Heading overland on foot

20:48, Apr 01 2012
SOLITUDE: Midway along Big Bay.


It's amazing to think that one of the loneliest sections of New Zealand's coastline is on our doorstep. The Kahurangi Coast, stretching from the Kahurangi River south to the Heaphy River, is arguably the most remote stretch of South Island coast after Fiordland, and for good reason.

To anybody who is familiar with the landscape of western Golden Bay, this coastline will no doubt resonate as a special place. Three friends, Charles Hodgson, Rick Smale and Hamish Rush, and I have all spent time on this coast and were curious to see what lay south of Kahurangi, so we planned a walk south through this 30-kilometre stretch of unknown and enchanted coastline.

It's typical terrain of the west coast of the South Island, with no natural boat harbours and the constant swell from the Tasman Sea making it near-impossible for any boat to land. At low tide, helicopters may land on some beaches – and those in search of crayfish and paua often do.

We researched the route beforehand and spoke to two others who had done the trip. We chose a window in late February which we considered to be New Zealand's most settled weather. It also happened to coincide with large noon tides and was outside of seal breeding season.

After a three-hour drive from Nelson and the walk to Kahurangi Point, we arrived for the first night at the Department of Conservation's 25-bunk Kahurangi Keepers house, a hut originally made from the nearby houses of the former lighthouse keepers, who looked after the Kahurangi Point lighthouse until it was automated in 1960.


We caught a large kahawai on the second cast in the rock pools in front of the hut, and later on were joined by a chopper-load of divers with ample crayfish and paua. The hut book's entries did not show anybody walking down the coast for a year prior to us, and one entry on return from an attempt said: "Whatever you do, do not try to walk down this coast."

The next day we headed south. We'd heard that the most difficult section of the walk was immediately south of the Kahurangi River, a short way from the hut. We decided to avoid this section of coast and instead head inland for most of the first day.

We walked as far as we could up the south branch of the Kahurangi River, which is only about 50 metres, until we came to an inaccessible waterfall.

We had no option other than to go straight up through the vegetation. West Coast bush is beautiful and unique, but also dense and lush, and navigating it is difficult.

There were many sections where we had to remove our backpacks and drag ourselves under, over or through dense supplejack and kiekie, sharp enough to cut our hands.

A GPS was certainly valuable in this situation, because it is very easy to lose your bearings and we couldn't typically see more than 30 metres around us.

Seven hours later, we emerged on the rocky coast north of our destination, Christabel Creek. Travelling along the coast was a lot more productive than in the bush. The coast at this northern end is comparable to the Kaikoura coast; tight rocky bays and granite headlands creating a challenging but navigable terrain. There were many seals on this section of coast, and it seemed like there was a seal pup under every rock you jumped on. The rocky headlands were easiest to navigate at low tide but even then we did plenty of boulder hopping between waves, and were often saturated.

There was no sign at all of previous trampers. Every new bay held a sense of excitement, a feeling of not knowing what challenges lay ahead. There were two sections where we were left with no other option but to head inland to get around the sheer cliffs dropping into the sea.

As we travelled south, the landscape changed quite dramatically. The beaches became larger and sandy, and the headlands became easier to traverse.

The landscape was similar to the western coast of Golden Bay: limestone formations shaped by the weather, with dense nikau groves running down to the ocean's edge. We dined on paua and crayfish every day and camped in the most spectacular spots under nikau. As we gradually got closer to Heaphy Bluff, the beaches became large expanses of golden sand and the native bush was quite majestic. As the southern end of the coast is more accessible from the Heaphy River, we began to see signs of human life.

To finally arrive on the Heaphy Track was a luxury. On our last night, we caught plenty of kahawai in the Heaphy River mouth, and fed all the trampers in the Heaphy Hut. We walked out to Karamea the next day, feeling like we'd been walking in a lost world.