If you’re planning on mountain biking the Heaphy, and you’ve never done it before, you might be wondering what to expect, what to take and ultimately if you will survive the experience. While I can’t guarantee anything, feel free to benefit from (read: laugh at) my recent misadventure in the mighty Kahurangi National Park, doing an overnight bike trip from the Brown Hut to the Lewis Hut, and back the next day.
TLDR; For someone of average fitness with very average mountain biking experience, it was challenging – there were definitely times I was like ‘people do this for fun??!’ but conquering it was a pretty good feeling, the scenery is amazing and heck everyone should get outdoors more – so yes I definitely recommend it, just plan well!
- Started early Saturday from the Brown Hut carpark (Collingwood end) to the Lewis Hut and back the next day.
- Mid-October (the Heaphy is open to mountain bikers from May 1 – Nov 30)
- 110km over two days – approx 6 hours riding each day (avg speed 15kmh – about 8kmh uphill, 20kmh downhill – yeehaa!!)
- Two major hill climbs (approx 900m)
- Track condition – Mostly rugged
- Track congestion – Light (esp considering it was a long weekend)
- Party of 3 (two experienced bikers and me – track limits group sizes to 6)
- Weather – A mixed bag of sun, rain and wind (very changeable in that part of the world)
- Ideally you want to have a few weeks building up your bike fitness (and getting used to being in the saddle for long periods of time!)
- Book your hut (some huts, especially the newer ones like James Mackay and the Heaphy) can book out months in advance.
- Plan your transport – If you prefer not to double back then you can arrange for a transport service to return you to the start (shuttle, bus, plane or chopper) or organise some mates to start from the other end. It’s over 460km by road between the two ends.
- Figure out who’s taking what (see Packing List below) – the bigger the group the more you can share the load of things like spares and tools.
- Organise a good quality bike – not saying you have to spend thousands on a Yeti but just make sure it can take sustained punishment.
What to bring
The short answer is as little as possible! You’ll have to carry it in, and out (including your rubbish), so pack as light as possible without putting yourself in danger. You’ll be glad you did when you’re partway through a massive hill climb.
Here’s my list (keep in mind I was with two other bikers who had the full set of tools and spares eg tubes – while you could get away without taking them – and other bikers will generally offer to help if they see you broken down by the side of the track – its a rough trail with plenty of sharp rocks that could easily puncture a tyre or two. You need to be as self-sufficient as possible, otherwise you could be walking out!)
- Bike – Obvious I know but it’s top of the list because it’s your lifeline out there. You need to rely on it so go for something that is as robust as possible, preferably full suspension because there are some pretty rough sections, particularly the section between Perry Saddle and Goulands. A padded seat cover isn’t a stupid idea and I would definitely recommend a cycle computer – it’s super motivating to know how far you’ve gone and how far to go – I know on some of the hill climbs I was counting off each 100m I covered!
- Pack – I took a backpack but there are other options such as panniers or seat and frame bags. I think a combo of frame and seat bag is best – it means you can keep the weight off your back. Panniers are fine too but just keep in mind the extra weight on your rear wheel could put you at a greater risk of tyre blowout (as one of our group discovered). My backpack was old and heavy, which made for sore shoulders and tougher hill climbs.
- Bladder – These generally come as a small backpack and are awesome at keeping you hydrated – they store a lot more water than a drink bottle and provide easier access so you’re not stopping all the time. The small pack can also store a few bits and pieces like snacks. I wore this under my backpack, which wasn’t entirely comfortable!
- Sleeping bag – Go for as light and small as possible – the huts are generally warm. Mine was a big old 4-season bag that made up about half of my pack weight. Next time I’ll be going for something a lot smaller!
- Clothes – Even in spring you’ll need to take a warm top or thermals because the weather is very changeable. Sure you’ll get hot riding but when you get to higher altitudes and the rain comes through you’ll be glad you brought something waterproof and insulated. Plan to get wet so bring at least a couple of pairs of dry socks / underwear.
- Cycling gloves – Definitely glad I brought these – fingerless or full gloves are fine.
- Insect repellent – Trust me, the sandflies are like violent mobs in some places (Brown Hut carpark!) so to prevent insect-induced insanity bring some spray.
- Glasses/sunscreen – A full day out in the sun can take its toll – or just cover up. I didnt end up wearing my glasses in the end.
- Food – Take enough for your duration plus 1 or 2 extra days just in case you have to walk out. High energy foods with minimal packaging is ideal – chocolate bars, nuts, dried fruit, raro powdered juice, rice risotto, dehydrated meals – all the huts offer drinking water and gas stoves (with a selection of pots and pans in various states of cleanliness). And if you’re a celebrating kind of person, bring the beer or whisky to congratulate yourself when you make it to your destination (or during if it’s getting desperate!)
- Medical supplies – A basic first-aid kit is the sensible grown-up thing to bring – bandages, strips for blisters, deep heat for the muscles and maybe some vaseline to ward off the inevitable chaffing from sitting in the saddle for 6 hours (doubly so if it gets wet)
- Phone – Theres no service anywhere on the track (although I think there are radios in the huts) but its useful for taking pictures, seeing where you are on the map (GPS) and a torch at night – maybe bring a spare battery as there are no charging stations at the huts.
- Basic tools – Aside from spare tubes, patches, bring a swiss army knife, duct tape and cable ties
The official DOC Heaphy site offers some other suggestions on how to prepare, what to expect and what to bring.
Worth doing? My opinion of biking the Heaphy
If you like the outdoors then biking the growing number of trails that are being opened up is definitely an efficient way to cover a lot of ground (compared to the – at times – drudgery I remember as a kid plodding for what seemed like an eternity to cover even just a few kms of the heaphy, in gumboots no less).
Whether you will enjoy it will depend on your fitness, and I would say if you don’t consider yourself fit opt for shorter walks, and walk it, don’t ride – this will allow you to go at a nice manageable pace. Of course, the general rule of fitness is the more you do, the easier it gets, so maybe it’s worth pushing yourself every now and then.
The track serves bikers pretty well (I’d say the ratio is about 60/40 with bikers outnumbering walkers now) with most parts of the track in good condition. Some parts I did have to walk the bike but it wasn’t often.
Hut fees of around $34 seem a little steep (esp when youre staying at a 2-star hut like the Lewis) but it goes towards track maintenance so fair enough. By the way, its generally safer to print out your hut pass but I just had it on my phone and it wasn’t a problem.
I hardly saw any wildlife, aside from the occasional weka or hearing kiwis at night (disappointed I didnt meet the giant carnivorous snails, they sound mean!), but the landscape is amazing, and the remoteness is both humbling and refreshing (for a connected city slicker like myself).
I think the only downsides of the trip is the issues I had with my bike, the overweight bag I was carrying, the overly hard seat and being a little too ambitious (one of our party biked from the Lewis to the Heaphy and back before breakfast – apparently its a nice easy ride). But none of those things are the track’s fault so I think if I just did it slightly differently next time I’d enjoy it a lot more (maybe just ride in from the Karamea end, to the Lewis or Heaphy, and back).
Having said that there was definitely some chest-puffing high 5s when I finished the 110km with a heavy pack and several mountainous peaks to conquer over the course of the two days. It wasn’t Everest but it sure felt like it at times.
Go hard and enjoy!