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82kms - 4 to 6 days
A journey of contrasts
Of all the Great Walks, the Heaphy Track delivers the strongest contrasts. Every section of the track is vastly different from the previous one.
Choose this track and you’ll get luxuriant rainforest; sub-alpine tussock grasslands; high, rugged mountains; and, finally, lowland forest and palm-fringed surf beaches. You’re in for 82 kilometres of hard walking, but the frequent scenery changes will certainly take your mind off sore feet.
The track is staged within the Kahurangi National Park, the second largest national park in the country. Even to a non-geologist, Kahurangi’s rocks are deeply interesting. Much of the rock is sedimentary, laid down in an ancient sea, then faulted, uplifted and scoured by glaciers. Parts of the region are limestone or marble; these areas are characterised by an abundance of caves, bluffs, natural arches, sinkholes and water-worn outcrops. The park contains the largest cave system in New Zealand and has yielded our oldest fossil (540 million years old).
If you’re travelling from east to west, which is how most people tackle this track, your first day will involve a testing climb to Perry Saddle (915 metres). You’re rewarded with breathtaking views and a refreshing swim in nearby Gorge River - not for the faint-hearted, but all feelings of fatigue will vanish the moment you hit the cold water.
After the tussocky journey to Gouland Downs, the ‘boot pole’ will bring a smile to your face. This pole wears a variety of old boots, bestowed by hikers over many years. Now that you know about the pole, you have the option of packing a boot to add to the collection! Also here is a limestone outcrop where you can explore caves and waterfalls - take a torch and see if you can find a cave spider.
The Heaphy River section of the journey is magical. You’ll walk at a leisurely pace along the river flats, surrounded by a rainforest of kowhai, cabbage trees and nikau palms. A detour to see one of New Zealand’s biggest rata trees is totally worthwhile.
Love the flora
Some people call Heaphy Track the ‘flora walk’, because of the diversity of plant species. A camera that takes a good macro image makes an excellent hiking companion.
In sub-alpine areas, daisies brighten the tussocky hills; in the forest, trickling streams display soft cushions of moss and tiny orchids grow beneath the trees; on the coast, flax bushes and nikau palms put the land and seascape in a tropical mood. And whenever you climb or descend, you can watch the forest evolve as the altitude changes.
Find the fauna
Kahurangi National Park is the home of the Great Spotted Kiwi which, like all kiwi, shops for its food at night. You’re unlikely to see one, but there’s a good chance you’ll hear one of these flightless oddities while you’re tucked up in your hut for the night.
The park also has some fascinating insect species - large cave spiders, weta and powelliphanta (carnivorous land snails). Finding snails might seem like an odd thing to do, but powelliphanta are worth the effort. Look for them near limestone outcrops where there’s enough calcium to nourish their sizeable shells.
Both long and short-tailed bats live in this national park. If you see a bat, let the Department of Conservation know at the end of your journey. Bat sightings are definitely something to get excited about.
Brown, flightless weka (woodhens) sometimes hang out around huts and campsites. During the nest-building season, they’ve been known to run off with hikers’ socks and shiny objects. A weka’s nest must be a fine thing indeed!
The trail of the greenstone hunters
The path followed by the Heaphy Track was first used by Maori pounamu hunters travelling from Golden Bay to the pounamu (jade) rivers of Westland. Pounamu was highly valued for tools, weapons and ornaments.
The most treacherous part of their journey was the coast north of the Heaphy River mouth. Huge bluffs were rounded using long flax and vine ladders - a perilous activity to say the least. Charley Heaphy, a draughtsman with the New Zealand Company, used some of the ladders when he made an exploratory trip along the west coast with a Maori guide. His journal says: "The cliffs overhang slightly and the ladders are quite perpendicular. A number of cormorants who had their nests in crevices of the rock were screaming and wheeling about us at the intrusion. As several of the rotten steps gave way under our feet, our position was far from pleasant."
Booking a walk with a tour provider
There are a number of specialist tour operators who can aide you in bringing your walking experience to life. Whether you are looking for a guided tour or accommodation along the track browse through our business listings to find the walkin experience that is right for you.
- Nelson Walking & Hiking businesses
- West Coast Walking & Hiking businesses
- Accommodation in Nelson
- Accommodation in the West Coast
Booking a walk independently
If you want to walk a Great Walk independently you will need a Great Walks Pass. The fees for this vary between each Great Walk, but all prices are very reasonable as they are heavily subsidised in order to foster participation by many people.
For some Great Walks you may need to make a booking, for others simply purchase a Great Walks hut or campsite pass before your trip
- For the Milford, Kepler, Routeburn, Heaphy and Abel Tasman the online system allows you to check availability and pay for your booking. Book online
- Department of Conservation (DOC) Visitor Centres national wide can make hut or campsite bookings on your behalf. A booking fee applies.
- Call on +64-3-249 8514, fax +64-3-249 8515, email email@example.com
- Information from DOC including features, track description and places to stay: Heaphy Track
- Information from DOC about the 9 Great Walks
- Read about safety tips for walking and hiking in New Zealand's great outdoors.