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The call of the wild

From the mountains to the sand dunes through some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable: New Zealand's Hollyford Track is a walk on the wild side of paradise.
 
Dismounting from the bus that has carried us through the dawn 300km from Queenstown via Te Anau, our disparate group shrug into packs, check bootlaces are tight and water bottles filled then cross the bridge at the Hollyford trailhead. We’ve already stopped in at the Gunn’s Camp museum on the way, so have a fair idea how rugged life was for the early settlers. This trek – the Hollyford Track – should be a walk in the park by comparison.
 
Fiordland National Park in the south-west corner of the South Island is New Zealand’s largest wilderness area. Over 12,500sq km of jagged mountain ranges and lush valleys, the World Heritage-listed park flaunts deep glacial lakes, pristine beech and podocarp forest, innumerable streams and waterfalls, a mindboggling array of birdlife and 15 spectacular fiords – hairline cracks gouged out of the granite by glacial friction over the past two million years. Maori hunted here and sought the precious pounamu (greenstone), but there was minimal permanent settlement – perhaps because the region is one of the wettest places on the planet. With New Zealand’s highest rainfall (Milford Sound averages 7200mm a year), a demanding climate (gale-force winds for up to six months of the year) and more namu (sandflies) than is reasonable to deal with in one lifetime, Fiordland is also home to some of the best “tramping” (Kiwi for bushwalking) tracks in the world.
 
The Hollyford Track meanders through rainforest flanked by snow-capped mountains, over rivers and creeks, past lakes and across giant sand dunes to greet the wild West Coast surf at Martins Bay. Between October and April – perversely, winter is the driest season – Ngai Tahu Tourism runs guided walks along the 56km track. Groups are small, the guides experts in local flora, fauna, geology and history. Jet boat rides conveniently bypass the trickier parts of the track and a chopper flight into spectacular Milford Sound is the grand finale. It is a journey bursting with nature, but also imbued with the spirit of the Maori and pakeha (Europeans) who settled here. The three-day trek is energetic, but not arduous, and at the end of each day waits quality downtime at a private lodge.
 
The track initially undulates beside the Hollyford River. The first impression is that so many shades of green should be impossible. Ferns and moss litter the forest floor and creep up an encyclopaedia of trees – rata, ancient rimu, totara, kahikatea, matai; silver beech-clad slopes morph to black granite as the cliffs reach for the heavens. The vege-tation is constantly changing as we move towards the West Coast. Snow decorates the crags; shreds of cloud tickle the mountain peaks backlit by a vivid blue sky. Towering above is Mount Tutoko, at 2746m the highest in Fiordland, named after the last Ngai Tahu chief who lived at Martins Bay until the 1860s, when relentless European encroachment finally prompted his departure. 
 
Dreadlocked senior guide Bard Crawford is a company legend who hunts feral deer (pests such as deer and possum are the park’s biggest threat) in his spare time, value-adding them into tasty venison sausages. His enthusiasm for the rainforest and human history of the region is infectious. To illustrate points of interest, he doesn’t need much encouragement to talk about Davey “the greatest man who ever lived” Gunn, who pioneered Hollyford tourism in the 1940s. As Crawford tells it, Gunn was 10 feet tall and bulletproof – the sort of man who could stitch up a groin wound (his own) with fishing line. This tough-as-nails farmer operated horse treks in conjunction with cattle mustering – two-week trips on which tourists endured indifferent accommodation and barely adequate food, but thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Somewhat accident-prone and unable to swim, Gunn drowned in the Hollyford in 1955.
 
After a riverbank lunch, it’s time to climb the 170m Little Homer Saddle. Streams appear from every other crevice, the water clear and deliciously cool. Moss shrouds tree roots like surreal shagpile carpet. There are ferns galore, some 250 species our other guide, botanist Peter Johnson, says. Without natural predators, the birds are totally unafraid – bellbirds practise their song routines, corpulent native woodpigeons lumber from branch to branch, fantails flit chaotically, one nonchalantly taking time out on a convenient shoulder. 
 
The forest changes again on the descent into Pyke Valley. Straggled out along the trail, walking solo at our own pace; the sheer presence of the forest envelops us like a coat. Huge, buttress-like tree roots hark back to the primeval. Branches, draped in hanging ferns like wisps of decaying lace, have a Dickens-esque spookiness. Many of the trees are hundreds of years old, some more than 1400 years, but the root systems are shallow and they are prone to topple when winds get wicked. Uprooted forest giants can be a problem on the trail after severe storms but, as Crawford says, “Nothing that a bloke with a chainsaw can’t fix”.
 
At regular intervals we get a breather while our guides dispense forest lore, the mysteries of bracken, how the ancient sandstone of the east coast of the South Island became the granite of the west. We learn what’s edible in the bush, sampling the leaves of a pepper tree, a fern leaf that tastes like walnut, the sweet sap from a fisher tree.
 
Crossing a swing bridge one at a time because of the sway, we investigate Hidden Falls, a mighty rush of water cascading down the black cliff, pummelling the pool below, the spray creating its own rainbow. That evening at Pyke River Lodge, sitting by the fire, glass in hand, looking out at snow-covered Mount Madeline (2537m), the pleasure is palpable. A repast of seared venison tops it off. Crawford hosts a nocturnal visit to the local glow-worm colony – like stars in the mud – then we feed a flotilla of fat eels at the river’s edge. Natured out, even the sawmill tones of my roommate – “Ray from Birmingham” could snore for England – can’t prevent an immediate coma. 
 
The next morning it is raining, not an uncommon occurrence. Following a huge breakfast, it’s off into the temperate, and soggy, rainforest. Giant 800-year-old rimu, monstrous old rata, male and female, hanging gardens of ferns and orchids bedeck their hosts. The rain is steady, but not overpowering and the foliage looks even greener. It smells superb, invigoratingly fresh.
 
First stop Lake Alabaster, so still it’s almost frozen. Maori traders once built big waka (40-60-foot, double-hulled trading canoes) here for the Polynesian pounamu trade. We hesitate to talk for fear of disturbing the serenity. Crossing the fast-flowing Pyke on the longest suspension bridge in Fiordland, Crawford yarns about an 1880s survey party whose boat capsized. One surveyor drowned; another was marooned on McKerrow Island for 15 days – shirtless. He survived by eating birds. The voracious sandflies ate him. If you bring one thing apart from boots, it should be insect repellent. 
 
A jet boat waits for the next stage of the trip, avoiding the tricky 10km Demon Trail, which is only for desperados and masochists. The jet boat powers into the confluence of the Hollyford River and shoots the rapids, manoeuvring around jagged rocks, underwater snags, shallows, gravel bars and floating logs. We emerge like a cork from a bottle into Lake McKerrow, very deep and home to seals and at least one bottlenose dolphin. The bottom 13m is actually salt water as the lake was once a fiord before being cut off from the sea by a moraine. The boat hits the beach at Jamestown – now just a memorial plaque in the silent forest. Jamestown was the site of an ill-conceived settlement first surveyed in 1870. The brainchild of speculators and corrupt politicians, it was sold to gullible settlers as the Promised Land, talked up by the press in Queenstown and Dunedin as the future capital of the West Coast. Ominously, the first settler ship was unable to navigate the river and the settlers were starved out, the venture collapsing by the early 1880s; the site reclaimed by the waiting bush soon after. 
 
The forest changes again after the track crosses the Jerusalem River – or where it was until seven metres of gravel was deposited in a flood and the river changed course. The trail now winds through former dunes covered in secondary growth forest. Squadrons of sandflies lurk in the shade. The sound of surf has been a soundtrack for some time, finally the Tasman Sea appears through the trees. Sloshing through mud, clambering over boulders, we eventually reach Long Reef, where a fur seal colony is in residence. Only females and pups remain as the males have moved south to feed – as have the local penguins. The seals are curious, but lose interest in us quicker than we do in them.
 
The jet boat takes us back up the estuary to Martins Bay Lodge, escorted by squadrons of seabirds. Ducks and geese drift in the shallows; shags watch from riverside branches. A white heron stands sentinel near the lodge. Its Maori name, kotuku, is also their name for Martins Bay. The herons visit each year from Okarito, up the coast. At the lodge it’s a smoked salmon dinner and a well-earned glass of wine before being lulled to sleep by the mopoke owl’s eerie cry. 
 
The third day sees an early start across the estuary to the sand dunes. It’s all a bit Lawrence of Arabia without the camels – through the sheltered valley between the dunes, sea spray in the air, the sun firing exploratory rays through watery clouds. The faultline between the two tectonic plates that runs across the lake and through the Darran Range is obvious from here. Along the path to the Maori village site – past a midden filled with cooking stones and shellfish remains – up to an old homestead where all that’s left is a fireplace. We pick manuka to make tea, learn about the laxative properties of flax and how to make rope by braiding its fibre. Back across the dunes, we walk along the ocean beach to the very end of the spit. At the narrow harbour entrance the wind lashes faces, the turbulent water running fast and cold across the bar – this is the end of the trail.
 
After lunch at the lodge, we board a helicopter for Milford Sound. Duran Duran’s Girls On Film blasts through the headset as we lift off carrying a pallet of old gas cylinders out of Martins Bay. The weather is wild, but not too bumpy, and the chopper is slowed by the drag of the load. The coastline is even more rugged than the hinterland. Over a ridge, turn the corner and it’s into Milford Sound. This is the fiord from central casting, a dramatic vista. To the right is the snow-topped slab of Mitre Peak, torrents of water plunging down every rock face. Nearby Stirling Falls is the height of a 50-storey building. Cruise boats dot the water below; but we have a much better view. From Milford village, a bus takes us over Big Homer Saddle. This subalpine setting is where the Hollyford trickles into life. It looks good from the bus, but tramping through it, breathing it and (occasionally) tasting it is a far better deal. A little further on is the Hollyford Valley turnoff, where our journey began. The circle is complete – we’ve walked, mostly, from mountain to sea. Time to take the boots off.
 
Source: Qantas The Australian Way November 2009