Thump, thump, thump – is that the sound of my heart beat……
no that is the sound of the blades turning on our “bus” – a Bell Long Ranger helicopter as we’re being transported to the Collingwood end of the Heaphy Track thanks to Wayne and the team at Karamea Helicopter Charters.
Oh my gosh to say I’m excited would be an understatement, to say I’m nervous well there isn’t a word for that – my heart is racing, I can feel it pulsing at what seems like 100 beats per minute (I don’t know – is that a lot, you know what I’m trying to say though). I’m excited, I’m anxious, I’m ready to go. This is going to be such an adventure.
The Heaphy Track is known as one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” and it has been opened for seasonal mountain biking. With the season about to come to an end we were given an opportunity to bike from the Collingwood side in Golden Bay back across to the West Coast. Now you may be thinking but you’re only biking one way – well yes, we’re getting a helicopter to the start at the Collingwood side – I know! What a way to start a ride!
Our morning start is picture perfect – hardly a cloud in sight. Making our way to the helicopter hanger we drop off all our biking gear ready for loading into the helicopter. Wayne from Karamea Helicopter Charters has a purpose-built rack for the bikes. Locked and loaded we’re ready for take-off……..
Any nerves about the flight soon abate as the wonder at the incredible views take over. Flying up over the Karamea farmland with views to the Tasman Sea we basically do the Heaphy Track by flight so we know what we’re in for – or do we?
Seeing this countryside from the helicopter is breath-taking and we can’t believe how fortunate we are for this experience. Just this flight alone is worth it to experience such magnificent scenery. Nearing our destination our friend Richard points out Farewell Spit off in the distance – the northern most point of the South Island. Just magic.
Time to land and some of my nerves are coming back – this time in anticipation of the ride ahead. I’ve been laid down with the flu for the good part of the last three weeks so there hasn’t been any riding time of late. I was determined not to let that stop me though when this opportunity came about. I’ll just go at my pace and we’ll see what happens.
After a very short ride along the access road our first stop is Browns Hut – this is basically the true start of the track. We meet some people who have finished their ride – thankfully they don’t tell me what is still to come……
Our destination before the end of the day (hopefully!) is the James Mackay hut – some 41kms away and starting with a 17.5km climb. Yes folks, you read that right – 17.5kms. What was I thinking!
This is a gorgeous ride of incredibly diverse scenery. The first 7kms are a nice gradual incline up through the bush – quite manageable even by my standards. Have to say I did struggle on the next 3kms and was very pleased to reach the Aorere Shelter. Time for a short rest and fuel stop, compare riding notes – mmmm you went fast, I went slow…… and to take in the gorgeous views.
Then back in the saddle and onwards and upwards to Perry Saddle and hut located at 880 metres above sea level – yep, told you we were climbing.
What a location for a hut – views in all directions and apparently on a super clear day you can even see Mt Taranaki on the North Island. We met some hardy souls who were on their way out – depressing thing is they were riding the entire trail in one day with just the downhill left to do. To make it even more depressing they had ridden across two days earlier – in one day! Oh to be young and fit (they were at least 15 years older than us I have to add……something to aspire to perhaps).
Onwards again – we have a long day ahead of us, passing through patches of beech trees and clearings of tussock. There were fast and flowy sections and short sections of just pedaling it out before we crossed the little Cave Brook and passed the Gouland Downs Hut – 7kms down another 5.4kms to go to get to Saxon, our next refuel stop.
This section is mostly through tussock land and creek beds but there is one short section through what is known as the “enchanted forest” – moss-covered beech forest amongst a limestone outcrop. It is incredible in here and so weird to be in what seems like the middle of nowhere after being out in the tussock.
All too soon we’re back into the open again surrounded by the tussock land. The clouds were starting to roll in over the mountains so it made it all the more mystical and I could imagine it could be quite oppressive through here on a misty day. No mist for us though and we finally reach Saxon Hut.
It was nice to take a little break from the bike if only for a few minutes. We didn’t want to dilly dally for too long – still another 13kms to go. Oh my!
This last section to our “home” for the night descended slightly, down through grassy flats that run along side the Saxon River before our last little climb for the day – I know…… to a ridgeline where the Gouland Downs meet the Mackay Downs. There is a gorgeous piece of boardwalk along here and some crazy rocks coming up out of the landscape. One rock is aptly shaped to the part of our anatomy – quite fitting by this stage of the ride as we’re really feeling it!. I’ll let you guess which rock but the clue is the shape is sideways (look closely and you’ll see it….)
The trail enters back into scrub like bush and pockets of beech trees and eventually our home to the night comes into view – James Mackay hut. Phil has kindly gone on ahead and whipped us up a storm in the kitchen and after a quick cleanup we sit down to enjoy this fine feast in the middle of the wilderness – now this is what I call back country living!
After some overnight rain, the new dawn greets us with some morning mist and a double rainbow before the sun filters through the clouds. It is a magical place to wake up to and sets us up for a continuation of our awesome day before. Can it really get any better….
Turns out it can. I mentioned earlier the diversification in the scenery on day one well day two is almost unbelievable. Completely different again from yesterday. We leave Mackay Hut for a 13km downhill – I know, so exciting! Actually although was downhill, which we aren’t complaining about, there was still quite a bit of pedaling and line picking for mud holes etc but overall what an awesome trail. Down through huge fern groves and avenues of Rimu trees and across little creeks.
At one stage we had a visitor that we just had to stop for. A little bush robin – incredibly inquisitive and oh so cute.
Eventually we make it down to Lewis Hut at the base of the hill and we then have a lovely 8km ride that winds it way through Nikau Palms and Rata Trees running along side the Heaphy River.
Now this is where this little outing gets slightly surreal. We have an 11am appointment with a most lovely man called “Big Pete”, a good friend of Richard and Phil who has kindly offered to cook us up a fresh feed of whitebait. It is whitebait season here on the West Coast and this is Big Pete’s home for the next couple of months. What a lovely character – could have sat here all day listening to his awesome stories but we still have more riding ahead of us yet.
With tummies full of fresh white bait we’re off again first stopping at the Heaphy Hut. Phil has to leave us now as our pace is just a little slow and he has an appointment back in Westport.
Well we’re getting close now – onto the final 16kms to the end of the trail. The trail now mostly follows the coastline so the views are outstanding.
There are rocky shores and sandy shores as we pass through little bays. The track meanders in and out of sub tropical rain forest and coastal grasses with short little pinches to climb and fun little rock sections to negotiate.
We cross quite a few wooden bridges and beautiful big swing bridges. Department of Conservation and their hard-working team have done an awesome job with this trail.
More coastal sections and we can see the final ridge that will lead us into the Kohaihai Valley and the end of trail. Being a ridge it does mean a climb – just a little tester to finish the ride with. Can’t make it too easy!
and then after a short fun downhill we round the corner and can’t help but break into a smile as we see the final bridge crossing the Kohaihai river – we’ve made it! What a weekend, what an adventure. Big thanks to Richard and Phil, Big Pete and Wayne from Karamea Helicopter Charters for making this one of the most memorable adventures yet and mostly to my hubby Stephen for giving me the moral support to get to the end.
Say yes to adventure – but look around you, that adventure may just be in your own backyard.
Jan and Stephen run Breakers Boutique Accommodation on the Great Coast Road north of Greymouth. The West Coast was named one of the top 10 regions to visit in the world in 2014 by Lonely Planet – Heaphy Track is just one of the many reasons why.