Half the Heaphy

Adele lured me back to the West Coast for a few weeks with the promise of different biking and a change from the rather fruitless task of finding a job. The biggest part of the carrot was finally being able to ride the Heaphy Track. For most of the time I’ve been a mountain biking, the name Heaphy has been uttered with mild despair by New Zealand mountain-bikers no longer allowed to ride one of the best multi-day rides in the country. But no more, it is now open to bikes during the off-season.

Running between the north of the west coast of the South Island eastwards through rugged hills and valleys, the route dates from mining in the late nineteenth century – after which it was almost forgotten. In the later part of last century, the track came into use again for hiking/tramping and was also open to mountain-bikes as it was in a forest park. But when the North-West Nelson Forest Park became Kahurangi National Park in the mid-nineties, the mountain-bikers were shut out – much to their chagrin. But while I was living overseas, a trial was started allowing bikes on one of New Zealand’s Great Walks in the off-season (May to September) – a lot like how bikes are allowed on the Queen Charlotte Walkway. The trial was obviously successful as it’s now a permanent arrangement. Fantastic!

As Adele has work commitments, unlike James and me, the plan was to drive early Saturday morning to remote Karamea (the west end of the trail) and then catch a light plane with our bikes to the other end of the trail and ride the almost-fifty miles/eighty kilometres back to the car over two days – staying at a hut somewhere in the middle, Saturday night. This was also to be the first time Adele and James had been bikepacking – exciting! Despite the good weather forecast, it was not to be – when we arrived in Karamea it was decidedly wet with very low cloud. The plane couldn’t land – so we adjourned for bacon and eggs while we waited to see what the weather would do. Well fueled by second breakfast, it was now obvious a plane wasn’t coming to get us and we couldn’t be sure one would bring us back Sunday afternoon if we decided to ride the route west to east.

Plans amended consequently, we drove to the trailhead at Kohaihai, sorted our gear out and rode off late-morning into the rain. Immediately crossing the Kohaihai river on the first of many substantial bridges, the route climbed up to Kohaihai Saddle to avoid the cliff-lined coast. That first hill done, it was down to Scott’s Beach as James and Adele got used to riding mountain-bikes while wearing heavy hiking packs. The forest right down to the beach was impressive, but as the drizzle continued to fall we weren’t too interested in sticking around to look at the grey sea. While overall the trail was flat, there were sufficient short ups and downs to keep it interesting.

Quite surprised to bump in to Garry and cohorts riding out the way we had just came, we stopped for a brief chat in the rain. NZ is so small – here unbeknownst to us was a man far from home (as I was too). One of Adele’s previous rural medical teachers and colleagues I’d met him on adventures earlier in the year and then again as he was one of Adele’s teammates on that crazy Godzone adventure race in March. Not quite a bizarre as bumping into your Kiwi third (or fourth, I forget) cousin in a Tuscan village – but odd all the same.

With the tide far enough out, there was a short section on a beach – avoiding the high-tide alternative track.

Plenty of stream and river crossings gave opportunities to emerge from the trees into the rain.

Eventually, it stopped raining – about the time we reached the Heaphy River mouth and our lunch stop at Heaphy Hut.

With tasty, tasty salami and cheese ciabattas fuelling us, we set off inland. The section along the river flats beside the Heaphy was initially through more large groves of nikau palms before winding its way through stands of large native trees – rimu, rata and kahikatea. We eventually crossed the Heaphy on what is apparently the largest swing bridge DOC (Department of Conservation – responsible for much public land in NZ and the associated facilities) has ever built. Almost a hundred and fifty metres long, it is obviously built for when the river is in flood. It looked like most of the bridges have been upgraded recently, possibly for bikes – they are superb and easy to ride across. The one remaining wire-decked swing-bridge looked like hard work for James & his unloaded bike. I couldn’t even get my loaded bike up the ramp, so found it easier just to ride across the stream and risk wet feet.

Adele crossing the Heaphy.

Reaching Lewis Hut the flat coastal riding was done and we began a steady climb to James McKay hut. Generally it’s a very easy climb, taking eleven kilometres to ascend almost seven-hundred metres, but it’s a bit steeper at the start. The track is generally wide and the only really technical parts are some of the frequent, rocky, creek crossings. It was warm work, and some of us were down to short-sleeves before, and even when, the drizzle came back. DOC is working hard to upgrade the surface. If we’d been a week later, I’m told, they’d be finished and we would have missed the in-progress stretches of hundreds of metres of slick mud. This made it tough going at times for our little group, but I found it mostly rideable – even with a rather lightweight rear tyre.

It was with some relief we saw the marker indicating only two kilometres remained until we reached our destination for the night – James Mackay Hut. This was also about the time it started to rain again, albeit lightly. Due to rare wildlife living in the area, kiwi and giant carnivorous land snails (! – I didn’t see one, but saw some of their old shells – disturbingly large), one is not allowed to ride the trail at night – so we had to be at the hut before nightfall.

It’s a pretty damp climate with plenty of interesting flora and fauna.

After one final slog atop the slick and muddy track, we made it to the hut easily before five o’clock – not bad considering the late start. This was where we had intended to stay originally – but approaching from the other end of the track. It’s very weird turning up at such a palatial back-country DOC hut and finding it only contains mountain-bikers. What’s more, in the middle of nowhere it has bike-racks and even a bike wash stand (much needed)! Having cleaned our bikes, we went inside to find the coal range roaring and even such things as basic electric lighting, gas cooking, running water and flush toilets – luxury. Being such a new hut, it is very good and has wonderful facilities – but does lack in character.

It turns out large groups of mountain-bikers have very poor hut etiquette, being generally loud through the night – walking/stomping around, talking loudly, and getting up at four o’clock to shovel coal noisily (who does that?). Thankfully, they were gone by the leisurely hour we got up, had breakfast, packed up, talked bikes and brevets (I even got an unexpected handshake for completing the Kiwi Brevet – I was quietly chuffed) with the other more considerate mountain-bikers. With slightly better weather, we could see all the way down to the Tasman Sea and the mouth of the Heaphy.

Looking all the way back down to where we’d been for lunch the previous day.

Bike racks and wash area – at a hut, wow!

Although it was mid-morning by the time we set-off back down the hill, it was quite chilly and we got a little wet from the spray off the muddy surface. While much easier to ride through the mud assisted by gravity, it still had its tricky moments.

Adele enjoying the downhill – possibly this was before she fell off the side of a bridge, but it’s hard to tell as she’s always got a smile on her face.

While waiting for Adele, James and I tried talking to the friendly locals. This robin was particularly curious, and the many fantails we saw elsewhere were super inquisitive.

The ride out being the same way we rode in is thankfully much shorter to describe, but with much improved weather we saw so much more – and there was an eleven kilometre downhill too! Thankfully, the lack of rain meant I could get my camera out a bit more and I had plenty of time to take photos as well.

Occasionally there were glimpses of the Heaphy River – but annoyingly there were no great lookout spots on the way down.

Looking east up a tributary of the Heaphy – some good limestone cliffs to on the right.

After a rapid pace on the flats back to Heaphy Hut we got strangely hot – a good time for lunch; the nikau palms began to reappear also.

With lunch done, it was only sixteen kilometres back to the trailhead mostly following the coast. It’s a great fun trail and I was expecting to enjoy it more in the dry – it had dried out well since the previous morning. I was not expecting to be so blown away by the scenery – it all seemed so foreign to New Zealand. Apart from the temperature (which was mild), I could have easily believed we were riding alongside tropical rainforest on an island somewhere – perhaps in the Caribbean. The beaches were gorgeous, the surf was wild and the palm groves – wow.

Over the last saddle separating Scott’s Beach from Kohaihai, we enjoyed the final downhill back to the car and the end of our little adventure. I’m pretty sure Adele & James enjoyed their first bikepacking experience – we may not have gone that far, but there was so much to see. Now that all the bikes are cleaned of the grit and mud and all the washing is done, I’m waiting for a two-day window in the weather so I can ride the whole trail. I’m not hopeful, but if the eastern end is anywhere near as scenic as the part we rode it must be quite something.

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