The Heaphy Track, located in Kahurangi National Park at the north-west corner of the South Island, is the longest of the Department of Conservation (DOC) Great Walks.
For 78.4 kilometres the track crosses the Park's range of landscapes, starting from the junction of the Brown and Aorere Rivers, over expansive tussock downs, to the rivers, lush forests, nikau palms and roaring seas of the West Coast.
The track is wide, benched and well graded in most sections. Its gentle gradients and diverse scenery are popular with all ages and abilities, from experienced walkers through to first time hikers.
Most hikers complete the journey in 3 to 5 days, camping at or sleeping in the Department of Conservation huts and shelters along the way.
The huts are basic, but comfortable, and have running water, toilets and cosy fires for heating.
The five most popular huts also have gas rings to cook on. All accommodation on the Heaphy Track has to be reserved in advance, via an online booking system.
Visitors may choose to take an all-inclusive guided option to walk the Heaphy, available through local operators Southern Wilderness.
This independent company offers a range of packages which take care of accommodation and transport, while safety, gourmet food on the trail and informative interpretation lies in the hands of a team of professional, fun and knowledgeable guides.
Geology, Flora and Fauna
The Heaphy Track is famous for its diverse landscapes and associated habitats, which support a unique range of flora and fauna.
This diversity has helped make Kahurangi National Park a viable contender for listing as a World Heritage site (currently under application).
The north-west of the South Island is a geologically complex area, containing the oldest rocks in New Zealand (fossils have been found near the Heaphy Track that are dated at ~540 million years old).
The Heaphy crosses all major rock types:
- igneous (mainly granite)
- sedimentary (predominantly siltstones, sandstones and limestone)
- metamorphic (including slate, schist and marble)
And the region has been subject to various stages of faulting, folding and glaciation.
The limestone and marble areas near the Heaphy River mouth are particularly striking, with an abundance of caves, bluffs, natural arches, sinkholes and water-worn outcrops.
Kahurangi is also a stronghold of several threatened NZ native birds, from the diminutive rock wren to one of New Zealand's largest birds - the great spotted kiwi (Roa).
Kiwi can frequently be heard from the huts on the track, calling to each other at night.
The elusive blue duck (Whio) also breeds in the area and mating pairs are sometimes observed navigating the white water of the creeks and streams crossed by the track.
Raucous kaka (native parrots) may be heard (if not seen) hanging out in the canopy of the forested sections of the track.
The park plays host to New Zealand’s largest cave spider and the smallest of our giant weta - a flightless grasshopper-like insect.
Twenty species of carnivorous land snail live in the park, commonly emerging from hiding only on damp nights to feed on native worms that reach up to a metre in length.
The vegetation cover on the Heaphy Track changes markedly from one side to the other and from the coast to the tops of mountains.
In the east, beech forest is dominant, switching in the west to mainly podocarp forest with a rich understory of ferns, vines and shrubs.
On the coast huge stands of nikau palms and massive northern rata trees give the forest an almost tropical look. Some 80% of New Zealand's native alpine
In 1846 Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy with their two Maori guides Kehu and Etau set out from Nelson and started a mighty journey to the West Coast which saw them crossing the mouth of the Whakapoai, later to be known as the Heaphy River.
The Heaphy River mouth was once the site of a substantial Moa hunting village, and the actual Heaphy River route was one of the routes used by Maori to access the Greenstone country to the South, and their traditional hunting grounds around the Mackay and Gouland Downs.
Around 1860, James Mackay, a local farmer/explorer from the Aorere Valley area, was probably the first European to guide a group of deflated gold prospectors over the general route, which we know today as the Heaphy Track.
With no track or markers to speak of, he found his way through the rugged bush, over the sub alpine plateaus and through the river valleys to the final destination of Collingwood.
Over the years suggestions have been put forward to create a road through the Heaphy Track to link up Golden Bay and the West Coast.
This topic has fuelled much national debate; so much so, that in the 1970's, when the issue was at its hottest, a record number of people walked the track, fearing that the opportunity to do so would be lost in the future.
Thankfully, the road plans have been shelved and today the Heaphy Track is protected as one of the finest walks in New Zealand.