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Tramping New Zealand’s Heaphy Track

I could hardly stand upright. I had a huge pack on my back and I was trying to steady myself on a bridge which was swinging violently from side to side high above a narrow and very scary river defile.  My friend in front was leaning over the edge, making the bridge go into near orbit, or so it seemed. We were on the last day of a 50 km tramp on the Heaphy Track in the north western corner of the South Island of New Zealand. Fortunately the bridges are constructed strongly enough, and I was able to cross safely after I had told my friend in the politest possible way to stop showing off!

Four days earlier the five of us had been dropped off at the road-head. The prospect in front was challenging and offered a welcome escape from civilisation. All our supplies were on our backs- in my case too much and I was a guaranteed back-marker for the duration of the tramp. I shall pack lighter next time!

Three main huts provide overnight stops en route. Sleeping on hard bunks may not be to everyone’s taste but it lends itself to instant camaraderie and all the talk after the day’s trek is about the experiences along the way. Apart from cooking utensils and bare mattresses, very little is provided in the huts and you are roughing it in order to get as close as possible to a simple bush existence. When dark descends, the only light is from the calor gas burner, and the atmosphere is like sitting round an indoor campfire – instead of television, the spectacle of the Southern Cross in an unpolluted sky rich with galaxies some of which have not even been named. At dawn you can catch the rosy hue of the sun as it slowly crests above the distant ridges. And for a cold early morning shower, a dip in the local tarn is intoxicating to the senses, enveloped, as you are, by serenity broken only by occasional birdsong and the enchanting sound of waterfalls in the distance.

The first part of the trek is easy- a short stroll to Brown Hut  set in low altitude beech forest. It was New Years Eve and we were greeted by cuddly possums coming down from the trees to dance at midnight on the corrugated iron roof.  We made sure to close the hut door when we turned in, otherwise we would have had some rather unusual pesky first-footers.

The track then climbs gradually, the vegetation thinning to a high point of nearly 1000 metres at Flanagan’s Corner where you can see tall rata trees resplendent on the horizon with their distinctive red blossom. It then drops down to the tussock expanse known as the Gouland Downs.  The second night is spent at Perry Saddle where mountain panoramas unfold dramatically before your eyes. The Downs are a form of central plateau specked by outcrops of granite and limestone and cave formations, a natural haven for geologists. But caution needs to be taken not to divert too far from the track because of deep potholes.

Sections of boardwalk negotiate streams and reed banks where you can muse about the effect of the human footprint. No procession of walkers to contend with – visitors are limited by the remoteness of the region which is roughly the size of Devon and Cornwall- no settlements or farms, just virgin bush and a handful of fellow trampers not very different from the original pioneers.

The plateau is so flat that you begin to think that you are at sea-level until you reach a viewpoint through the bush where you can see the ocean far below and the beckoning Heaphy River estuary.  The next  overnight shelter before making the main descent is the Lewis Hut which has had to be staked to the ground as it is exposed at times to high winds. Clouds of sand-flies descend at dusk – an effective substitute for itching powder- but once coils are lit to keep the insects at bay, eating can begin with scroggin, a nut mix and a New Zealand institution, followed by whatever dehydrated packet of goodness you have managed to save from the day’s rations, with plenty of pasta as a standby.

As you drop down the following morning, alpine grasses and edelweiss flowers are replaced by kowhais and cabbage trees. The nearer you get to sea level, the more likely you are to see luxuriant species like tree ferns and the exotic nikau palm – the most southerly occurring of its type, endemic to New Zealand.

Bamboo groves and dense vegetation are such a contrast to the day before and it is hard to believe that you are in the same climatic zone, but it is the drop down in altitude which makes such a difference to the ecology.

The crowning glory is the sound of the waves and the palms swaying above deserted beaches as if a million miles from the tourist beat. The only other “high rise” are the tall flax plants growing in the swamps where the cicadas sing in the midday heat. The only signs of human intervention are the notices warning against crossing the beaches too close to high tide. At regular intervals are bluffs (Kiwi for cliffs) above the headlands where some rock-scrambling may be required.

One last look-out as the track cuts into the steep hillside, and a final raging river and swing-bridge to negotiate – mercifully my larrikin friend was even further ahead at this point, so no last minute palpitations! What is more, he had relieved me of my sagging pack to help me get to the finishing line on the other side of the river where I collapsed in a heap on the ground with more than a smidgeon of dramatic licence.

But that was not all- the motel bus had not been able to get to the road end because of a punctured tyre – so much for modern mechanisation! So the motel laid on a helicopter instead, and in an instant we were whisked away into the skies, rotor blades humming, and looking down on where we had just been walking  from a great height.

Before returning to the comfort zone of the motel,  I felt, as I drooled over the wilderness below in my fatigued state, that I was being snatched away from the real world and transported to what was only make-believe, and  perhaps that was the wrong way round. It probably was, but it made me realise how important it was to keep the special places undeveloped by tourism, for tourism can be a contradiction to what you come to see and enjoy. And the rewards are immense for those who make the effort and yet respect the sovereignty of nature- as the slogan goes- “leave only footprints and take only photographs”. And  I had survived all those bridges!

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