Spectrum 810. Man of the track
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A celebration in 1993 marked the centenary of the famous Heaphy Track linking Karamea with Golden Bay. Colin Baas, who first tramped the Heaphy as a boy, is now planning one last trip over it, aged 70. Baas talks to Jack Perkins about the track he knows so well.
Athough the track’s centenary was celebrated in 1993, Perkins explains that it has only risen in prominence over the last 30 years. Baas first walked the track in 1949 with his father, who worked as a teacher at Karamea. Baas followed in his father’s footsteps and taught from a school at the other end of the Heaphy Ttrack, in Bainham.
Baas often walked onto the Track with his dog to hunt deer, not for venison but for the skins, which could sell for a good price. The huts had wire mesh bunks, lined with ferns and were populated with fleas. They wore hobnail boots and carried grey woollen blankets. The Ellis pack, with its triangular frame, he explains was good for breaking through bush.
Notorious for its rainfall and being persistently muddy and damp, Baas refers to the Heaphy as ‘the longest ditch in New Zealand’. Prior to the introduction of portable gas stoves, he says superior fire lighting skills were needed and involved a candle and rubber bands or gumboots.
In his early years when few people ventured onto the Heaphy he notes populationhs of kaka and pigeons were good. Deer, also un-used to people, would bark back at humans approaching. They would shoot pigeons to make stews with the potatoes and onions they’d brought with them. The land along the Heaphy is very fertile and full of nikau palms.
Baas recalls a history of tragedies in the area, people either being swept away down river, or disappearing without trace. His favourite hut is Gouland Downs where there are no modern conveniences - no gas and you have to bring your own wood. Big grey kiwis used to be heard readily there, though only rarely now. He says the fresh-water crayfish and pigeon stews used to keep them well fed.
Before bridges were installed along the track it was necessary to plan a trip around the weather forecast, to prevent getting marooned by swiftly rising rivers. However once, in 1970, he and his wife got caught out after leaving the Lewis Hut located beside the Heaphy River - the river level rose so quickly he had to navigate their way forward using a big stick, prodding ground underfoot below the water to keep on track.
Baas describes the wire and dog chain methods available to cross the Cave, Weka, Koura and Katipo streams prior to the installation of bridges. Baas confirms there is still an airstrip open on the Heaphy, though primarily it is used for gaining access to white bait. They discuss Half-foot Bill, the best camper Baas has ever known and who taught him how to make bread and judge the heat of a fire under a camp oven. Baas tells the story of how he gained this name.
When tramping with his young children he explains how they stumbled across notes along the track written from ‘Black Harry’. These were found in a variety of ways, such as words in the sand, notes in trees or attached to toys or sculptures. Eventually they caught up with the infamous ‘Black Harry’ who turned out to be a workman, working in a gang along the track.
Baas talks about the ‘old school’ hut etiquette of calling out before arriving at a hut so as to provide fair warning to anyone in any uncompromising positions, such as washing. He notes that modern trampers don’t embrace, or even know about this custom. He notes nowadays he often comes across ill-prepared trampers; wearing inadequate footwear or short of food. They talk about how ‘Boot Corner’ came about.
Baas observes how the modern tramping gear which is significantly lighter has encouraged trampers numbers, however he’s afraid the increase will put conservation at risk with their litter. Guaranteeing a bed in a hut is now a thing of the past he says.