Walking the Hollyford Track you hear stories of Maori legends, stoic pioneers and one of the most puzzling rare-bird sightings in history.
Words: Brent McKean, Photos: Hollyford Track and Peter Tabor
THE last person to claim to have seen NZ's famed giant moa was a seven-year-old girl who lived on Fiordland's west coast in the later 1800's. Alice McKenzie kept a diary of life in NZ's most remote settlements and in her 1947 memoir she says in 1887 she saw a large blue bird unlike anything she'd seen before.
Alice examined its curved feathers and noted it had no tail. When she tried to tie it up the bird grunted, and when it stood up Alice claims it was taller than her. The bird left footprints 28cm long, far too big for any known living bird in NZ.
There's been much doubt about Alice's sighting but standing on the wind-swept bay, at the end of the Hollyford Track where Alice lived, if there was anywhere on earth where a bird thought to be extinct could still exist this is it.
Go with the flow
The Hollyford Track is unusual among Fiordland's major tracks as it's largely flat and accessible year-round. There are two ways to walk it, as an independent walker (the loop walk via the Demon Trail will take over a week) staying at the well-made DOC (Department of Conservation) huts or doing the three-day Hollyford Track guided wilderness experience with Ngai Tahu Tourism, owner and run by the South Island's main Moari tribal group, Ngai Tahu, and staying in comfortable private huts. Great Walks did the latter.
The first days begins at the head of the Hollyford Valley, the longest valley in Fiordland NP. However when Great Walks was there a landslide blocked the trail so we were helicoptered over it and dropped near our first lunch spot at Sunshine Shelter. It might have felt like cheating but the chopper ride was so spectacular we didn't mind (by the way the track has been cleared now).
If our tasty lunch was anything to go by I knew we were in for a treat. The two private hits have professional kitchens and staff who know how to fill the stomachs of hungry trampers with delicious food.
From Sunshine Shelter, the track passes through lowlands ribbonwood and podocarp forest draped with colourful mosses and ferns. It then enters tall beech forest before the climb to Little Homer Saddle, with views of Mt Madeline and Fiordland's highest mountain, Mt Tutoko (2723m). The track descends to Little Homer Falls (60m) and continues to the confluence of the Hollyford and Pyke rivers.
Fiordland has an average rainfall of seven metres a year so expect to get wet. If you don't have the right gear don't worry, the waterproof jackets handed out at the pre-trip briefing in Queenstown are excellent.
And I'm glad I took one as the heavens opened about an hour's walk from Pyke Lodge, our first night's accommodation. Hot showers, warm drinks and a roaring fireplace were waiting. After a gorgeous dinner, some pinot, and a briefing on the next day's activities I was ready for bed.
Horseshoe nails and whipcord
The second day is a combination of bushwalking and jet boating. First up was a lovely walk beyond the lodge to see a memorial dedicated to Davey Gunn (1887 - 1995), a name synonymous to the region. Our guide Graeme Scott, whose knowledge of all things Hollyford was limitless, loved telling us about old Davey, who moved to the region in 1962 to raise and sell cattle.
By 1929 he had bought up leases covering 25,000 acres in the valley. Life was far from easy and even a cattle drive took four months and covered almost 300km. Because of this Davey's business wasn't too successful but over time he became a superb bushman and in 1936 began guiding tramping parties down the Hollyford Track , which he continued to do for the rest of his life. On his plaque Davey is affectionately known as the 'tramper's friend'.
However, this wasn't his only nickname. When Davey was chasing steer through dense bush he tore his thigh and scrotum on a jagged branch. Without flinching he stitched up the gash with darning needle and some old fishing gut. From that day on he was also known as 'the man made of horseshoe nails and whipcord'.
After the walk we boarded a jet boat that roared up Lake McKerrow to the remains of an old settlement called Jamestown. There's not much left now, just some ancient rose bushed and apples trees planted by the early pioneers, but when it was surveyed in 1870 there were visions of a booking township.
However, Jamestown was doomed by its isolation and logistics of getting goods there, with ships sailing along the west coast and crossing a dangerous sandbar near Martins Bay. By 1879 most of the families had left. Only one remained, the McKenzies (Alice and her folks) and they stayed until there until they sold the property to our mate Davey Gunn om 1926.
The wild, wild west coast
From Jamestown we walked to Martins May, again in wonderful wilderness, made more pristine by the rain that gave everything a bright sheen as if the bush had just been repainted.
The first part of the trial lasses ancient forest giants such as native rimu, totara and kahikatea - up to 1000 years old - before entering podocarp forest of a dense undergrowth of shrubs, ferns and tree-ferns.
If you're into photography take a macro lens as you'll get some amazing images.
Graeme showed us some bushtucker such as berries and ferns. I wouldn't recommend just going into the NZ bush and munching on the first fern you see. The country has over 300
types and only seven edible! We tried the butting-tasting hen and chicken fern - you only east the inner frond known as bush asparagus or pikopiko in Mapri. Eventually the forest opens out onto a coast trail and the smell of salt sits heavily in the air. Welcome to the NZ's wild west coast; thundering surf, miles of misty shoreline and a few furry locals - seal and penguins.
Graeme quietly lead the way around large boulders as he scouted for some these shy creatures and we weren't disappointed. Rare Fiordland crested penguin and New Zealand fur seals waddled around.
Everyone loved it, except some of the larger seals that gave several loud grunts to express their annoyance. And you don't want to disturb a grumpy six-foot sea. Se we took our leave, hopped back on the jet boat and headed to Martins Bay Lodge across the river for another social evening in top class accommodation.
The sands of time
After breakfast Graeme assembled the troops for our last day of exploring, this time in the sand dunes of Martins Bay. Maori were the first to settle here - there's evidence of their occupation in the form of shell middens scattered among the dunes - though by the time the Europeans arrived in the mid-19th century, only a handful of Maori remained int he area. One of these Tutoko, for whom Mount Tutoko was names.
Graeme too us to the remains of the McKenzie homestead and told us more stories of life back then. After the McKenzie's sold up and left in the 1920's our mate Davey Gunn moved in and began clearing land around Martins Bay, badly cutting his hand with a slash-hook while on his horse.
Now, being Davey, he didn't want to make a fuss so he wrapped up his bleeding wound and kept on working. After a couple of days the cut was still troubling him so he and his brother Fraser set off for Queenstown to seek medical attention. Flooded rivers slowed their progress and it took five days before Davey saw a doctor, almost dying of blood poisoning. But after several days in hospital with his hand soaked in hot iodine bath, Davey and his hand recovered and soon enough he was back working in Martins Bat. Sounds like good experience for someone who would one day sew up his torn scrotum.