The Heaphy Track is designated as one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, and still ranks today among one of my favorite oversea adventures. The hiking trail stretches 82 kilometers (50 miles) through stunning Kahurangi National Park, leading travelers through a versatile array of landscapes as they explore one of the country’s most picturesque wilderness areas. To this day I recall the trail perfectly, as its twists and turns never failed to please me with some new spectacle. Four days on the Heaphy Track were enough to satisfy my wanderlust long enough to let me study for midterms, although I must admit I was left in a trance long after I left. This trail can please any adventurous backpacker who feels the urge to explore New Zealand at its wildest.

It wanders along the rugged reaches of the Tasman Coast, twists through the primeval palm forests cut by rivers, and ascends into a barren alpine wilderness nestled in the clouds. While some backpackers fall into the trap of paying to take a guided hike along the track, I recommend finding some travel buddies to backpacking with. I allied myself with some tramping buddies from University of Canterbury to save some hard-earned college student dough. We simply divided ourselves into two groups and vowed to swap keys at James Mackay Hut, ensuring no exorbitant cost and no irritating tourists. After a bit of research we decided that we would embark on the Heaphy Track in the winter to take advantage of reduced hut costs and avoid throngs of summer backpackers. Ultimately we left our college town of Christchurch in the early New Zealand winter, heading to the South Island’s wild Western coast, expecting the adventure of a lifetime.

©Melissa Farage

After a six hour drive across the Southern Alps and up the South Island’s rugged Western coast, my group of three fellow trampers (yes, that’s what hikers are called down South) finally arrived to the isolated region of Karamea, long after dark. A little woozy from the long drive, we pulled the rental into a campsite. I opened my door, greeted the salty ocean wind, and set off to explore the sprawling beach before me. Despite my fear that we would be joined by tramping tourists, I was delighted to find nary a confused American in sight. We were the only ones at the campsite and the only people, in fact, within tens of kilometers. We ran to the crashing sea, enjoying the euphoria as we crossed the moonlit sandscape. After a long dinner beneath the stars the three of us eventually settled into a two person tent. (Despite the amazing exchange rate, we were on a budget.)

©Melissa Farage

We rose as dawn broke and stashed our tent in the car before heading to the trailhead, packs loaded with equipment for a four day trip (and enough food for five). Our footsteps clattered against metal mesh as we crossed a suspension bridge leading across the mouth of the Kihaihai River. As I crossed, I looked forward to the wild fern forests brimming with primeval palm rata trees and tufts of lush beech towering through the canopy. It felt as if I was stepping back in time, into a place where the prehistoric moas roamed. After a brisk climb up a rugged ridge, we were greeted by a stunning vista of the pristine coastline of the Tasman Sea. The trail turned downward to sea level, where it would stretch for the next fifteen kilometers. Our boots plodded along a thin trail that paralleled the beach, sheltered by tufts of flax and rata trees. We ventured along the coast in no hurry at all, cutting off-trail every so often to enjoy the soft embrace of the sand beneath our heels. Each time our path was intercepted by rushing rivers we simply retreated to the trail to cross over on rickety wood suspension bridges. The walk was completely level and the day passed with ease. We reveled in the fact that the three of us were the only ones on the trail, save the flocks of green kea parrots that followed us in droves, echoing their keeeeaaaa calls.

©Melissa Farage

In fact we were a bit unique. While most backpackers opted to hike the Heaphy Track from North to South (including those overpriced tours), essentially walking from the mountains to the sea, my group had volunteered to hike South to North. It was literally all uphill from here, we joked. But for the moment, we savored the sound of the sea, following its coast until ended at the mouth of the Heaphy River. We climbed inland to reach the small Heaphy Hut, nestled on a small meadow that bordered the forest and beach. After throwing down our packs on the sleeping mats, we ran out to the peninsula where the ocean and river meet just in time to watch the sun sink over the sea. I can still clearly recall the magnificent orange hue of the sunset that seemed to make the entire landscape seem more wild, untouched by human hands. I retreated to the cabin as the sunlight waned, and that night my small group was introduced to the laid-back nature of huts on the Heaphy Track. We lit a fire in the hearth to provide light and warmth, and signed our names in the log book while we cooked food on our gas stoves. I savored the sound of the ocean as I slipped into comfortable sleep in the wooden home.

©Melissa Farage

As dawn filled the hut with light, I woke long before my fellow hikers and perused the hut’s log book, which spoke of a small cave stream nearby that held one of New Zealand’s most fascinating creatures. Glow worms. Although I’d heard of these creatures, the thought of a glowing worm was strange enough to pique my curiosity. That morning the three of us threw our packs onto our backs and set out from the Heaphy Hut. We had only one thing on our minds: finding that cave. The trail turned away from the coast paralleling the Heaphy River as it headed into the lush rata forests that adorned the rugged limestone cliffs. About two kilometers into the leg we came across a stream pouring out from the rocky cliff side. Without a moment’s hesitation the three of us threw down our packs, took off our shoes, snatched our headlamps and ventured through the narrow opening. The water was frigid to my bare feet. As I passed through the mouth of the cave the air cooled considerably. I ventured deeper into the cave following my friends, feeling as though I was walking down some stone creature’s throat. My hands grasped the limestone walls to steady myself as I crawled away from the daylight. As the light faded, so did the footing—the water was too deep to walk through so I searched dearly for rocks emerging out of the water. As I made my way through the cave, I reeled at slimy sacks hanging from the cave’s ceiling. Don’t give me that look, they had the consistency of mucous—you would’ve felt the same. I followed my friends until we came across a large water-filled cavern that offered no passage for the flipper-free spelunker. The three of us retreated to drier ground where we finally shivered on a rocky plateau. We turned our headlamps off, simply to savor the darkness. But to my surprise no darkness came. Thousands of sapphire lights speckled the rock walls, hung from the ceiling like suspended jewels. I felt as if I was viewing the night sky. Glow worms were everywhere, casting an eerie glow throughout the cavern. Even as I exited the mouth of the cave I could still see the glow worms scintillating in my mind.

We threw on our packs and followed the trail as it led us endlessly upward through the forest. Still blinking from the sunlight we pushed on through the ancient beech and subtropical forests, crossing the numerous broad rivers on narrow bridges and warily clinging to narrow cliff-side trails. After a spectacular morning of hiking we stopped for a long lunch at Lewis Hut. I sprawled on the warm river rocks to soak up the sun while my fellow travelers competed to see who could skip a rock across the river. (I won by default.) The sun was slowly sinking into afternoon, and our lazy day had left us less than halfway along the 20 kilometer leg, although we didn’t quite realize this at the time. My group pushed along the trail, climbing higher and higher into the wilderness on a trail that stubbornly refused to stop switchbacking. We fished our headlamps out of our packs as the sun set over the tree-lined ridges. As the sun set, so did my patience. Within an hour the only light to be found in the wilderness was the faint glow from our headlamps. There was no sign of the James Makay Hut where we were supposed to meet our partner group. I distinctly remember climbing up those switchbacks, watching thick palm foliage slip away into a rugged brushland, wondering what delicacies my friends were enjoying for dinner. Just as my stomach could handle the thought no longer, we came across the glowing windows of the James Mackay Hut. The door opened to afford the well-fed smiles of our friends and I willingly entered the candle-lit hut. Although my legs ached from the day’s long climb, I didn’t quite know that we had only experienced a taste of the challenges that the Heaphy Track had to offer.

[Look for Part 2 next week!]

©Melissa Farage
Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply