History on the Heaphy

by Guy Wynn-Williams

The Heaphy Track is a multi-day backcountry ride with no equal in New Zealand - 78 outrageous kilometres of benched singletrack snaking its way across the top of the South Island. Originally it was one of the routes used by Golden Bay Maori to travel to the West Coast where they collected pounamu. A century or two later in the mid 1800's gold prospectors (clearly nascent mountain bikers) built the current pack-track. After the gold rush the Heaphy became overgrown and seldom used until the North West Nelson Forest Park was formed in 1965.

In 1936 Wilf Broughton and Noel Pope completed the first known Heaphy cycle trip as part of a 21 day tour around the top of the South Island. Hard men. Fast forward to the 80's and 90's and the track became a must-do mountain bike adventure. Around 2000 cyclists are estimated to have ridden it in the last year prior to its closure in 1996 - when the Forest Park became Kahurangi National Park. Legislation precluded bikes on the Heaphy and a lengthy campaign began to regain access. 15 long years later in 2011, a three year trial commenced allowing mountain biking on the Heaphy each winter, and in December 2013 the Conservation Minister announced that the winter mountain bike season (1 May to 30 September) on the Heaphy is here to stay.

Few trampers bother with the Heaphy in the off-season so although bitterly cold at night, it's a good time to be there. There's also less rainfall and as it was originally built for pack horses, the track has a hard surface and is mostly well drained.

Fit parties need a couple of days, overnighting at James Mackay or Saxon Huts. Budget on 6-9 hours riding each day. In winter 9 hours is about all the daylight available. It's worth taking your time anyway - the riding is sublime and the ever changing landscape stunning. Recreational groups should allow three days and two nights - and bigger packs for the extra food. Terrain is mostly advanced Grade 4. It becomes trickier in the wet or cold, so is quite a step up from say the Queen Charlotte or Otago Rail Trail. Add remoteness to the cocktail and you'll want to be a good boy scout when planning your trip.

As a coast to coast traverse, the logistics can be challenging. The easiest and most cost effective option is to pair up with a team travelling in the reverse direction and swap keys halfway. Alternatives include a long bus trip or speedier and pricier shuttles by plane or chopper. You can also have your car relocated from one end to the other by Derry Kingston, who after dropping your vehicle off zips back along the track to the start to collect his own car. Then there's the premium all-you-can eat option - riding the track in two days from the Collingwood end with a night or two in Karamea before restocking and returning to your car in Golden Bay. 176km of pure indulgence.

The trip is equally rewarding travelling in either direction. By virtue of a coin toss it's described here starting in Collingwood and finishing in Karamea.

Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut 17.5 km, 2-3.5 hours The day starts with a gentle but persistent climb, winding through beech forest to Perry Saddle.

Perry Saddle to Saxon Hut 12.4 km, 1.5-2.5 hours A rough 'n' tumble downhill on quad-bike track to Gouland Downs. At a little over halfway you pass the historic Gouland Downs hut. A quaint hang out with a huge open fireplace.

Saxon to Mackay Hut 11.8 km, 1.5-2.5 hours Boardwalks and groomed singletrack climb to the James Mackay Hut with its commanding view of the Heaphy River and West Coast. Count on it being desperately cold if youspend the night here.

Mackay to Lewis Hut 12.5 km, 0.5-1.5 hours A technical but invigorating and sustained descent to the Lewis Hut. It can be soft in places, so jump off and walk any dodgy sections to avoid damaging the track or your body.

Lewis to Heaphy Hut 8 km, 1-2 hours Originally there was a maze of swing bridges to negotiate through the Heaphy Flats. No longer. In 2012 they were updated with a series of suspension bridges that can be ridden. Directly in front of the Lewis Hut is the longest - a staggering 148m. Paint it red and you could be in San Francisco.

Heaphy Hut to Kohaihai 16.2 km, 1.5-2.5 hours This stunning section oftrack weaves through nikau palms with native bush on one side and the Tasman Sea thundering on the other. A highlight of the journey and greatway to finish.

Nitty Gritty

  • Follow the rules:
    • Stick to the winter season - May through September. 
    • Watch out for walkers and other track users. In particular, resist temptation and ride with extra caution down from Perry Saddle and Mackay Huts.
    • Keep to the designated track - exploration by foot only. 
    • Be flexible and delay your trip in bad weather -DOC may close the track after heavy rain. 
    • Don't hunt in packs - maximum group size is six. 
    • No night riding - to protect powelliphantagiant land snails and spotted kiwi. 
    • Keep the huts and verandahs bike-free. 
    • Follow the Mountain Bikers' Code. Respect Others; Respect the Track; and Respect the Rules. 
  • DOC huts are a bargain at a nudge over $30 per night (free for school kids). Backcountry luxury with 4 burner gas cookers, pots and pans, coal fires and either flushing toilets or not-so-smelly eco-long drops. Bookings are essential at booking.doc.govt.nz
  • Take the right equipment - you'll need lightweight tramping style gear. Everything should fit into a 25-30 litre pack. More details from the Weight Watchers Equipment Guide in Tech Tips. 
  • Pack a comprehensive first aid and tool kit. A folding spare tyre is good insurance. Treat your bike to some love before heading off. Load some new brake pads and take a spare set - that Heaphy grit is likegrinding paste in the wet.
  • www.doc.govt.nz has a swag of useful info. Get hold of the Heaphy Track Map too. It covers the entire track plus has some background notes.
  • If you can, linger at either end of the track.Other outstanding bike tracks in Golden Bay include Flora Saddle to Barron Flat, the Rameka and aptly named Kill Devil. All three are open all year round. 
  • A night and meal at the Last Resort is an integral part of the Karmea experience. Or try Rongo for more homely backpacker accommodation. If you can, budget to spend some time exploring the environs. The Oparara Arch are nearby caves are extraordinary. Heaphy Track Mtb Karamea FaceBook is brimming with the latestpersonal experiences. 
  • A family orientated option is to ride the delicious 16km from Karamea to the Heaphy Hut for the night - one of the more idyllic settings in the country. 
  • A spirited alternative is to construct a hybrid on-road/off-road cycle tour around the top of the South Island... taking in the Heaphy, Mohikinui-Lyell Old Ghost Road (when completed) and Flora Saddle to Barron Flat track. Over 400 km of extraordinary terrain. Wicked. 
  • If you've had an outrageous time... DOC gratefully accepts donations, and it's good PR for the Mtb community. There's a box at either end of the track or you can drop into the local field centre. All funds go directly to maintenance and improvements to the Heaphy.