Champions of the Heaphy Track
It’s down to the last minute. The huts are booked but little else. We scrabble together the last of the plans and forget everything until the moment we have to pull it out again. I rush to work on Friday afternoon but my only real intention for the day is to rush off a few minutes early to make sure I get to the airport on time. Its a comical sigh of relief when we realise that our flight is of the puddle jumper sort which requires no security checkpoints or cut-off times to check in. Just hand over your bag at the gate, apply the face mask, and hop on.
We spend one night in Westport and make like the locals — eat at a shitty bar, play the lotto and GTFO.
Karamea, the outpost from which the Heaphy Track starts centers around the Last Resort, our hotel, bar and brunch all wrapped into one little oasis. Compared to Westport, the clean rooms, friendly service and kitten company at each meal was a treat. We even had our own backyard that opened out onto an estuary, full of meter plus sized eels and gorgeous Kodak moment sunsets.
On the Sunday we take a little CRV rental car down a long gravel road to toddle around Karamea’s natural archways.
Monday is track day! I kick the first half of the group out of the car and set them on their way with an annoying song to get stuck in their head, hopefully serving as retribution for too many references to Abba’s Dancing Queen in my presence. While I wait for Tika, our last minute tramp buddy’s flight to land at the aerodrome I treat myself to one more luxury lunch. By the time we make it out to the track, its almost 2pm. We’re both content make time with the 5hr 16k (10mi) hike out to the first hut. The first day is a casual, low grade stroll along a long coastline of wide untouched beaches, palm trees and baby Weka.
So when Tika is afflicted with dollar coin sized blisters, she is able to walk in socks. Out of concern for the socks and feet I tap into my creative bushwhacking side to fashion some footwear prototypes out of banana leaves. It provides solid entertainment and we consider expanding operations to be able to arrive at camp fully adorned with headwear, arm bands, flag poles and more. I collect as many qualified leaves as I can along the trail and then chuck them to the side upon reaching camp as I immediately divert to more interesting endeavors like food and afternoon swims.
It’s almost 7pm when we arrive — just enough time to for a sunset swim. It becomes one of those moments that imprinted on my memory as magically beautiful — at the end of a good heap of effort to take a dip comfortably numbing river mouth opening to a golden sunset and crashing beastly waves against industrial sized boulders and rock faces. We sat their soaking, wading, swimming like little dolphins in peace and pleasure.
I would end the gloating there but we returned to the hut where dinner was already made, warm, and ready to eat. Reunited with our little tribe, we recounted the day’s highlights and gripes.
The strength of the sandfly population is a spectacle in itself. They are like skin magnets and without understanding how, we all have bites in areas that shouldn’t even be accessible — belly buttons, scalps, finger tips, etc. The Weka, NZ’s wild and flightless feral chicken, rules the undergrowth and appreciates any opportunity to troll through unattended belongings in search of food and mischief. Which rivers did you get to dip into? They were all so close and yet so unattainable — under a bridge, too small or too dangerous. The actual coastline of the west coast of the south island is so forceful that it is sharply discouraged and obviously imprudent for even the most dare devil of ocean goers to wade in.
There are Kiwi that we might be able to see if we’re willing to chase their screams in the middle of the night. Turns out that it’s actually not the most awesome to be woken up several times in the middle of the night by witch-like screams followed by klunky squashings of rubber mattresses as people jump out of bed to chase their opportunity to hunt for a sighting of the flightless night owl with a half meter of visibility of from their headlamp’s red light. You literally need to trip over the bird before you’ll see it but people tried, over and over. By sunrise the Kiwi hunters morphed to early risers and a group of teenage boys from Hamilton replaced coffee as the morning stimulant. Few got a good nights sleep and most people have a blister already. Day 2 will be a longer uphill trek but we set off to have a good day.
8k later we reach Lewis hut, the first break point. It seems early for lunch but we all eat just fine.
On the other side is 12k of a mild uphill, compared to average NZ trails, and we all take it at our own pace, trotting through inner monologues, concentrating on and/or ignoring certain body parts and bites. We made a point to rest and take stretch breaks every hour and were pleasantly surprised to discover how many robins are following us behind the scenes. It was quite charming to see these little birds come forth from the bush within a minute or two of every stop and be as inquisitive about us as we were about them.
The second half of the second half of an uphill day seems just as long as the first three quarters. Everyone found themselves wondering 2 hours out how close we were to the last half hour. So without any mile markers or waypoints we all independently and collectively cycled through that thought pattern a few times.
By the time we reached James Mackay Hut, it was after 6pm and there was a chill in the air but we still managed to slip in another dip into the mountain stream behind the helipad. It was frigid and refreshing once the burn wore off.
But with the sweat and grime removed, we were able to focus on the evening highlights — food, homemade brownies and stretching. We set the food to rehydrate, repeat lunch and rummage through as many snacks as we can access and then we take to the floor. The massage ball becomes the hot commodity of the evening, shooting red flags through our pain receptors and stinging awareness into our brains of all the strained muscles in our bodies. Dinner revives us enough to attempt massage circles on the kitchen floor. I can’t help but poke fun at what must be a spectacle for onlookers. I’m about to insert some sexual innuendo to my groans of satisfaction when Cari hits a sweet spot on the back of my neck and the ‘Oh Yes’ that escapes from me is a little too real and definitely too loud. We burst into laughter and tears of delirious joy make it nearly impossible to finish the massage.
We realise again and again that we have so much to be grateful for and every night we dedicated a little conversation to acknowledge that fact. Its impossible to contain and words are insufficient to express the gratitude — how lucky we are to be able to be doing this holiday in this beautiful place with this snuggly puddle of people. Soon after we declare ourselves dead and most people are in bed shortly after sunset. The longest stretch of 21k (13mi) across open tussock and broad ridges was just around the bend and those brownie infused massage sessions would set us off in the best of moods going into day 3.
Only the first half hour of day 3 would be without rain but the views were vast and the power of nature was visible in the clouds and the tentacles of small creeks and rising waterways that gushed beneath our feet. We championed our little survivor bodies and pestered each other just enough to not be discouraged by the subliminal messages of the named landmarks.
12k in and we are granted a noteworthy reprieve as we take shelter in the Saxon hut for lunch to watch the rain blow sideways and ring out soaked clothes. There isn’t space or will to stop after that. There is little enthusiasm for side quests to see enchanted forest or wait for Takahe families to avail themselves to us.
Its a long slog through flooded trailways but I was comfortable and relatively dry under my poncho. Despite constant rain, I felt so at ease and confident in my body and tramping experience. Even my inner critic was out to lunch and I was able to take so much pleasure and peace from that rainy afternoon. By the time everyone reached Perry Saddle (hut #3) I could sense the exhaustion of the group as everyone shored up one by one at that last hut. I tried to keep the group afloat with some extra chipperness, got a head start on dinner and gave everyone a wee massage in the evening.
By day 4, our food had been consumed, our packs were light, and we only had the 6 hour downhill slog till the end. Low clouds and constant rain was all the existed beyond the tree-line and so we powered through like hardened well adjusted mountain folk. We exchanged encouragement and reality checks with the 30 odd new trampers who were just starting their first of their 4 days. They seemed so far away from understanding what they were about to experience. Some of us powered out like machines and others hobbled but we all came out feeling like we were champions.
The shuttle scooped us up and shepherded us off to the Hack n’ Stay horse farm where we would have a long weekend ahead of us full of oversized meals, hot showers and sunshine. The Mussel Inn is Takaka’s famed bar and events locale. On the side of the road 10k away from everything, we smashed beers, appetizers, meals, deserts and anything else we could stuff ourselves with. We felt like survivors with much success, no stress, and lots of happiness. We took ourselves shopping. I fell in love with the Wholemeal Cafe and returned literally every day for 3 days in a row for a heaping plate of cream topped banana and berry waffles.
We practiced our hitchhiking skills and managed to pickup 6 different rides to and from our signpost in the highway. The cattle and bulls kept us company as we waited and we made both friends and enemies mooing back at them. At first it seemed like only foreign female campervan owners would flip on a blinker for us. But then a mother, and then some straight laced Kiwi blokes from the burbs, and then we just enjoyed the diversity of characters that shuttled us up and down the roadway. Takaka population can be segmented into two groups — dairy farmers and next level hippie alternate reality enthusiasts — and somehow they seem to get along.
Before the weekend is out we nab a horseback ride on the beach with a quintessential horse whispering Robert Redford reincarnated. The ride itself wasn’t much to write home about but the cheesy company and lighthearted trolling of horses and people was enough permanently link laughter to the memory. I even got to try vaulting for the first time since I was a teenager. The horse was a massive Clydesdale and even though the experience only lasted about 30 minutes, the levels of soreness that ensued was off the charts compared to any of the previous week’s activities. I loved it so much that I might look into the local equestrian center here to relive the experience.
For the final frontier of our Golden Bay getaway we borrowed a car out to two popular tourist destinations, Farewell Spit, the northernmost point of the South Island, and Wharaiki Beach which is famous for its natural rock formations and baby seal playground.
The next morning we hopped on our puddle jumper plane well worn and rested. Even then entertained by the small towniness of it all. Our plane was a 3 seater with carpeted walls and cigarette ashtrays below the windows. I got to sit in the front seat next to the pilot and was warned not to let my knees get in the way of the steering wheel or push on the directional pedals at my feet. We listened to the air traffic controllers over the headsets and watched the captain turn dials and fidget with autopilot settings.
I was supposed to snap back to reality after that, but meh, I’m still preoccupied with rewatching that scene, dancing like Queen and having the time of my life.