We depart early for the Hollyford Track, a three-day wilderness adventure through New Zealand’s largest national park, Fiordland, which spans 1.2 million hectares. An expertly planned coffee break in Te Anau coincides with the pick-up of our last three group members, and our guides, Mike and Tom, who are passionate about what they do. We can tell how excited they are to share their world with us.
On the way to the track, I realise there’s no chance of being hungry on this trip; scones and muffins are shared among the group and before long we are handed delicious-looking chicken sandwiches, muesli slice and apples for lunch. As for water, it’s straight to the streams and rivers, where the melted glacier water is clean, cold and ready for drinking.
The hike kicks off along a swing bridge. Although nerve-racking at first, it’s quickly over and we enter the lush green forest of the Hollyford Valley. Mike introduces us to our only predators: the ongaonga, or tree nettle, and the poisonous tutu plant. Before long the group is working together to make sure we don’t lose anyone to the deadly tree nettle. Even though we are different ages and come from various walks of life, there’s an immediate sense of camaraderie in the group. Keeping everyone at ease is the fact that we have five doctors among us, so any sign of a blister and it’s a fight between the guides and the doctors between who’s going to treat it.
The Great Outdoors
As we make our way along the track we pass green walls of vegetation and beautiful waterfalls. The cicadas are singing and our guides are sharing stories. Huge silver ferns glisten in the sunshine and despite the lack of rain over the past week, everything seems very lush. Rain falls in Fiordland over 200 days a year, so according to the guides the conditions are far drier than normal. Fortunately, for a first-time hiker it remains dry for the next three days. This almost means there aren’t quite as many waterfalls on show, although there are still many to marvel at. Fiordland is home to some of the most incredible waterfalls in the world, including the Sutherland Falls which cascade 580 metres.
The first day takes slightly longer than anticipated, although as Mike says, “It’s about spending time in the outdoors and relaxing.” He isn’t wrong. By the first night our feet are sore and backs aching, but our wonderful hosts at Pyke Lodge, Michelle and Olly, are ready to cater to our every need. After a delicious meal of local venison, we are taken to the lake where Mike proceeds to feed the eels. Sliding up to our feet, the resident eels are part of the sustainable food cycle at Pyke Lodge, making sure nothing goes to waste – including the leftover lemon tart.
In complete darkness we head back to the track where we climb down into a dry riverbed, guided only by the moonlight and twinkling stars, to find live glowworms in the dried banks.
The next morning we wake early as the sun rises over Mt Madeline, the clouds hanging low over the mountain range. We journey out to Lake Alabaster (Wawahi Waka), and take a jet boat up the Hollyford River and across Lake McKerrow (Whakatipu Waitai) to the deserted Jamestown. Settled during the 1870s, Jamestown was built on the promise of success during the gold rush and greenstone trading but was too isolated and by 1882 had largely been abandoned.
After tramping into an ancient podocarp forest and marvelling at the rimu and kahikatea trees, believed to be 1000 years old, we arrive at a grass opening. These fields are the work of David John (Davey) Gunn, who burned away a lot of the vegetation in the early 1900s to plant grass and herd cattle (see panel). Lunch is served at a nearby canvas tent where we happily rest out of the sun,
re-energising for the trek ahead. Stomachs full, we all are keen to explore the coast. Mike and Tom lead us out to Long Reef, where we look out over Martins Bay and learn about the local Maori settlements in the area that harvested pounamu in the 1800s and the legends of Maori chief Tutoko and his daughters.
The Fiordland crested penguins can be heard before they are seen and we spy one scampering
off the rocks and into the ocean. We also spot pup seals beached on the warm rocks, far cuter than they smell. We climb over the rocks at Long Reef, leaving a good distance between the colony and us. This is mainly due to the smell but also to protect the permanent New Zealand fur seal colony that has been established at Long Reef.
Arriving at Martins Bay Lodge via jet boat is more rock star than tramper. After warm showers, we congregate in the lodge around the fireplace, sharing paua that Mike and another guest found, as well as beautiful local smoked salmon and a decadent chocolate cake. Satisfied, we retreat to the lounge to sit in front of the fire and read the stories of the Hollyford pioneers, including the McKenzie family who settled across the lake after the hardships of Jamestown.
The final day on the Hollyford Track begins with a boat ride to the sand dunes of Martins Bay beach. While tramping across the dunes Mike and Tom share the stories of local Maori and settlers, including a visit to the location of the McKenzie family home. We hear of the hardships and struggles the pioneering families experienced and the determination it took them to survive. As we walk back along the shoreline to meet the boat, the dunes are covered in terns, little white birds with a black streak across their heads. It’s a calm day on the West Coast according to the guides and the perfect end to the Hollyford Track.
After lunch we wait in the lounge of Martins Bay Lodge like excited school children as three helicopters land on the front lawn. Before long our bags are loaded on board and we take off, waving goodbye to our wonderful hosts, Stephanie and Nico. The sheer size of Fiordland can only truly be understood once in the air. From the Darran Mountains down to Lake McKerrow and out to Martins Bay, the Hollyford Track certainly covers a lot of land. After thinking things can’t get better, the helicopter turns into the majestic Milford Sound; wide-eyed and in awe we are met with the sight of incredible waterfalls and steep cliff faces.
We land at the base of the Milford Sound and board our coach for the journey back to Queenstown. Remembering the pioneering stories of the Hollyford, we have infinite respect for all generations in Fiordland. The stories of heroism and the natural beauty of the scenery are unforgettable. As we reach Te Anau, phones start chirping; it’s apparent we are back in civilisation, with our own Davey Gunn stories to share.
“The Greatest Man that ever lived”
According to our Hollyford Track guides, Mike and Tom, runholder and bushman David John Gunn (1887-1955) was the greatest man that ever lived. For the entire three-day trek the boys worked tirelessly to prove their statement.
Gunn bought the property of Hugh and Malcolm McKenzie in Martins Bay in 1926 and began grazing cattle and cutting tracks through the valley. Gunn explored the Fiords for decades, leaving behind vast grass fields, a chain of huts and many stories.
He was the modern pioneer of the Valley, cutting a number of well-used tracks. After witnessing a plane crash at Big Bay in 1936, Gunn travelled 90 kilometres from Martins Bay to Marian Corner, a journey that normally took four days, in 21 hours to bring assistance to the injured passengers. Gunn was awarded King George VI’s Coronation Medal in 1937.