Now thanks to swing bridges, a track and a guiding company, anyone who doesn’t mind getting mud on their boots can walk New Zealand’s most beautiful valley. (I realise I’m out on a limb here, but if someone knows a more beautiful one, please lead me to it.)
Twelve intrepid adventurers meet in Queenstown for an evening briefing. Operations coordinator Natalie Maxted does the introductions – Keith and Jo from London, with their boys Ben and Sam, Shelley and Will from Wellington, Richard from Sydney…
Max unrolls the map. The Hollyford Track runs through World Heritage-listed Fiordland on the west of the South Island. We’ll be tramping 40km over the three days, jet boating down Lake McKerrow, and finishing with a flight up Milford Sound. It looks great.
Max issues backpacks and rain jackets to those who hadn’t understood that tramping happens outdoors and suggests we get an early night.
At 6.45 next morning the Bleary Dozen board the Hollyford minibus that will carry us to the track, four hours away. When driver Suz phones our coffee orders ahead to the Sandfly Café, we realise we’re with an organisation that takes survival in the wild seriously.
Over lattes in Te Anau we meet our guides Bard and Blair. Bard has spent seven years leading Hollyford walks in the footsteps of his hero, the legendary Davey Gunn, and tells us his story as our bus approaches the road end…
When a light plane crashed near Martin’s Bay in 1936, tramping guide Davey set out alone to get help for the critically injured passengers. The nearest phone was 90km away, but he covered the distance in just 20 hours by rowboat, on horseback and finally hiking through unbelievably rough terrain. His heroic feat saved lives and won him a Coronation medal.
Suitably inspired by Davey Gunn’s example, we strap on our backpacks and set off. The undulating track follows the Hollyford River as it winds through mossy beech and fern forest, fed by the waterfalls gushing off the snow-capped Darran Mountains. We’re walking on a mosaic of bright red and gold leaves.
It’s magical Lord of the Rings landscape, but this trip isn’t just about scenery. Bushwalking with Bard and Blair is like taking short university courses in geology, ecology, history and above all, botany.
If there’s one thing the Hollyford Valley has enough of, it’s plants. Green stuff is everywhere. ‘This broadleaf is tutu, coriaria arborea,’ says Bard. ‘It poisoned two circus elephants in 1968. These are good to eat though.’ He hands young Sam from London some berries to taste. ‘You might notice a slight hallucinogenic effect.’ Sam’s mum looks a bit alarmed. ‘Joke, bro,’ Bard adds quickly, and we move on.
The Hollyford is far less crowded than some Fiordland tracks and we meet few other walkers. Blair used to guide on the Milford Track but says, ‘Too many people walk the Milford just to say they did it. Here they’re into the whole experience.’
After a few hours’ brisk tramping we’ve clocked up 17km. On track sections where navigation is no problem we can string out, walking at our own pace, though usually we stick together. The group is bonding and Davey Gunn jokes are flowing. ‘He must’ve carried his horse up this bit.’ ‘Are those Davey’s tooth-marks on that tree-trunk?’
At dusk we reach Pyke’s Lodge, to be greeted by Helen and Jenny, our young hosts. With a minimum of fuss they offer cleansing ales, direct us to hot showers, and serve a brilliant meal of venison followed by lemon pie.
Bard’s stories keep coming; ‘Davey’s son Murray was a character too. He was worried hunters might mistake his favourite brown mare for a deer, so he took white house paint and wrote HORSE on her flank. On the other side he painted COW. He reckoned city slicker hunters were too stupid to know the difference. Besides, he needed the milk.’
After dinner we go armed with torches to feed a swarming mass of eels in the river. Then we visit a nearby glow-worm cave before finally staggering into bed. Been a full day, eh bro?
Bard wakes us at dawn with a Maori song as Helen and Jenny prepare eggs benedict. It’s raining. Annual rainfall in this area is a whopping 4-5m, but ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, mate, only bad clothing.’
We slip on Goretex jackets and slosh along, our boots filling with water. It’s fun. It makes us feel we’re on an adventure, and we know there’s a warm lodge waiting for us tonight.
Crossing a long swing bridge takes us to the ominously named Demon Trail. It’s rough – twisted tree roots and treacherous slippery rocks along the banks of Lake McKerrow. On a wet day like this, even Davey Gunn would have found it daunting.
Fortunately we have Bard, and Bard has a radio. A jet boat is summoned to whip us down the lake to the site of Jamestown, where an ill-conceived attempt was made to create a settlement in the 1870’s.
The spot has a sad history. Jamestown could have been a major port for trans-Tasman commerce, were it not for the slight drawbacks that (1) the road to it was never built, and (2) sandbanks rendered the river mouth unnavigable.
Government planners abandoned the starving settlers they’d sent to take up the new land, and eventually the settlers were forced to abandon Jamestown. Now only rotting trunks of apple trees remain, above the graves of children.
We tramp on through ancient podocarp forest where tangled rata vines and kidney ferns cling to massive trunks. Our guides’ enthusiasm for the forest leads us to appreciate not only towering rimu trees 1200 years old, but also the tiniest orchids and ferns. Blair knows words like tmesipteris, which I intend to use in Scrabble one day.
There are streams to wade across and we’re wet through, but when we emerge at a hut in a clearing, we find that the hot soup fairies have left us lunch there. Maybe we’re not in total wilderness after all.
The rain starts to clear as we reach the rocky coast, though there’s enough mist to add magic to the peaks surrounding lovely Martin’s Bay. We make an excursion off the main track to visit a fur seal colony; then jet boat back to our lodge, which is tonight serving fresh Stewart Island salmon with excellent Marlborough wine. How’re the legs feeling, okay?
Next morning it’s a two-hour wander along the deserted beach and through the dunes, past old Maori hangi sites, where stones cracked by fire remind us that we weren’t the first to enjoy fine seafood here.
Bard shows us how sap from flax plants relieves the itchy bites of sand flies. Yesterday’s rain kept the sneaky little critters quiet, but now it’s dry they’re making up for lost time, feasting on my wrists and ankles. Surprisingly, flax juice really seems to work – they ought to bottle the stuff.
After lunch, Cessnas land behind the lodge to take us on a short, spectacular flight over the famous Milford Sound. And there’s Suz again with the minibus, taking coffee orders. We’re back in civilization.
Email addresses are exchanged and promises made to send the photos. Our thanks to our guides are heartfelt. They’ve been caring, intelligent, informative and entertaining. They’ll do it all again in two days time, but not for a moment did we catch them running on autopilot. We feel we’ve made friends.
You can walk the Hollyford Track independently in 4-7 days, carrying your own supplies and staying at Department of Conservation huts. This is a cheaper option, though you’d miss the botany lessons, the hot showers, great meals and the Davey Gunn stories.
Anyone of reasonable fitness can comfortably manage the tramp, so if you’re looking for a serious physical test in an open-air gym, maybe the guided tour is not for you. But it’s an ideal wilderness experience for those of us who enjoy a moderate walk in the woods, and these are some of the greatest woods we’ll ever see.
Richard Tulloch was a guest of Hollyford Valley Guided Walks.
When to go: The Hollyford Track can be walked year round, though summer is the most popular tramping season.
Hollyford Guided Walks operate October–April and cost NZ$1655 per person including all meals, accommodation, activities and transport from Queenstown or Te Anau. http://www.hollyfordtrack.com
The Land of Doing Without: Davey Gunn of the Hollyford by Julia Bradshaw
(pub.Canterbury University Press 2007.)
Tramping in New Zealand by Jim DuFresne (pub. Lonely Planet) includes guide notes and maps of the Hollyford Track.
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney