Great Walks Challenge

The Challenge.

  • Complete ALL 9 of New Zealand’s Great Walks in less than 7 days
  • 550km of trail running (including 145km of kayaking)
  • 15km+ of ascent in total
  • 3,200km of logistics between the Great Walks
  • Previous Record: 9 days, 23 hours (Ben Southall, Luke Edwards & Patrick Kinsella)

Which Trail to choose?

I was lucky enough to join Ryan on yet another of NZ’s incredible challenges; to complete the nine New Zealand Great Walks in less than seven days. I know Ryan as part of the internationally ranked Bivouac/Inov-8 Adventure Racing Team and after hearing his shouts on social media for support runners, I had to go and join him on one of these trails.

I had a look at the dates and logistically, the most suitable for me would be the Heaphy Track, one that I had never visited before and ended up (after a bit of night time research) being the longest of the Great Walks at 78km with well over 2000m of climb along the way.

The Heaphy Track is indeed long but also is jam packed with 78km of incredible scenery. It is located at the northern edge of the South Island’s West Coast, amongst beautiful nīkau palm trees and stunning yet rugged beaches. In the direction we were running it, it crosses over from the wild West Coast through Kahurangi National Park towards Golden Bay, winding it’s way along the coastline, across rivers, over plateaus and eventually zig zags it’s way down to the Aorere River, which in turn, eventually flows into the Ruataniwha Inlet at Collingwood.

The Map of the Heaphy Track.
The Map of the Heaphy Track.

A map of the Heaphy Track – NZ Topo Map images sourced from LINZ. Crown Copyright Reserved.

My arrival

I arrived at sunset on Friday 18th December buzzing about my support run. Ryan, however, was still in Queenstown. He had just run a whopping 92km; completing both the Kepler Track and Routeburn Tracks in a single day, with well over 3500m climb between them. Not only that but the previous day he had run the Milford Track (54km), and before that the Rakiura (32km) on Stewart Island. His legs must have been knackered, and Heaphy was number five on an ever-growing list. I can’t imagine how he tough this challenge was for timing and logistics. In fact, as I arrived in the evening, he and his support crew (Nigel and Paul – who were awesome – thanks guys!) were driving the monsterous 12 hour mission from Paradise (near Queenstown) to Karamea for Ryan to start the Heaphy at 7.30am sharp on the Saturday, with Ryan getting as much sleep as he could on the road.

Sunrise in Karamea; the start of the Heaphy Track.
Sunrise in Karamea; the start of the Heaphy Track.

The day of the Heaphy

As the sun rose at 5.45am, the whole of the Tasman Sea and surrounding tropical jungle sprang to life. Birds flying, insects biting and the waves crashing on the beach infront of me. I had just over an hour to wake up and prepare for the track after spending the night tossing and turning in the back of the car, excited about the day ahead.

Logistically, the Heaphy Track is a nighmare. The start is on the West Coast and the finish is a 450km drive around to Golden Bay. Thankfully, one of Ryan’s support crew had volunteered to take my car along the seven hour journey to the finish spot – Thanks once again guys, you rock! – In fact, we beat them in the end to the other side after they spent a good amount of time napping after that huge drive from Queenstown the day before!

Ryan and myself at the start of the Heaphy Track.
Ryan and myself at the start of the Heaphy Track.
The Heaphy Track trailhead.
The Heaphy Track trailhead.

From Coast to Climb

We started off at a good pace with my legs feeling good and trying to get Ryan’s legs back into the rhythm. The first part of the day was probably the most stunning of the trail. It was semi-flat trail crossing beaches, streams next to crashing waves with nīkau palms guiding us along the coastline from start to the Heaphy River inlet. Ryan was moving well with his poles and new Inov-8 TerraClaw‘s on, especially after that 92km run only 12 hours earlier. Brutal! We moved quickly covering the first 17km to Heaphy Hut in just over 2 hours, making good time on the 14 hour estimate he had set aside for the day’s challenge. Here we had our first break, a stretch and some food.

The beautiful and rugged coastline of the Heaphy Track.
The beautiful and rugged coastline of the Heaphy Track.
The nīkau palms lining the route.
The nīkau palms lining the route.
The rest stop at Heaphy Hut and a tiny weka stopping to say hello.

We took on more water and carried onto the first of many climbs of the day. The Heaphy is supposed to be a 4-5 day tramping track, so there are plenty of backcountry huts along the way. To our suprise the majority have flushing toilets and the upkeep is incredible. Very different to some of the backcountry huts we were used to! Anyway, we headed up the first climb past Lewis Hut towards James Mackay Hut at 801m above sea level (which we were climbing from this time!).

The Push

We pushed this 12.5km section quite hard and it seemed to last forever. Even with our fully filled our water reservoirs from Lewis Hut, the baking sun was making it very tough on our hydration. In fact, Ryan ran out with about 5km to go so we dished up the last few mouthfuls, hoping to make it to the hut quickly. After another 2km, the trees started to turn into shrubs and as we passed a few trampers, the hut felt close! The sunlight was blinding as we got over the brow of the hill with the hut on the skyline. An immense view back down to the Tasman Sea and a quick break as we filled up with more water and food. Epic, just over 35km down now… nearly half way!

The view back from James Mackay Hut, the Heaphy Inlet seen in the distance.

Across the Plateau

From here we were running without shade. More sunscreen applied, food swallowed and water consumed, we pushed across the plateau to the next hut. We had slowed in that last section to a run-walk mentality, perfect for the hill climbing. This section, however, was a little flatter and we managed to keep good speed across the 12km to Saxton Hut where we had a nice 20 minute stop to really hydrate and sort out niggles that were starting to form: (a) my chafing and (b) stretching Ryan’s legs. Both felt much better after a ginger nut (thanks to an Australian family) and lots of fresh water (thanks DOC!).

The section to Gouland Downs Hut was flat and downhill – AT LAST! Ticking over the 50km mark felt amazing and we had broken the back of it – we even managed to find time to take photos of the ‘Boot Tree’ – a great mental break in the middle of the sunshine.

Multiple bridges across the trail towards Gouland Downs Hut.
Multiple bridges across the trail towards Gouland Downs Hut.
Ryan posing at Boot pole corner, one of many kiwi gems along the way.

The Final Climb

After leaving Gouland Down, we kept pushing towards the summit and the final hut at Perry Saddle. The track weaved in switchbacks upwards for a couple of kilometers before we finally found some shade. Phew.

Rules on the Heaphy have recently changed to allow mountain bikes on the track in Winter. This section to Perry Saddle is really the only section that’s anywhere near ‘technical’ so I would recommend those who don’t want to run it – to bike it! It would be so much fun on two wheels, and nothing like as technical as in the mountains of the Southern Alps – both Ryan and myself are keen to bike it next summer… but at the moment, lets just get on with finishing the run eh?!

So, we made it to the summit and met our last few hikers and trampers at the hut, and had a quick yarn to those who had made it up the steep climb from the other direction. They were wisely waiting for the next day to start their battle against the sunshine and the trail!

Going over Perry Saddle we were met my huge mountain peaks in the distance - the majestic Kahurangi National Park.
Going over Perry Saddle we were met my huge mountain peaks in the distance – the majestic Kahurangi National Park.

Down Down Down!

The only way was down from here. We unhinged. The route was not so steep to hurt your quads but was fast enough to let your legs unlock a little and get a nice rhythm downhill. For the first time in the day we were hitting between 4-5 minute kms! Not bad after running over 65km across from the coast across a mountain range! The trail felt a lot like The Old Ghost Road, one of my 52 Peaks back in 2013, to which I’m also getting ready to race in 2016, winding it’s way down the hillside like an old train track or where an old miner’s route would have been.

The Elevation profile of the Heaphy from West to East.
The Elevation profile of the Heaphy from West to East.

We ripped down the hill, only stopping for me to sort out my mega-overhydration issue (having taken on way too much water during the hot day). Past the Shakespeare Flat Track and a few kilometers of lush beech forest before Brown Hut at the finish line of the Heaphy.

We made it! Huge relief on our legs, and disbelief that we’d beaten the drivers round to the finish line. However, it was only a short wait until they appeared before dusk – all with food and water (and a place for Ryan to sleep), ready for the next challenge, the Abel Tasman Track in less than 6 hours time!

Overall it took us just under 12 hours to complete the 78km route across the country (including stops, hydrating and food). Our official ‘running time’ was 10h44m and the garmin made it 2887m of climb all up, so one huge day – and only five out of nine for Ryan.

Did he make it?

Yes, Ryan smashed the previous record for the Great Walks Challenge by over 2 days. His incredible time was 6 Days & 15 hours – one that will last for quite a while…

My thanks go to the support team of Paul and Nigel as well as Ryan’s sponsors; Bivouac Outdoor, Inov-8 New Zealand, Pack n Save Thames, Team Plumbing and Graceworks for making it all happen. Read the Stuff Articles about his challenge here and here or visit the Great Walks website.