Mostly Downhill. Riding the Heaphy Track. With Kids.
By Laurence Mote.
Over the last 20 years I’ve ridden the Heaphy numerous times - a mix of daggy, desperate and darn-right dangerous crossings - including as a student in Wellington, extended commutes home, subsisting on a loaf bread and a bottle of milk; a nasty trip with Giardia striking midway; and lightning crackling in the air in the Gouland Downs.
Ever-present mechanical issues also lurked around each corner - especially back in the days of 26” disc brakes. Times have changed. I’m a family man now, but would I dare to take children on such a potentially gnarly backcountry expedition?
We first took our kids on an overnight trip when they were aged eight and six, choosing a relatively short jaunt in the foothills, to the Hurunui Hut in Lake Sumner Forest Park.
We learnt a lot on that trip; about essential supplies, liberal use of both carrot and stick, and how once kids have the bit between their teeth, they’re pretty capable.
Fast forward to the summer of 2016… Our kids are an older, bolder (and bolshier?) 11 and 13. With Old Ghost Road, Queen Charlotte and the Heaphy Track in our sights, this summer was going to be a biggie. All these tracks have one thing in common: a soul-destroying climb to start the trip.
When June came around, it was time to take on the ‘big daddy’: the climb from Browns to Perry Saddle Hut, at the Collingwood end of the Heaphy Track. To a young mind, in the New Zealand wilderness a 15km climb with over 750m of climbing is the mental equivalent of Mt Everest.
Unlike the Old Ghost Road, there were no kilometre markers to aim for. Instead we provided continual encouragement, with food and plenty of water stops. Our ‘carrot’ was the daily family fodder bag: 1kg of fruit, nuts, lollies and our secret ingredient, scorched almonds. For all the trips we did this summer, the ‘stick’ was left at the start of the track – there was nowhere to go but forward.
For the Heaphy, we decided to treat ourselves with a short flight from Karamea. But unintentionally we broke a golden rule of bikepacking, by not allowing enough hours to find our own rhythm up the hill. Time had become compressed due to the multiple shuttles our plane had taken that day, coupled with the severe shortage of daylight hours so close to the shortest day. We were loosely travelling with three other families and as our kids were the most experienced, we were last off the boat and pedalling hard to make it to the hut before nightfall. It was near dark by the time we saw the lights of the hut.
From there on the ride would all be downhill, though my kids will tell you never to believe me, as I tend to have a selective memory of these things. Maybe that's how our adult brains cope with seemingly endless hill climbs?
Day One of four, had us right on schedule with DOC's estimated walking times, but on Day Two, we knocked a good couple of hours off the 6.5 hour estimated time. A cold and frosty start had us hooting and swooping our way down to Gouland Downs hut, shaking our limbs to improve circulation. We navigated the Downs, then relished riding some decent singletrack before Saxon Hut - our lunch spot.
Our lunch staple was rice noodles and either a tuna sachet or some biltong: warm, nutritious, energy-dense and best of all, light. We’d managed to pare down our riding bags to two, 30L packs for the adults and 20L for the kids. This time we had the added luxury of Cactus prototype handlebar rolls for our sleeping bags and dry bags. With three nights out, we had our packs full to the brim with food, clothing layers and emergency kit for bikes and bodies, but they weren't so unwieldy as to upset our balance.
It's important not to scrimp on essentials when in the backcountry with kids - it's a long ride for food if the inevitable puncture or gear failure happens. Kids can be really susceptible to the cold, so shelter like a fly or bivvy bag is also essential if the weather turns sour while mum or dad is trying to resurrect a broken derailleur hanger.
On our ride, one of the dads was towing a nifty Quest bike trailer made from rotomolded plastic, jam-packed with essentials and a few non-essential adult treats we could never have considered secreting in our packs.
The next piece of track had felt the full fury of DOC's version of upgrading tracks: turning what was a challenging, rocky and potentially muddy slice of backcountry singletrack, into a fully rideable walk in the (National) park. However in the context of riding with primary-aged children, there was still enough flow and fun to keep us all happy.
‘Full of beans’ would describe the running games held outside the palatial James Mackay Hut that afternoon. We could have biked further, but we were lucky to have glorious weather and we didn't envy the MAMILS (middle aged men in Lycra) rushing to conquer the track in a day. Riding at kid pace with relaxed daily distances was quite a treat. Afternoon nap? Sure, why not.
Dropping 700m to sea level on Day Three was a real hoot. Gone are the roots and ruts of the old track - in their place is a swooping seamless decent, daring you to go faster at every turn. User conflict issues have been thrown out with the track building guidebook… DOC had built us a racetrack!
For the most part we managed to keep the kids on track, then it was a gentle glide downstream to the mouth of the Heaphy. The kids had hut fever and took off ahead… The afternoon that followed was about beach, sand forts, sandflies and sun. There were no regrets about scheduling such a short day and for once, the early sunset was a blessing - it meant a bonfire and toasted marshmallows, coupled with an early night in the sack. Albeit a sandy sack.
I’ve always enjoyed the easy roll down the coast to the Kohaihai Shelter - it’s such a dramatic coastline, with Nikau Palm fronds under tyre treads, salt air up your nostrils. The kids again were again running a long train through the singletrack ahead. Just imagine seeing seven kids, handlebars loaded up with dry bags, kicking up sand, hooting and hollering: pure energy, pure enjoyment of the outdoors - very cool. Beware though: kids aren't stupid - take them on a decent piece of native forest singletrack, you'll never get them near a rail trail again!
A tough climb at the end put paid to any thoughts of racing to the finish, but a downhill run to the shelter for a well-deserved rest put smiles on the dials. Not for my kids though - we still had another 15km of tarseal to get back to our car. Thankfully the sand flies were thick enough back at the trailhead to smother any complaints as we lapped it out on the road, and it was all downhill. Kinda.