By late June, when I finally got to the Heaphy, it had been open for seven weeks and eight weekends. In that time an estimated 1000+ mountain bikers had travelled the trail, around 150 each week. Not bad for a wet winter on a trail that takes two or three days to complete one way, and is a bit of a logistical nightmare.
The Heaphy needs no introduction to mountain bikers. In a nutshell: the path of the Heaphy trail over Gouland Downs dates back hundreds of years to when it was used by Golden Bay Maori to access the West Coast. In the mid-1800’s the coastal section was travelled by Charles Heaphy, and a few decades later there are records of gold miners traversing the inland portion. It was developed into a pack track, but when the gold rush ended it became overgrown and was only sporadically used until the formation of the North-West Nelson Forest Park in 1965. The 80 kilometer trail links Golden Bay with Karamea. There are stories of cyclists traveling along it back in the 1930’s, but it was in the 1980’s and 90’s that it became a must-do adventure for kiwis on their new-fangled mountain bikes. Unfortunately for cyclists, the area was designated a National Park in 1996 and under the rules of the National Parks Act, no bikes are allowed. It is rumored that 2000 cyclists rode the trail in 1996, the last year before closure. Not bad for a sport still to mature. The 15 years that followed was long enough for stories of riding the Heaphy to become legends and it became a somewhat mythical kiwi mountain bike adventure. Now, thanks to prolonged campaigning and a welcome DoC awareness of mountain bikes, the trail is open to bikes again in the quiet winter season, for a three year trail.
Given this history, and the passion that mere mention of the Heaphy generates in many kiwi mountain bikers, it isn’t a surprise that so many riders want their own Heaphy experience. What I do find surprising, however, is just how many riders have grappled with the logistics of a one way trail from the depths of Golden Bay to the back of beyond of the West Coast, and have undertaken a two or three day trip carrying overnight gear which would, for many of them, be a new experience. I missed the early days of the Heaphy, spending my formative cycling years in the UK, but I got caught up in the excitement of the re-opening this year and couldn’t wait to roll out onto the trail.
Not all of the trail to the Heaphy hut was sand, but when it was, it involved pushing.
Short sleeves, in June, on the West Coast? There was still the odd moment of sunshine. Actually, it was pretty warm on the first day.
Suspension or swing: there are nearly a dozen bridges on the Heaphy. Guides from Escape Adventures in Takaka told us that it can take 45 minutes to get a group of six over a swingbridge. Here’s a tip – walk backwards, dragging your bike by the stem with one hand, holding onto the bridge with the other hand. Easy peasy.
I spent two nights and three days on the trail, travelling with four riding buddies in the unconventional direction (if there is such a thing) from Kohaihai to Brown Hut. We had managed our transport logistics by arranging a key swap and vehicle relocation with Escape Adventures in Takaka, and tackling the trail in this direction just made it all a little easier for us. We just had to meet Brian somewhere on the trail over the three days, or learn to hot-wire his van. We had planned to stay at Lewis and Gouland Downs huts, but ended up at Heaphy and Saxon. Our mid-week trip meant the huts were pretty empty and we had the opportunity to change our plans on the fly.
The overwhelming memories I am left with are not of amazing singletrack riding. The Heaphy wasn’t the short-term adrenalin hit injected by a couple of hours thrashing groomed trails. It wasn’t even the prolonged intensity of riding backcountry missions like Te Iringa or the old logging trails hidden deep in the Akatarawas. The riding is good, very good in fact, but what sticks for me is the diversity and sheer glory of nature and landscape that threatened to overwhelm my senses. It was a feeling of experiencing something hidden, something secret and something to be cherished. I felt privileged to be riding there and, after three days of being bombarded by untouched New Zealand, I returned blabbering about it to anyone who would listen, and many who would rather not.
The alternative method to cross. Wading over the Heaphy here saved us two swingbridges. It isn;t really as deep as Jimmy makes it look. I should know, I did it three times. That’ll teach me to leave my gloves on the beach.
There are some parts of the West Coast that never dry out.
Mud, rideable mud (mostly).
Conversation with friends who had ridden the Heaphy this year and accounts published on various blogs suggest that the trail is very tough going. There are stories of deep deep mud, floods higher than handlebars, long unrideable sections and serious bike damage. The trail seems to be creating a minor economic upturn through the sale of replacement brake pads alone. I’m not going to join this cacophony of warnings. Sure, I went through a few pairs of disc pads, but other riding buddies didn’t. There were muddy sections, and some of the climb up to MacKays Hut needed pushing and carrying. But, despite a couple of days of heavy rain immediately prior to our trip, and a night of heavy rain at Saxon Hut that continued into the afternoon the following day, I found the Heaphy mostly rideable and fun. Mud and saturated trails were constant companions, but they never dominated the experience. We saw press in the Nelson Mail warning mountain bikers of the mud due to an astounding 1910mm of rain falling in May, but also noting a comment from Buller DoC that the trail condition was not significantly bad and no worse than having had a large number of trampers through it. That is extremely encouraging for continuing mountain bike access.
The line between the West Coast and Golden Bay conservancy areas is very clear. On the West Coast they deal in mud and flush toilets. Golden Bay prefer rock, gravel and long drops. After 12 hours of heavy rain, the trail on the Golden Bay side, from Saxon Hut was wet but firm.
Gravel and rock all the way from Saxon Hut to Brown Hut. Our final day was by far the wettest, but also the fastest, with a big descent and a good trail surface.
In the six days we spent on the West Coast, on the Heaphy and in Golden Bay, we didn’t meet anyone with a bad word to say about the mountain bike trial. West Coast DoC rangers, trampers on the trail and locals in Karamea and Takaka were all absolutely positive about it. Our experience with everyone we met was incredibly friendly. We heard from DoC rangers that the buzz in the huts at the weekends was infectious – they have never seen so many people having so much fun on DoC land. I’m still buzzing. I’ll be back, maybe towards the end of the season to ride in the other direction.