The Heaphy Track

Friday – Monday 1-4 March

Our plan for hiking the Heaphy Track was much like we had done for the Routeburn – Tevka, Torin & I would hike the trail from end to end, while Todd would drive the rental car around to the end point. What a guy!Kohaihai River to Brown Hut

Since this hike was 4 days and 3 nights, Todd would take two days for the drive and then start hiking on Day 3 to meet us at the third night’s lodging. The girls and I would get the full experience of the longest Great Walk (49 miles), and Todd would get a good taste of the trail, plus do us the money-saving favor of ferrying the car. It was a plan!

We chose to hike the Heaphy because of our budget travel mindset. Torin discovered a notable difference in lodging costs between the Heaphy Track and the more famous Abel Tasman Coast Track, which charges a higher rate for foreigners than locals – $30 each to tent or $75 each to stay in the Abel Tasman huts, whereas on the Heaphy we would pay the same amount as kiwis ($34 for a night in a hut), with kids 17 and under staying for free. Perfect!

For us, staying in huts on the Heaphy would be $160 cheaper than tenting on the Abel Tasman, or $600+ savings vs. the more expensive huts – a value proposition I couldn’t refuse. The huts were enticing since we wouldn’t need to carry the extra weight of our tent and camping pads, plus we liked the idea of having a roof over our heads as we knew the nighttime temps were getting chilly, and we would be cooking with gas. The DOC huts have shared kitchen facilities with gas burners.

I knew the Heaphy huts would be extra-snazzy – I had seen blog assessments from a friend who I follow on Instagram (@myrameow_). Myra hiked several of the Great Walks and shared the pros and cons of each route, along with the budget tips I love. Although we have yet to met Myra in person (she left NZ several weeks before we arrived), we became friends via email and I love her wisdom and worldview.

Following in Myra’s footsteps, although with much better weather, here’s our day-by-day reflections of the Heaphy Track.

Day 1 – 10 miles:  Late Start from Kohaihai –> Heaphy Hut

By now it’s no surprise to those who know us that we’re not the early birds who catch the worm. Staying up later, fitting in early-morning swims, and fulfilling our desires for hearty, colorful breakfasts, seem to always get us out the door on the later side. And then all that stopping to smell the roses along the way…like the time we spent poking around Karamea en route to the Kohaihai trailhead meant we got a late start.

As the girls and I arranged our packs and possessions at the trailhead, many hikers were just finishing their four- or five-day hikes from the other direction. Todd made one guy’s day with a cold beer as his welcome at the end of the 50 miles. That fella’s mom and his aunt showed up 10 minutes later and soon realized his bounty…”Hey, where’d you get a beer?”

Finally, at about 2:45pm, we were ready to set out!

We had 5 hours of hiking to get to the Heaphy Hut – our first night’s lodging. If all went well, we figured we could get there by dark. That first day was all along the coast, from south to north.Heaphy-track-route

I was a little concerned about the tide tables – we hadn’t paid them as much mind as we should have – but the seas weren’t particularly stormy, so we ended up being fine.

The ocean views were amazing!

It was a hot day, but we drank our water and stopped as needed for snacks, including carrots and hummus and the tasty fudge cake Todd had bought for our treat.

Five hours was plenty of hiking, but sure enough, we made it to the lovely Heaphy Hut before sunset. Flush toilets, even! Torin took advantage of the extra daylight to do her stretching exercises.

The girls were tickled to find the kitchen was well-equipped, with some pots and plates. I rested in the bunkroom while they boiled potatoes and broccoli for dinner. Everyone flocked outside to watch the sun set over the beach. Afterwards I walked down to the river mouth for a better view…

The air was chilly and I was glad to stroll back to the hut.

We met some other hikers, including Tom & Sam (more later) and Kate from England. Before we set out on Saturday morning, I snapped Kate’s picture, since she was down to her final day and would be heading up the beach toward Kohaihai and Karamea, where we had already been. Kate was definitely the most casual hiker we saw – doing the Heaphy Track in her jandals (flip-flops!) after she got fed up with her hiking boots and abandoned them at the Boot Pole (which we would see in a couple days). Plus, Kate had a duffel bag (!) and a guitar on her back. We didn’t get a chance to hear her play; if she strummed any at the Heaphy Hut, we missed out.

Day 2 – 13 miles:  Heaphy Hut to James Mackay Hut; Birds & Bridges

We had a tasty breakfast of oatmeal with chocolate chips as Kate ate ramen. We were among the last to leave the hut at 9am, but felt good – it was nearly 6 hours earlier than our Friday departure!

Soon we walked by a tree with several water birds called shag, a cool species of cormorant. Apparently this is a well-known nesting site, but we were lucky to find it without getting wind of that ahead of time.

Somewhere along the way I spotted a fantail bird who followed us up the trail for a couple minutes, flitting into the trees and then darting back out and catching up again. I thought he wanted to be our trek mascot, but was later schooled – he was simply following us because we were stirring up the insects along the trail and he was in it for the easy snacks!

We crossed several cool bridges on our way to Lewis Hut. The first one was a true swinging bridge with a narrow walkway.

Next was the Gunner River Bridge, which had rigid decking to walk across.

We stopped for photos at this Gaint Northern Rata tree, which we later read is 3.8 meters in diameter – that’s almost 12-and-a-half feet across!

And then we traversed the 148-meter Heaphy River Bridge, the largest suspended deck bridge built by the Department of Conservation, new in 2012.

We arrived at the Lewis Hut. Halfway! Or so we thought. Actually it turned out to be more like a third. Torin went on a run while I read the hut journal and Tevka did some henna and then drew a fantail. When Torin returned we ate a salad, then set out again.

Some way further up the track we stopped to eat PB&J ciabatta sandwiches.

We hiked some more…one foot in front of the other. Step by step. On up the trail.

Eventually we sat down for yet another snack break.img_9354

We were soon joined by a couple friendly little robins…

We hiked another couple hours and were ready to be done. We were hoping to see a sign that said “1k to hut”. We found it, but it said “2k”. ~sigh~ Nothing to do but continue, and so we did. We were greeted by some fun tree faces, including this guy.

After an 8-hour day on the trail, we found respite in the beautiful James Mackay Hut – right about 5pm. It was another modern lodge, which we would get to enjoy for the next 16 hours!

We claimed bunks, with more open ones to choose from, not only because of our earlier arrival, but because this night was under capacity, with just 13 people staying in the 28-bunk facility. We shared a room with two retired ladies from the Netherlands, Wil & Tonee.

The girls boiled green pepper and ravioli for our dinner and played cards before and after. We also strolled down to the river, but all decided it was too cold for a dip. Beautiful sunset!

Back inside the hut Torin cooked up a quesadilla w/ peanut butter and chocolate chips and the girls made hot cocoa. It seemed super-late at 9:15pm because everyone else was asleep! Tevka turned in and then Torin & I shut down the place with our final hygiene stops before quietly tiptoeing to our bunks.

Day 3 – 15 miles:  James Mackay Hut to Perry Saddle Hut…and Todd!

We woke up earlier, but got on the trail later today, due to a side trek (almost a climb) up what we called the “tree root trail” for 15-20 minutes to get to a higher vantage point. We looked back and saw the Mackay Hut way down there in the distance.

Even neater, perhaps, was that we could see way out to the west coast and the Tasman Sea, as well as know that the Heaphy Hut – where we had stayed two nights before – was nestled in that distant low-point at the river mouth.

We clambered back down from the lookout and collected our packs from the hut.

We set off on the real trail for Day 3 at about 9:40am. We had learned from the day before that taking too many stops would make us antsy, so we decided to bear forward three hours until our first official resting point – at the Saxon Hut. We made a hearty lunch of tuna fish wraps with diced raw carrot and hot couscous. I managed to use a nearly dead lighter to start the gas burner for the couscous, then we ate outside, soaking up the sunshine. We met some Canadians and talked to them for a bit – they were also having a tasty lunch and looked like they favored similar grocery supplies.

We walked onward through open, dry terrain – tussocklands. I was surprised this might be a place to spy the giant carnivorous land snail Powelliphanta.


These native snails are the largest in the world, some growing as big as a man’s fist. Living mainly in the forest, they eat earthworms, sucking them up through their mouths like spaghetti. Alas, they are nocturnal, and we didn’t spot any in the bright light of day.

We enjoyed clear blue skies. I loved seeing the dainty flora at the side of the trail – handy that plant life is there in the daytime, too!img_9387.jpg

We found our way across a creekbed, keeping our feet mostly dry.

I got a kick out of this creek being named Shiner Brook – a fun reminder of our favorite brew from Texas!

That scarf/sarong was such a go-to piece of my wardrobe, the girls heard me tout its versatility so many times it became a running joke.

Day 3 was our favorite day of the hike due to the varied scenery. This moss-covered ‘enchanted forest’ was truly that – see how the girls are standing below ground level, by the roots of the beech trees?

The landscape felt otherworldly and we were sure nighttime would have made it extra spooky!

Soon we made it to the Gouland Downs Hut – another option for overnight lodging, but just a wayside stopoff for us. The older hut was much more like a cabin and the girls liked the big, stone fireplace and the smell of past wood fires.

I was plenty happy we had booked the spacious, modern huts instead of this one with its warnings about rats…

When I found this video on my phone it was clear the girls got a kick out of the sign.

Rats or not, the weka are one native bird that thrives in the area – they’re known to be a prevalent species on the Heaphy Track.img_9401

Weka are gregarious and curious – much easier to spot than the also flightless and much rarer takahe and the more famous kiwi birds, which are also rare and nocturnal.

We ventured past the old hut into the woods and found our way underground, into a limestone outcrop of arches and old caves.

Tevka journaled, “Saw stalagtites and ‘mites. Did not see any beasties. Good.”

After our explorations we trekked onward and saw the Boot Pole.  We were pretty sure we identified Kate’s boots…about the only pair that wasn’t weathered and brittle!

A couple told us someone was waiting for us twenty minutes up the trail. Sure enough, twenty minutes later we met Todd at Picnic Table Corner.

Not only had Todd hiked 11 miles from the eastern trailhead uphill to the Perry Saddle Hut, he had trekked out another hour to meet us and accompany us back! What a guy!!

Our evening at the Perry Saddle Hut was full. We made our supper of ramen, and then ate during the informative and entertaining hut talk by Ranger Vincent. Bedtime was later than the hut norm since he talked until darkness fell – all about the features of the area, pros and cons of the poison 1080, wildlife, birds, and more. I most enjoyed his stories about the cheeky kea birds…the alpine parrots we had seen after our Routeburn hike. Vince told tales of the birds working together to solve puzzles, and of an individual kea who vexed rangers until he was caught by a trail cam using a stick to spring a rodent trap..and then uttering a high-pitched “laugh” before flying up the line to trip the next trap, and the next!

Also, the hut was over-booked. A group of four women had confused their travel dates, apparently making their reservation for April 3 when they meant March 3. The hut wardens keep extra mattresses on hand for just such an occasion, and a few other campers volunteered to sleep on the floor of the kitchen, freeing up beds in the bunkrooms. Plus, Todd & I prefer to sleep next to each other, so we squeezed into a single bunk together. There were plenty of snorers that night, so the kitchen sleepers may have gotten the best deal!

Day 4 – 11 miles:  The Last Day!

Monday morning brought another beautiful blue sky. Tevka & Torin rolled out of bed early at 6:30 and hiked to the top of the mountain nearby. It was rooty, then rocky and had loose scree, so Todd and I opted out, but the girls were rewarded by seeing the sunrise on both sides.

I snapped a picture of the only other hikers who make the trek from west to east – locals Tom & Sam, a brother & sister.

We’d picked up interesting stories from Tom at each of our overnight stays. He’s traversed the trail numerous times, as he works for a service that relocates cars from one end to the other, typically driving someone’s car from the east end to the west end, while they hike the typical direction, east to west. Once Tom arrives at the west end (where we started), he gets back home via the trail – either on foot, or via mountain bike if it’s during the off season. Tom’s been able to hustle along the trail in as little as one overnight, but this time he brought along his 17-year-old sister for her first time on the Heaphy and they had a more leisurely experience.

Like Tom, Sam was outgoing and fun. She had some blisters on her feet and chose to walk in jandals after seeing Kate’s example. Sam loved swimming in the mountain streams, no matter how icy cold! In fact, her foray to the “Mountain Spa” near the Perry Saddle Hut convinced Torin to try it before we got underway with our last day of hiking. Tevka & I accompanied Torin, but not into the water – it was alarmingly cold!!

Shortly after we got underway that last day, all four of us took the side trek to Flanagans Corner – the highest point on the track at 915 meters. The bonus with the 10-minute return hike was that we could leave our packs behind a tree, take in the view, and then re-shoulder them before forging on.

Tevka captured the flavor of the last day in her journal…mostly we were ready to be done and the trail seemed to go on & on:

“After 5k we stopped at the Aorere Shelter for a snack – beef jerky, fruit, rice cakes and more. We went onward. Talked to a couple from Christchurch. Hiked on. Talked to the DOC ranger from Canada who was coming to swap with Vincent. Voyaged on. Talked to a fun lady from Quebec. Soldiered on. Time was dragging, but at least it was downhill and not too strenuous. Tramped on.”

Still, a long day of hiking in beautiful New Zealand scenery is one to relish.

We made our way under the last of the Nikau palms…

…and finally we found ourselves at the other trailhead!

Four days and 49 miles later – we had traversed the longest Great Walk in New Zealand!

3 thoughts on “The Heaphy Track”

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