Walking The Heaphy Track

I stocked up on food at the grocery store and started walking out of town, eager to get to the Heaphy track, an apparently well known hike in the South Island of New Zealand close to 80 kilometers long. I hitched my first ride from a guy visiting from Cork, Ireland. We talked Guinness, Kilkenny and about our New Zealand experiences.

He dropped me off in a little beach town just south of the Abel Tasman. The water was turquoise perfect and the sand golden. I walked up the hill and started thumbing cars heading towards Abel Tasman, thinking maybe I'd go walk that track for a day or two and then go to the Heaphy. Several sporadic cars passed and something told me to just go hit the Heaphy straight away, so I walked down the hill to the other side of town and caught a quick ride from a guy with his kids heading towards Nelson, that got me to the next junction.

I then got a ride from a local couple who asked me a lot about the west coast of america, they were thinking of doing a bike trip from oregon to san francisco, I told them that was a must. My next ride was a warm couple who took me just a bit further leaving me close to a river they said would be great for camping if decided not to hitch further. I did keep hitching though, catching another short ride from a French chef who'd been living in the area for a while, but was ready to move on again, to what, he didn't know yet.

My next ride was a great one, an older man who said he was also planning on hiking the Heaphy track the following day. He'd already booked his huts along the way and planned to do it in four days, the track suggestion. Many tracks in New Zealand have huts, little places people can bunk for the night along the longer tracks. The thing with the Heaphy track, along with a handful of other popular tracks, is that you have to book these huts in advance and are not actually allowed to stay anywhere else along the track. I wasn't too into the huts, I didn't want to pay and I didn't want to stay inside anyway, I figure if I'm walking through all this wilderness I may as well be camping in it too. So in any event, I hadn't booked the huts and planned to camp out of the way without running into anyone who would give me a hard time about it.

The man said he was going to stop at a pub he really liked for a beer and that I could either join him there and he'd take me a bit further after, or I could just keep hitching. I chose beer.

He bought a couple beers, Golden Goose it was called, we sat outside in the nice place called Mussel Inn. He said he could call the lady running the campsite he was staying at and see if she'd make some room for me, but that it would probably be $10. This seemed a bit much for me, although moments earlier I was prepared to shell out six for the beer before he went ahead and bought it, I just didn't like the idea of paying to sleep on the ground. He told me to think about it, then asked if I was hungry, "always", then he went and ordered some meat pies.

He went to grab a map from the car of the track for us to look at while we sat, when he came back he'd called the campsite lady, $20 was the answer and made my decision an easy one. The pies came out and some more beer, I was happy as could be munching, drinking and talking about the map. Some girls came over the man knew from somewhere and he was all smiles in a typical old man flirting style, then we were heading back for the car towards Collingwood.

His demeanor changed when we got on the road, not too much, but noticeable, "If it seems like I've been being nice to you, I have been. My daughter moved on a farm nearby, the neighbors helped her quite a bit getting things set up, especially Robert. She tried to repay them, with wine and other things.", he paused for a second, "I've been nice to you, but you don't always have to repay the person who's done something nice. I've done something nice for you, now you do something nice for somebody else. You understand me?", I nodded in agreement. This is the way the world works best, spreading the good times outward.

He dropped me off at the turn off and I got to walking, it was a ways to the next small town, and beyond that was a road that dead ended at the trailhead. A woman picked me up heading for what I think was a pub called the Naked Possum, a sign there said I was 22km away still, so I kept walking.

After a while I walked by some cows, they're all over New Zealand. These cows took notice of me and started mooing strongly, rushing up to the fence towards me. They followed me down the road, almost in a panic, some pissing, some shitting, some trying to mount others from behind. I had them in frenzy, mooing right back and gesturing with my hands to soldier on with me. They could only go as far as the next fence, mooing more as I left them behind. I remained the cow leader for a while, passing more fields of cows and getting a similar reaction.

This was all good fun, but then a car came with some younger people heading to their town, they gave me a lift a few kilometers up to the tiny town and they let me out, sort of in a chuckle. It was getting on to sunset and there wouldn't likely be anymore traffic. Fortunately there was one more car of the night, a woman who had a farm a little further up the road. She told me about her horses and how she trained them, drove me a little further past her house and let me out.

By this point I was past every farm and house, the only thing between me and the trailhead was dirt road and soon moonlight. I crossed a couple rivers that just barely poured over the road, accompanied with warning signs about high rains making the roads impassable. Well after dark I passed the third and final one (the horse woman had told me there were three), then I heard voices and I stopped in my tracks. I knew it would be the hut up ahead, I quietly turned right back around and back down the road a hair where I ditched into the woods to camp for the night. I didn't want to bother with the hut.

I got my sleeping bag rolled out and started getting settled. I heard some scurrying behind me and looked back to see two beady eyes staring me down without blinks. A possum, New Zealand's non-native pest, some think all mammals are pests. Possums are at least good for their fur though, which is hollow and proves to be great insulation, often mixed with Merino wool to make the warmest and most comfortable of socks, shirts and the like. This possum was a creeper though, staring me down. I threw sticks towards him and told him to bug off, not wanting him to come sniffing around while I was trying to sleep. He didn't move an inch, it reminded me of the stand off I'd had with a deer in Ohio. Finally I got up with a stick in hand, he didn't budge until I was right up on him jabbing him, at which point he lurched off to the side. I could feel him still watching me from somewhere back there, but I assumed he'd stay cool now.

In the morning I packed up and headed for the trail the minute I noticed the sky changing from dark to light. I wanted to be on the trail passing the first hut before someone could be awake and asking me questions. Signs posted warned about penalties for those staying overnight without hut passes, I carried on, sometimes asking forgiveness is better than asking for permission, and I wasn't going to be doing any harm anyhow.

The trail started going up in elevation through shaded trees, every other turn exposing a higher view of the valley. I was moving pretty quickly, after a few hours I'd reached what was marked as the highest point in the track, Flannigans Point. I rested there to survey the whole scene, vast valleys and mountains, a thin long waterfall deep in the distance and the next hut was in view just a kilometer or two away. I snacked and got back on the track.

I passed quickly by the hut, no one seemed to be around, the trail snaked around and then opened up into a huge hilly meadow of sorts. I saw the first people of the day, a couple just off the trail a ways having lunch enjoying the wide open view. I marched through and onward, passing another hut where a guy looked tired resting with his pack, the trail then lead into a mossy cool forest, then out into a meadow again, over a river and onward.

I passed another hut or two with only a person or so milling about, the trail changed scenery and was beautiful at points, gaining elevation and showing better views, switching between cooler shady spots twisting around small creeks and going into more wide open swamp land at times.

By late afternoon I was coming up on another hut, the second to last I figured I'd pass before looking for a place to camp the night. There was a guy in sunglasses standing at the entrance, he greeted me as I approached, I stopped and talked to him. I had a feeling he might be with DOC (Department of Conservation), but just played it easy saying how great the track was and angling to keep walking. He at last asked me where I was headed, I stumbled a bit in my words with a vague "forward!" sort of response, thinking he was asking which hut I was to spend the night in and if I'd lied and said the next one, he could have asked to see my pass. "Through hiking it then?", he said, giving me an out, I said that's what I was doing and continued on. This excuse actually worked, as I'd already done in a day what most people seemed to be doing in two or three.

I kept marching on, filling my water in one of the creeks. By this point my feet were becoming a bit sore, as were my shoulders, I was nearing twelve hours of virtually continuous hiking. Sometime as it was getting near to dark I was starting to keep my eyes peeled for a good place to ditch into the woods and camp for the night, but the trail was on a mountain side and either steep in both directions or full of thick tree and bush leaving no room. I knew I had to be getting close to the next hut, it would be difficult to say I was hiking to the end of the track at that time of night since from there to the end was a good six or more hours easily even at a good pace.

I hit the "1km to hut" marker and just after it I finally found a place to crawl back off the track and found just enough flat ground to lay out my sleeping bag for the night.

I woke up early again and got moving, now the track was going along bigger rivers with big swinging bridges that were fun to cross. Eventually the trail hit the ocean where the Heaphy hut was, sort of a few different structures and some people moving around by the river. I got over being worried about DOC by this point and paused a moment to fill my water there. This was my introduction to sand flies, dozens on top of dozens swarmed around me, covering one leg, an arm, then the next, back just as quickly as I could shoe them off. Once I got moving again they at last subsided, leaving only a few red dotted bite marks.

The trail continued more or less right along the coast from that point on, sometimes right on the beach and sometimes above it on cliff faces, still with the odd river to cross here and there. I took a little break on one beach to feel the ocean and have a snack, the sand flies kept me moving though.

I reached the end of the track faster than I'd thought, I dipped in the river throwing refreshing water in my face and feeling good with that. My feet were feeling clunky, the back of my right ankle completely raw from the strap in my shoe, I'd switched on some socks at one point to dull the scraping pain a bit.

There was a campsite along the water at the end of the trail with a fair amount of people camped, RVs and that sort as well. I got to walking down the road, catching a very short barely 1 kilometer ride on the back of a truck, but then a ride from a mini van full of older French people who'd just hiked the trail as well. They dropped me off in the small town of Karamea where they were staying the night. I walked down the road towards the end of town, there was an information building there and I hopped inside to check my email to see if a couchsurfer in Blenheim had responded, this was a town on the east coast a few hours or more away.

They'd responded saying I could stay, so I shot them back a message asking for the address and headed for the road ready to start hitching that way, figuring I'd be camping somewhere between where I was and where they were for the night. Done with the Heaphy track, on to the next thing.