our journey was particularly lengthy and slow. If I were to do the trail again, I would likely break it up into 4 hiking days as opposed to 5. That being said, ambitious trekkers often complete the trail in 3 days, and we even encountered an ultralight jogger at Saxon who was aiming to wrap it in two. While the large number of huts seeming offer an infinite number of options, here are two sample itineraries that could work for those wanting a faster pace:
4 Hiking Days Option
1) Trailhead to Perry Saddle Hut (10.9mi)
2) Perry Saddle to James Mackay Hut (15.0km)
3) James Mackay to Heaphy Hut (12.7km)
4) Heaphy Hut to Kohaihai Shelter (10.1km)
3 Hiking Days Option
1) Trailhead to Gouland Downs Hut (15.2km)
2) Gouland Downs to Lewis Hut (18.45km)
3) Lewis to Kohaihai Shelter (15.0km)
Keep in mind, shortening your itinerary will limit your time for extra attractions such as summiting Mt. Perry, exploring the limestone caves, and soaking up the sun at Heaphy Beach.