Bridges over Heaphy's troubled water

01:42, May 02 2014
heaphy bridge
GETTING OVER IT: Minister of Conservation Nick Smith, right, and DOC director Jan Hania at the opening of three bridges along Aorere Valley Road leading to the northern part of the Heaphy Track.

New road bridges on the main route to the Heaphy Track from Collingwood are being hailed by locals who have rescued trapped trampers from swollen creeks.

Three new bridges were officially opened yesterday on the Aorere Valley Road.

In an unusual move, the Department of Conservation footed the bill for the $630,000 cost of the bridges that would normally be the responsibility of local council to build bridges in its area.

heaphy bridge
PULLING POWER: A vehicle being towed out by a local resident Geoff Jones in December last year, at 17 Mile on the Aorere Valley Road.

Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith said it was a "pragmatic decision" as the bridges would provide all-weather access to the Heaphy Track.

The existing three fords had caused problems for people travelling to the track. People had tried to cross the fords in unsuitable cars, or when the creeks were swollen. There had been many people either trapped in vehicles crossing the creeks, as well as risking their lives crossing on foot in dangerous conditions.

The Tasman District Council will meet maintenance costs.


TDC transportation network engineer Selwyn Steedman said the council "could not justify or afford" to build these bridges.

The bridges crossed 17 mile, 19 mile and Fossil creeks, on the road leading up to Brown Hut at the start of the Heaphy.

Resident Pip Baker has lived in the area with her husband for 30 years, running his family farm.

Baker said shee had lost count of the number of times she and her husband rescued people from the creeks, and then had them to stay.

She said the Christmas holidays were the busiest period for them, and they always enjoyed the contact with the trampers and tourists they would rescue.

"We are sad to lose that contact with people, many people caught out ended up staying the night with us, and then have written to us. We made good friendships out of it."

However, she said the bridges would provide safety, which was more important.

Geoff Jones moved to the area from Christchurch six years ago in search of isolation.

He said he always tried to get people across the fords so they could go on their tramp. There were dozens of times he towed cars out, or ferried trampers across the creeks.

"It would happen every flood. We would get someone knocking on the door at 3am, stuck in the creek."

He said it wasn't only when the creeks were swollen that cars would get stuck, often he would have to tow smaller vehicles out.

Jones used to have a flat bed truck which he would load with trampers and ferry across.

He recalled one time when he faced treacherous conditions, the truck loaded with eager trampers. He got them across the swollen creek.

"They applauded and said it was great and big part of the adventure, but little did they know, I have to bury that truck the next day," he said.

Another resident, Julie Strange, had some harrowing tales about trying to cross the creek. Last year she had to be rescued by her late husband.

They had driven from Dunedin that day, it was dark when they tried to cross 19 mile creek.

She said there wasn't that much water, but they miscalculated the ford. He managed to get out and bring a truck to tow her out.

"It was terrible for both of us. He didn't know if I would be there when he got back."

They had damaged four different vehicles due to the rescue missions over the pat 15 years.

She said the fords were a "ticking timebomb". One German tourist was nearly washed away into the Aorere river after trying to cross a swollen ford on foot.

The new road bridges were part of a major programme of investment in improved facilities on the Heaphy Track that includes new huts at the mouth of the Heaphy River, at Perry Saddle and at James Mackay, as well as improved tracks and four new track suspension bridges.

Parts of the track were still closed after the pre-Easter storm. It was open from the Karamea end to Lewis Hut, but remained closed between Lewis Hut and Brown Hut at the Golden Bay end. DOC is currently working to clear the storm damage and anticipates that this part of the Heaphy Track is unlikely to open before May 12.