Wednesday, June 10, 2020

In search of Takahe, and avoiding a shuttle

The Heaphy Track has been on my to do list for some time, but the logistics of arranging transport between the start and the finish are a bit of a headache. Even more of a headache when the tourism numbers have been dealt such a big blow by a global pandemic and closed borders. So I decided to make my walk a five day adventure, walking 3/4 of the track in, and then back out again without staying in the same hut twice. That meant some pretty big mileage on the final 2 days...

The Heaphy travels through the northern section of Kahurangi National Park, from Golden Bay in the Tasman, to Kohaihai on the West Coast. The track itself is 78km long, but the road ends are 493km apart, approximately an 8 hour drive. Yes there are shuttles, car transfer services, and even scenic flights available, but all are costly, and not so flexible with dates. I like to time my tramps to coincide with good weather windows, which means they are sometimes decided at short notice. Although the Heaphy is a Great Walk, June is low season so booking huts wasn't a problem.

I drove up the West Coast, staying one night in Hokitika and another at Little Wanganui, visiting Punakaiki on the way. I then drove the final few kilometres through Karamea to Kohaihai, parked my car and began my tramp. Wearing trail runners, not boots.

Tramping boots have their place, but the superior cushioning on my Hoka One One Speedgoats makes for a much more comfortable foot on a trail that is firm underfoot. The Heaphy is now a dual use track, allowing mountain bikers over the winter months, and the track has been upgraded to make the surface easier for bikes to traverse. Although boots do give better ankle support, I am of the belief that a pair of tramping poles provide far superior protection from over balancing and tripping than your choice of footwear.

The walk from Kohaihai to Heaphy Hut skirts the coastline and is glorious. Sandy beaches, rolling surf, nikau palms, tannin coloured streams, blue sky and a mild breeze to keep the pesky sandflies at bay, who could want more? Ah yes, a nice welcoming hut by a river mouth at the end of the day.

The hut had quite a few occupants. Mostly walkers coming in for a single night, and then a few trampers on their final night having walked from Brown Hut. No bikers, because 17 kms makes for a day trip on a bike. I was the only one heading north, and the next morning I headed off along the river through glorious forest with limestone outcrops and huge southern rata covered in ferns and epiphytes. There are a few caves, but they require some bush bashing to find, as the track now bypasses them.

Once over the swing bridge I passed Lewis Hut and began the day's climb up to John Mackay Hut. The bush is lush and green and the streams are foaming from the tannins in the water. It's a gentle gradient the whole way up, and I met only one other tramper coming in the other direction. I also met a couple of mountain bikers returning from their overnight ride from Kohaihai to Brown Hut!

I got to James Mackay Hut just as the weather turned. It started to rain about 20 minutes before I arrived, but having already donned the wet weather gear for wind protection, I remained dry and had only to start the coal fire in the hut to get warm again. I was joined that afternoon by two cycling couples who had cycled from Kohaihai that morning.

From James Mackay the track goes over the Saxon Ridge to traverse the tussock country of the Gouland Downs. In 2015 a number of Takahe were released onto the Gouland Downs, as it was determined to have low predator numbers and an intensive trapping program continues. Takahe, another of New Zealand's flightless birds, were thought extinct until they were discovered in 1948 to be living happily in the Murchison mountains of Fiordland. Ongoing protection of their habitat, and active breeding programs led to the decision to establish a new colony on Gouland Downs. Since the Murchison mountains are quite remote, and closed to public access, this is the only place in NZ where you can see these birds in the wild. 

Takahe are herbivores, and they leave telltale cigars where they've been. There's a resident Takahe who hangs around the track not far from James Mackay Hut, and there are also resident Takahe near Gouland Downs Hut. There's ample sign along the track that they are doing just fine, and that the predator control is working.

The scenery across Saxon Ridge and Gouland Downs again changes, from forests to tussock land, with burbling streams, and then limestone country with numerous caves and sinkholes as you near the hut.

Gouland Downs Hut is the oldest on the Heaphy, and the furthest I intended to go on this tramp. The fireplace doesn't draw well, so I spent a considerable time trying to get the fire started, during which time I could hear bird noises outside but didn't want to leave my feeble efforts to investigate. By the time I had the fire going well enough to leave it untended there were fresh cigars outside on the lawn, but no Takahe in sight. I was disappointed, but hoped I would still have a chance to see them.

That night I was joined by one tramper heading south, and two cyclists on e-bikes, who had also come to the hut to see Takahe. They too, were sadly disappointed. 

The next morning I was last to leave, heading back south across the Downs. Halfway across one of the tussock meadows I saw them! Two Takahe feeding. I took some photos but they were too far away, and they headed off into the grass when I tried to get closer. But I saw them!!

The walk back to Saxon Hut was easy, but from Saxon to James Mackay I found quite tiring as it goes up and down quite a bit. I knew I was almost back at James Mackay when I spied its resident Takahe. I didn't get a particularly good picture of him either.

After lunch and a hot cuppa at James Mackay, it's off down the hill to Lewis Hut, where I planned to stay the night. It's an easy descent, but by the time I got to the hut, my feet were feeling pretty sore. It was a 29km tramp that day. 

I had the hut to myself, so I got the coal fire going and heated up some water to have a warm wash. Ah, luxury. It's an old hut with a bit of character, slated for removal next year which is a huge pity. I dragged a mattress out from the bunk room and slept on the floor in front of the fire. Cosy as!

The next morning I left my Inreach outside on a log to get a weather forecast, and a pesky weka nicked it!! Since it wasn't food I figured the weka wouldn't take it far (and I could see that the cheeky bugger no longer had it in its beak)  so I crawled under the nearby bushes and found it. Since my phone has an app that connects to the beacon via bluetooth, I could also have used that to locate it. Thank goodness it didn't take long to be reunited with it!

From Lewis Hut I retraced my steps down the river, through the lush rata forest to Heaphy Hut, then back along the spectacular coastline to Kohaihai. It was a pearler of a day, a real west coast stunner, but it was another punishing 24km day and my feet were feeling pretty sorry for themselves, especially over the final hour.  The Hoka One One shoes have considerably more cushioning than my tramping boots, I can only imagine how much worse I would have been in them. But no blisters, yay!!

I drove back to Karamea and checked in at The Last Resort where I discovered that we were at last at Level 1 COVID restrictions. I savoured my beer and enjoyed a meal in their restaurant. Time for someone else to do the cooking!

I spent the next day checking out the other big tourist attraction nearby. That's next...

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