June 23, 2020

Bikepacking New Zealand’s Wild Country

adventure, bicycles, Places, travel

originally Published in Dirt Rag magazine #209

Instant mashed potatoes, ground coffee, and bug repellent. These three items were at the top of the list for a bikepacking adventure through the wild country of New Zealand’s West Coast. I would be following one of the country’s famed Great Walks, the Heaphy Track. 

Getting into the backcountry had been a goal of mine since my first trip to New Zealand in 1997. At that time I was pedaling a road-worthy bike, laden with pannier bags on crazy narrow and curvy paved roads. Fast-forward more than a decade and my desire to be self-supported on a thin ribbon of natural materials was strong. 

I was also very curious about the opportunity to mountain bike through a national park, something that is scarcely possible in the United States. 

To top all of that, the multi-day route would be supported by government managed huts. With little more than the three important items, a sleeping bag, food and a change of clothes, I set out (along with my travel partner) on a four-day adventure. 

Feeling both nervous and excited like any explorer, I had done enough research to know there would be a very good chance that I would come back alive and filled with lasting memories. Thankfully the Heaphy Track has a long history of successful crossings. In fact, the first completion of the route by bicycle was recorded in 1936 by a duo named Wilf Broughton and Noel Pope. If they made it without the advantage of an improved track and the shelter of huts along the way, I should be able to do the same as long as I managed my own limits and the infamous West Coast weather. 

Starting from the northern terminus at Brown Hut, I cinched the straps of my handlebar bag and started the long and grinding climb to Perry Saddle. Thankfully it was just steady and never steep enough to have to get off the bike and push. I felt a sense of gratitude to the prospectors and surveyors who designed the alignment and grade of the original route, suited for the gold rush of the 1860s. Turns out, it is also perfect for a bike. 

Over the course of 12 miles and a few hours, we ascend through a dense beech forest to the hut at Perry Saddle. After being up close and personal with trees for most of the afternoon, it was nice to break out into the open, enjoying long views in all directions. Rolling our bikes around to the side of the hut, we found an area just for bikes. It was a pleasant surprise to be so accommodated. As an advocacy and policy nerd, I was definitely taking mental notes about the bicycle infrastructure on New Zealand’s public lands. 

Access for bicycles on the Heaphy Track has actually come and gone and come again since first becoming a popular place to ride in the 1980s and 1990s. During that time the route was part of Nelson Forest Park. In 1996, the 1,749 sq mile area became Kahurangi National Park and unfortunately precluded access for bicycles. 

Day two of the bike packing adventure begins with a descent across a landscape that was quite a contrast to the previous day. The pale yellow tussock grass meadows flank our right side at first, eventually surrounding us as we reached the first rest stop of the day at Gouland Downs Hut. The small structure, painted green with red trim, was both a glimpse into the past and a preview of our future. Gouland Downs is the oldest hut on the track, dating back to…It was also our lodging for the last night of our trip which was happening the next night. 

Moving on through more meadows, we encounter boulder fields on the way to Mackay Hut, another rest stop before the much-anticipated descent to Heaphy Hut. After stuffing our faces with cheese and peanut butter wrapped in tortillas, we point the bikes downhill towards the beach on the West Coast. Rolling back into the forest, we keep our eyes out for glimpses of the Heaphy River winding its way out to the Tasman Sea. The vagueness of the green masses below come into focus as we hit the flats and find ourselves riding through an other-worldly zone of unique stone cliffs and the track’s iconic nikau palm trees. It is as if we have been transported to an exotic tropical location somewhere else in the South Pacific. It is here that I am so thankful for being able to experience this unique moment on a bike. 

When Kahurangi National Park was formed in 1996 and bicycles were banned, a lengthy 15-year campaign started to regain access. In 2011, a three year trial period started to allow bicycles on the track during the winter from May 1 to September 30. Working in line with larger strategic goals set by the Department of Conservation (DOC), the trial ended very successfully. Mountain bikers are again part of the recreation base, co-existing with hikers from May 1 to November 30. 

We soak up as much of the oceanfront as possible at Heaphy Hut before the return trip back up into the tussock meadows. Gouland Downs is the destination and 20mm of rain is in the forecast, scheduled to arrive just after lunch. We expect the worst and hope for the best as we set off through the palms and pedal back uphill.

The slog is long but manageable and the forest, with its colors and shapes, is distracting enough to not concentrate on how long my bum has been attached to my saddle. When my mind starts to drift I catch it and ponder the idea of how this experience could translate to something similar in the United States. There is very little mountain bike access allowed on trails in National Parks, let alone hut-to-hut routes. These thoughts turn into a full-blown daydream about how current visitor services could transform to provide an opportunity to explore deeper into the special landscapes we have on our home turf. 

The rain comes lightly in the last hour of the ride. We settle into the Gouland Downs Hut and quickly make new friends with a local couple over tea and chocolate. We trade stories of our Heaphy experience to date as the rain finally comes, heavy at times and in waves. 

By dinner, the rain cycles away as the clouds begin to lift. Surprisingly, a pink glow fills one of the hut’s tiny windows and I curiously wander out to find us surrounded by many colors, with a rainbow exclamation point prominent to the west. What a way to end a day biking through the backcountry. 

The next morning I am a little sad to be packing up for the last day on the Heaphy Track. Multiple days out seems to get me in the rhythm of a simple life…ride, eat, rest, eat, sleep. We linger in the “Enchanted Forest”, an island-sized oasis of tangled, moss-covered trees, blanketing a limestone cave network adjacent to the hut. The sun is doing its best to burn away the high clouds lurking over the mountains. We are in no hurry on the easy climb back to Perry Saddle, knowing that we have nothing but a descent between us and end of our Heaphy adventure. 

Fog creeps in as soon as we hit the high point, Flannigans Corner, signaling the continuous downhill back to the car. It is a cool way, literally and figuratively, to end our trip. Thankfully we will be starting the Old Ghost Road in a few days and won't quite have to give up the simplicity of exploring the wilds of the West Coast by bike just yet. 


WHO manages the Heaphy Track?  

The Department of Conservation (DOC), the managing land agency is the contact point for booking huts and planning your adventure. https://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/nelson-tasman/places/kahurangi-national-park/things-to-do/tracks/heaphy-track/ 

WHAT is hut-to-hut biking like in New Zealand? 

With well-appointed huts, you will need little more than food, a sleeping bag, and good bug repellant. Cooking facilities, including stoves and cookware, are provided in all huts except Gouland Downs. Bunk rooms with mattresses are also provided. Bicycles are well accommodated with storage and wash stations. 


WHEN is the best season? 

The Heaphy Track is open to bikes from May 1 to November 30. Since this is mostly “winter" time in New Zealand, plan accordingly for inclement weather.  

WHERE is the Heaphy Track? 

The route is located on the northwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island in Kahurangi National Park. It connects Golden Bay with the Tasman Sea between Collingwood and Karamea. 


WHY did access for bicycles change? 

During the protection of this part of the South Island, different policies first included and then precluded access for bicycles depending on the managing agency. Thankfully, members of the community worked diligently and patiently to bring access back to the Heaphy Track. Many details of the process can be found here: https://www.doc.govt.nz/Documents/getting-involved/consultations/2016/kahurangi-npmp-2016-amendment-response-report.pdf 

HOW can the Heaphy Track be completed as a thru-ride? 

In addition to a very loooong shuttle, it's possible to fly yourself (and your bike) back to where you started. Check out air transport options here: http://www.goldenbayair.co.nz/heaphytrack.html