80km hiking through many varied ecosystems, from ocean to mountains to river valley. Amazing huts. Caves just off the trail. Large snails that eat large worms. Seals swimming. No roads for miles and miles.
Great walks are a New Zealand tradition. It's also a beautiful way to slow down the pace to see an area in more detail, since it's easy to spend a lot of time in the car driving from one must-see attraction to another. Heaphy, at 78.4km long, is the longest of the walks. This walk is known for the great variety of ecosystems encountered along the way, including the rugged coast, wide mouthed riverbed, steap hillsides, plateau or foggy "downs", limestone cave country, and a hill/valley system. In terms of animals, the large land snails seen here are quite special and are endemic to this region. We also saw wekas (flightless birds), seals, giant worms, and many more.
The walk is generally completed in 3-5 days, although we met one women who had run it in one very long day! We enjoyed the 4 days and 3 nights that we took. You can stay in huts or your own tents. The huts was especially nice our last night when there was a huge rain storm, and it meant that we didn't have to carry tents or as much cooking gear. We hiked from west to east, which is generally the less popular direciton. However, we liked that day 1 was pretty flat along the ocean and that our uphill on day 2 was relatively gradual. We definitely recommend staying in Heaphy Hut near the beach.
Note that the Department of Conservation has been putting in a lot of investment to the trail and huts along the way, and 3 of the huts on the trip have been rebuilt in the last couple of years. While it's known as a walking trail, they have opened up the trail to mountain biking in the winter off-season only (May 1st to Sept 30th). Beware: the great walks are quite popular, so you will see other hikers on the path and obviously be sharing the huts. This is a part of the experience, and if you want a more solitary back-packing experience there are plenty of other amazing trails that aren't part of the great walk system. The crowd isn't necessarily your classic "backpacker" stereotype. We shared the trail with many families, others who had traveled from far-away countries, and even some solitary hikers. One last word of warning: don't forget to print your passes for the huts!
Heaphy is in the far northwest of the South Island in Kahurangi National Park. The two ends of the track, are quite far from each other by road, so you'll either need to plan for a shuttle to take you around to the other side, somebody to drive your car around, or to take a flight. We ended up opting for the flight with Golden Bay Air. It seemed like an extravagance when we first looked at the costs, but was arguably quite practical because it was going to take up most of a day for us to drive around and flying ended up only costing us ~200 more than other reasonable options. So, for around $100 each we saved a day on the road and got an awesome scenic flight in a tiny plane.
Check out the Department of Conservation's page on Heaphy for more information.