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A land untamed

On the side of the Hollyford Valley track is an immense rimu that was a seedling 1000 years ago when no humans had ever walked this waterlogged way. The massive tree is in turn home to an ancient rata, whose multi-pronged branches spread around the rimu's trunk like huge arthritic fingers. Eventually, when we have long turned to dust, the rata will strangle its host and feed off its bulk as it breaks down over a century or more.
 
Time is measured on such an unimaginable scale in this landscape that is little changed since life first began on Earth.
 
Our guide, Chris Tapsell, heavily bearded like the first pioneers in this remote, wild country, is filled with wonder at Nature's ingenuity. His enthusiasm is infectious as we follow his explanation of fiords gauged out by the grinding force of glaciers and how the bare rock is colonised. Lichen and algae are the first to arrive, the one exuding an enzyme into the rock to extract life-giving phosphorous and the other drawing energy from the sun through photosynthesis.
 
Over the ages the rock crumbles, the rain seeps in, freezes and cracks it, mosses carpet it, sediment builds up, birds deposit seeds, then grasses and smaller trees like lancewood clothe it, and, finally, the big guns arrive - kahikatea and matai and totara and beech and rimu and rata.
 
Mr Tapsell marvels how everything is intertwined. Some seeds will only germinate through interaction with the stomach juices of wood pigeons, and are excreted over wide areas.
 
"Everything is working in conjunction with something else," Mr Tapsell says. "There's a helluva lot of stuff going on and you can't hear a thing.
 
"There is a very fine balance between success and failure. There's tenacity, little plants hanging on and one flood can wash them away.
 
"In nature there is no social welfare. If you don't make it, you die."
 
Fiordland's highest peak, Mt Tutoko (2746 metres) and its neighbour Madeline (2536m), both capped with snow and ice, loom across the valley, pushed upward by the meeting of tectonic plates.
 
The common denominator in this primeval landscape is rain. In Fiordland they measure it in metres - eight to 10 a year. Wellington's annual rainfall is a mere 1.3 metres.
 
The prevailing westerlies collecting moisture across the Tasman deliver rain two out of every three days. And it's not your namby pamby sprinkling. Rain here can be like standing under a shower turned on full, for hours, or even days.
 
The trip before ours, five days earlier, had to turn back as a torrent swept across the track and through the surrounding bush. But on day one of our guided tramp, a 17-kilometre amble from the road end alongside the Hollyford River through beech forest to Pyke River Lodge, the sun shines.
 
Ad Feedback Our 15-strong group was briefed the day before in Queenstown, where we were warned there would be sandflies and we would have to carry our packs into the Pyke.
 
It was an early start for the bus trip to Te Anau and on through the Eglinton Valley into the heart of Fiordland.
 
The Little Homer Saddle at 168m is the highest point on this easy day, where even the sandflies take a break.
 
There is unlimited hot water at the lodge, a sumptuous antipasto platter before a cheerful fire and wine and beer that can be ordered with the venison meal.
 
This is deluxe tramping that would have had Davey Gunn, who farmed semi-wild cattle in the Hollyford and surrounding areas for 30 years from the 1930s, shaking his head in disbelief. After-dinner entertainment is feeding the eels in the Pyke.
 
It is drizzling in the morning, which turns to rain that gets heavier through the day.
 
"If there's sunshine on the inside, mate, it doesn't matter," our cheerful guide advises. He deflects all inquiries about the weather with the response "it's promising". It's promising to hose down at this moment.
 
We walk up to nearby Lake Alabaster, where Mr Tapsell regales us with tales of the first Maori settlement, their discovery and use of pounamu and then the search for gold and new routes by the first European explorers.
 
Back at the Hollyford River a jetboat awaits and we hurtle down the rapids to the broad expanse of Lake McKerrow. We pull up on the shore and walk a short way into the dripping bush to the abandoned town of Jamestown, envisaged in the 1870s as a gateway from Otago to Australia.
 
The McKenzie family were its most famous settlers, but the bush has long reclaimed their rough homestead and all that is left is several petrified apple trees. When life here became too hard the family moved to the nearby coast where they could farm the shore strip and also keep an eye out for passing ships that dropped off stores every few months, if the Tasman rollers allowed.
 
It's a 12km walk on this second day out to Martins Bay and its seal colony. When one of our party pulls up lame with a painful toenail, Rex Nicholls - Wellingtonian and husband of mayor Kerry Prendergast - produces a pedicure set. "He is a metrosexual," someone mischievously observes.
 
The capital's first couple are among eight Kiwis in the group.
 
Veronica Garrett, a Swimming New Zealand general manager, and investment banker Mike Caird are from Eastbourne. Rosemary Jacomb, a dental assistant, and Jenny Terry, a NZ Nursing Organisation administrator, hail from Auckland.
 
There is also one Aussie, Ogilvy & Mather chief financial officer Claudia Gallardo from Sydney, a family of four from California and a Finnish couple.
 
Raymond Graham is a rocket scientist with Boeing who has been working on a defence project in Australia. His wife Jeanne laughs over the favourite family saying: "It doesn't take a rocket scientist, Ray".
 
Their children Shannon, 11, and David, 10, bound along in bare feet on the beach.
 
The Finns chatter in their strange Elvish language and take many pictures.
 
Paul-Erik Torronen, a software engineer, has lace-up boots and a cape and flows along the track like Darth Vader.
 
His wife Liisa Tikka is an accountant and dog trainer with enough metal studs in her face to keep an airport detector busy. They are a gentle couple, vegans whose careful diet excludes even honey.
 
"It oppresses the bees," Mr Torronen explains when Mr Nicholls provokes him. "Bullshit," is the response.
 
Dinner on the second night in the Martins Bay Lodge features delicious smoked salmon.
 
The third day begins with a short jet boat trip down the Hollyford estuary and across the river to the Martins Bay beach and sand dunes.
 
On a day when we walk only 8km Mr Tapsell has discarded tramping boots in favour of gumboots. "These are my camp slippers," he says.
 
Sandflies here can be ferocious, but again we get off lightly.
 
There are deer tracks in the sand, leading from stunted rimu swept by Roaring Forties gales and salt.
 
Mr Tapsell leads us to where the McKenzie homestead once stood. A pair of native falcons watch us from atop a dead introduced gum tree.
 
"This is a day to get your balance, to reflect on what you have seen."
 
To cap it off there are big southern dolphins in the river, thick with blubber in these cold waters. They surface by the boat and play in the wake.
 
There is yet one more bonus - the plane to take us out is not available and a seven-seater chopper is called in.
 
The flight along the steep cliffs and around into Milford Sound is spectacular. So is the bus trip back up the valley and through the Homer Tunnel, stopping at the top to view the water gushing off a forbidding cliff face - the source of the Hollyford.
 
There is much to reflect on. You cannot come to this unique place and not be moved by its unforgiving beauty and the tales of those defeated in trying to tame it.
 
* Tim Pankhurst travelled as a guest of Hollyford Track Guided Walks.
 
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