Double Heaphy

Every so often it’s good to do something a little nuts just to push one’s limits and see if you can do it. Even before we’d finished our previous, somewhat curtailed by the weather, Heaphy attempt I was starting to consider the feasibility of riding the whole trail there and back over two days. As we’d ridden the western (approximate) half of the trail, I thought it was possible to ride that in about four hours with few stops – and that includes the only big climb when riding west to east.

With that in mind, completing the whole trail in a day should be possible while carrying overnight gear and enough food for two big days of riding. James was also up for this challenge – even if it would mean his two biggest days ever on a bike, all the while lugging quite a load. We just had to wait for two consecutive days which had fine weather forecast – two such days we discovered while away in Christchurch. So dashing back from the east coast on Monday, we had just enough time to buy enough food and organise ourselves before an early start on Tuesday.

The weather was definitely clear when we got up at five o’clock – it was the first frost I’ve seen around Westport, and a heavy one at that. We were at the trailhead just after first light to make the most of the daylight hours (you aren’t allowed to ride the trail at night). The morning gradually warmed, but not by much, as we made good time along the beautiful coastal section to Heaphy Hut. There was little time to take photos, so these from the last trip will have to do.

The section of river crossings to Lewis Hut took but half an hour and then the sustained climb to James McKay Hut, after which I’d pegged as a good time for lunch, was upon us. On our previous trip we’d been told of and seen the resting diggers of trail maintenance crews – we were hoping that they’d improved the trail a lot. The top section had been gravelled and was remarkably better and easier going; alas, the middle section was considerably worse having been churned up by the mini-diggers – there was considerable pushing through thick, gloopy and claggy mud. But we stayed on track and made James McKay for lunch.

This was a different view from the hut compared to last time – a lot less distant cloud and more snow.

We pushed on wondering if we’d be quick enough to get to the end of the trail and then return up the sixteen kilometre, eight hundred metre climb to Perry Saddle Hut for the night. While Brown Hut is at the east trailhead and would have been the best location to stay – other practicalities dictated we would stay at Perry Saddle Hut instead. Brown Hut is an older, smaller hut than Perry Saddle and does not have gas stoves and cooking equipment – things we didn’t really want to carry if we didn’t have to.

The section between James McKay and Perry Saddle was different again – there’s a little climbing, but it’s not too onerous as you mostly stay between six- and eight-hundred metres above sea-level. Through some rather pretty, but soggy, parts early on the trail is board-walked – which provides a nice change from hitting rocks often. Passing across the tussocky Gouland Downs was so much more open than most of the riding – we were glad for a lack of wind. There were a couple of small, swift rivers that we waded through as getting cold and wet feet seemed a lot less hassle and quicker than trying to get across wire swing bridges upstream that were not designed with bikes in mind.

The trail got very slick and quite large sections had standing water that was manageable, but constantly sprayed us with water. On the side of the trail were significant patches of frost and snow. The clay got even more slippery as we climbed up to the saddle (about 900 m) and started attaching itself to our bikes. The last few hundred metres up to the hut was very rough, but just rideable after a long day in the saddle. Getting to the hut just after half-past three, we thought it prudent to call it a day, as while we would have easily got down the last sixteen kilometres to the end – we would not have made it back up by dark. Instead, we opted to start early the next day – this also meant that we would do one of the two big climbs on each day. It made the second day over ninety kilometres, leaving not much time for dilly-dallying or other issues, but seemed a good decision.

Finding another new, well-equipped hut we set about getting the coal range going and drying our bike shoes and clothes. The warden was very friendly and the views from the saddle were much better than I imagined those at Brown Hut at the bottom of the next valley would be. We refueled while watching the sun set on the mountains. Early to bed, satisfied with great day’s ride (James particularly so, the 58 km being his biggest day on a bike – so far) – slept pretty well as the hut was pleasantly warm.

It was not so pleasantly warm when we were out the door and scraping the frost off our bikes at first light the next morning. Unfortunately, I suspect due to a more-limited water supply, this hut did not have a bike wash-down set up – if it had have, we would have bothered to hose the mud off after the first day’s ride. Setting off, we found rear cables frozen – James couldn’t change gear, I had no operational rear brake and my gear shifter was also stuck. It was a gentle climb to start up to the trail’s highest point, Flanagan’s Corner, and left in my easiest gear I was soon spinning out.

That was all sorted out with a drenching of water while we dealt to bigger problems on James’s bike. The Heaphy sure is hard on bikes, particularly chains, with all the mud and grit that flicks up in to drivetrains and brakes. Suddenly, James had no chain – it having come apart. Trying to fix that in the semi-dark with chilled fingers was no fun; once we could see what was going on, the best solution seemed to be installing an eight-speed powerlink on the ten-speed chain. Not ideal, but it worked and it was a lot easier than mucking around with a chain-breaker in the gloom and cold.

We’d hardly got going again when James had that sinking feeling that comes from a puncture – damn. It wasn’t a great start to the day considering the tight schedule we running. That all fixed, we didn’t want to tempt fate and so took it rather easily down to the end of the trail. A nice wide trail, with enough rocks to keep it interesting had us gradually dropping – mercifully, it wasn’t nearly as cold in amongst the trees as I feared. We had occasional glances of the Aorere Valley and the surrounding ranges. For a long time, I’ve not seen a harder frost than the one that greeted us on the valley floor – for that reason, and the extra time we took to descend, we didn’t hang around. Turning at the parking lot, it was straight back into the climb.

The rivers were crystal clear, but on such a chilly morning not at all inviting.

With a nice trail surface and a rather gentle gradient (pretty constant at five percent), we made good time back up to the saddle – only really stopping for a couple of fallen trees and a short snack. As we had to repack our gear (we hadn’t been silly enough to take all our sleeping gear and food to Brown Hut and back) anyway, we had an early lunch while trying to offer V-brake advice to the ranger.

Departing at noon, I thought we would just get through the sixty kilometres by dark as we’d previously averaged just under 10 km/hr riding the same trail in the opposite direction and gaining nine hundred metres of altitude. So with a big net altitude loss, we should be OK without having to push the limits too much. Turns out I was right, we made good time – there was even a bit of time for snapping some photos, chatting to various people: another bikepacker from Yorkshire, our hut companions from Perry Saddle, and the trail builders (although I did embarrassingly get stuck in my clips & fell on a tricky stream crossing right in front of them – getting a little tired).

The wet trail glinting in the early-afternoon sun before the slippery descent onto Gouland Downs.

Looking out over the downs.

As James pointed out, sections of the bush looked a little like giant bonsai trees.

A rather pretty little stream.

Back at sea-level we were on the home stretch – but the Heaphy decided to have one more go at writing James’s drivetrain off – the little chain guides completely ruined. Make sure you’re well covered for spares and mechanical nous on this route – it does at times feel remarkably remote, probably because it is. Also we were back on familiar and faster trails – we almost got back to the car without needing headlamps – donning them only for the last descent from Kohaihai Saddle, as it was very dark under the trees.

I finally bothered to get a photo of one of these signs – the likes of which I’ve never seen on a mountain-bike trail before.

So, it turns out that the Heaphy double is entirely possible over two days – admittedly we had two clear, sunny, almost-windless days – even with a relatively novice bikepacker (having remarkable determination – he says stubbornness – helps). I was pleased to see the whole trail, after missing out ten days prior, and James was excited by conquering the challenge – the second day of ninety-plus kilometres blowing his previous longest day on the bike out of the water.

A great trail through such varied and remote landscape – fully deserving of its “epic” classification in the latest version of the Kennet Brothers’ Classic NZ MTB Rides. Thoroughly recommended; obviously, just going one-way over two days would be more enjoyable and enable more appreciation of the scenery.

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