, on the Heaphy Track, New Zealand.
, on the Heaphy Track, New Zealand.

Amazing trails, sleeping bags and dehydrated food…Anka Martin and five friends take on the challenge of riding New Zealand’s infamous Heaphy Trail.

DIRT ISSUE 125 - JULY 2012

Words by Anka Martin. Photos by Sven Martin

Since my first visit to New Zealand in 2006 for the Rotorua World Champs, bicycle touring has intrigued me. In New Zealand you see them everywhere and it has always fascinated me. I wonder where they have come from, and where they’re heading. They exude an air of confidence, in control of their self–fulfilling destiny and destination one pedal stroke at a time. Truly free, self–contained and self–confident, with no responsibilities and no cares in the world, other than getting from point A to B. The concept appeals to me, but with my roots deep in downhill and dirt and with my aversion to concrete, cars and asphalt I never explored it further. That is until we moved to New Zealand a few months ago, and I heard about the infamous and challenging Heaphy Track that it is now open for a three year trial period for multiday hut to hut mountain bike trips. I knew that I wanted to sign–up for this touring adventure, mountain bike style.

Touring back–in–the–day used to mean heavy clunker bikes with braze–ons for panniers, slick tyres and rigid rear ends, but as mountain bikers we are truly blessed to live in such dynamic and innovative times. We used to only be able to truly get our kicks out of shuttling big heavy bikes down rough trails and downhills, but as suspension and bicycle technology has improved and advanced we are now able to get those same thrills on much shorter travel and lighter machines, this has opened up new frontiers and exploring opportunities. Those adrenaline highs that used to only be possible after a few shuttle drop offs can now be replicated all day long under your own pedal power. And with some planning, a well thought out packing list and itinerary, you can extend those day rides into multiday adventures without compromising the fun factor.

The Heaphy track is a 78km long trail and listed as one of the Great Walks in NZ. It used to be open to mountain bikes, but became firmly shut off when it was made a National Park in 1995 and a bicycle was classified as a vehicle. It is currently in its second ‘test’ year for mountain bikes and is open from the May 1st until the end of October. It lies in the 455,000 hectare Kahurangi National Park, which starts in the NW corner of the South Island, stretching west from Nelson in a maze of forested mountains and valleys to the rugged and wild west coast, and from Golden Bay south to Karamea. After the Fiordland, it is the second biggest stretch of unadulterated wilderness left in NZ and it’s literally just sitting in our back yard.

The first year was popular among mountain bikers, and word of this amazing reopened multi day ride has spread like wild fire. So it was a race to get our bunk beds booked in the huts that suited our ride for the opening weekend of May, because as we all knew, the weather on the west coast of NZ can be pretty wet, measuring the rain in meters and not cm, and with May being the start of winter, we wanted to get in there as soon as possible. With seven huts on route there are many different ways to do the ride, there were six in our group and we wanted to take our time, enjoy the riding and not be rushed, so we opted to start at midday, sleep two nights and finish on the third morning, riding from the North end to the South, which offers the longest and best downhills. It can be done in one day, but I bet those who do that won’t hear or see the spotted Kiwi birds at night, or share their breakfast with Weka’s (flightless bird) or go night caving looking for Weta’s (insects), or jump into the freezing rivers to rinse off. There is more to hut–to–hut mountain biking than setting the record from one side to the other. It was a perfect weekend to celebrate our friend Simon’s birthday and also a farewell weekend ride for Sven and I, as we were getting ready to leave for our yearly migration to Europe a few days later. We had grown very fond of our new hometown of Nelson and for the first time we were both kind of sad to leave, so the longer we could savour this new landscape the better.>>

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[part title="HOW TO DO THE HEAPHY TRAIL | RACKS, PACKS AND SIX PACKS PAGE TWO..."]

, on the Heaphy Track, New Zealand.
, on the Heaphy Track, New Zealand.

This is a trip with a difference; most MTB tourists visit New Zealand for the Heli drops and the bike parks and shuttles of Queenstown and Rotorua. This is the complete opposite, and to be honest this is the 100% pure New Zealand you hear about in the ad campaign. We had to earn our descents in this remote part of the world, completely cut off from any civilization, roads and people. While the trail has been maintained for MTB usage it is by no means sanitized and buffed out, which means that although it is a cross country ride by definition the terrain and downhills on offer are best ridden on the same bike you would shred the Rotorua and Queenstown trails on. The only difference is you would be carrying your sleeping bag and all your food and clothes for the three days.

We all put racks onto our bikes which we strapped our sleeping bags stuffed in dry sacks onto. The Blackburn SPX–1 rack was best suited for the job, offering the most clearance for the full suspension bikes, even allowing those of us with large or medium frames to still fully use our seatpost droppers. I was not so lucky with my small, but I was still able to lower my saddle a few inches for the descents. Everything had to go into dry bags, backpacks had to be used for all the premix–dehydrated food, clothes, rain gear, spare parts, jet boiler, coffee and of course alcohol, that we had to carry along with us for the next three days, plus a six pack of beers to ‘cheers’ Simon at the top of the hill on his birthday. Thank goodness you don’t even have to bother taking water with you in New Zealand, as you can just fill up a little bottle from the streams along the way, so you can use that water space and weight for some warming nightcaps and red wine around the fire instead. Perfect. Since there is no way to bail–out early we had to be prepared for any mechanical or emergency so we split the usual spares tools and first aid kit out between us; spare hangers, mechs, shifters, spokes, tubes, brake pads and appropriate tools, not forgetting the duct tape and zip ties of course.

Starting after lunch, the first day only covered about 24km, but with a big 900m climb up to the top and highest point on the track. A super fun descent down to our first overnight hut in the tussock downs of Goulands was our reward. We had this hut all to ourselves, and it was a perfect place to celebrate the birthday. There was a roaring fire, and we all had funny containers filled with alcohol. Vodka in a plastic (lighter) Fanta bottle, red wine in a water bottle, some hip flasks and even a proper bottle of whiskey to be passed around (yeah we could have travelled lighter). We all had to bring a mystery treat, and all of us wanted to get rid of our treats to lighten the load for the ride the next day. We had smores (weird marshmallow, chocolate biscuit things), cheese and crackers, copious amounts of chocolate, homemade caramel condensed milk goodness and too many other treats to mention, but the winner was a massive pot of dehydrated mashed potatoes that we inhaled fondue style.

The next morning we headed out towards Heaphy Hut some 38km away. Some high plateau riding with huge vistas and a couple of jungle climbs and descents before the big 15km sustained downhill dropping 800m to the coast and the Heaphy Hut. The descent was absolute heaven on our all–mountain trail bikes. Dropping down into the wet west coast where roots, ruts, rocks and drops are never ending was an absolute treat. The type of perfect gradient that maximizes your downhill time, high speeds and pumping flow only tapping your brakes when coming up to blind corners or obstacles. They have done a lot of trail maintenance over the past year, it hasn’t made it easier, it just enhanced the flow and helped us get over the high rivers and swamps a bit easier than the older swing bridges that are quite challenging to cross with your bike.>>

[part title="HOW TO DO THE HEAPHY TRAIL | RACKS, PACKS AND SIX PACKS PAGE THREE..."]

, on the Heaphy Track, New Zealand.
, on the Heaphy Track, New Zealand.

You had to ride quite a bit differently than usual. The rack and your 8–12kg back pack (depending on how feral your were) meant the back end rode a lot heavier, this meant you really had to weight the front to maintain cornering traction. It was awesome, making you feel like you were racing and railing a slack DH bike committing aggressively to the front end in corners and leaning hard swapping back and forth in the turns. There was a delayed response as the weight would swap over in tight ‘S’ turns, and every now and then you would fly off a drop forgetful of your load, and your ass and backpack would hit your sleeping bag as you were trying to get all the way back and you would be punted forward again landing sketchy with your helmet covering your eyes when your tall pack responded by knocking your helmet forward, but with some modifications and adjustments to fit and positioning you would get the hang of it and it was damn fun and pretty fast with all the extra weight behind you. Again the scenery was stunning, especially riding through the Mackay Downs where you ride past boulder fields that resembled jumbles of giant Moa eggs.

We pulled into the Heaphy Hut late that afternoon, welcomed with a pink full ‘Super–Moon’ hanging over the ocean, framed by Nikau palms. We were on the wild west coast and the weather was perfect. Not a breath of wind or a drop of rain. This is unheard of on the west coast, where the trees are permanently bent out of shape due to the wind. The hut was packed; we shared it with 22 other overly excited mountain bikers and a few outnumbered trampers, so it had a completely different feel to the previous night where we had the hut to ourselves. Another amazing evening was had, accompanied by lots of loud mountain bike chatter, exchanges of alcohol that had to be savoured due to the lack thereof, and of course packets and packets of delicious calorie and sodium laden dehydrated food.

Over the course of the past two days, the scenery was so varied. We passed through dense jungles and ferns, onto open tussock grass plains and then back into crazy Nikau palm jungles with massive Rata trees and vines as big and tall as skyscraper buildings. You cannot describe the scenery to anyone. It is so dramatic and vast and it feels like it should still be connected to Gondwanaland and that you could bump into giant Moa bird around every corner. The riding surface is just as varied and amazing if you are a connoisseur of dirt like I am.

On the final morning we had 24km to cycle along the coast to the end of the trail and to where we would get picked up in Kohaihai, we all assumed that it would just be a flat pedal back to the car. We had no idea of just how beautiful, scenic and technically fun the next 24km would be. We followed a flowy singletrack that snaked right next to the ocean and through the thickest palm forests for miles on end. Bliss. I have never ridden on such a spectacular singletrack. Singletrack that would be a sin to miss if you weren’t open minded enough to earn your descents on rack and backpack laden bikes. If you were just visiting NZ for its gondola and shuttle fed bike parks and trail centres you would be sorely missing out. There are many more backcountry routes like this one to overnight–in, and endless trails to take you to these huts. I have a feeling that my bike rack is going to get plenty of use out here where wilderness is still wilderness. I felt like those bike tourers that I would see on the roads, I felt that sense of freedom that comes with being self sufficient, that feeling of accomplishment, a content feeling of not really needing anything else in life but what you have with you on your bike. I liked it and I want more. Open your eyes, maps and minds and get out there with your mates. Adventure may very well exist on your own doorstep and not just on the other side of the world. Kia–Ora.