7 must-dos when tramping the Heaphy Track

By Simon Thomas: 18 September, 2021

The Heaphy Track has the most diverse scenery of any Great Walk in New Zealand—from Beech forest to rocky mountain terrain, to tussock downs, to Nikau palms and thundering surf, and plenty of entertainment along the way. Read on below for the full details of the track and a heads up on those bucket-list activities and sights that add to the magic of the Heaphy.

Each day is different on the Heaphy Track

Traversing the Heaphy Track works equally well from either end but this description starts in Golden Bay. From Brown Hut car park beside the Aorere River, the track heads to Brown Hut itself (there is a landline phone at the hut) then winds up through old Red Beech and Kamahi forest to Aorere shelter with glimpses down the valley. (The shelter has the only cell coverage before you reach the Heaphy coast). This section is rocky, which makes it tough-going on a mountain bike. The gradient is gentle though as it was originally designed for miners and their pack-horses.

The track continues climbing to Flanagan's Corner, the highpoint of the Heaphy Track at 915m (just over 3,000ft). Take a wee detour for great view over to the Douglas Range and the aptly-named Dragons Teeth. Mountain Beech predominate to Perry Saddle, where it opens out into a Dracophyllum and tussock landscape. If you're feeling hot and sweaty by now, visit the waterfall and pool below Perry Saddle Hut for a refreshing splash.

Not far west of the hut, a route off to the right crosses Perry Creek then heads steeply up Mount Perry. You can leave your pack at the junction and scramble up rocky terrain to the viewpoint at 1228m. The views over the Gouland Downs and to the north back to Golden Bay make the grunt up worthwhile. Taranaki is visible on very clear days.

Back at the main track, you'll traverse a hillside with tall Kanuka stands before popping out again into tussock and Dracophyllum shrublands which lead you down (past the famous boot pole) to Gouland Downs Hut. Beyond here the track crosses rolling country through some magical glades of Beech and limestone to Saxon Hut. You'll pass through moody 'enchanted forest'—resident goblins seem quite plausible!

Gouland Downs with Mt Perry in background
Gouland Downs with Mt Perry in background

Take time to explore off the track a wee bit. (But don't get lost!) You may find that the track you just walked over is actually a limestone bridge—remains of old caves in the area. Fossil Cave, Waterfall Cave and Hut Cave are within the vicinity of Gouland Downs Hut. Fossil Cave has giant scallop-like shells on the wall and Waterfall Cave is named after the water flowing out the entrance. Take a torch or headlamp and look out for spindly cave weta on the cave walls.

After Saxon Hut, the track ascends gently through a mix of shrubland and Mountain Beech to James McKay Hut which enjoys a prominent lookout position.

Descent from James McKay takes you down towards the 'Wet Coast', though this far north it enjoys more sunshine and less rain that further south. Rough Beech predominates the forest at first, and then Nikau palms and viney Rata appear wrapping themselves over limestone boulders. Lewis Shelter (no longer a hut with accommodation) and the sandfly prone Heaphy River lie at the base of the hill.

The track then gently follows this river west to its mouth at the wonderfully situated Heaphy Hut. Explore the beach at the Heaphy River mouth at dusk, the sun sinking into the Tasman Sea is photogenic! From Heaphy Hut, the track winds south along the coast, through dense groves of Nikau palms and ancient twisted Rata; and pops out occasionally to round small headlands or boulder strewn beaches with booming surf.

The track's end (or start) is at Kohaihai shelter, which has a public toilet, picnic tables and grassed areas (where you might set up a small tent at a pinch) and many cheeky Weka. Be warned—these birds are expert thieves, and it's not uncommon to see one racing for the bushes with a sandwich in its beak, or in my experience an unopened pack of feta cheese!

Most hikers will take 3-4 days to do this trip, and most bikers 2-3 days. See my Heaphy gear list and lightweight tramping tips for help with planning your trip, and check out my 7 must-do's below, in order from Brown Hut to Kohaihai.

7 must-do's for the Heaphy Track

Powelliphanta shell superba shell held on palm of hand
Superb example of a Powelliphanta superba shell
  • Climb Mt Perry.
  • Spot Takahe in the open country near Perry Saddle hut, Gouland Downs, Saxon, and James McKay Hut—a real treat since this endangered bird was reintroduced in 2018.
  • Listen late at night (after 11pm) for Great Spotted Kiwi (Roroa) calling around Perry Saddle and Gouland Downs huts. If you are lucky you may spot one on a (quiet) late night walk.
  • Watch out for Whio (Blue Duck) in the stream just past Gouland Downs Hut.
  • Make a side trip to Fossil, Waterfall and Hut Caves in the enchanted forest between Gouland Downs Hut and Saxon—take a torch to see the impossibly long legged cave wetas (look up!).
  • Look beside the track between Lewis Shelter and Kohaihai you'll see the broken shells of giant Powelliphanta snails (eaten by possums or rats). Or take a torch out at night in the bush around Heaphy Hut, and you might see a live snail out hunting. These snails are carnivorous—they eat slugs and worms and they can grow their shells to 9 cm in diameter!
  • Complete your journey with a spectacular scenic flight back over the track with Golden Bay Air—the perfect end to your Heaphy adventure...

For more information check out our Complete Guide to the Heaphy Track.

Simon Thomas is a Wellington-based writer who has biked and walked dozens of back-country tracks in New Zealand and abroad—including the Heaphy and Abel Tasman Coast Tracks.

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