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Following the river upstream

Following the river upstream
 
 
 
 
 

WHEN New Zealand was caught in the grip of the ice ages, most of the South Island became covered in ice sheets, some over a kilometre thick. The harsh perpetual winters wiped out much of the forest that filled the once sheltered valleys. Here in the almost subtropical microclimate of the western Kahurangi National Park, the deep valleys were almost completely untouched by the ice sheets. This created a refuge for plants and animals to comfortably survive during even the most severe ice ages.

The hut just before I left

The hut just before I left

When the glaciers retreated, vegetation and wildlife from this area dispersed back into the rest of the South Island. Even though this is an interglacial period, these valleys provide the highest levels of biological diversity anywhere on the South Island.

Having packed up and said good bye to my new friends I followed the main track upstream, firstly crossing the little creek as I entered the forest, then heading through the rugged forest of giant rata trees and palms. It has hard to believe this area had been surveyed for settlement, but the remoteness of this valley resulted in a complete lack of interest in buying land.

Forest around the bluff

Forest around the bluff

The river meandered sluggishly across the wide valley. On the other side was the vertical cliff of a limestone rift towering up over the bluff at the harbour entrance. There is a route along the bottom of this cliff to the very steep terrain on the other side, from where you can explore the coast.

The Heaphy Bluff marked the start of the Iwituaroa Range, a forested limestone range of hills separating the river from the sea. Although it didn’t seem like much from here, the forest on this side of the hill was amongst the most difficult in New Zealand. Local hunters say the bush is so thick and difficult that the deer are forced to go through it on their knees. The other side of the range posed even more challenges, with the near vertical drop straight into the turbulent ocean. Navigating this coastline is almost impossible. Heaphy had taken many days of hardship to follow the coast. Even now few venture there, and some of those people who go never return having perished in the terrible conditions.

Rata tree

Rata tree

Once around the first set of limestone bluffs the forest became very different to what it had been along the coast. The relatively calm conditions and shelter from the wind and salt resulted in a lot more epiphytes growing on the palm trees. The palm trees themselves had much larger foliage, the fronds often extending over three metres long.

Upon passing the exit we had taken to follow the old track to the cave, I continued following the new track elevated above the swampy forest floor through the darkness of the bush. It was not long though before the forest suddenly cleared into a scrubby clearing of regenerating flax, cabbage trees and tall shrubs. This could have been one of the blocks of land that was once cleared for habitation, but has since been abandoned.

Dense forest

Dense forest

Over the years following Heaphy’s exploration of the coast, the European influence has gradually taken over the earlier Maori control as has happened in much of the rest of New Zealand.

This began in 1849 when the name of the Whakapoai River changed to the Heaphy River. The name Whakapoai has been lost in time. The original settlers in the thirteenth century most likely gave the river a completely different name which is now completely washed away with history just like much of the village.

Dense forest

Dense forest

Little happened in this area apart from the occasional explorer passing through between the West Coast and Golden Bay until in January 1887 when FE Gibbs and his brother Sidney, and A E Talbot carried out the first geological survey of the area. This was the beginning of what would become more extensive survey and exploration of the area.

In October 1893 the track finally reached the mouth of the Heaphy River having been cut all the way from Collingwood. This would become the most remote outpost of Golden Bay – the official boundary between Golden Bay and the West Coast at the time had been at the Kohaihai Saddle. The new track allowed cattle to be moved from the Nelson area down into the northern Buller. They would follow the track down to the mouth of the Heaphy River, before being herded along the beach and over the rough route across Kohaihai Saddle before continuing down the coast. There were often up to 80 cattle on the track at any given time.

Ochre stream

Ochre stream

Five years later “The Nautilus” became the first ship to cross the Heaphy River Bar. This marked the beginning of the potential settlement here. That same year a more detailed survey was done of the Heaphy River by J.H. Jennings. This time the intention of the survey was to prepare a major settlement plan for a village.

It was not until 1905 though that the detailed survey was conducted by Mr D MacPherson along the Heaphy Valley. From this survey 13,030 acres of land was offered for lease. The plan was to create a town at the mouth of the river. The plan included roads, homestead sites, a school, and even a cemetery.

A regenerating clearing

A regenerating clearing

There was not much interest due to lack of access by either land or sea, but two years later the Buller County Council made the first proposal for a road to be built through the area essentially following the Heaphy Track.

In 1907 James MacKintosh conducted a more detailed geological survey and J Donaldson grazed some cattle in the rugged Heaphy Valley at this clearing.

A number of blocks had been surveyed for “landless natives”. It was a gesture in recognising their heritage here, but insignificant as the entire West Coast had been purchased for just three hundred pounds just a few years earlier.

Thick palm foliage

Thick palm foliage

There were big plans with the proposed road and now the Heaphy Hut being built. Despite all the enthusiasm, the settlement plans of the valley were withdrawn the following year in 1908 as there had only been three applicants interested in leasing the land.

In 1909 10,000 acres of land from Kohaihai to Gunner River was put up for public auction. This time it was taken up by a M Milner.

Little happened with the land and the area was largely forgotten until 1917 when there was renewed interest in the land from soldiers returning from the Great War.

Dense regenerating forest

Dense regenerating forest

The area continued to struggle with just a few cattle grazing the rugged country until 1926 when the last of the cattle were bought out from the coastal section leaving the forest to regenerate again. In 1929 the area suffered another setback with a storm creating huge slips at the Heaphy settlement and also on Kohaihai Hill.

The area was repaired with a new hut built at Heaphy. The Heaphy public road was legalised in 1929 so plans began to have a permanent road built to the Heaphy River.

By 1931 the track was in serious disrepair. A full survey for a road was done along the track but it would never be built.

Dense regenerating forest

Dense regenerating forest

The final death knell for the settlement came in 1965 when the North West Nelson State Forest Park was created and the New Zealand Forest Service took over the track from the Buller and Collingwood County Councils. Grazing in the valley was no longer allowed. Once more the track was in serious disrepair, but the forest service repaired it and constructed new huts.

The scrub quickly became palm forest again, but the palm trees all had very short trunks and huge fronds extending to a massive four metres in length. This area would have been cleared around a hundred years ago, but the palm trees had regenerated here. A little further on and I was back in the virgin bush, occupying a block that was never settled.

Swingbridge at Murray Stream

Swingbridge at Murray Stream

Gnarly trees and supplejack made the forest impenetrable if it were not for the gravelled track.

Ahead through the dense forest I could see a steel swing bridge. The main track passed the bridge dropping to a ford, but given the rivers were high I decided to take the swing bridge today.

The bridge led over the Murray Stream, somewhere near where an airstrip was once built. It had long gone with the forest having reclaimed the land now. The Murray Stream was named after Mr Murray, the government surveyor who completed the survey of the track to the Heaphy River in 1887, six years before the original track opened.

Thick forest undergrowth

Thick forest undergrowth

The steps up to the swing bridge were very steep and awkward, but it was a fairly easy crossing above the deeply ochre coloured stream before a steep descent on the other side into the dark forest.

The stream was full of large granite boulders, having washed down from the mountains above the limestone.

I passed a bank where delicate filmy ferns were growing. The dense forest was becoming even more gnarly and dense. There was only the occasional glimpse of the river now flowing quite swiftly towards the sea. On this bluff I met a cheery older man and his family in tow having come from the James Mackay Hut today. They were only about an hour away from the Heaphy Hut now.

Gunner River looking upstream

Gunner River looking upstream

Thick carpets of sphagnum moss covered the forest floor making the granite gravel covered track very easy to follow. Apparently kiwis can still be heard here in the bush at night, but sightings are quite rare here. They are more common further along the track.

Following a long straight section of track, a small sign at the end pointed to the left saying bridge. When I turned the corner I could see the large wooden swing bridge crossing the Gunner River.

Where Gunner River flows into the Heaphy

Where Gunner River flows into the Heaphy

The Gunner River is quite significant, carrying perhaps a third of the Heaphy River’s water. The deep channel of ochre coloured water flowed between banks of sand and stones brought down from past floods.

The river came down a fairly straight valley from the distant cloud covered Gunner Downs, a large plateau behind the coastal section I had completed yesterday. The valley was long and straight, with tall bluffs of forested limestone towering on either side.

Palm forest past Gunner River

Palm forest past Gunner River

A hundred metres downstream from the bridge the Gunner flowed into the Heaphy. I imagined there would be a lot of caves in the huge bluffs as there had been downstream.

Beyond the bridge the track crossed the forested flat for a while following the moderately flowing Heaphy River upstream. The Iwituaroa Range was significantly higher now with the coast on the other side being a lot further away.

Heaphy River

Heaphy River

The sun had briefly come out further downstream, but now the cloud cover was pretty constant again. Although the clouds were above all the hills I could see, they were beginning to thicken up again. Perhaps the rain was going to return.

There was a spot past the Gunner River where the track reached the sand bar at the edge of the Heaphy River. This was the site of the original ford over the Heaphy River. Once across the river the track followed the base of the Iwituaroa Range up to the Lewis River where I will be reaching later.

Mysterious Rata tree

Mysterious Rata tree

Having reached the end of the flat area of the Gunner River, the track rose across a large bluff though the vegetation was too thick to get what would have been great views of the river below.

The track zig-zagged down the other side of the bluff to a large flat area of old forest. Ahead was an enormous Northern Rata tree standing a good thirty, perhaps forty metres high. The tree had its own forest ecosystem of epiphytes growing on its high branches. The trunk of the tree had multiple stems, like the braids of a rope. They dropped down into the ground beside a small creek running over the surface. The trunk overall was over two metres thick.

Giant Northern Rata

Giant Northern Rata

I continued along the track and a few minutes later it passed an equally enormous rata tree, towering high above the rest of the forest. Its multiple trunks wrapped around each other very tightly until branching off into the branches that held up the canopy.

Giant Northern Rata

Giant Northern Rata

A few minutes later the track turned into the entrance of a huge wooden swing bridge crossing the Heaphy River. A sign half way up the enormous columns holding up the suspension wires said the bridge was built in 2012 and there was a limit of ten people.

Bridge over the Heaphy River

Bridge over the Heaphy River

I started crossing the 149 metre long bridge. The three previous times I have crossed through here were long before this bridge had been erected. The bridge crossed over a very deep pool with submerged sand banks brought down in recent floods. The river headed straight towards a large bluff. To the right of the bluff the Lewis River ran swiftly into it. It was quite a shallow river of perhaps a tenth the capacity of the Heaphy. The rivers joined and flowed down a rapid to the left hand side of the bluff.

Heaphy River looking downstream

Heaphy River looking downstream

The previous time I had crossed the river twenty years ago had been over two narrow metal swing bridges with the capacity of only one person each. The first swing bridge had crossed the Heaphy River over the rapid I could see downstream. Then the track would traverse the bluff and cross the Lewis River over a second swing bridge. These have been replaced with the new bridge. The old track would have completely missed the two giant rata trees.

Drizzle began falling when I was about half way across the bridge. The surrounding hills had become shrouded in a very fine mist. I hurried across the rest of the bridge and followed the track for another two hundred metres before reaching the Lewis Hut, where I will be spending the night.

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Date:

 

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04 November 2015

 

Kahurangi Nat Park

New Zealand

 

41°00'S
172°10'E
0 - 20m ASL

 

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