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Hollyford Heroes

The Hollyford may well be one of the most isolated wilderness pockets of New Zealand, but it certainly didn’t deter some plucky pioneers from calling it home, as Mike Yardley discovered on the Hollyford Track. 

While roaming this major masterpiece of ravishing nature on a 3 day guided walk, my guide, Justin, remarked that vast chunks of Fiordland have never been explored or inhabited by man.

Hollyford Valley and the Darran Mountains


It’s a sobering reminder of the inherent qualities of this formidable alpine environment, this force of nature, which has elevated its stature as a largely unsullied national treasure. Maori history is primarily focused on Martins Bay, known to Ngai Tahu as Kotuku. It was an important food-gathering and canoe-building settlement between 1650 and the 1800s, alongside Ngai Tahu’s passion for pounamu gathering, which they used for tools, ornaments and weapons.

Canoe in the Hollyford

The first European explorers to view the Hollyford Valley were David McKellar and George Gunn in 1861, after traversing the Greenstone Valley to Key Summit, where they looked down on the long valley far below. In 1863, Patrick Caples was the first European to actually cross over from Lake Wakatipu and set foot in the valley, while searching for gold. He followed the river all the way to the sea at Martins Bay, which we named after his hometown. 


But beyond the gold prospectors, I was struck by some of the stories Justin regaled us with about the early pioneers who settled here, and the towering tales of breath-taking endurance, heroism and tragedy that unfolded.  As we strode along the Hollyford’s well-formed track in contemporary hiking attire, I couldn’t help think of those early settler families, with young kids in tow, trudging their way through the unforgiving forest, the females with their full-length, heavy skirts plastered in mud.

Lake McKerrow

On the banks of Lake McKerrow, we soaked up the story of Jamestown. Otago Provincial Superintendent, James McAndrew, had grand designs of developing Jamestown into the South Island’s new capital, a service town for the Otago goldfields, with a direct shipping service to Melbourne, where the banks were based for the gold trade. Streets for the fledgling settlement were fully surveyed with names like Lake Street and Caples Street. The first 17 settlers, of Scottish stock, arrived in December 1870, from Dunedin, lured by the promise of flat, arable land, idyllically gracing the shoreline of the lake.

Jamestown, Fiordland


Their ship, which was also carrying equipment to build a sawmill, ran aground on the treacherous bar, at the mouth of the river. They managed to salvage enough timber to build a few dwellings and a pub of course. And they kept the faith in McAndrew’s  promise of regular coastal supply ship visits, a bridle track and road development. At its peak, there were around 60 residents. 


But Jamestown was doomed, largely because of its isolation and that menacing sand bar, which capsized many ships. Insurers stopped underwriting ships servicing Jamestown. The final nail in the coffin was the lack of connectivity by road. William Homer was initially involved in scoping a roadway that would connect Jamestown with Queenstown, but the project was canned, after reaching the Greenstone Valley. In 1872, there was still no sign of a bridle track, let alone a road and Homer grew increasingly concerned at the plight of the Jamestown residents, who were literally starving.


Hollyford Valley

He gallantly spent 10 days walking to Queenstown to alert authorities of the settlement’s dire situation, and a ship full of supplies was successfully deployed. It wasn’t until 1886 that a rough bridle track was cut, reaching Jamestown along the Hollyford Valley and over the Greenstone Saddle. The last of the original Jamestown settlers to leave the area was the Webb family in 1896. Wracked by mass-tragedy, five of their seven children died in Jamestown, including a death from influenza on the eve of their departure.  

There’s nothing left at Jamestown to signify the broken promises, dashed dreams, and unimaginable toil, other than the plaque dated 1870 and some age-old ancient rose bushes and apple trees planted by those doughty settlers.

McKenzies homestead

One of the legendary pioneering families of the Hollyford were the Mckenzies. Despite Jamestown’s shambolic beginnings, it wasn’t enough to deter Daniel and Margaret McKenzie, who arrived by paddle-steamer from Jacksons Bay in 1876, with the view of running a general store at Jamestown. The captain deposited them on the beach at Big Bay, along with their three children including a young baby, a few cattle and all their possessions. The paddle-steamer wasn’t going to chance that notorious sand bar! So for the Mckenzies, to reach Jamestown from Big Bay entailed a 19km slog around the coast, over rocky headlands.

Click HERE what other heroes Mike came across on his travels in the Hollyford Track