History  The Heaphy Track

Explorer Charles Heaphy only ever walked the coastal section of the track that now bears his name, but he had the gem of the idea.

The Heaphy Track By Chris Petyt, Nikau Press, 2012. Softcover, 214 pages, $40.

Maori knew of this inland route too, having earlier had settled the area around the Heaphy River mouth, but during the 1840s–50s they favoured the more arduous coastal route north to Whanganui Inlet.

In 1859, two prospectors, ‘Aldridge and his mate’ traversed the rough route which the track now follows, becoming the first Pakeha to do so. A year later, James Mackay walked the route, bringing with him 15 miners who’d abandoned working in the Buller Valley. Mackay enthused about the track’s suitability for a bridle trail, or even a road, between Golden Bay and the West Coast. Work began in 1861 and the ‘route over the Gouland Downs, later to be called the Heaphy Track, was now firmly on the map.’ Happily for trampers, the track has never become a thoroughfare for vehicles.

Golden Bay local and tramper Chris Petyt has done a sterling job of researching the track’s history. Despite having read a lot about the track myself, I found the book contains much that was new and interesting.

In some ways, it’s surprising the Heaphy Track survived at all: between the 1860s and early 1960s the track was often overgrown, poorly marked, or lacked any maintenance. Storms blew trees over it, floods gouged out whole sections of track, the 1929 Murchison Earthquake destroyed parts of it, and one track gang went hunting instead of doing any work. However, locals and visitors alike continued to find interest in the track’s diverse landscapes, and journeyed over it for the simple reason that it still forms the most direct route between the West Coast and Golden Bay. Only in the mid-1960s did the track’s future finally become assured, when the Forest Service took over management of the area and created the Northwest Nelson Forest Park. Since then successive improvements have eliminated much of the mud, resulted in better hut and track standards, and ensured that bridges were built over the most troublesome fords. Before the area became Kahurangi National Park in 1996, the Heaphy was the only Great Walk situated in a forest park.

The track’s popularity peaked in the 1970s, when as many as 10,000 walked the track annually (many prompted by the threat of an ill-conceived road proposal), but slumped to 5–6,000 during the 1990s and 2000s. Numbers are increasing steadily again, however, with women making up just more than half of those tramping it.

Several famous people have walked the track: climbing pioneer Thelma Kent, publisher Alf Reed, prime minster Helen Clark, geologist Harold Wellman, ornithologist Don Merton, and writer John Mulgan (see extract this Bulletin).

People have run, mountain biked, ridden horses and tramped over the track; including a woman in high heels and a naked man. Petyt details all these aspects of the track’s history, while keeping the text lively and interesting. The Heaphy Track also relates stories of lost or injured trampers, some of whom died. In 1980 tramper Peter Le Fleming survived 29 days alone, mostly without food, when he somehow wandered off the track and got lost in the Aorere headwaters. There’s also well-balanced coverage of the debates about mountain biking on the track and the controversial road proposals.

As well as describing the area’s flora and fauna, the book details attempts to preserve the area through the formation of the Gouland Downs Wildlife Sanctuary, which Christchurch conservationist Harry Ell helped to establish. At first, some misguided principles saw introduced animals protected in the reserve, while falcon were shot because they preyed on native birds.

Modern colour and historic black and white photographs illustrate the book, which also has a useful index and bibliography. My one criticism of The Heaphy Track is that the chronology tends to jump around too much in places; a necessary problem when the book takes a thematic approach, but somewhat confusing at other times.

An excellent track description will whet the appetite of those yet to walk the Heaphy, or those (like me) who have been away from the track too long. Overall, The Heaphy Track is a great addition to books about our backcountry history. Aside from several on the Milford, I can’t think of another that so comprehensively covers the story of one track.

Wilderlife