Entering such a phenomenal country known for the stunning landscapes highlighted throughout an array of movies, include The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, you will need to venture out into the backcountry to fully appreciate everything this place has to offer. New Zealand’s stunning Great Walks create a perfect dive into the heart of the country’s most dynamic scenery. These well-maintained trails speckled with mostly newly updated huts highlight the diverse backdrops that make New Zealand so appealing to travelers all over the world. We had the incredible opportunity to go backpacking New Zealand’s Heaphy Track. If you’ve been considering it, or any of the great walks, this post is for you. That or if you just like photos of amazing places.
Why the Heaphy Track Great Walk?
With nine stunning great walks scattered throughout the country, narrowing down which one can be daunting. Luckily the walks vary drastically both by the number of days, distance, and terrain. Heaphy, while lesser known than Abel Tasman or the world renown Milford Sound trek, cuts across a vibrant and drastically different set of terrain. While we started out in with a small climb in the mountains, we moved into grasslands before venturing into the jungle and wrapping up along the coast. Overall it’s 78.4km and spans 4-6 days on average. Because it’s less renown than the most popular trails, you’ll meet less competition booking hut slots or camping sites. Regardless, once you decide you want to do one of the Great Walks, book your spot immediately. These are exceptionally popular trails that fill up early.
Breaking Down the Happy Track
If it’s your first venture into the Great Walks – and many people do multiple – it can be a little overwhelming charting out your shuttle service and planning which huts to stay at. Some of the treks, mainly the Heaphy Track, give you different options when it comes to the number of days you can make the hike in. When planning your adventure, take advantage of the guides that New Zealand puts out. They detail out your options as well as make recommendations.
Not knowing what we were getting into, we took the recommended five days.
Here’s our route we did, although the majority of fellow hikers stayed at the James Mackay Hut for night three (which was a stunning newly remodeled hut).
Day 1 – Perry Saddle Hut
Day 2- Saxon Hut
Day 3 – Lewis Hut
Day 4 – Heaphy Hut
Day 5- Hike out to shuttle
A small number of our original group did it in four, but the shuttle only ran every five days since we were in the offseason. Hang with me and I’ll blow your mind with how quickly one of the hikers we met did the trail (who did the trail in a crazy – CRAZY – short time frame). Talk about feeling out of shape. Since the trail is way off the beaten path, you’ll need to book a shuttle or a car relocation service. If you have a group of more than three, it’s likely that the car relocation service is cheaper than the shuttle. I completely recommend Derry Kingston. More on him later.
Since it was just two of us, we booked a shuttle. This dropped us off with ten other “trampers.” Yes, the Kiwis call hiking tramping. After five days hanging out with your new friends, there will likely be a lot of local words and phrases you’ll pick. Also, if you are with mainly Kiwis, prepare to talk about birds. We found the locals to love the island birds.
Day One: Perry Saddle Hut
Distance: 5 hours, 17.5km
My lack of photos for day one doesn’t mean that it wasn’t scenic. It has everything to do with the fact that Nathan lost his ring, noticing its absence about an hour into the hike. We then spent over an hour backtracking the Real Middle Earth in search of a ring. Yes, Lord of the Ring fans, you are welcome to laugh at our predicament.
No, we didn’t find it. Ringless, we continued on our way to the Perry Saddle Hut. And yes, I beat the Lord of the Ring jokes to death. Apparently our circumstance led many of the other “trampers” to create possible scenarios on why we were going backwards. Losing your wedding ring (and hobbit related jokes) took the gold in comparison. Needless to say, long trekking tours means your run out of talking points fast…
Eventually we made it to the first hut. I couldn’t ask for a nicer place to stay! Totally remodeled, this new hut sported a fantastic kitchen, a beautiful facility and very bunk rooms for sleepers. On the first night, two fellow hikers camped at the outside campsites.
Day Two: Saxon Hut
Distance: 3.5 hours, 13.4km
Day two on the trail brought rain. That’s one of the hazards of tramping in the offseason. Since we weren’t spending all our time looking for a ring (although still fully embracing hobbit jokes), I captured a lot more photos. Transitioning from the mountain like terrain, we made our way into the more grasslands area.
Too much rain can cause problems – and create dangerous conditions – along the trail, particularly at the most southern section due to flooding. Traversing across several streams, the trail has a dozen or more bridges to cross. Even this little stream can flood during the wet stream. Here’s one the several swing bridges (or as the engineer, Nathan determined, “interesting bridges”) you can use to cross.
I won’t deny walking across this swing bridge was an adventure, but in reality, I was just wondering how the people with bikes manage getting across….
You alternate between the trail and then these wooden pathways.
Plenty of swing bridges to keep the trek interesting!
Day Three: Lewis Hut
Distance: 6.5 hours, 24.3km
Don’t let the photos fool you. We spent the majority of the morning drenched. Completely 100% soaking wet. Nathan and I set out before the rest of the group since we were going to a further hut. We had to stop for a break in James McCay Hut to warm up, dry off (or attempt to) and eat lunch. Now, that’s a nice hut. If you’re doing this trail, stay there. It’s gorgeous!
We lucked out once leaving the hut after lunch because the rain subsided. This created a fairy tale like experience walking through the forests before arriving at our hut.
Home sweet home for night three! This was a very dated facility, but still better than sleeping outside (especially since we’d be forever wet). Even though it’s older, you still have everything you need for a comfortable “backpacking” night.
Day Four: Happy Hut
Distance: 2.5 hours, 8km
Ah, the last hut! Now this is the one you’ve been waiting for. It’s a pristine state of the art hut overlooking the ocean. We enjoyed the “luxurious” dining areas, giant windows and well insulated building. Not to mention, the flush toilets were epic after a few days in the more rustic huts…
Day Five – Done!
Distance: 5 hours, 16.2km
Walking along the coast for Day 5 of the Heaphy Track brought the most stunning views. We kept slipping in between being on the coast, even beach for part of it, and then dipping back into the jungle like trek. Luckily the rain held off for the majority of the hike, only spattering for the last half hour of the hike.
With the constant rain, I was really pleased I packed my Chacos. My hiking shoes took a soaking from Day 3, and hadn’t really dried yet. Fellow hikers were slushing it out with their squishy, wet hiking shoes. That just screamed blisters to me.
Hoorah! We finished our five days backpacking New Zealand’s Heaphy Track with zeal! Ok, it wasn’t a ton of zeal, but we had been hiking for 5 hours at that point. But it was an incredible adventure, and the perfect great walk for us to explore.
Meeting Incredible People While Backpacking New Zealand’s Happy Track
I hinted at the start I’d circle back to a fellow hiker who put everyone else on the trail head to shame. This gentleman does the entire trail – THE ENTIRE 43 MILE HIKE – in two days. Yes, TWO day. As if this isn’t impressive enough, did I mention he is 70 years old. 7-0. Needless to say, we felt incredibly lame for doing it in five.
Our shuttle to the trail head picked up Derry Kingston about a mile from the parking lot. He is the mastermind behind the original car shuttle for New Zealand’s Heaphy Trail. It sounds like another guy started doing it a few years ago, but Derry is the original.
He treks or hitchhikes to the northern trail head from his home (which is when we picked him up) to pick the client’s car. Then, on a day that makes sense, he drives it to the end point in the south. At this point he hikes back up the trail. To make it cost efficient for his business, he does this in TWO days. This is nothing he told us. When he was younger (just a few years ago in his sixties) he used to do it in a single day. Yup, he ran the full 43 miles in a day.
We met Derry on the third night at the Lewis Hut. He started in the later afternoon, making it our hut before nightfall. Then, without an alarm, he work up around five the next morning to make it to the start of the Heaphy Trail. Let’s just say, he moves FAST. He didn’t run it, but he had an incredibly fast walking pace.
Are You Planning on Backpacking (Or Hiking) New Zealand’s Great Walks?
If you’re headed to the “Real Middle Earth,” I highly recommend checking out the Great Walks. We only backpacked one of the great walks, but we hiked five of the nine. You can’t beat the scenery on any level!
Let me know in the comments about your New Zealand adventures!