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Walk the Hollyford Track

You might not see them as you walk on the Fiordland track but hiking the Hollyford means walking in the footsteps of giants. When filmmaker Jane Campion tramped along the valley that marks the northern end of New Zealand South Island's Fiordland, she was struck by how she was experiencing the wilderness of New Zealand similar to that of the characters in her movie The Piano.

 "It was thrilling and moving to me that it was still possible to feel like the first arrivals in my country, or any country anywhere," she later wrote.
 
It's been called New Zealand's most beautiful valley and it's been drawing in people for hundreds of years, from Maori tribes to quirky characters like Murray Gunn, who spent 51 years living in the Hollyford Valley.
 
After a coach trip from Queenstown, our guides Mush and Kahu give us an introduction to the mind of Murray Gunn at Gunn's camp, a museum filled with hobbled together knick-knacks that are evidence of the "make do" attitude needed to get by in a remote wilderness area.
 
Mush tells the story of when Murray set out to stop hunters accidentally shooting his horses by taking his favourite horse and painting, with white paint, the word "horse" on one side and "cow" on the other.
 
"He said city slickers wouldn't know the difference and sometimes he needed the milk," Mush explains.
 
When Australians thinking of hiking in south-western corner of the South Island, they are drawn to the country's two most famous routes: the Milford and Routeburn tracks.
 
Walking up Little Homer Saddle, the high point along the Hollyford Track.
Walking up Little Homer Saddle, the high point along the Hollyford Track. Source: Supplied
The Hollyford Track, which winds through the Hollyford Valley, is situated between the two of them and, for those drawn to the pleasures of glamping, it has advantages over its better-known neighbours without the crowds.
 
Each year 13,000 hikers tackle the Milford and Routeburn tracks compared with the 2700 who hike along the Hollyford.
 
It is the only track in Fiordland at low altitude. Walk the Hollyford Track, and the highest point you have to slog up is 168m. Walk the Milford and you'll follow the zigzag trail up to 1154m while the high point of the Routeburn track is 1255m.
 
It's not only an easier walk but, if you take the glamping option with The Hollyford Track guided hikes, it is also more than just a walk in the woods, with jet boating and a helicopter ride thrown into the mix.
 
Freedom walkers, who hike the track carrying their food, clothes and bedding on their back, take four days to cover the 56km the route track and then have to turn around at the remote coast and hike back again.
 
Hikers with the Hollyford Track company cover a total of 37km on foot over three days, skipping 19km of difficult terrain of the aptly named Demon Trail with a jet boat ride along the Hollyford River and Lake McKerrow.
 
When you do reach the harsh beauty of Martins Bay at the end, rather than turn around and hoof it back you jump on a chopper and take the stunning flight up Milford Sound to catch your ride home.
 
Freedom walkers stay in the shelter of the basic department of conservation huts. Hikers with the Hollyford Track company staying in eco lodges, where you're met by your hosts with freshly baked cookies and have a chance to have a hot shower before pre-dinner drinks and then a three course restaurant quality meal.
 
Our hike on day one meanders 17km through native Beech forest with trees more than 1000 years old, with a stop for the brave few in our group of 14 to have a dip in a pool beneath a waterfall before heading on to the luxuries of Pyke River Lodge.
 
There are nibbles, drinks, showers, dinner and then after-dinner entertainment when Mush and Kahu throw the leftovers to the slithering mass of heels on the river bed.
 
Talk around the table keeps coming back to Murray's father Davey Gunn.
 
Mush and Kahu call Gunn "the greatest man who ever lived" and they might only be half joking.
 
In 1936, the reclusive bushman covered a three-day journey through the wilderness in just 20 hours, to get help for the survivors of a plane crash at Martins Bay. His journey involved rowing for hours against a fierce headwind on Lake McKerrow handicapped by odd-sized oars and broken ribs and then running the last stretch when the horse he was riding proved too slow.
 
That exploit, which earned him a Coronation Medal, just adds to the countless tales of man's toughness you hear as you walk through the unforgiven landscaping.
 
Feeling a bit tired after the first day's hike? Gunn once had to stitch himself up using a darning needle and fishing line after he suffered a gash that ran up his thigh and into his scrotum _ and then got back on his horse the next day to continue mustering.
 
The highlight of day two comes in the morning when you're standing in the thick forest that is growing over the remains of Jamestown.
 
In the 1870s, settlers came to Jamestown attracted by government guarantees that this would be a major port for trans-Tasman trade but a promised road was never built and a dangerous sandbank at the mouth of the river prevented boats from stopping. As supplies ran short the settlers of Jamestown starved.
 
The area gets up to 5m of rainfall a year and chances are you'll spend some of your hike along the Hollyford dripping wet.
 
A plaque marking the site of the failed Jamestown settlement along the Hollyford Track. Picture: Rod Chester.
A plaque marking the site of the failed Jamestown settlement along the Hollyford Track. Picture: Rod Chester Source: Supplied
Driving rain would only add to the atmosphere at the ruins of Jamestown as the guides recount chilling tales of hardships, such as tragedy of William Webb who, on a dark and stormy night, carry the body of his daughter three miles to the cemetery to bury her in a coffin he had made by hand only to return to his shack to find his young son had died as well. Without timber for another coffin, he had to dig up his daughter's body so he could bury them together.
 
After the chill of Jamestown, a warm lunch at a hidden bush camp is a welcomed.
 
Then it's a hike out to the fur seal colony at Long Reef before unwinding in the evening at Martins Bay Lodge where you can look out at the peaks of the Darran Mountains.
 
Our last morning is spent exploring the dunes and 7km beach of Martins Bay, and hearing more tales of hardship in the lives of the area's pioneers, before another jet boat ride back to the lodge.
 
As we make the trip back to the lodge, a pod of dolphins follow us further up the river than expected.
 
Long Reef and sand spit at Martins Bay Beach, at the end of the Hollyford Track.
Long Reef and sand spit at Martins Bay Beach, at the end of the Hollyford Track. Source: Supplied
We know we've been given a special treat when Travis, our jet boat driver, hands the wheel to Mush so that he can take pictures of the dolphins as well.
 
Back in Davey Gunn's day, tourists slept on beds made of fern leaves, skipped lunch because Davey thought that was for weaklings, and we were fed bread baked only after the mouse poo had been sieved out of the flour.
 
A lot has changed since then. One thing that hasn't change is the beauty of the Hollyford Valley that Davey Gunn saw when rode into the valley in 1926 and decided to stay.
 
Rod Chester travelled as a guest of Hollyford Track Three Day Guided Walks.