The Heaphy Track: the longest Great Walk of New Zealand

Before arriving in New Zealand, we didn't have high hopes for the Heaphy Track. We knew it wasn't one of the more popular Great Walks of New Zealand, but many of the kiwis we met said it was one of their favourite tracks. We began to be seriously intrigued about this Great Walk that we knew so little about. 

Having come off the Abel Tasman Track (arguably the easiest Great Walk in New Zealand), we didn't realise that we would be doing one of the hardest. At 80km over four days with elevation included, the Heaphy Track is the longest of all the Great Walks (unless you count the Whanganui Journey, which we don't as it isn't actually a walk!). 

Here's our view of the not so famous Heaphy Track. 


Day 1: Brown Hut to Perrys Saddle Hut


800m elevation

4 hours 15

Apple Watch Says:

A man called Derry

After a short drive from Bainham, we arrived at the start of the track to see Derry, our car relocation guy. Derry's a legend in these parts. He's worked relocating cars on the Heaphy Track for years, moving 400 in total. But how he does it is what makes him unique: he walks the entire track in a day and a half (from one end to the other) to get back to his car after he's moved yours. He used to do it in a day!

Also bear in mind that he's 70 years old! But this all seems relatively minor when we heard that he had walked from the very north of New Zealand to the very south (before the Te Araroa even existed) and he did the Appalachian Trail (a hike that takes six month from Georgia to Maine in the USA) even when he contracted Lyme disease in the middle!

Sadly this is his last year doing the car relocation before he retires. My initial thought was that he was having a rest after all that hiking. The truth was, the relocations were stopping him from hiking even more!

We were happy to have got the chance to have a coffee with Derry and hear just a fraction of his track tales. 


Starting the trail

The trail starts by Brown Hut, a DOC Hut that looked like it was from another era. It's an old school hut which is just one room, meaning everyone sleeps in the kitchen. It looked cosy enough though. However, our first experience of the vicious Heaphy sandflies (the first of many) quickly set us on our way.

The map for the track made it look like day one was going to be endlessly steep, climbing uphill for 17.5km to the first hut. The truth was that the track was pretty steady, never steep enough to get you out of breath, but also never flat. It was the most pleasant of climbs you'll find on any of the Great Walks!

Meandering up the side of mountains, the track was completely covered by a beech tree forest, occasionally offering glimpses of the Dragons Tooth Mountains (points for a cool name) and rivers that crossed through the track.

Although it was pleasant, day one didn't have the wow factor. It was a relatively wide path that was undercover for virtually all of the four and a half hours. In isolation it's a really nice hike, however in the context of the all the Great Walks we'd done before it, it felt relatively mundane. It did, however, serve to make you feel great that an 800m climb could feel so easy!

The skies were clear, the temperature was cool and before long we'd reached the turnoff for a view point at the highest point of the track. The view was very pretty but our attention was claimed by the small picture of a snail that can be seen on the track.

This is no ordinary snail, it's a carnivorous one! Intrigued we kept our fingers crossed that we would spot one on the track.

Shortly after the viewpoint we reached the clearing for Perry's Saddle Hut, a very modern hut that had fantastic mountain views, looking back at where we had come from and where we were headed.

The hut

Cheeky wekas were everywhere on the Heaphy Track

With only 12 people sharing the hut with us that night, spread across three bunk rooms, we had high hopes for a peaceful night. Alas, it was not to be. We sadly copped the room with a guy whose snores sounded like the last breath of a dying man. Added to that he shuffled in and out of the room all night. Lovely guy but why oh why did he have to be our room?


Day 2: Perry's Saddle - James MacKay Hut


399m elevation

5 hours 51

Apple Watch Says:

A tired start

Day two was an early start as Mr Sleep Apnoea's alarm clock was blaring out for 15 minutes in the dorm, as he'd already woken up and was making breakfast in the kitchen. After groggily having breakfast, we headed out onto the track. Although this was going to be the longest day of the hike (an anticipated 23km), clear skies and early morning sunshine made the first part a bit easier.

After starting very briefly in the forest, the path exited to a huge open plain. From the aptly named "Picnic Bench Corner" (they took a long time coming up with that one), we could see the mountain ranges in the distance and tussocks plains for miles in every direction. There were small patches of forest in the distance, but it felt like we had climbed up to a plateau on top of the world.

The track meandered gradually downwards, passing the walking boot pole (begs the question, if you left your boots here, what did you walk out in?!) before crossing a small river and arriving at another old-school hut: Gowland Downs.

We heard later from a fellow hiker that this is a great spot to see whio (an extremely rare blue duck that we have been searching for on every track) if you are there in the evening. That's something really worth staying there for!


Excitement on the track

After venturing through the Enchanted Forest - a really green and mossy patch of woodland in the middle of a dry tussocks area, very Lord of the Ringsesque - we soon emerged to the sound of a helicopter overhead. At one point we weren't sure if we should make a run for it as it seemed to be coming in to land right beside us. 

This was the spot where they would be reintroducing 30 highly endangered Takahes, a bird that hadn't been in this area for over a hundred years, and had been previously thought to be extinct. The ranger the night before had said that the helicopter would be doing a recce of the area. Sadly, the actual release would be happening two days later when we would be near the coast, it's something we would have loved to have witnessed.


Onwards to James MacKay

We soon made it to Saxon Hut, where we stopped for some lunch before powering on again. This was a lovely little hut and one we would have quite liked to have stayed in. The lack of sleep and 30km in a day and half were beginning to show as our pace slowed. The track wound round the edges of a mountain before entering a beech forest area that seemed uncannily like Tasmania.

We were beginning to see what they meant by the Heaphy having a huge diversity of vegetation. Within a blink of an eye, we'd gone from tussock plains, to tree fern forests and then an area that felt like Cradle Mountain in Tasmania. There were streams, moss and windblown beech trees that made the whole area feel incredibly unique. 

We soon got a little boost, seeing a green pole in the distance. To date these poles showed you were only 1km away from the hut and were great for keeping up your motivation. Frustratingly, DOC seemed to have played a trick by having this as a  2km to go marker.....


At the hut

Half an hour later and we were at James Mackay hut, another new one that had a great view of the west coast. To avoid the problems of the night before, we waited until Mr Sleep Apnoea had arrived and chosen his room. Soon after, we got to a dorm as far away as possible!

The sunset that night was just incredible, we'd loved to have watched it from the veranda but the sandflies put paid to that. Luckily the hut had loads of windows so we didn't miss out on the view. 

The bed I managed to snag had a window right beside it and I went to bed looking up at the stars, a pretty magical hut experience. 


Day 3: James Mackay - Heaphy Hut


55m elevation

4 hours 55

Apple Watch says:

Onwards we go

After a relatively good night sleep (you never get a great night sleep in a DOC Hut), we got up and had breakfast, finding ourselves the last ones to leave. I foolishly decided to break the monotony of cereal bars for breakfast, choosing the "Back Country Cooked Breakfast" freeze dried meal. The only way I can describe it is mush that occasionally has the taste of a sausage, egg or tomato. It's safe to say I won't be venturing away from the cereal bars again.

Back on the track and it was back into the forest and very gently winding our way downhill. It felt like the inverse to day one as the track just seemed to be enclosed by forest on a wide path. In the middle of it all, we managed to see a Ruru, an owl that's native to New Zealand. I was taken aback by seeing one in the middle of the day, but it seemed to be perfectly happy staring at us as we tried to take photos.

This was a beautiful stretch of forest and it was wonderful to hear so much birdsong. 

Ruru or Morepork - a native owl

Soon we were at the bottom of the hill and at Lewis Hut for lunch. It put all the other huts to shame for sandflies, as this place had hundreds in swarms just waiting to get to us. We lunched to the sound of regular clapping as we tried to eradicate a small percentage of the beasts. 


A complete change of scenery

After crossing a huge suspension bridge by Lewis Hut, the track vegetation completely changed again. Gone were the beech trees and in were palms. It's as if we'd gone from a freezing cold alpine climate to a tropical beach within a kilometre.

Tropical palms on the Heaphy Track

It was this stretch that was my favourite of the whole hike. The sun shone through the gaps in the palms and every 50m were huge ratas, trees that are gnarly and ginormous. As we walked along the river to Heaphy Hut, it felt like we'd entered a different world, somewhere that felt wild and unexplored.

It was also our first sighting of the famous nikau palms. Nikau meaning without nuts in the Maori language, and is believed to be so named because the trees reminded early settlers of their native palm trees in the South Pacific, just without the coconuts! 

Within a short time the track deposited us at Heaphy Hut, a place where the river met the sea on a lawn that had just been freshly mowed! It's another gorgeous spot with another great sunset but yet again the sandflies foil any attempt to sit and enjoy it outside. 

We hopped inside the hut, waited for Mr Sleep Apnoea to choose his bunk and again went to the other side of the hut. With nearly 60km hiked over three days - and after chatting with other walkers - we collapsed for an early night, only being disturbed by the kiwis calling to each other outside. Now that's something we don't mind being woken up by! 


Day 4: Heaphy Hut - Kohaihai Shelter


320m elevation

4 hours 18

Apple Watch Says:

The rain 

Everyone in the hut got up early, primarily because the transport from the end of the Heaphy Track left before midday. Luckily our car would be waiting for us, but it didn't stop us being woken by everyone else trying to leave before sunrise.

It was grey and wet outside, hardly the conditions you want for a track that passes along the coast and is widely said to be the most beautiful day on the whole track. The final day didn't ever deviate far from the coast, giving us views of several wild and beautiful beaches and the huge waves that are famous on the west coast.


The wild coast

By now the previous three days were really beginning to show and the rain made our last leg all about putting our heads down and finishing the walk. It's a shame, but when you're being rained on whilst feeling exhausted, it's hard to summon the motivation to stop for long enough to really take in the views.

Last day of the Heaphy Track
The beaches on Heaphy Track

What we did see were huge waves crashing against the rocks, and signs saying that in extreme conditions they could crash right over the track. Scary thought! It was a really wild, but beautiful stretch of coast with barely a soul in sight.


Finishing the track

It seemed that despite our tiredness, we'd gone surprisingly fast, skipping past a lunch break and making it to Kohaihai in just over four hours. By the time we made it to the car, we both felt relief. Derry (remember him from earlier?) had left a bag of fruit for us to devour before we drove into Karamea for some much needed rest. Thanks Derry! 


Heaphy Track Overview

Although the Heaphy didn't have huge climbs or sections that were hard, it was a cumulative distance that make it more challenging. Nearly 80km across four days with heavy packs made it one of the harder Great Walks we had done. If you stayed at every hut and made this a six - seven day hike, then it would probably be one of the easier walks, primarily due to the lack of elevation. 

However, it was a stunning walk with changing scenery throughout. It may not have some of the truly epic views like the Milford or Kepler Tracks, but it's beautiful in its own right and a place that feels a long way from civilisation. It's also the quietest of all the Great Walks, we barely saw anyone else across the four days and none of the huts were ever more than half full. 

Oh, and in case you're wondering about those snails, they are actually nocturnal and only come out in damp conditions, so we sadly missed seeing them. We'd love to see some pictures if you were more lucky! 

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Have you hiked the Heaphy Track? Are you planning on doing any Great Walks? Let us know in the comments below.

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