Off the Top of My Head
By Paul Murray
Arnon Amit from Israel arrived in Karamea at the top of the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand on January 2, 2015, after successfully negotiating the Heaphy Track in a wheelchair.
The Heaphy Track is one of New Zealand’s nine “Great Walks” and the only one on which mountain biking is permitted (from May 1 to September 30). The track is approximately 80 kilometers long and traverses the Kahurangi National Park at the top of the South Island. Most people walk, ride or now roll, the Heaphy Track from Collingwood in Golden Bay through to Karamea on the West Coast.
With a lot of determination and effort and the help of his brother Nadav and friends Maayan Kalo and Gul Janvosky, Arnon bounced over some rough terrain, through a flood and tacked swarms of sandflies to complete the track in five days to become what is thought to be the first person to complete the track in a chair.
Arnon was injured in a car accident while doing his national service in the Israeli Army in 2008 and lost the use of his legs. He was an enthusiastic outdoors person before the accident and has managed to overcome his physical challenges and maintain his love of tramping and nature with a little help from his friends.
A special off-road wheelchair manufactured in the United States and made of strong, lightweight titanium metal was Arnon’s Heaphy vehicle. The chair handled the track well, but the rigorous terrain took its toll on the machine and minor repairs were required en route to keep the show rolling.
Recent work by the Department of Conservation (DOC) to improve the track surface and the width and stability of the swing bridges and other river crossings has made the Heaphy Track more easily negotiated by wheeled vehicles like chairs and of course mountain bikes. This may open the possibility of experiencing the wilds of the Kahurangi National Park and the pleasures of traversing the Heaphy Track to a whole range of people, like Arnon, who had previously not been able to tackle the track.
The most challenging section for the man in the chair was the first uphill section of from the Collingwood end of the Heaphy from Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut. The track winds steeply uphill through beech forest and tree roots growing through the track make it rough and uneven, not necessarily the best surface for wheelchairs. However, with brother Nadav and friends Maayan and Gul pushing, Arnon made it to the Perry Hut, which is around the highest point of the track at 1,000 metres, in good shape.
River crossings and sandy beaches also posed challenges that required assistance from the support crew. Nadav piggy-backed his brother across the narrow swing bridges and pulled him along the sand while Maayan pushed from behind.
The weather turned somewhat inclement on the last day of 2014 and many sections of the track became flooded preventing the group from proceeding and creating a bottleneck at the MacKay Hut in the middle of the Heaphy. Fifty people, including Team Israel, were squeezed into a new hut built for 26. Fortunately, the old James MacKay Hut has yet to be demolished and, with DOCs permission, Nadav broke into the hut and everyone managed to get a bed.
The next day was much improved and Arnon was in his element on the downhill section from MacKay to Lewis Hut. The steep slope afforded him some gravity assisted speed and he apparently even got some air as he bounced the chair over some rocks on the way down.
Hear the Interview Here:
The four travellers are now heading south down the wonderful West Coast and plan on exploring some of the many attractions and tracks along the way and then on to Queenstown and Fiordland, if you see them say hello, they’re a great bunch of fine young folk.
For more information on the Heaphy Track: www.HeaphyTrack.com
Rongo Backpackers & Gallery: www.RongoBackpackers.com
LivingInPeace Project: www.LivingInPeace.com
Karamea Radio 107.5 FM: www.facebook.com/KarameaRadio107.5FM
…Some more photos…