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The ridge of rimu forest

The ridge of rimu forest
 
 
 
 
 

THE MORNING dawned drizzly. Thick mist hung about fifty metres above the river draping the hills. I quickly packed up and had breakfast whilst the hut was still quiet. The young ladies in the room next door were just beginning to rise when I was leaving. No doubt they will need to decide whether the river has dropped enough for them to be able to cross and get to the stations they had set up earlier. If the river was going to be too high for them to cross they will have to get the helicopter out back to civilisation.

Mist clearing in the Heaphy Valley

Mist clearing in the Heaphy Valley

Fortunately the mist was quickly rising and the drizzle seemed to have stopped falling. I quickly checked outside that my boots were still there, hoping the curious weka hadn’t taken them overnight. Fortunately they were where I had left them. Sadly they still very wet following the past two days of hiking through wet swampy conditions and the humidity being too high for them to dry overnight. I was hoping that now I was heading up the ridge towards the downs the air up there will be a lot dryer allowing them to finally dry out.

Entering the rimu forest

Entering the rimu forest

The dawn sun briefly attempted to come out, but to no avail. It will be a while before the sky clears – if at all. The weather was expected to clear today to sunny conditions for a few days. The young ladies had just gotten up as I was making final preparations to leave. I fared them good luck before heading out the door, slipping on my wet boots and heavy damp pack, and heading off.

The wide track began a gradual ascent immediately outside the door. It was flat and covered in gravel. I had recalled the times I have previously hiked this section of the track there had been cut branches running the entire distance up to the James Mackay Hut. This had been to prevent the track from getting muddy, but it made for very difficult and uneven walking. This section of the track at least had been levelled out and covered in gravel to make for easy walking.

Track ascending just below the ridge

Track ascending just below the ridge

The forest was very different here to what it had been on the other side of the river. Yesterday’s forest contained some of New Zealand’s largest rata trees towering over a canopy of nikau palm forest. There were almost no nikau palms at all on this side of the river, and I didn’t see any rata trees either. The forest here was a mixture of beech and rimu, with the occasional stand of tree fern. The forest floor was covered in crown ferns, native forest grasses and moss. Thick carpets of sphagnum moss covered the bank on the left hand side of the track. To the right the track dropped off through the forest towards the river.

James Mackay Hut was twelve and a half kilometres away, with a steady rise of around seven hundred metres. The track closely followed one of the two Maori trails that once led from the Heaphy River over the mountains to Golden Bay. The first of these trails had departed this one at the Gunner River, following the Gunner River upstream, before gradually ascending around the headwaters of the Heaphy River to meet the track again somewhere near Perry Saddle. Although that had been the main Maori route, it has been lost with becoming overgrown with vegetation over the past two centuries  since becoming abandoned.

Thick moss beside the gravel track

Thick moss beside the gravel track

The other track closely followed the current track, and is believed to be the one the early explorers followed when travelling between the West Coast and Golden Bay. The Maoris preferred the other track as this one had involved a deep crossing of the Heaphy River as opposed to the shallow crossing of the smaller Gunner River.

The track rose in a gentle grade along the side of the ridge separating the Heaphy and Lewis Rivers. It was very quiet here with no sound from the river, and only the occasional birdcall. There didn’t seem to be too many birds in this part of the forest. The ladies at the hut had their work cut out for them to bring the birds back. I recalled a couple of decades ago the early morning chorus of birds was almost deafening. That was before the massive stoat population boom.

The moss along the side of the track was very healthy and lush, evident of the frequent rain and cool conditions in this part of the park.

Mossy bank

Mossy bank

It was not long after leaving the hut that the rimu trees growing on the ridge became enormously tall. Aside from the track itself this part of the forest was preserved in its original condition, with the huge rainforest rimu trees and their distinctive leaves of small pine needles growing out from branches from their enormous trunks. These trees were many hundreds of years old, predating the original Maori settlement at the mouth of the river. The juvenile trees were similar to pine trees, having the distinctive cone shape as it rose towards the canopy. The older trees had no branches for the bottom fifteen metres at the top of their enormous stout greyish purple trunks.

The rain had stopped falling and now the sun was coming out through gaps in the clouds. Through a small clearing in the canopy I could see the other side of the valley with thick wisps of cloud still clinging to the sides of the hills as the main cloud was clearing away.

1km marker

1km marker

Perhaps it was going to clear after all. Mottled light showed through the forest brightly shining through the drops that hung on the foliage brilliant as liquid diamonds. The sun filtering through the canopy produced a faint haze rising from the forest humus giving the distinctive smell of healthy forest soil working its magic in sustaining the huge forest that draped this vast wilderness.

A little further along the track I reached a clearing in the foliage big enough for me to get a first glimpse at the Heaphy River below. I was already gaining a significant amount of altitude above the river. The bright ochre colour was a clear reflection of the vast tracts of forest from which it was flowing from. There was still a long way to go with an altitude gain of about seven hundred metres today.

Heaphy River

Heaphy River

Misty cloud covered the forest again as I reached a small sign indicating snails. I didn’t see any between the two posts over a short section of track. The second sign included the 1 kilometre mark from the hut.

Shortly afterwards I reached a clearing with a good view down to the bottom of the valley now nearly a hundred metres below me. The Heaphy River flowed in two channels around a large sand bank in the middle of a scrubby flat before heading through a narrow gorge. Regular gorges such as this explained why the track followed the ridge from the Lewis Hut. Above the scrubby flats was large forest with tall rimu trees like those on this side of the valley.

Track rising above the valley

Track rising above the valley

The track became a little rougher as it negotiated its way around a steep part of the ridge. It was still covered in gravel though. There was no sign of the logs across the track that I had walked on during previous trips.

I reached a grove at the back of a gully where a couple of large nikau palm trees – the last ones I would see on this trip. They were becoming replaced with spectacular tree ferns that thrived in the sheltered rainforests of the valley.

The track followed around another steep bluff before going into another gully where the sun came out again. Here an enormous tree had fallen snapped off about two metres above the ground. The entire trunk that was remaining had been splintered off. It would have been very dramatic watching this tree fall – most likely during Cyclone Ita last year. Fortunately the track had been cleared since the tree had come down.

Heaphy River far below

Heaphy River far below

The bright sunlight was shining through the translucent mountain beech tree leaves creating quite an ethereal effect in the forest. The mist had all but dissipated from both sides of the valley with the cloud cover now at a good five hundred to a thousand metres. Where the track passed over an old landslide there were spectacular views down to the river now quite a long way below. The ochre colour was showing how deep the river was, black where it was very deep in the gorge corners, and very pale where it was shallow running over wide gravel banks.

Ground ferns beside the track

Ground ferns beside the track

The bank on the left hand side of the track became separated from the flat track surface by a deep channel and the occasional small bridge or culvert allowing for efficient drainage during rain. I remembered the first time I walked the track they were digging out the channel. Before that and before they had placed the logs, this section of track would have been very muddy making for slow progress. With the addition of the channel twenty years ago and with adding the gravel about three years ago has made the trip relatively straight forward, if my boots were a bit drier.

Supplejack vines

Supplejack vines

The morning had been very quiet so far, but suddenly ahead of me I could see a middle aged man briskly heading down the track having had an equally early start as me from James Mackay. He was on track to arrive at the Heaphy Hut in the late morning to early afternoon.

He did briefly stop and introduce himself seeing my large camera. Colin and I briefly talked. He mentioned he was with a party of ladies who had left James Mackay with him earlier and were going at their own pace behind him. After our chat he set off heading further down the hill towards Lewis Hut for morning tea.

The forest thins at a spur

The forest thins at a spur

At one point the track was almost right on top of the ridge. It was carefully planned to go around the hills and stay just under the saddles to provide an even ascent. Most tracks climbing ridges just go over the hills creating a lot of ups and downs. This one was a lot more even.

As the track went out onto a spur, the rimu trees began to be replaced with moss covered beech trees, indicating what was to come at the higher altitudes. Back in the sheltered gullies the beech trees were replaced with rimu.

Ahead of me were the ladies Colin had mentioned earlier. They were heading down at a steady pace admiring the scenery. I mentioned I had seen Colin earlier and he would be about half an hour ahead of them.

Black coal seam ahead

Black coal seam ahead

Shortly afterwards I reached a point where the gravel on the track suddenly turned black. A thick layer of the bank beside the track was black as well. Then I realised this was a seam of coal. Coal occurs naturally along much of the West Coast, indicating the location of past swamps, now uplifted with the rising of the Southern Alps. At a point in the last twenty million years when modern New Zealand was rising out of the sea, the large area between the fault line and the old island would have been an enormous swampland containing the vegetation of the Gondwanan remnant. This was just one of many coal seams that have been left from these past swamps as the Tasman Mountains were pushed upwards.

There are a lot of coal mines along the South Island West Coast. Mining has been a huge industry here over the years, though in recent decades this has seen a significant decline. Fortunately this area is protected forever by national park.

Seam of coal over the track

Seam of coal over the track

Some groups argue that these areas should be opened up for mining as the Kahurangi National Park in particular has enormous reserves of precious minerals. I was heading towards the Aorere River, the base of a gold rush in the 1800s. Over the past century there has been exploration done with a lot of valuable mineral resources being discovered. I recall where I lived near Motueka, a prospecting company had discovered a viable platinum mine site in the national park nearby. There are also a few old mines of tin and asbestos now protected in other parts of the park. There are a lot of valuable minerals here, but they have all been protected. Fortunately this coal seam will remain here forever untouched like the rest of the park.

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Date:

 

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05 November 2015

 

Kahurangi Nat Park

New Zealand

 

40°56'S
172°12'E
20 - 400m ASL

 

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