Where the Maori looked for jade

Jon Lusk finds parrots, carnivorous plants and plastic windmills on a walk along New Zealand's Heaphy Track
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The Independent Travel
Indestructible but unwearable! My sister holds out a white high- heeled shoe with this inscription as my friend Declan steadies himself against a bizarre totem pole adorned with offerings from passing trampers. We are halfway through the second day of our tramp along New Zealand's 77-kilometre Heaphy Track. It is difficult to imagine the stilettos in active service on this terrain.

The Heaphy Track is a five-day walk through remote bush country in Kahurangi National Park on the West Coast of The South Island. It was originally used by Maori in search of pounamu - greenstone or jade.

We are greeted by clouds of sandflies at Brown Hut, where our driver from Nelson drops us. We don fashion-free plastic gaiters and smother ourselves in insect repellent to give at least half an hour's protection from the hungry and persistent invertebrates - like midges on steroids.

A long, three-hour uphill walk takes us to Aorere Shelter, the first place you can pitch a tent. No gas stoves or bunks, just a small clearing and a doorless shelter. We set up camp in fading light and gently falling rain.

I'm woken next morning by the raucous cries of kaka, a large brown forest parrot. It's an unmistakable rusty-nail-on-a-tin-can sound, and gratifying proof that we are far from city streets.

We drag ourselves away from the tent flies and restore feelings of humanity with a morning brew before setting off. Soon we reach Flanagan's Corner, the highest point on the track at 915 metres. The vegetation has become steadily more sub-alpine, with spooky dracophyllum grass-trees looming out of the mist, and spectacular alpine cabbage-trees invading the stunted beech forest.

The spacious Perry Saddle Hut is set in a magical, alpine garden of tussock grassland studded with various hebe species. Tiny carnivorous sundews thrive in the wetter parts. Some amateur botanising is in order, but first a mug of hot tomato soup and cabin bread smeared with peanut butter, which tastes sensational after all that exertion. Our shoulders are killing us.

It's literally all downhill from here; not so easy on the knees. The Gouland Downs are the most level section of the track, presenting a very different landscape from the previous day. For the most part, it's open grassland, though occasionally we pass through mossy copses of beech. At Gouland Downs Hut, two hours from Perry, we are met with curious stares from the local weka. The cheeky hen-like birds are entirely flightless and combine a canny distrust of humans with surprising fearlessness.

Only five more kilometres to Saxon Hut, on the other side of the downs, so we press on through easy, if sometimes boggy, terrain.

The following day is the wettest and most miserable. The landscape is stunning, but most of the time our eyes are fixed firmly on the muddy track. We pass into beech forest, which steadily becomes more of a lowland rainforest. Large, graceful rimu trees and lush tree ferns increase in number as we wind down towards the junction of Gouland Creek and the Lewis River and arrive at Lewis Hut.

A crowd of high-spirited fellow trampers has hung an assortment of steaming socks and T-shirts over the stove, well and truly obliterating most cooking smells. We are almost at sea level and only eight kilometres from the coast and the sandflies, which weren't so troublesome at higher altitudes, have returned with added savagery.

The next day dawns promisingly. We have an easy three-hour stroll down to the coast, crossing the swing bridges that span the limestone canyons of the tea-coloured Heaphy River. The billowing crimson forms of flowering southern rata and the world's most southerly growing palm, the nikau, give the vegetation a supernatural beauty. You could imagine dinosaurs still existing here. But all we can hear are the liquid chimes of bellbirds and a gently sighing breeze above the canopy.

Finally we reach the sea and Heaphy Hut which is in a delightful grassy clearing, kept short by two resident horses. They have also learnt how to turn on the outdoor tap and open the louvre windows in the kitchen with their teeth. They sometimes even ferry out injured trampers.

Our last day's walk takes us 16 km along the coast to Kohaihai shelter through a magnificent windswept coastal forest and often on to the beach itself. It's the most beautiful part of the park, and explains why Heaphy hut is often crowded.

At one point we pass a cluster of tiny plastic windmills, a tragic fluttering memorial to a group of trampers who went swimming in the wild grey-green Tasman Sea and never came back. A nearby fur seal seems unimpressed, belching its fishy breath at us and lumbering off into the surf.

Soon we're crossing our last bridge and before we know it there are campervans, barking dogs, rubbish bins and a telephone. Plus transport. Suddenly thoughts of TV, Jacuzzis, soft clean sheets and hotel meals make The Last Resort hotel in Karamea seem like our first priority. New Zealand Survival Guide

Getting there

New Zealand is almost diametrically opposite Britain, so you can cheerfully set off in whichever direction you like in the knowledge that you will get there eventually. How much you pay depends more on the time of year than on the route you choose. If you can, take advantage of the fares war that is in progress for the period from November to April - summer in New Zealand. Be warned that fares rise sharply for the Christmas period. But at other times, you can expect to pay around pounds 800 through discount agents for a return to Auckland or Christchurch from London or Manchester.

Getting in

Visas are not required by British passport holders for short visits, though your passport must have at least six months to run.

Getting around

Air: the two main airlines are Air New Zealand and Ansett NZ. Foreign visitors can buy airpasses, but these must be purchased in advance. Indeed, it is a good idea to buy all air tickets in advance because this enables you to avoid General Sales Tax of 12.5 per cent.

Rail and bus: the leading operator of both trains and buses is InterCity, a nationalised concern. The company's Travelpass allows unlimited travel on trains, buses and the inter-island ferries, costing around pounds 150 for any eight days of travel in a fortnight.

Car rental: you can hire cars easily and cheaply. For example, Budget (0800 181181) charges pounds 250 for a week's hire of a small hatchback in October, if you book in advance. Be warned, however, that driving standards are poor and the accident rate is high.

Hitch-hiking: New Zealand is one of the easiest countries in the world for hitch-hiking, though the practice is rendered risky by the road accident statistics.

Accommodation

New Zealand specialist operators can supply hotel passes, providing flat- rate accommodation at properties around the country. With the Flag Hotel pass, for example, you buy as many vouchers as you need at around pounds 40 each, and can obtain refunds on any that remain unused. The YHA Travel Pass is valid at the country's extensive network of hostels, and has the advantage that the first hostel will arrange to pick you up from the airport on arrival. And even if you have no intention of staying in a youth hostel, a membership card can qualify you for a range of discounts.

Further information

The New Zealand Tourism Board is based at 80 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4TQ (0839 300900, a premium-rated number).

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