Bikepacking The Heaphy Track

November 30, 2018

This article was originally written for and appears on the Mons Royale blog

 “The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.” – Yvon Chouinard

A thin blanket of drizzle fell slowly from the sky as I loaded bikes onto the car by headtorch. It was 4am  and the news that the road up the West Coast was closed put a dampener on my stoke for the trip ahead. Typically fickle Kiwi weather had already pushed our trip back by a week, so when we learned that the road was closed due to flooding, expectations for the weekend ahead were quashed. The thirteen-hour drive north was long and slow, passing through a blizzard in high Canterbury and persistent torrential rain right up until we reached the coast.  We reached Karamea at 6.30pm, and were greeted by the first rays of sunshine I had seen in days. It was as if it were meant to be; the clouds parted ways and the sky cleared offering some warmth from the evening sun.

Arrival at the trailhead

As we unloaded the bikes and began strapping on bags, hikers that had finished the trail curiously asked where we were headed. We were 20km away from the hut and the light was starting to fade, fast. When we eventually got on our bikes, it was immediately obvious how beautiful the track was, and any panic or apprehension about the arrival of nightfall was quickly washed away. We charged through vibrant New Zealand bush full of Nikau palm and other tropical looking flora. Waves crashed violently to the shore and the last of the day’s light danced through the canopy above as we rode along the first flat section of the trail. Everything was going well until the 7km mark when I pushed down hard from a standstill to mount one of the many swing bridges, and PING. My chain snapped. Normally this wouldn’t have been an issue, however, during the frantic packing of bags and checking gear, the multi-tool had been left in the car. Disaster. I urged the others to keep riding to the hut before dark and, with great sadness, I began pushing my bike back the way we had come.

Adventure only begins when things start to go wrong

I arrived back at the car just as the sun disappeared below the horizon to the west, and I hoped that Em, Charlie and Eddy had made it to the hut. Surely so, I thought. Although, I couldn’t be sure. The following morning, after fixing my chain and wolfing down breakfast, I set off once more with some new friends I met that morning. We rode together on the same section of trail I had ridden the previous day, this time as the sun rose, casting long and beautiful shadows over the beach. Within a couple of hours, we approached the Heaphy Hut and parted ways. Much to Eddy’s surprise, I walked into the hut as he was getting dressed and we let out a collective sigh of relief. The trip isn’t a failure, I thought. Over more coffee I learned that nightfall had beaten them to the hut and the last hour was spent walking in the dark, trying to avoid the swollen fords that litter the trail. Once stories had been exchanged and we were all packed up, it was time to head out once more.

The Heaphy Track has a reputation for being one of the most varied trails in New Zealand and as soon as we started riding on day two, you can feel the landscape transform around you. Palm trees give way to lush Beech forest as you climb from the coast up into the hills and the recent rainfall had given the forest a glossy shine. The climb from Lewis Hut up to James Mckay is a steady 15km slog, climbing 800m through classic Kiwi bush. When we finally breached from the forest at the top of the climb, wide expansive hills covered in silver tussocks stretched out before us. The riding from here was a combination of short, punchy climbs and fun, winding descents, and a series of boardwalk sections and bridges kept us on our toes until we reached our resting spot for the night.  

Palm trees give way to lush Beech forest as you climb from the coast up into the hills and the recent rainfall had given the forest a glossy shine

Hut bagging on The Heaphy

Many of the huts along the Heaphy are modern, well equipped and, in my opinion, a little too luxurious. Gouland Downs Hut, however, is an original hut full of character and quirk nestled into the bush. Unlike the other huts along the route, Gouland has no cooking facilities, lights or, well anything really. We arrived to an empty hut just as the sun was beginning to retire and, after unloading the bikes, set about cooking up some delicious dehydrated food. As we ate, two Takahe casually strolled out of the bush for a look around camp. It was amazing to see some rare flightless birds in the wild after reading so much about them when researching the trip. There are also Kiwis and large (Powelliphanta) land snails living in the National Park but we weren’t fortunate to see either, only the large shells snails had left behind.

That night in Gouland Hut was a cold one. When the fire burnt out, the temperature plummeted and I instantly regretted my choice of sleeping bag. I lay awake from 5am, cold to the core, waiting for the sun to rise and thaw me out. I crawled out of my cocoon and stepped outside the hut into a thick, low hanging mist which hung above the moorlands like a blanket. I sat and watched the sun rise from behind the hills, creating a kaleidoscope of colours as it burnt off the mist, revealing bright blue skies above. When the others emerged from the hut we brewed coffee, slowly packed our bags and enjoyed the early morning sunshine, safe in the knowledge that we had little climbing to do and almost 800m of delightful descending back towards the coast ahead.

I crawled out of my cocoon and stepped outside the hut into a thick, low hanging mist which hung above the moorlands like a blanket. I sat and watched the sun rise from behind the hills, creating a kaleidoscope of colours as it burnt off the mist, revealing bright blue skies above.

It’s all downhill from here

And the ride back to the coast definitely didn’t disappoint. From James Mckay Hut onwards, we thrashed it all the way down to Lewis Hut at the mouth of the river. The trail was a lot of fun to ride, never getting too steep or rough, allowing us to flow through the corners, only slowing down for hikers or other riders climbing in the opposite direction. Lewis Hut provided a good opportunity for a break from the riding and to spend a bit of time by the river. Charlie had carried his fly rod with him so we relaxed at the water’s edge in search for the illusive NZ trout. Even though we left the river empty handed, it was nice to slow down and enjoy some time off the bike before riding the last 8km stretch to the Heaphy Hut where we would spend the night.

Having left the coast almost two days previously, it was a welcoming sight to ride back towards the sea as the sun was setting. We parked our bikes next to the hut and wandered onto the beach to take it all in. It was a perfect end to a perfect day; watching the sky turn dusty pink on the beach with a group of mates, all tired and hungry after a big day on the bike.

Bitter sweet end

The final day of the trip was filled with mixed emotions. We were all tired and dirty – although not too smelly thanks to our merino shirts – and we’d been idealising our first meal back in civilisation. But I couldn’t help feeling slightly deflated that the trip was coming to a close. The Heaphy Track had been everything I expected and more. From the grueling journey to the start of the trail and the almost disastrous first day, it had been an amazing adventure shared with amazing friends. Riding back along the coastal track with the morning light beaming down, casting long shadows across the trail was special. And of course, sod’s law would have it that my chain would break irreparably again in almost the same spot that it had done on day one. However, the walk back to the car this time wasn’t overshadowed by worry and anxiety, instead I was full of contentment and joy.



Additional images by Emily Hampton 

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