By Don Herron, Visitor Centre Ranger
Four years ago I attempted to cycle the Heaphy Track in June. The weather was less than ideal. A strong cold front had passed through with snow down to low levels on the track. We aborted our mission at Perry Saddle Hut rode back to Brown Hut road end and went home.
Fast forward to May 2016. Sunshine, blue skies and warm evenings were the flavour of the second attempt. To say I was excited to get back and complete this track is a slight understatement. Being an avid mountain biker, the Heaphy Track is a “must do”!
The Heaphy can be ridden from 1st May to 30th September. The preferred direction is to start at Brown Hut on the Golden Bay side and finish at Kohaihai on the West Coast. Spending two to three nights on the track. We chose two nights, the first at Perry Saddle Hut and then Heaphy Hut.
We were underway just after noon. Brown Hut is only a few minutes along from the car park and sits on clearing alongside the Brown River. The track climbs up from Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut it winds up through the bush. Through gaps in the trees the muddy-coloured Aorere River can be seen far below.
It took us four hours to reach Perry Saddle Hut. We stopped often to enjoy the view, take photos and have some afternoon tea. It is also well worth checking out the view at Flanagans corner lookout. The nearby peaks of the Gouland Range can be spotted in the west. Including the appropriately named Mt Inaccessible. The Dragons Teeth and Mt Anatoki dominate the sky line to the east. It’s a quick 30 minute ride onto the Perry Saddle Hut from the lookout.
Coming through last time there was two feet of snow. It was dark, cold and raining, Perry Saddle Hut was a welcome relief. We had been pushing our bikes from the Aorere shelter. This time it was hot, sunny and a pleasant evening. The difference in conditions couldn’t have been more opposite. It was a warm night with kiwi calling. After a pleasant sleep we were more than ready to head towards the mild West Coast.
We were up early and off by 8am. Perry Saddle creek runs alongside the track before it branches northwards. The track heads on towards Gouland Downs. A fine and crisp autumn morning – it was amazing. Gouland Downs is framed by the Slate Range in the north, Tubman Range in the south and the Gouland Range in the west. The sun highlights the tussock tops and the surrounding peaks. The track drops and rises gently towards Gouland Downs Hut which is a great spot for early morning tea. Gouland Downs Hut and Saxon Hut are great examples of original backcountry huts.
Gouland Downs continues towards Saxon Hut with a couple of large rivers to cross. One named Big River! They do have swing bridges but we found it much easy to ford the river. Saxon Hut is ideal for second morning tea. It is a popular spot for overnight trampers and an ideal place to see and hear kiwi. New Zealand’s large carnivorous land snail (Powelliphanta) can also be spotted here after dark.
Not long after leaving Saxon Hut the track climbs out of the Downs towards the southern side of Mt Teddy. The first views of the West Coast can be seen from here. A gentle downhill brings you to James MacKay Hut. Explorer James MacKay discovered the pass between the Aorere and Heaphy Valleys in 1858.
The downhill section from James Mackay hut to Lewis is a highlight. The track drops down through giant forest with the brown waters of the Heaphy River far below. Before you know it you arrive at Lewis hut and the heart of sandfly country. Lewis Hut sits on a nice sunny clearing alongside the Lewis River. It is only a few minutes from the Heaphy River and Lewis River confluence.
Another quick ride alongside the Heaphy River brings you to the scenic Heaphy Hut. For walkers and bikers coming from the Nelson side this is usually the last night on the track. It is an stunning location, with views of the Heaphy River battling to flow into the ocean. Golden sand beaches and thousands of nikau palms fill the edges of the track.
For me, Heaphy Hut was the highlight of an already perfect two days. The location makes this spot a place to remember. The sun setting behind a wild frothing West Coast beach is a lasting impression.
The track weaves it way through nikau and coastal forest and many beaches. Heaphy, Twenty Minute, Nettle, Twin, Koura, Big Rock and finally Scotts beach. The occasional bike push through the sand slows you down for a bit. Large rivers are forded on newly built bike friendly bridges. A few rocky bluffs are ridden beneath. These can be a bit rough so walking could be safer. Finally you climb steeply up the Kohaihai Bluff. The southern finishing point is alongside the Kohaihai River. Location wise it is like Heaphy Hut, a great way to finish.
The Heaphy Track is a spectacular multi day bike ride. A good level of fitness and technical skills are required. Some sections are narrow with steep drop offs and the track does get a bit rough especially on the West Coast.
For more details of riding times, distances and what to take, check out the Heaphy Track page on the DOC website.