Karamea is buzzing with anticipation as thousands have already marked their calendars to trek this iconic trail.
The Heaphy Track is a journey that spans 82 kilometres through New Zealand's exquisite natural landscape. But its significance isn't only geographical. The track has deep cultural roots, especially for Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō and Ngāti Waewae.
Historically, it served as a vital highway that connected Ngāti Apa settlements and provided access to sacred limestone caves used as burial grounds. Hinemoa Conner, chairperson for Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, remarked, "The Heaphy Track is more than just a walking trail."
The cyclone in February last year wiped out sections of the trail, including three vital bridges. The most significant loss was the Heaphy River bridge.
Development West Coast chief executive Heath Milne said it was a challenging time for the local economy.
"Karamea is definitely eager to welcome visitors back, and the Heaphy Track is really just the beginning. There is so much to see and do in and around Karamea – it is one of New Zealand’s hidden gems," Milne said.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) has been at the forefront of the restoration efforts. Not only did they focus on rebuilding, but they also took measures to ensure future resilience.
Suvi van Smit, the department’s Buller operations manager, emphasised that while the quickest solution might have been to replace the bridge with a similar design, it was crucial to ensure that the new design would endure potential future calamities. The newly reconstructed Heaphy Bridge, relocated downstream due to hydrology concerns, is now described as "looking pretty spectacular."
This spirit of community, resilience, and collaboration is evident in how the entire Karamea community rallied. Businesses found innovative solutions to cope, such as Helicopter Charter Karamea flying people over the closed sections. As cafe owner Vinnie Dunford noted, locals kept businesses ticking, eagerly awaiting the track's full reopening.
In celebrating the track's reopening, Ngāti Waewae played an integral role in blessing the new bridge across Heaphy River. Following this, the community came together for a planting day, underlining their commitment to both their cultural heritage and the environment.
“Credit to the Department of Conservation and all the teams involved in reopening the track," Heath Milne said. "Their efforts to make the track more resilient showcase a real commitment to sustainability and the long-term interests of the community."
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