I awoke on the third morning of my journey along the Heaphy Track to the smell of home cooking. Well, let’s call this hut cooking. I was staying in the James Mackay Hut, perched high above the primeval fern forests that lined the Heaphy River and the Tasman Sea. There were ten of us staying here—literally in the middle of the Heaphy Track—including my Canterbury tramping buddies and three European backpackers. I unzipped my sleeping bag and rolled out of my bunk, walking to the common area to join one of my German friends who was thoughtfully chewing on his breakfast while solving a crossword puzzle. I stretched my legs and peered through the foggy windows to glimpse a shrubby landscape shrouded in grey. I must say, it was quite different from the sunkissed subtropical landscape I’d trekked through the day before.

©Melissa Farage

After a hearty group breakfast and a quick swap of car keys with our four other comrades (always good to remember on a one-way trip) my trio said our goodbyes and started off to explore the new environment. The trail, carved out by rain and footsteps, climbed steadily upward into the worn mountains, greeting us with the relatively bleak and brown winter landscape of Mackay Downs. We made our way through a rugged landscape carved by rivers, adorned by little more than grass tussocks and alpine brush.  Although I was dressed in my rain gear, nothing seemed to contend with the fury of the wind and rain, which whipped through the unsheltered hills. My small group of three crossed roaring rivers on rickety metal suspension bridges, jumped slender creeks swollen with unseasonable rain, climbing still higher into the mountains. I was pretty sure that the landscape we had reached could be defined as ‘the middle of nowhere,’ and I was almost begging to come across a bumbling tourist just for a change of pace.

But we pressed onward, the trail twisting through a rugged alpine forest that led to the Saxon River Flats. Soon enough the rain turned to sleet and we turned off to eat lunch in the shelter of Saxon Hut. We followed the narrow boardwalk to the red-roofed hut, perched upon a landscape of yellow grass that was foiled by the distant green beech forests. While lunch was meant to be an impromptu event, our numb fingers and toes coaxed us to start a fire in the hearth, and minutes later I was vocally entertaining the idea of saying the night in this scenic and warm setting. But as the wind began to howl across the plain, it seemed only reasonable that we should say our goodbyes to the cozy Saxon Hut. To my despair my trekking mates dragged me kicking (but not screaming) back out into the cold. We returned to the well-worn trail and climbed through the scruffy forests clinging to the wilderness of the northern reaches of Gouland Downs. After hours of hiking the tempestuous weather and more than 17-kilometers of up-hill were beginning to take a toll on us. After scrambling upward through disorienting twists of beech forests, we briefly dipped into Gouland Hut to avert a downpour before (once again) I was lured into the rain by a Cadbury chocolate bar.

©Melissa Farage

The final leg to Perry Hut was growing on us. The trail cut across the spectacularly barren Gouland Downs, which offered uninterrupted vistas of the mountains around us. Although they were nothing more than hints of rugged slopes floating in the fog, I was enchanted nonetheless. I remember being enthralled with openness of the downs—there wasn’t a sign of shelter or cover in sight. The trail widened to become nearly the width of a road, affording conversations that could be heard over the whipping wind. As we made our way ever upward, we suddenly came upon a tall pole that had been erected in the barren landscape and adorned with broken boots. I called it the ‘Pole of Lost Soles.’ Between my blisters and the frigid feet, I had half a mind to add my boots to the mix.

As the sun began to wane behind the clouds, the trail tumbled into a beech forest. Now the sleet had turned to snow, and we shivered along in hopes of reaching the hut before darkness. The gnarly, moss-leaden beech limbs twisted high above our heads, dropping bits of rain and snow onto our hoods. It seemed almost like a practical joke—the day before we’d spent the afternoon lounging lazily in our shirt sleeves, soaking up the sun as if it would never end. Today we had donned all of our layers to contend with the sleet and snow. I guess the critics weren’t kidding when the warned that the Heaphy Track changed character every 20 kilometers.

©Melissa Farage

Just as the setting sun cast a weak glow of indigo light across the snow-capped landscape, I finally spied a small wooden building perched upon the craggy hill. My trio of trampers raced up the slope, reaching the door of the empty Perry Saddle Hut. We slipped up to the dark balcony, savoring the shelter of the overhang. Slipping on my headlamp I ventured into the dark shelter and immediately started to work on building a fire in the hearth. About an hour later we stretched our legs and chatted about the landscape we’d trekked across, warming our frozen fingers and toes beside the roaring fire. We’d weathered 24-kilometer day of wind and elevation gain, exchanging the subtropical forests for a snow-capped landscape. While the snow fell quietly outside, the blazing hearth fire melted the cold from our weary bodies as we slipped into slumber.

As dawn strained through the frosty windows of the Perry Saddle Hut, I donned enough layers to prevent the common backpacker from getting hypothermia on an arctic expedition and set off into the snowy wilderness. I was surrounded by a picturesque old growth beech forest adorned with snow. We left Perry Saddle, climbing still to reach the highest point of the Heaphy Track. We took a short side-trail away from the landmark to reach a rocky outcropping known as Flanagan’s Corner, which overlooked the Aorere Valley. Although our view was interrupted by the low clouds, on clear days trampers are said to enjoy views of Mt. Taranaki and the Aorere Valley. After savoring the snowy river valley below us, we retreated to the main trail, enjoying a downward grade that cut through the close-knit beech forest. The path was remarkably wide, which I learned was due to a failed road project that would have cut across the park. We walked steadily downward, our boots leaden with rain and water from the swollen creeks and numerous falls that trickled down the mountainside.

The trail quickly lost elevation, greeting us with warm air and more rain. We plunged down the trail, enjoying the freeing euphoria of descent. With our newfound speed the last 17 kilometers of the track flew by in a matter of hours, and before we had even stopped for lunch we found ourselves in the midst of a water-swollen plain at the brink of the Aorere Valley. We crossed the rain-raging Brown River over a sturdy footbridge, to reach the end (or beginning) of the Heaphy Track. We had made it. I was little wet and weary, maybe, but I had a new appreciation for the spectacular, pristine nature of the New Zealand wilderness.

©Melissa Farage
Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply