Wellington - Picton - Karamea
On August the 10th 2005 I left Wellington on the Picton ferry for the third time this winter. First destination the very top of the West Coast (Karamea) and the Heaphy Track. The other tracks on my list were Rees Dart, Hollyford, Routeburn, and the mother of all tracks, the North West Circuit of Stewart Island. I also wanted to fill in one of the last remaining blanks on my personal travel map of New Zealand: The Maniototo - the mythical land between Dunedin and Alexandra.
Having caught the 9.30 ferry I arrived in Picton after midday and hoped to make it to Karamea by nightfall. Through Blenheim, St Arnaud, then across to Westport. As usual for the south a lot of excellent driving to be had on these roads. I hadn't been on the section of road along the Buller River to Westport for a while and with it's close proximity to the river, rocky walls and surrounding forested ranges it is yet another delightful South Island road. I stopped in the township of Westport for supplies, it's sea-soaked off-the-beaten-track feel making Invercargill look like a major metropolis by comparison.
Heading north out of Westport I was full of giddy anticipation, I was going on a road that had always beckoned me on the map, the last 100 plus km's of West Coast's northern extremity. It's the sort of road you expect to round a corner and find Atlantis. Not Atlantis but well weathered weather boarded villages soaking in the late afternoon sun, strategically placed nikau palms and cabbage trees, and a backdrop of the forested range. At one point near Granity I had to stop - from a road bridge I looked down at a river and a railway bridge perfectly framed by a bright rainbow which stood out against clouds of grey. A ribbon of blue sky separated the clouds from the deep green of the ranges and all was bathed in the setting sunlight. I clicked away my first image of this trip which turned out to be one of the best.
The road after half an hour turned inland through windy hilly bits before returning to the nikau palmed coast. I passed through the undeniably remote village of Karamea and then the last ten km's of road to the car park and DOC camping site at the mouth of the Kohaihai River. I didn't discover Atlantis but for a road I had so long contemplated it hadn't disappointed. It was just getting dark as I got my tent up and settled in for the night by the sound of the waves.
- Hut nights: 4
- Solo hut nights: 2
- People in huts: 3
- Overall people: 7
The next morning after breakfasting, sorting out pack for five days, and organising things in the car I donned the pack and stepped onto the Heaphy Track. It starts with a bridge over the Kohaihai then veers inland up and over the Kohaihai Bluff and down to Scotts Beach. Scotts Beach is followed by Big Rock, Koura, Twin, Nettle, Twenty Minute, and finally Heaphy Beaches. The combination of scalloped wild west surf beaches and the temperate forest dominated by stands of Nikau palms make it one of the finer coastal strolls around. It was a bit overcast so I wasn't getting speccy shots but this would be rectified on the return trip.
A couple of hours in I started noticing these seashells that looked like magnified snail shells in shades of polished dark browns. As the track was in the forest up from the beach I figured that they had somehow been transported from the sea. I must note here that your average kiwi snail (a european import apparently) is rather small, more like a marble than the golf to tennis ball -ish shells I was seeing, so I naturally thought these shells were marine based. Then one of the shells moved and I discovered the most massive snail I've ever seen since I saw Dr Doolittle (Rex Harrison) as a kid. Later on that night I discovered they are the local Powelliphanta (carnivores growing up to 90mm and 90grams), NZ's largest land snail and if I'd learnt about them at school I'd definitely forgotten, but I'll never forget them again.
The track starts heading inland once you get to the Heaphy Beach. I went past the Heaphy Hut and up alongside the Heaphy River towards my destination the Lewis Hut. One of the main features of the Heaphy apart from those snails is that it contains over half of the native flora species of NZ and 80% of it's alpine species As you go from nikau'd coast up to the alpine tussocked Gouland Downs you pass through about a dozen distinct vegetation zones. The first bit of inland track once you've left the coast has a lush sub-tropical/jurassic/Skull Island feel to it with many different palms, ferns, and epiphytes. A couple of hours of following the river and I was at Lewis Hut, set by the river and at the start of the climb up to the plateau. Here I spent the night with a couple of artisans from nearby Collingwood. They had come from the other end of the track and were meeting friends coming in the opposing direction at the next hut. They were jewelers who ran their creative business from the main hub of Golden Bay.
The next day I crossed a few vegetative zones from river level to the 700M (2300ft) James Mackay Hut. I'd never been botanically fanatical before but the variety of bush on the Heaphy had me oohing and aahing the whole way through. By the time I reached the hut it was raining fairly steadily. I could have made the next hut but it wouldn't've been pleasant so I doffed my pack. The hut sat upon a clear area of dwarfish alpine vegetation giving it a view out to the coast. At times through the mountain mist and shower clouds I could make out the Heaphy River Mouth down below. I lit the fire with some dry wood and the supplied coal and put some pots of water on the gas hobs (the Heaphy being the only track I know that provides gas in the winter months) for a very pleasant warm bucket bath on the verandah in the rain. A cup of tea was put on and I settled down to some light reading -The Rape of Nanking (Japanese pre-WWII invasion of the old Chinese capital) - whilst the rain played upon the tin roof.
The Gouland Downs
By morning the rain had stopped but the clouds still hid the stratosphere and beyond. I ventured out to cover a few more vegetation zones, going from alpine sparseness down into mossy forested valleys and up again. I passed over the Saxon River and came into the Gouland Downs, a flattish plateau of tussock and shrub surrounded by various forested ranges and peaks. A lot the the higher stuff was obscured due to the low cloud but it did not diminish the feel of a home on the range style American high country. The Brokeback Mountain/Wyoming metaphor carried on as I came upon the ranch house log cabin, or the recently built plywood and tin Saxon Hut to be literal. Though a fine hut in a beautiful position, I only snacked at the Saxon before setting out for the not to far away Gouland Hut. In between showers, sunbursts, and rainbows I traversed the plateau.
Then I came across the most extraordinary combination of landform and vegetation I have seen anywhere, sending my botanical appreciations to new heights. Going straight from the tussock you enter a patch of forest, well more of a magical forest around a mini dry gorge.The floor of the forest is carpeted with verdant thick moss. The same moss covers a stunning collection of rocky protrusions spread liberally through the trees. These weird lumps stand upright like a lounge of moss upholstered easy chairs. All the trees have similar coverings. Beside the path mini limestone gullies add topographical intrigue giving the sense of a grand landscape in miniature. It was physical reality straight from the imagination and no doubt goblin moss people inhabit this mythic kingdom when there are no humans about (if I'd been on mind altering drugs no doubt I would have seen them). The light being dull I managed only some slightly blurred shots of this fantastical grotto, but this little magic forest alone draws me back for a return visit to the Heaphy. As I exited the grotto I at once came upon the hut, more of a shack by comparison to the Saxon, but with it's big open fire and protective shell from the elements the Gouland Downs Hut would give me a pleasant night on me todd.
I'd come near four fifths of the way from Karamea/West Coast to the Collingwood/Golden Bay end of the track. There was still the Percy Saddle hut ahead of me but I was on a round trip not a one way ticket. So it was here I turned and headed back, destination Lewis Hut. I re-traced my steps past the two huts, the day was long but not arduous. There was a fair bit of cloud about and I was hit by a hail storm at one stage but arrived at the Lewis river dry and intact. I shared the hut that night with a guy from Nelson, an energetic tramper yet rather chubby, a figure he kept in the bush by carrying ample food supplies.
Lewis back to Kohaihai
The following day was Sunday and I was heading back to my car. Though it had been great being on the Heaphy and seeing what all the fuss was about I hadn't exactly been blessed with the best photographic conditions. Luckily the walk out along the coast was interspersed with enough sun to do this fabulous piece of the land's edge some justice. The wild ocean, brooding clouds, sunlight, curvaceous beaches and those nikau palms made for some good shots. Some of the beaches with the palms hanging over them are straight out of a travel shop poster or Caribbean rum ad, without the sultriness and coral reefs. At Scotts Beach the coast that has scalloped in and out since the Heaphy River comes to an abrupt end at the jutting Kohaihai Bluff. A rather petulant ocean swell was rumbling in and when it hit the rocks at the bottom of the bluff it exploded in a truly massive amount of churning whitewash. I got a nice shot of this sea spray with a well placed foreground object of an angular cris- crossed piece of rock sticking right out of the sand near the water's edge. Then it was over the hill and back to the campsite for a cold bird bath in the river and setting up tent by the coast in the crepuscular light. The Heaphy had been 5 days exploring a place that had been drawing me to it for a long time, and now when I next look at the map wondering will be replaced by recognition and memory.