This 78km tramp is the longest of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Set in the Kahurangi National Park in the north of the South Island it includes mountains, beech forest, beaches, swing bridges, giant carnivorous snails and potential for spotting kiwis. Many New Zealanders will tell you it is the best of the Great Walks. It can be hiked in either direction, we hiked from the Kohaihai end with Pip and Dermot using the campsites in 2007 and this time from the Brown Hut end with Kevan and Mary, using the huts.
The closest town to Kohaihai is the small but charming Karamea but accommodation options are pretty limited. The Brown Hut end is closer to towns such as Collingwood, Takaka and Motueka, but for catching bus services that will drop you off and pick you up we suggest Nelson. Nelson is about 3 hours drive from Brown Hut and about 5 hours from Kohaihai. The cost was $65 pp from Nelson to Brown hut and $115 from Kohaihai to Nelson with Trek Express.
Tents or Huts and Bookings
There are a stack of huts and campsites along this walk, 7 huts, 9 campsites and 3 emergency shelters, they need to be booked all year round (Huts, $32 pp per nigh: campsites $14). The huts were full each night and in winter the track is open as a mountain biking track so it stays fairly full all year round. We knew from past experience that this walk can get pretty rainy and that you could lose a day due to weather so chose to walk over days 5 days staying 4 nights on the track.
Day 1 Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut (17.5km, 5 hours).
After getting dropped off in the carpark near the hut we quickly made our way over to the hut to take shelter from the sandflies that were waiting in ambush while we sorted out our gear. Jumping into the hut didn’t help much until copious quantities of DEET had been applied as someone had left the door open and the hut was full of the little buggers. Michelle was also ambushed and stung by a wasp just inside the door. From the hut it is a short stroll to the bridge over the Brown River, a renowned trout stream, and then the uphill begins and basically doesn’t stop until the high point (915m) at Flanagans Corner about 2km before the Perry Saddle hut. However the gradient is constant and never too bad, with the 800m or so height gain taking place over about 15km. This would a heart pumping way to start the track if mountain biking it.
The views from the track were outstanding at the places where you could see past the podocarp-beech forest. The much touted views from Flanagans corner were achieved by standing on the picnic table provided to see over the top of the bushes. After the corner it was an easy stroll along the trail to the Perry Saddle hut. Built in 2013, along with MacKay and Heaphy huts this is one of the newest and best of the Great Walks DOC huts. It has solar powered LED lighting, new gas stoves, double glazed windows and is sectioned off into small bunk rooms of about 8 people in each in individual bunks, greatly reducing the likelihood of being woken up by noisy fellow trampers .
The rain started as we arrived at the hut, was pretty torrential from about 10pm until 6am and didn’t stop until about 12:30 in the afternoon of the next day.
Day 2 Perry Saddle to Saxon Hut. (11.4km, 3 hours).
As the rain continued we spent most of the morning at Perry Saddle waiting out both the ongoing rain and the flooding on the track. Although the rain kept up a steady drizzle most of the heavy rain had passed through. Radio communications from the Hut warden at James Mackay hut suggested the creeks were fairly deep ahead of us and we should wait. We ensconced ourselves in the hut watching the rain over the valley behind us through the double glazed windows. We were quite happy to wait it out as we only had 3 hours walking to complete. We were also joined by some very cold campers who needed a bit drying out and warmth from the fire after spending the night in tents.
Those going on to James MacKay hut (24.2km, 6-7 hours from Perry saddle) also mostly chose to wait knowing that there was light until 9:30 pm at that time of year. As the path was across tussock downs near the top of the range we also knew the water would drop quickly once the rain slowed. We left at 12:30 for Saxon Hut and enjoyed an easy walk in the gentle rain with a splash through ankle or knee deep puddles and creeks largely across open tussock. We were sorry to see a few hikers coming the other way who hadn’t had the benefit of a warden who were pretty cold and generally spent having waded waist deep through some sections of the track.
Along the way is an unusual crowd sourced sculpture of an old pole covered in sacrificed old trampers boots, with the odd pair of high heels or slippers for a splash of colour. About 2 hours in is the old Gouland Downs Hut and the area surrounding the track following the hut is a beautiful section of limestone country with beech forest, caves, small creeks and for us the tiny riflemen birds put on a brilliant display ricochetting rapidly from branch to branch to show off why they have their name.
Saxon hut is one of the old style single open room huts, 16 bunks, an upper and a lower platform for four on each side, and a single large table but cosy and warm and you get to know your fellow trampers.
For DOC, if you are out there, two wardens on a 78km Great walk is probably not enough. The nature of the Great Walks with their usual share of first timers, families, general inexperience and lack of fitness combines with the hut booking system to make everyone feel the need move on each day, and in this case perhaps some people should have stayed where they were.
Day 3 Saxon Hut to James MacKay Hut (11.8km, 3 hours).
Saxon Hut with no warden was left clean and ready for the next bunch. An easy amble along a slow general uphill followed by a long slow general downhill to James MacKay Hut was completed fairly quickly. The area has a few old suspension bridges which have been replaced and is obviously prone to flooding. In the second half where the track is predominantly flat there were a lot of creeks and small water crossings, most of them would not have been there at another time. This was probably the area the soggy trampers we had met the day before had struggled through.
At the hut the views from the hut down to the river mouth and across the valley to the mountains were again brilliant.
Day 4 James MacKay Hut to Heaphy Hut (20.5km, 6 hours).
A walk in 2 sections, downhill for 12.5 km to Lewis Hut shedding all of the remaining height gained on day one, then crossing the longest DOC swing bridge in new Zealand followed by a stroll alongside the Heaphy river to the coast. The forest becomes more varied with large rata and nikau palms becoming more common. We kept a lookout for the giant carnivorous Powelliphanta snails but only found shells of these 5-9cm worm and slug eating beasts. Heaphy hut is at the river mouth and sits near a beach covered with washed up driftwood, some piled into shelters. At Heaphy hut there was sudden great excitement when a kiwi was spotted, but it managed to run off into the undergrowth before we saw it. We stayed mostly inside the hut as the sandflies on the coast were even more voracious than their relatives inland.
Day 5 Heaphy Hut to Kohaihai (16.2km, 5 hours).
This is a mostly flat section with a small kicker of a hill right at the end over Kohaihai Bluff. It follows the coast and previously could be impassable at 2 hours either side of high tide or in high seas however DOC have recently carved out a high tide track. Beware though that there can be rock falls on the newly cut track which may take awhile to settle in. This section was also quite busy as it is also a popular day hike. There is a phone at the shelter to contact transport and accommodation in Karamea if required. We arrived with about 30 minutes to spare before our transport to Nelson arrived.
This is a superb easy – moderate walk through varying interesting terrain, just keep in mind the potential for rain, lots of rain, when you book it.