On the promise of a sunny long-range weather forecast generated by some hobbits in Norway, Ditte van der Meulen, Joe Arts and myself headed to the west coast for an overnight jaunt on the Heaphy. September's clock was counting down the last few days of the Mtb season and our gang of three were intent on not missing out.
Rugged up like Michellin men, we left the chilly Kohaihai carpark at sparrows’ fart and huffed up the short climb over to Scotts Beach. The track has received considerable love lately - re-routed high to avoid the coastal erosion. A section of beach remains that requires traversing- possibly dodgy at high tide but for us the Tasman Sea was lacking any bite.
The new Heaphy, James Mackay and Perry Saddle huts feature double glazing, gas hobs, saucepans and LED lighting - along with bike stands and a bike wash area. How times have changed (for the better), and on that note - we add our vote for an extended Mtb season to make full use of daylight saving and warm conditions. May to early December seems fairly reasonable judging by the (low) hut book numbers and the positive interactions with trampers we met.
The track from the Heaphy Hut to the Lewis Hut has been moved away from the bank-gobbling Heaphy River. We encountered a few muddy sections on the climb to James Mackay Hut but we had no cause to grumble given the considerable improvements since when we first ‘discovered’ the Heaphy back in the eighties.
Joe reminisced of our first trip in ’86 from Collingwood, when he managed to brake his bike early in the ride. He duly hitched back to Motueka and picked up Kathy Lynch's old Milazo Crazy Horse. Then hitched back to ride the track solo. But was reduced to single speed towards the end after smashing his (well, Kathy’s) rear derailleur. He finally caught the rest of us at at Waimangaroa - having thumbed a ride from Karamea with a sympathetic truckie. We were stocking up at the local dairy before heading up to Denniston and through the ‘Short Cut’ to the Iron Bridge at New Creek in the Buller Gorge before closing the loop on the tarmac. Yes, if you’re counting on your fingers and toes - it will be our 30 year Heaphy anniversary ride next year!
The track from Mackay to Saxon Hut has improved markedly over the years with better drainage and track surface. We had our second lunch at Saxon before zipping through the Gouland Downs to the old historic hut of the same name and up the rocky climb to Perry Saddle and our bed for the night.
Joe profoundly observed that, all ages and persuasions made up the hut roll call… mums, dads, young kids, teenagers, grandparents and retirees, all hiking and biking on the same track. It was inspiring to meet Di Stead (73) and her mate Jane on their way to James Mackay for the night, followed by a youngster on a Surley fat bike loaded to the gunnels.
A light frost and sunshine surrounded the hut early the next morning as we pedalled back the way we had come, enjoying the rocky descent to the downs. I think everyone who travels the Heaphy is captivated by that final Nikau Palm encrusted coastal section to Kohaihai, with the sea pounding on the rocks and smell of salt sea air invading the senses. We caught Di and Jane right at the end - which got us thinking that maybe a 50th anniversary ride might be on the cards.
A short motorised retreat down the coast and we hit the Mokihinui Domain Camping Ground. It was packed with white-baiters, all entrenched for the long haul and it felt like we were invading their hood.
A southerly had whipped up a frenzy along the coast that night, dumping monsoon buckets and quelling any hopes we held for a dry track. How wrong we were - inland missed the precipitation so we enjoyed hard ’n’ fast travel from the Rough and Tumble Lodge parking area.
The perfect singletrack high above the river has views to die for. Literally - straying from the track in some places would be terminal. New bridges abound to Specimen Point Hut for lunch, then onward and upward. Nearing Forks Hut we took time out to contemplate what was left of Lake Perrine and how big it must have once been - originally formed from rockfall during the 7.8 Murchison earthquake. Beyond the hut, the track has consolidated and new bridges now span the remaining creeks all the way to the historic Goat Hut. We discovered track building machinery and signs of human occupation but no track builders - they were further up the track doing what dedicated track builders do - working on the last few kilometres of track that will link Lyell and Seddonville in an 87km blaze of singletrack.
We were long past second lunch and needed to head back out before the sun retreated behind the Radiant Range. The downhill flowed perfectly from Goat Hut back to the Forks Hut, and onto Specimen Hut where our Surley fat bike friend from the Heaphy had just arrived for the night. He was pedalling South to work the summer as a hut warden on the Caples-Greenstone circuit. We loitered not, making the most of the remaining sun and fast final downhill with a warm fuzzy realisation that this may well be the best darn backcountry Mtb track in the world.
Karamea is a special place with great accommodation and food options. What it needs is another Mtb ride apart from the disappointing K Road. Before Kahurangi National Park came to be, we would ride the old Fenian Track to Adams Flat and the water race. There were side trips to some caves and the old mine site. The track has recently been tarted up with 14km of beautifully benched track down the Oparara Valley to the Oparara Arches. This would make an excellent Mtb option, receiving little use in the off season and it could be closed to Mtbs over the summer months - providing an excellent excuse to linger in Karamea. Just a thought - if any influential Karmea locals are listening.