This ancient Maori trail crosses over tussock downs to lush forests, through Nikau palms and onward to the roaring seas of the West Coast.
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 to hike 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 and home to many Great Spotted Kiwi Birds. Even to a non-geologist, Kahurangi’s rocks are deeply interesting. 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 also contains the largest cave system in New Zealand.
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.
Day 1, Brown Hut > Perry Saddle, 17.5km
Starting at Brown Hut, you'll head upstream before crossing crossing a bridge over the Brown River. From here the track gradually climbs to a saddle with beautiful views across the Aorere Valley - on a clear day it is even possible to see the conical peak of Mt Taranaki in the North Island. This is the highest point on the track. The track then dips slightly, leading to Perry Saddle Hut. A deep pool nearby offers a refreshing swim - not for the faint-hearted, but all feelings of fatigue will vanish the moment you hit the cold water.
Day 2, Perry Saddle > Saxon Hut, 12.4km
Today, journey through tussock to Gouland Downs before coming to the 'boot pole' - sure to 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. You'll then hike through flat tussock country to reach Saxon Hut, nestled at the end of the downs.
Day 3, Saxon Hut > James Mackay Hut, 11.8km
Todays journey winds through more tussock and bush flats, criss-crossed by rivers and various bridges. Small creeks dissect the landscape and pink granite sparkles and crunches beneath your boots. The James Mackay Hut sits on an open terrace just above the track. In the distance, both the Tasman Sea and the Heaphy River can be seen from here.
Day 4, James Mackay Hut > Heaphy Hut, 20km
First off today you'll gradually descend towards the Heaphy River, surrounded by a rainforest of kowhai, cabbage trees and nikau palms. A detour to see one of New Zealand’s biggest rata trees is definitely worthwhile. Further up the river you'll come to a huge 148-metre suspension bridge, crossing the water and the river flats. As you follow the track towards the mouth of the river, nikau palms become more common, the sea’s incessant roaring grows louder and, in some conditions, small waves can be seen running upriver. Heaphy Hut is situated far enough back from the sea to be spared the worst of the winds.
Day 5, Heaphy Hut > Kohaihai Carpark, 16.2km
At the mouth of the Heaphy River water surges out through a narrow gap into the sea - in-coming waves halt the flow; and the resulting tumultuous churning of salt and fresh waters is spectacular. The majority of today's hike is through forest; although there is some beach walking. You'll soon reach the Scotts Beach clearing; a great spot to rest before climbing the Kohaihai saddle and meandering down to the bridge that crosses the river. Shortly after crossing the bridge you'll reach the Kohaihai Carpark where there is both shelter and a phone.
During the walk
There are seven huts and nine campsites dotted throughout the Heaphy Track, all run by the Department of Conservation (DOC). All huts have heating, toilets, bunks and water; and a few have gas cooking facilities and lighting. Bookings are essential for both huts and campsites.
Before and after the walk
The Heaphy Track is not a loop walk, with hikers having the option of walking west to east or east to west. From the west, the town of Westport offers multiple options for accommodation. In the east, the town of Takaka in the Nelson region is also home to many options for places to stay.
A number of specialist tour operators can aid in bringing your walking experience to life. Contact the business to find out if a walking tour is right for you.
If you want to do a Great Walk independently, you will need to book the DOC accommodation on the trails. The fee for this varies between each Great Walk. It is recommended that you book in advance for this popular walk.