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Far from the paddling crowd

The Hollyford Track is wet and wild and lacks the traffic of Milford Sound. The south-west corner of New Zealand's South Island gives you a new appreciation of green. It's here in all its shades: the green beards of goblin moss overhead are subtly different from the green carpets of sphagnum moss and all the others in between.
 
I get a sneaking suspicion as to the cause of all this green at the start of the Hollyford Track. It is raining. Our band of walkers puts on waterproof jackets and checks that the waterproof sacks inside our backpacks are well sealed.
 
Our guide, Phil, says it rains two days out of three on average, though rarely this hard. "The waterfalls should be spectacular," he says.
 
We're in Fiordland, a World Heritage site and New Zealand's largest national park. If you think you know this area from Milford Sound, think again. Though only a few mountains and lakes away, the Hollyford Valley is a world away from the traffic and tourism of Mitre Peak.
 
Wild, isolated and breathtakingly lovely, until recent times this valley beat off all but the toughest of pioneers. Even the Maoris, who came for the greenstone they used in weapons and ornaments, didn't linger. Pioneers' plans to build a city on the banks of Lake McKerrow were scuppered by the sheer impossibility of the site, the weather, the vegetation, everything. They thought Jamestown might become the capital but sheep were never going to safely graze among beetling trees and mountains. 
 
All that remains of the site is a bronze plaque and some graves. Within a few years, the settlers fled to gentler, less spectacular climes.
 
Since then, adventurers have come here - everyone from mountaineers training for Everest to cattlemen and tourism pioneers such as Davey Gunn (you hear a lot about him) - but it is still a wilderness.
 
Now the Hollyford Valley is becoming more accessible, thanks to a company that has exclusive rights to accompany groups. The guided three-day walks provide everything that citified walkers could want: spectacular scenery and just enough physical challenge. There's a clearly marked track and swing bridges but also very competent guides, jetboat rides to speed things along, comfortable lodges both nights (with great food, linen and drying rooms) and a scenic flight into Milford Sound.
 
Fiordland is stunning. Milford Sound is the only fiord accessible by road but it is only one of many ravishing waterways. Millions of years ago, the glaciers did their work well across the region, gouging out fiords and lakes. Granite peaks, high enough to make Kosciuszko blush with shame, climb straight out of the water. 
 
From high up near the clouds, great gushing waterfalls plunge into fiords. Rare bursts of sunshine bring rainbows. On the lower slopes are silver and mountain beech that, as the walk progresses, give way to podocarp forests, ancient trees such as matai, rimu and totara that the dinosaurs might have munched on.
 
The Hollyford Track is the third most popular walking trail in New Zealand but it's well behind the Milford and Routeburn tracks in terms of crowds and degree of difficulty. The Hollyford Track follows a river valley towards the Tasman Sea so it's mostly level, more of a tramp than a climb. Each group numbers no more than 16 and walkers feel all this wilderness is theirs alone.
 
Our walk starts at the base of the Darrow Mountains and winds to the wild west coast, entailing two days of serious tramping (17 kilometres on the first, 12 kilometres the next), then a relatively light beach walk on the third day. It's been a while since I walked 37 kilometres but no one in the room looks frighteningly fit. And we can look forward to that scenic flight, plus a jet-boat trip down Lake McKerrow. There's also a chance to see giant eels, glow worms, seals and penguins.
 
Our party, a mix of New Zealanders, Australians and Germans, includes teenagers and people in their mid-50s. Basic fitness is all that's needed, along with a backpack, warm clothes, a waterproof jacket, comfortable boots, insect repellent and a good attitude.
 
Don't forget this last attribute. If it's raining, you'll get soaked. If it's still and dry, the sandflies come out in squadrons. They loom large in visitor-book comments at the lodges and there's no shortage of advice on how to defeat them: wear long sleeves, long trousers and a hat (preferably in dark colours), slather yourself in the strongest repellent and take lots of vitamin B. But we're walking in rain, so we're lucky.
 
Our adventure begins early, when a bus picks us up from our hotels in Queenstown. We meet Phil (a guide so enthusiastic about tramping that his idea of a holiday is walking other tracks) and begin the scenic drive to Te Anau, stoping briefly for coffee and muffins at the Sandfly Cafe, then continuing to Gunn's Camp. This eccentric museum of pioneer artefacts and amusing signs about sandflies was once Gunn's base. The toughest of the tough, he lived here from the late 1920s, running cattle and taking the first tourists into the Hollyford wilderness.
 
Gunn is a local hero. In 1936, the party he was leading witnessed a light plane crash at Big Bay, near the end of the Hollyford Track. The survivors were rescued and Gunn set out to get help. The nearest telephone was 90 kilometres away, through harsh country. Though he had a broken collarbone, Gunn covered the distance in an amazing 20 hours, travelling by row-boat, horse and foot. Then he journeyed back to pick up his hiking party. Gunn died in 1955, swept off his horse in the Hollyford River. His body was never found.
 
We have our first inkling of what Gunn went through. A few metres after passing the sign proclaiming the start of the Hollyford Track, the isolation is complete: the mountains immense, the trees towering and thickly green, the river (and narrow path) a tumble of water.
 
We always knew we were going to get wet. The only surprise is how wet. 
 
For two days, we move through a series of adjectives: drizzling, misting, steady, teeming, tipping, drenching, soaking, bucketing, driving, horizontal . . . put it this way: I no longer admire the Eskimos for having so many words to describe snow.
 
Every footfall causes a splash and we learn there is no point trying to avoid puddles. Better to follow Phil's example and stride straight through because that's safer and takes less energy. Sometimes the water is above the laces, sometimes above the boots and sometimes, during day two's creek crossings, above the knees.
 
Phil strides through it all with his two hiking sticks, talking knowledgeably about history and, especially, nature. His talks give everyone a chance to catch their breath without losing face. Every mountain has a story, every plant is unique: this moss can hold several times its weight in water, this one is safe to eat. And did we notice how yesterday's beech trees have given way to today's ancient podocarp forest? 
 
Phil talks but never too much, listens but never pries, recites amusing poems, hands out chewy bars to lift flagging spirits and makes us believe we have conquered this wilderness on our own. And it is a wilderness. Apart from the lodge managers and jet boat driver, we meet only a couple of people on the track who are not in our party. One is an independent hiker staying at a national park lodge, the other is a lodge manager in her 70s who walks from hut to hut keeping order. Independent tramping is huge in New Zealand and - if you were young, adventurous and broke - this would be a cheap and safe way to see this beautiful area. The track is clearly marked and the public huts, though bare, are clean, with cooking facilities and heating.
 
Even so, there is a wonderful sense of relief as, tired and wet, we enter the clearing around Pyke River Lodge. Inside is a drying room that transforms our wet clothes and boots into dry cardboard by morning, twin rooms with duvets, hot showers and towels. The lodge managers turn on a feast: fabulous cheeses on platters, followed by a restaurant-quality dinner that defies the difficulty of access in this remote part of the world. Wine is available at a moderate extra cost.
 
Day one is the hardest and longest day, so we feel justified in tucking in. It's also the only day we tote our big packs. On day two, we walk a "mere 12 kilometres" and carry only daypacks while the heavy stuff travels by jetboat to Martins Bay Lodge, our next stop.
 
We make our way to Lake Alabaster, then take a jetboat down the Hollyford River and across Lake McKerrow to Jamestown and beyond, walking through the podocarp forest, with its swinging ratu vines. Then it's on to the fur seal colony at Long Reef. Sadly, we have missed the Fiordland crested penguins - they swam south a couple of weeks ago - but the seals oblige by wallowing and cavorting.
 
The only complication comes courtesy of the rain, which has transformed normally shallow rivulets into deep streams. By this stage, though, it is almost funny - especially as we know there's another delicious meal and warm bed awaiting us at the lodge.
 
Day three dawns clear and bright. The jetboat transport us to the coast, where we walk seven kilometres through dunes straight out of Lawrence Of Arabia. The sea is a wild and glittering blue beyond. Back at Martins Bay Lodge, we board a pair of light planes to fly our party into Milford Sound. Fifteen minutes later, we land amid the daytrippers.
 
It's beautiful, of course, especially on a blue-sky day after all that rain. But does it compare to the unspoilt miracle that is so close and yet so far away? Not really.
 
Jenny Tabakoff travelled courtesy of Hollyford Track.
 
FAST FACTS
 
Walking there The Hollyford Track on New Zealand's South Island is a three-day guided wilderness walk, running from late October to mid-April. Includes transfers to and from Queenstown, a tour guide, all meals, towels, linen, jetboat ride and Milford Sound flight. 
 
Walkers need sturdy hiking boots and clothes, a water bottle, sand-fly repellent and blister protection. If required, the company can supply, at no extra cost, backpacks, rain jackets and pack liners.