Riding up the Downs
Our Trail Story
The Heaphy Track has been on my riding bucket list since its winter-only opening for bikers a few years back - it’s the only Great Walk you can cycle! My plan to ride the track a week earlier had been quashed while camping up at the western trailhead thanks to a localised weather bomb.
During my first early morning start, it was even a challenge to avoid the wash of debris on the track well before I encountered an impassable slip. I was the first to reach this near-vertical wall of sloppy mud with torrents of chocolate coloured water that thwarted my riding plan. I returned to the car safely but disappointed.
On my second attempt a week later I elect to begin at the opposite end of the track … some 463 kilometres by road on the eastern side. The weather forecast looks perfect being cool and frosty, and a reroute was now in place around that formidable slip. So not far from Collingwood at the top of the South Island I reach the trailhead carpark and once again unpack my gear for the two-day adventure.
I load my bike with overnight essentials as well as work cameras and GPS equipment to collect data for the Great Rides App, which regular readers of this column will know I have created to assist bike riders all over NZ. Flicking on the GPS units and setting the tracking to one-second intervals I waypoint the carpark and start cranking the pedals to begin the ride up to the Gouland Downs. That’s right: up to the downs.
However, the climb is not immediate; in fact, some trickery is at work with the first hundred metres actually a descent to a hut before the hard work of the climb begins. The gradient of the ascent is ideal; I pick a low gear and start the meandering elevation gain under a lush green canopy. After fording a couple of creeks the views improve as I reach the highest point of the track. Flanagan’s Corner is 915 metres above Golden Bay and from here it’s an easy traverse to my home away from home; Perry Saddle Hut.
Already settled in at this modern hut are a couple of local trampers, a young French walker and another rider. Us riders nip out under torchlight to view kiwi along the trail having heard some calls in the early evening. Before bed a hut warden lets us know of the possibility of a takahe sighting on the track tomorrow. I couldn’t wait to awake … wondering what slim chance I might have of seeing these rare birds on the Downs.
It’s a cold night with a hard morning frost. I hop out from the warmth of my sleeping bag,
bare feet tiptoeing on the freezing wooden floor like a clumsy ballerina wannabe as I struggle to put on layers of clothing.
Sipping on a warm brew and munching on muesli I survey a map of today’s ride to the West Coast. I delay my start until the sun rises, keen to avoid clashing with giant nocturnal snails which make their own slithering trails at night before retreating with the light of day to dark and damp recesses. With winter riding kit on I head west through the stunted forest before reaching the expanse of the Gouland Downs. I brush past bowing red tussocks’ icicle-clad fronds that glisten in the early morning light and at Picnic Table Corner I stop and look. Wow! From here I can see much of the 3,000 hectares of moorland.
It is unusual landcover thanks to the acid soils, resulting in one of the few unforested areas below the normal tree line in the Kahurangi National Park. In geological times past, it was once a shallow sea then tectonically lifted 700 metres above the Tasman. Today some of the limestone marine deposits appear like scattered island outcrops, shored up with beech trees and circled with waves of red tussock. I had reached the tableland and I coasted on.
The next feature I pass is the boot pole. It’s a quirky totem-like post dressed in boots and other types of footwear left behind by trampers. Although Maori, explorers and gold miners searched the interior centuries earlier; recreational hiking has now taken a foothold. In the past a road was mooted along the track’s alignment linking east to west, with ‘progress’ on the horizon trampers flocked to the track - the road proposal was eventually given the boot. Getting off my bike, I read a description on one pair of tired looking boots:
"If Boots Could Talk - Owner James Feldkamp - Purchased 1988 - Last Service 2018 on Heaphy.
These boots faithfully served their owner for 30+ years and have seen and experienced a bit over the years. Walked on six continents (all except Antarctica):
jumped from an aeroplane, more than once
came face-to-face with a black panther in the Malaysian rainforest
saw lions in Zimbabwe as well as the president's elephants
hiked through 10 countries in Europe, including climbing through a whiteout blizzard on the Schilthorn in August
hiked thru a hail storm on the continental divide in Colorado
watched a bald eagle flying through the canyons
The boots’ last adventure was in the summer of 2018 on the Heaphy Track in February 19-20th. After hiking up from Brown Hut to Perry Saddle with Cyclone Gita closing, the boots set out in pre-dawn where they saw two large kiwis on the trail before the soul gave up and they were attached to the pole"
It is a good read, I’m sure you'll agree, and a testament to the footprint that one’s soul can live. ‘Maybe these boots didn’t lose their soul’ I thought.
They may be well-travelled and entering a slower pace of life - to join other’s weary boots ... their souls living on to watch new tread or tyres like mine negotiate the curve of the memorial.
I am also reminded that there have been some big strides taken in opening up the track to pedal power in recent years. Formerly the forest park track was considered a Milford Track of cycling. When the Kahurangi National Park was created in the mid-1990’s bicycles were classed as vehicles and like the demise of the proposed road; cycling was lost for a time too. In time and with political pressure bicycling (with rules) has once again returned to the track – what a great privilege it is for us riders. It’s a sweet nod to the recent cycling revolution. As my wheels turn again I wonder how long it will be before a bike tyre is pinned to the Boot Pole monument given the soaring popularity of mountain biking on this track.
After I cross a ravine on a pretty arched timber bridge I reach Gouland Downs Hut, a more rustic and traditional refuge than last night’s stay. What I see ahead I could barely believe. Five takahe greet me before scattering into the undergrowth away from either friend or foe. I almost shouted ‘friend!’ before sitting quietly at a picnic table to observe every moment of their movement in the tussock. One by one they reappeared, stooped over and intently feeding on the grasses.
I gaze at their busy beaks and marvel at the markings on their iridescent coats and notice they are wearing some modern bling - a tracking transmitter.
Like a giant pukeko, takahe is the largest of the rail family, liberated to the Downs in 2017/18 - it’s one of the only places to see these rare flightless birds in the wild. How rare? Well they were thought extinct until rediscovered in the Murchison mountains 70 years ago. In October of 2017 the official takahe population was 347… in the entire world. So… you know, RARE! In November of 2018 DOC reported that one of the Gouland Downs nests had three eggs in it I am delighted, blessed and enriched. Regrettably, I need to keep moving and farewell my feathery friends and hope I will see them when I return next.
On leaving the hut I am swiftly into another close encounter of the botanical kind. I have entered the otherworld of the enchanted forest. I momentarily leave the tussock glade for a gloomy finger of cloud forest, cloaked with hanging wispy threats, a forest floor of lush mossy carpet and the trail that weaves through this surreal green living space.
It’s like a world from a Dr Seuss book and just like a child, I am in awe.
At a chasm, I spot sinkholes, caves and a remarkable arch that the trail crosses … I decide to go subterranean and look for cave wetas. Not far away are a hut and a waterfall cave, the latter having frozen shards hanging out of its limestone entrance like teeth from some kind of gnashing phantom jaws. My senses are alive. Within metres, I have been on rare avian, botanical and geological field trips - a wonderland of natural attractions with free entry to all. I leave the forest … enchanted.
Back in a glade, I ride over pretty creeks, past another hut before climbing out of the weathered peneplain to pretty ponds. I then take a seat divided by a yellow paint line indicating the boundary line between east and west. From the track it is my first glimpse of the Tasman Sea – just a blur of deep blue against the backdrop of lighter sky. Not far from the seat lies a mile marker; a tramper’s guide before the days of GPS.
After entering a waypoint for the boundary seat I head west and pass James Mackay Hut, named after the first recorded person to traverse the approximate route of the Heaphy Track. From the hut it’s a descent. The hours of pedal labour are rewarded by glorious freewheeling. I tighten my grip to restrain my silver steed as we hurtle down from the mountain top … its pace spurred on by its jockey. This is real riding delight. Slowly the canopy changes to a podocarp hardwood forest; bush that hugs the Heaphy Hut beside the river mouth giving the large dwelling a snug appearance. I take a break here and rehydrate, but not for too long as I’m keen to keep my presence secret from buzzing sandfly scouts.
Upon reaching the coastline the surf break is deafening, spray fills the air with a fine mist coupled with that familiar salty scent. My senses are refreshed and I regain my energy. The track then turns south weaving around the smooth trunks of nikau and skipping between rocky headlands and sandy bays. Once over a final steep bluff the track terminates at the road of Kohaihai Shelter and journeys end for most riders before heading down the way to Karamea.
With my travel up to the Downs over and my bucket list emptier, I sit in my office with a smile on my face. The GPS tracks I download snake along the map offering memories of tough climbs, sweet descents and the explorative meanderings from east to west. The waypoints dot the slivering line, identifying my numerous highlights along our country’s longest Great Walk. The sights I saw flicking through photos of flora, fauna and forest are magic; being there was even better.
These tracks, waypoints and snaps will linger in my mind-map forever. My experience of the Heaphy Track is one of a genuine backcountry ride, a favourite overnight crossing, and one I consider all adventurous kiwi riders should experience before kicking the bucket.