For many generations, Golden Bay Māori travelled to central Westland, where they sought pounamu (greenstone) for tools, weapons and ornaments. They followed a trail over Gouland Downs from the Aorere to the Whakapoai (Heaphy River) and also travelled the treacherous coast north of the Heaphy River mouth, risking wave-swept beaches and rounding huge bluffs using flax ladders.
The track is named after Charles Heaphy. In 1846, while a draughtsman with the New Zealand Company, he and Thomas Brunner, a surveyor with the company, were the first Europeans to traverse the coastal portion of the modern track. At the time, they were on an exploratory trip along the west coast with a Māori guide, Kehu.
The inland portion of the route remained uncrossed by Europeans for more than a decade after Heaphy’s coastal trek. A gold miner named Aldridge is believed to have traversed it first, in 1859, followed in 1860 by James Mackay, a warden on the Collingwood goldfields. Over the ensuring years the route was developed to a pack-track standard by prospectors, but by 1900 it was overgrown and infrequently used. With the 1965 establishment of the former North-west Nelson Forest Park, the track was cleared again for use by the public.
Controversy arose in the early 1970s over a proposed road from Collingwood to the West Coast. The former New Zealand Forest Service improved the track facilities and now a route with a long tradition of use for commerce has a new life as a premier tourist attraction.
Trampers staying at Heaphy Hut are resting right next to one of New Zealand’s oldest and most interesting archaeological sites.
The nearby bank of the Heaphy River was once a 13th to 14th century village, settled by people whose parents or grandparents could well have been born in Polynesia.
As is typical of early sites in New Zealand, many types of stone sourced from throughout the country were used at the Heaphy for tool manufacturing; argillite from D'Urville Island, obsidian from Mayor Island (east coast of North Island), chert from central Otago, West Coast greenstone and Heaphyite.
The abundance of stone from many sources adds weight to the idea that the first people in New Zealand explored the country quickly, readily discovering the best stone.
“Sections of stone paving were found at the site during excavations in the 1960s, which is extremely rare for early New Zealand archaeological sites. This was however quite common in parts of Polynesia”, reports DOC Technical Support Officer Jackie Breen.
The site was first excavated in 1961, which is just as well because two thirds of the original site has now eroded. A team from DOC, the University of Otago, the Historic Places Trust and Ngati Waewae is recording as much of the remaining site as possible before the river reclaims it.