Key information: Heaphy Track
- In comparison to the Abel Tasman Coastal track, this 78.4km track, situated in New Zealand’s stunning Kahurangi National Park, is the longer, wilder and tougher trek.
- Located in the South Island’s Northwest corner, this trek is characterised by the crashing waves of the West Coast and the sense that a route so spectacular should surely be busier than it ever is.
- Walkopedia rating78
- Natural interest16
- Human interest2
- Negative points0
- Total rating78
- Note: Negs: Sand flies!
- Length: 78.4km
- 4-6 days
- Maximum Altitude: 900m
- Level of Difficulty: Moderate
Located in the wild north-west corner of New Zealands beautiful South Island, the Heaphy track satisfies many of the demands a walker may make of a trail: not only is it challenging, exquisite and thoroughly photogenic, it also has a recognised history. 21st century visitors follow in the centuries-old footsteps of both Maori and European travellers, writing the next chapter of the paths history as they go.
The track takes its name from Charles Heaphy, who, in 1846, in the company of colleague Thomas Brunner negotiated the coastal portion of the current track. Prior to this the route had been the preserve of the Golden Bay Maori, who habitually made the journey to look for Pounamu (greenstone), which they used to make tools, weapons and jewellery. The inland portion of the track was not frequented by Europeans until gold miners began to cross that way in the late 1850s. By the end of the 19th century however, the track had fallen into disrepair and it was not until the 1960s, when the Northwest Nelson Forest Park was set up, that the track was re-established for public use.
The Heaphy Track is considered by many people to be the best of New Zealands Great Walks, as it combines alpine scenery with a rugged, palm-edged coastal panorama. It is possible to walk the track in both directions, but most people start at Collingwood and finish in Karamea. There are huts, evenly spaced along the track, which provide walkers with basic over-night accommodation (with the option of staying in a bunk or camping in the grounds). It is necessary to book your place at these huts with The Department of Conservation before you begin your walk.
Starting from the Collingwood end of the track, the first days walking takes you 17.5km from Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut, during which you cross the Brown River and climb to the tracks highest point at Flanagans Corner. The second days trek takes you 12.4kms to Saxon Hut, via open planes, river beds and limestone caves.
From Saxon Hut the track drops to the grassy flats beside the Saxon River and then up again to join Mackay Downs. A 70m section of the track across the Mackay Downs is liable to flood in severe wet weather and walkers are advised to wait for the water to subside should this occur. Passing through fields and areas of beech forest, this section of the track ends at James Mackay Hut.
The fourth days walking starts the ascent to the Heaphy River, 750m below the James Mackay Hut. 12.5 km into the days walking, the Lewis Hut is suddenly reached, at the junction between the Heaphy and Lewis Rivers. It is a good spot to stop for lunch and to apply insect repellent, as it is from this point onward that sand flies abound and all exposed patches of untreated skin will soon be itchy with bites! From Lewis Hut, the track crosses the Heaphy River and continues along its bank, through lush West Coast forest. This is another section of the track that often becomes impassable during times of very heavy rain and walkers are again advised to wait for water to subside before continuing. The culmination of the days walking is the Heaphy Hut, from which the wild West Coast waves can be heard crashing against the shore.
The final days walking takes you south to Kohaihai, largely on forest track, though it is occasionally possible to walk on the beach, when the nikau palms, often dramatic wave formations and rugged coastline make for some spectacular photo opportunities. Be sure to have checked the tide times before completing this last section of the walk, as the section beyond Katipo Creek can be cut off for 2 hours either side of high tide if the seas are rough. Having scaled the Kohaihai Saddle, the track culminates at the Kohaihai Carpark, where it is possible to phone your pick up to confirm your safe arrival.
Be warned that sand flies proliferate on the West Coast of the South Island! Take a strong insect repellent and cover up as much as possible. They are enough of a nuisance to mar your enjoyment of this fantastic area if you do not come prepared. As Captain James Cook noted in his journal when he came across the insects at Fiordlands Dusky Sound, possibly at a sandy beach, in May 1773:Walkopedia friend Anthony Fawcett says: “The Heaphy is typically the track that I recommend to people going to NZ for the first time with time to do just one major walk, the reason being the incredible variety, which is better than any other track that I've walked in NZ. It doesn't have the drama of the major tracks down south or the majesty of the Tongariro Crossing but I have very positive memories of walking it a few years ago. This time around I didn't do a track up there but visited a sequence of places such as Wharariki beach, which is amazing.”
"The most mischievous animal here is the small black sandfly which are exceeding numerous wherever they light they cause a swelling and such intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching and at last ends in ulcers like the small Pox."
Walkopedia friend Anthony Fawcett says: “The Heaphy is typically the track that I recommend to people going to NZ for the first time with time to do just one major walk, the reason being the incredible variety, which is better than any other track that I've walked in NZ. It doesn't have the drama of the major tracks down south or the majesty of the Tongariro Crossing but I have very positive memories of walking it a few years ago. This time around I didn't do a track up there but visited a sequence of places such as Wharariki beach, which is amazing.”
Other accounts: share your experiences
Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.
Books and Maps
Books on this walk
Fodor’s New Zealand – Fodor’s Travel Publications
Tramping in New Zealand: 52 Great Walks – Lonely Planet Walking Guide
New Zealand South Island – Charles Rawlings-Way/Lonely Planet Regional Guides
The DOC map of the Heaphy track can be picked up locally in tourist information centres. Alternatively, there are a number of downloadable maps available on the web.
Stanfords: www.stanfords.co.uk. An excellent (and user-friendly) online specialist source of worldwide maps (it is also good for guidebooks).
Best times to walk/weather
Weather on the Heaphy Track is changeable, with averages annual rainfall exceeding 4m. Heavy rain can occur with little warning at any time of year and even small streams are dangerous in flood. Be prepared for rain, snow and coastal storms.
January – December will more than likely offer the best weather, but taking a chance on the weather with a Spring or Autumn trek will reward you with less crowding at the huts and campsites. Though it is designated as a route that can be walked 12 months of the year, the inaccessibility of several parts of the track during very bad weather, may mean that it is inadvisable to plan a winter trip, unless you have the leisure time to wait out the effects of any serious inclemency.
The Heaphy Track is not circular. Kohaihai and Brown Hut are 463km apart by road. Buses and taxis link either end of the track with nearby towns. If you have a bit more cash to spare and are pushed for time, air services make it possible to walk the track one way and return by air to near the starting point. See Tramping in New Zealand by Jim Dufresne (previewable on Amazon) for a list of more reasonably priced bus and taxi transfer options to and from the track start and finish points.
Brown Hut → Perry Saddle Hut (17.5km)
Perry Saddle → Saxon Hut (12.4km)
Saxon Hut → James Mackay Hut (11.8km)
James Mackay Hut → Heaphy Hut (20.5km)
Heaphy Hut → Kohaihai Car park (16.2km)
There are others huts along the route that have overnight accommodation, but the route above splits up the distances as equally as possible and should be manageable for people of reasonable fitness. Bear in mind that the beginning of the route is the most hilly and the distances do not, therefore equate to the effort required to cover them.
Possible problems, health, other warnings
· Variable temperatures – it can get cold and very wet. Come prepared.
· Heat strong sun may be an issue in Summer. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
· Rivers need to be crossed – Prepare carefully and only cross in the recommended way.
· This is remote country: you will have to carry all your food and other supplies and help may be hard to get if things go wrong.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
Make sure you have appropriate insurance.
Guided or independent?
You can do this walk independently, but you will need to be self-sufficient, so come fully prepared.
Whilst most people attempt this route independently, it is possible to join an organized tour. Expedition organisers include:
- Responsible Travel: www.responsibletravel.com
- Southern Wilderness New Zealand: www.southernwilderness.com
- Heaphy Track NZ: www.heaphytracknz.com
The only accommodation options whilst on the walk are the Department of Conservation Huts that dot the route. When staying in Karamea or Collingwood at the beginning and end of the trek, the following establishments are available:
Adrift Absolute Beachfront Accommodation, 52 Tukurua Road, Tukurua, Collingwood.
Small-scale, boutique accommodation, recently renovated and complete with private beach. www.adrift.co.nz
Somerset House BBH Backpackers Hostel, Gibbs Rd, Collingwood.
Budget accommodation, close to amenities and offering free breakfast.
Last Resort, 71 Waverley Street, Karamea
Designed by the owners whilst they walked the Heaphy Track, this purpose-built getaway is the perfect relaxation after all the hard work negotiating the track. www.lastresort.co.nz
Rongo Backpackers, 130 Waverley Street, Karamea
Brightly coloured budget accommodation offering wireless internet, free fruit and veg grown on the property. www.rongobackpackers.com
Other information and tips
Useful websites and information
There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
- www.doc.govt.nz - Comprehensive overview of many of New Zealand’s best walks. Also provides details of how to book accommodation.
- www.wikipedia.org: worth a try.
- Try www.flickr.com for pictures of this walk.
Other things to do in the area
Kayaking and Rafting
share your experiences
Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).
Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
Responsible travel matters, a lot. How you travel will make a real difference - for better or worse. PLEASE consider this when making plans. Read more