Adventure is the essence, the life blood of mountain biking. No doubt most of us began cycling for the thrill, for the physical experiences it provides and for the journey. Whatever path we have chosen and wherever we wish to venture, from the nooks and crannies of our local woods to the dizzying heights of exposed mountain escarpments, we all have one thing in common, to explore.
One place on this planet guaranteed to bring out the Captain James Cook in all of us is New Zealand. It’s a land begging to be experienced, seen, felt and learnt from. The country is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise, there is some amazing infrastructure laid down on both islands making sure whatever your dreams, ambitions or ability, exploring is never far away. Just weeks into throwing ourselves straight into realising a dream of moving from the UK living on the beautiful South Island, we got to work on adventure number one.
With our heads spinning with all the places we would be able to visit, by bike of course, we thought an apt place to start the series of Kiwi adventures was the Heaphy Track. The Heaphy sits in the Kahurangi National Park in the north-west corner of the South Island. It is the longest of the Department of Conservation’s, Great Walks. DOC are a government agency looking after New Zealand’s natural heritage. This ‘Great Walk’ is 78.5km long and since 2013 has been open also to those who prefer a two-wheeled mode of transport. This track had originally been used by Maori tribes travelling from the top of the South Island to the Westland in search of pounamu (greenstone) for tools. In 1846 Charles Heaphy traversed the coastal portions of the track, hence the name ‘Heaphy’. In later years the present line of the track was created as a horse track for Collingwood Council, however, it was infrequently used until it was upgraded due to a public interest in tramping in 1965.
There are a variety of places to stay along the way, now we aren’t talking 5* B&B’s but we are talking top of the range tramping huts, complete with a warm fire, plentiful gas supply and pots and pans. It sounds simple but negates the need to carry these bulky items, great for wannabe adventurers! A week before the trip we booked a night in Saxon Hut, mid way along the track as the weekend nature of our mini adventure meant an ‘out and back’ trip rather than a ride from one end to the other and a shuttle back. The weekend of our trip arrived, we were up at the crack of dawn, unfortunately, unable to hear the sparrow’s fart due to the torrential rain pounding the roof of our house. Nevertheless, an adventure had been planned, long in the making and this weather was just going to make it more epic for sure! By 10am we had navigated the potholed track taking us to the outer edge of civilisation, 30km from the nearest town up the Aorere Valley to Brown Hut and the beginning of the Heaphy proper.
Before we left, friends purported the Heaphy Track to be beautiful and varied, cutting through the vast landscapes, over open downlands and winding through native forests. We weren’t to be disappointed, the six of us left Brown Hut with big packs full of the necessities (and one bulky camera!) and began climbing through the dense forest dominated by red and silver beech. The colours produced by these native trees are startlingly bright and luscious even in August, the depths of a New Zealand winter. Higher and higher we climbed, topping out at just under 1000m of elevation at the Perry Saddle Hut. Here we made the first dent into our food supplies, lightening our loads and fuelling up for the coming descent.
Despite the murky start, the sun lit up the tussock land before us as we hopped creeks and sent gravel flying, descending rapidly to the rolling terrain of the Gouldland Downs. Here, the open landscape is stunning, the sheer vastness of it truly rings home the realisation that you are in the middle of nowhere. Phone reception is long gone, it’s just us, our skills in survival should we need them and one emergency personal locator beacon. With the warmth of the sun on our backs, we made the traverse to our hut for the night on the other side of the downs.
Pitching up at Saxon Hut in the late afternoon we made the fire a priority, it is winter after all! The traverse across the downs had required some paddling in creeks which meant between everyone booked in the hut that night we had sixteen shoes to dry in rotation. The hut complete with tidy toilets, clean water and cooking facilities can sleep sixteen, with eight of us making it our home that night there was soon the familiar smell of damp kit steaming above the fire. Once the dehydrated food packs were scored out of ten and the chocolate and alcohol pooled, the night turned to talk of the great sights and sounds New Zealand has to offer, which of those we could fit into our 9-5 working lives and more importantly when. Once we had set our sights on our next target, the talk digressed to the countless mountain bike debates; rim width, gear boxes, geometry – the list was endless – typical bikers!
A rip-roaring job of stoking the fire ensured we all sweated our way through the first part of the night but the shoes and yesterday’s lycra were dry, mission accomplished! Sunday morning dawned bright and with enthusiasm for the day meant a few of us set off to catch a glimpse of the sea at the James Mackay Hut, early fog eluded our chance but the colours of the native bush and the pink granite under tyre more than made up for the extra kilometres. Back at Perry Saddle Hut later in the day, we were rewarded with gorgeous views over Mount Perry with lunch giving it a real alpine feel. Our packs were now at their lightest and we were ready for the 17km descent back to Brown Hut. We were ready to tear over the cobbles that had haltingly held us up on ascent the day previously. Almost able to taste the chilling beer back at the vans, our thirst heightened, all weariness gone as we rolled out from the hut. The sounds of freehubs clicking broke the silence of the wilderness, quiet concentration on line choice was interrupted by gasps at others mistakes or whoops of delight at a corner well attacked. Just near the edge of control, it’s easy to forget that an emergency here could be life threatening, frequent rest stops let the ‘mother hen’ of the group rein in the more exuberant!
The chink of glass, the hoppy taste of a cool beer and a typically Kiwi ‘chur’ ended the ride in spectacular fashion. Our bikes allowed us to squeeze in an awesome adventure all between 5pm Friday and 8am Monday morning. In the back-country of New Zealand we all revelled in the delights that biking brings us. Be it a remote camp spot, time with friends, much laughter, a great descent or a gruelling climb, we had it all. With our beginner adventurer status now being established, we’d best get on with the next one!
Words & Photos: Rachael Gurney