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Dark swamp of carnivorous snails

Dark swamp of carnivorous snails
 
 
 
 
 

LARGE boulders and huge pieces of driftwood from the southern end of Heaphy Beach were strewn over the track into the palm forest above it as if a large tsunami had recently come ashore. The waves generated by Cyclone Ita must have been enormous to have washed the boulders right into the forest. The waves of today’s storm were big, but they weren’t reaching anywhere near the track. Fortunately the track had been mostly cleared of the debris, but it would have taken a lot of work to reopen it.

I remembered Cyclone Ita in mid-April last year. It had started as a low pressure system in the Solomon Islands on the 18th quickly intensifying to a category 5 cyclone barrelling towards northern Queensland. Fortunately it had reduced to a category 3 before reaching the coast. It never did quite make landfall though, instead heading south eastward away from the coast. It passed Brisbane so far offshore that apart from a large swell breaking on the beach, I wasn’t affected at all. It continued heading south eastward as a low pressure system until suddenly re-intensifying when it collided with another low. From there it slammed into the west coast of New Zealand around this area. Westport reported winds of 130 kilometres per hour. The damage from this cyclone was still apparent along this part of the coast a year and a half later leaving the boulders awash into the forest, and the scarring landslides further back along the track, not to mention all the fallen trees I had seen on the ridges.

Sunset through the clearing sky

Sunset through the clearing sky

The cloud was sweeping back over the steep bluffs ahead. Heaphy Bluff was appearing quite close now at the far end of the beach rising moderately out of the edge of the ocean. The hills that stood between here and the Heaphy Bluff towered almost vertically above the very thin strip of palm forest where the track followed. The thick mist was now peeling away from these vertical slopes but still lingering in the scarred gullies in between them. These bluffs rose up to Bellbird Ridge hidden in amongst the thick swirling cloud.

The coast here was spectacularly rugged just as the 26 year old Charles Heaphy had reported it as he followed this coast on 18 April 1846. This would be the last of his expeditions before moving back to Nelson. Not long afterwards he was transferred to Auckland where he would take on a few government and military positions before poor health would move him to the warmer climes of Brisbane where he died a couple of months after his arrival.

The rocky beach eventually gave way to granite sand as the track continued through the sodden forest. The sand gradually widened to quite a substantial beach sweeping all the way to the misty headland.

Entrance to Heaphy Swamp

Entrance to Heaphy Swamp

A small wooden bridge crossed over Cold Creek as the sky in the western horizon turned a soft orange colour with the sunset. There was still thick cloud overhead but the cloud towards the horizon was quite light, so hopefully it may clear overnight.

The track left the beach and headed behind a tall sand dune covered in flax and palm forest. This very quickly muted the jet engine roar of the waves that had been constantly filling my left ear.

A short rise over the sand at the back of the dune crossed a very low saddle in the palm trees. Then it dropped into a large swamp. The track followed the edge of the swamp which fortunately wasn’t flooded. I passed a small green sign indicating it was just one kilometre to go to the hut. I quickened the pace as the sky gradually darkened. By now the roar of the sea was almost non-existent, leaving a quiet swamp where the diurnal creatures were going to rest and the nocturnal ones were coming out.

Live Powelliphanta beside track

Live Powelliphanta beside track

One of these nocturnal creatures was the mysterious Powelliphanta, the giant carnivorous snail. Having been split off from the rest of the world since the age of dinosaurs, New Zealand had evolved its own entire ecosystems totally unlike anything else found in the world. Many of its birds became flightless, there was an almost complete absence of mammals, and the vast sphagnum moss swamps became inhabited by many varieties of snail completely unlike other species found anywhere else in the world.

Nobody knows how many varieties of native snail are in New Zealand, but estimates put it at around 2000 different species. 500 of these have been named. New Zealand has around fivetimes the number of snails per unit area than most other parts of the world.

Powelliphanta - Te Papa Museum

Powelliphanta - Te Papa Museum

The native snails grow up to nine centimetres wide and eat worms, sucking them out of the ground like spaghetti. I had seen a couple of signs further back around Scott’s Beach advising these snails were around and often on the track. They were rare and protected. I found one beside the track that hadn’t quite woken up yet. With all the rain that had fallen this afternoon these were ideal conditions for it.

The sky continued to darken but fortunately I could see a grassy clearing up ahead through the trees. Sure enough this was the clearing beside the Heaphy River, where the hut stood.

Various native snails - Te Papa

Various native snails - Te Papa

Upon reaching the clearing I headed up the grassy bank to the hut. To my surprise there was quite a lot of light coming from it. I have stayed here once before, having come from the other way back in early 1996. I recalled seeing a moonbow from the hut towards the mouth of the river. The moon had just risen behind the mountains catching on the salt spray over the mouth of the river to create a faint moonbow. I have never since seen a moonbow at any beach, so that must have been a pretty unique situation.

Heaphy Hut in the darkness

Heaphy Hut in the darkness

This wasn’t going to happen tonight. The clouds were thick and it was going to be totally dark. Fortunately I had reached the hut before needing to use my head torch. There was still about another twenty minutes of light before I would have to use it.

A staired verandah led up to the entrance to the hut. It had only been built two years ago replacing the one I had stayed in twenty years earlier. The first room was a mess room that was full of wet boots, a rainbow of raincoats and a few walking poles (though most of the walking poles were outside. I removed mine before entering the main cabin.

The Heaphy Hut was first built in 1907 at the time the area was being surveyed for settlement. In particular one of the surveyors Dr James Mackintosh Bell was preparing to carry out a major geological survey of the area between Karamea and the Aorere River in Golden Bay. He announced a small hut will rise in a tiny clearing in amongst the nikaus.

The hut became the headquarters for the survey party, being called the Whakapouai Hut after the Maori name for the river. It was a long hut with a big fireplace, three rooms and opening windows.

In the near darkness I had just made out a stream in the bush to the left of the hut. This was called Pitt Stream named after the survey party’s cook who was known to always be at the creek either washing up or collecting water to boil.

The hut quickly deteriorated in the harsh humid weather. Some of the roof had collapsed by 1920. Money had been allocated to repair it, but no work was ever done. It remained standing in an unused dilapidated state until accidentally burning down in 1926.

The hut was finally rebuilt in 1929. Some of the windows were used from the original hut, but otherwise all the materials were new. The timber used to build the hut was pit sawn at Murray Creek a couple of kilometres along the swampy track up the Heaphy River.

The new hut was a lot smaller than the original one. It only had one room and two windows but had galvanised iron roof and sides packed in from Karamea.

This hut was the main hikers’ hut for 39 years until a new one was built nearby in 1968. It was a much larger 20 bunk hut sitting on the site of the current hut. The old hut was closed to the public but used for the forestry rangers. Although it has had extensive modifications and additions over the years, it still stands today as the rangers hut separated by a few trees now hidden in the evening darkness.

The new hut had a shower and bathroom added in the 1970s. In 1980 a new kitchen and glass doors going onto a large verandah were added. In 1986 a new flush toilet was added when the old long drop building was flattened by a huge rata tree that fell down on top of it during Cyclone Bola.

Another staff hut was erected behind the main hut in 1981 but was later moved to become the staff hut at Saxon (where I’ll be passing in 3 days time).

The mud room

The mud room

The new hut was built in 2012 and sleeps 32 people. The old hut that I had previously stayed in was pulled down as part of the new construction project. When the Heaphy Hut was completed, the same building company rebuilt similar huts at Perry Saddle and James Mackay.

As expected from the noise there were quite a lot of people in the cabin. This was a bit of a shock having not seen anyone since passing the hikers coming the other way before Scott’s Beach. A fire was going in the wood burner heating the room up almost into a sauna. I had acclimatised somewhat to the cold rainy conditions outside that wouldn’t have gotten any more than about 13 degrees today, with wind chill added.

Off the main kitchen and dining room were three bunk rooms. Two of them were rather crowded but the third one had several bunks free, including the last lower bunk. I really didn’t want to sleep in a top bunk so I took the lower bunk and set up  the bed. Everything was a bit damp but the sleeping bag was still dry.

Back in the main cabin there were wet clothes hanging over every conceivable place, so there wasn’t time for me to hang out wet stuff to dry. I headed to the kitchen with some food – a can of dog food and a packet of noodles. A large bench in the middle of the kitchen had several gas cookers on it. All I needed were matches and fortunately I had some. I lit one of the cookers, took a small pot of water and started cooking dinner.

A sign above the water taps said it was perfectly safe for drinking. The natural water here was clean and free of dangerous bugs. It is very rare to find such clean water anywhere in the world, and this part of New Zealand was still remote enough for the water to be clean.

One of the bunk rooms

One of the bunk rooms

The canned food and noodles didn’t taste too bad following the long afternoon hike in the rain. As someone who normally avoids any processed food, I consider anything out of a can to be dog food not fit for human consumption. I’m sure the carcinogens and other dangerous chemicals in it wasn’t doing me too many favours, but I was too hungry to care.

Once dinner was finished, I headed off to bed. Nearly everyone else in the hut was turning in as well, so there wasn’t going to be much noise tonight thank goodness. There have been times in the past when I have stayed in huts where there have been rowdy groups chatting nosily away until after midnight very much taking away from the tranquillity of the isolation of the wilderness. Thankfully tonight wasn’t one of those nights.

The hut came complete with flush loos out the back. It really was luxurious. I quickly fell asleep as light rain fell steadily on the roof of the hut. It was great having the creature comforts of warm shelter even though I was a day’s hike away in some of New Zealand’s most rugged coastline.

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Date:

 

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03 November 2015

 

Kahurangi Nat Park

New Zealand

 

41°00'S
172°10'E
0 - 100m ASL

 

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