A LOST WILDERNESS
By Shane Boocock
Images : Hollyford track guided Walk
Fiordland sunshine? Down in this neck of the woods it’s known as rain. And true to form, as soon as I set foot in Fiordland, it was buffeted by a cold southerly that dumped fresh snow on the mountain peaks and rain on the walking tracks! Thankfully I’d brought with me my 97% rainproof jacket, there is no such thing as a 100% rainproof down here!
Fiordland is well-known as the wettest region of New Zealand, and the proof is in the air as these mountains and forests are soaked in five metres of rain annually. Some people say you can marvel at a feat of nature. I say it’s just damn wet.
Lake Alabaster and Lake McKerrow, St Martins Bay, Pyke River, Mount Tutoko and Mount Madeline, these were all places I’d never heard of until I first set foot on the Hollyford Track. A prospector by the name of Patrick Quirk Caples became the first person to reach Martins Bay in 1863. After seeing a Maori encampment and fearing for his safety, he quickly scouted out the Bay, returning by the route he had forged, half starving. It’s rumoured he then ate every ‘Maori rabbit’ (rat) that he could trap. ??He named the route the Hollyford after his birthplace in Ireland.
In Te Anau we stopped for coffee at the aptly named Sand Fly Café after leaving Queenstown at 6.40am. It was a time to meet and greet Chris, who’d be our guide for the next three days. “The biggest industrial factory in the world” was how Chris described the forests of Fiordland, as we wound our way down the Milford Road surrounded by towering mountains and impenetrable forest to the starting point of the Hollyford Track.
Unexpectedly, the rain faded to mist and clouds dissipated to reveal blue sky. It was 11.20am. There were seven Americans and myself . . . an unlikely Kiwi. On guided walks you can never pick your hiking companions – as it turned out, they proved to be highly entertaining, as only Americans can be.
We hadn’t tramped far when Chris posed a question to the group about a palm tree. “Malcolm has a passion for palm trees,” shouted David, as Malcolm scurried to catch up to our discussion group. It was a scene to be repeated many times. The first day is 17km of track. It traces a low-altitude route along part of the 100km long Hollyford River on its downstream journey, so at least a good portion of the trail is easy foot plodding, with just one steep hill to traverse.
Chris had been a logger for 20 years before finding his calling as a glacier and tramping guide with a true passion for nature and Fiordland. Like a geography teacher on a field trip, he was in his element, pointing out dangerous berries, barbed creepers, unusual ferns, broad angular flax, flittering birds and the numerous trees that enveloped the precipitous mountains and valleys.
The canopy above our heads was a ceiling of towering trees, and it was impossible to see the summits of flanking mountain ranges. Away from the sinewy, single-file track, every nook and cranny seemed to be filled with ferns, moss, lichen, algae, fungi and other plants, as though nature had woven a quilt of verdant undergrowth together.
At one spot there was a fuchsia tree that had shed its bark, thereby preventing other plants from growing on it. The term is epiphytical growth, trees that start life as a perching plant high in the canopy of a host tree. As they grow they send roots down to the ground, sometimes joining together to form trunks, such as the Southern R?t? (Metrosideros umbellata).
Less than three hours after the first boot print hit dirt we stopped on a flat pebble beach on the Hollyford River. In thin air at 2,000m, a glacier was carving its way off a mountain. We were still not halfway to our first night stop, Pyke Lodge. The beach was a great lunch spot out in the open; it was also a place where Fiordland’s black flies were endeavouring to eat lunch, too.
Less than 1,000 people a year hike the Hollyford Track, the only trail that goes right out to Fiordland’s west coast. The track itself is relatively easy to follow and well-marked. Some people make the trip without a guide, staying in DOC huts overnight. However, Pyke Lodge and Martins Bay Lodge are only available on the guided Hollyford Track trips.
As much as I like hiking without a guide, this was a rare opportunity to learn from an expert about the temperate rainforest and some of the history behind the region.
At 6.50pm we reached Pyke Lodge. I took my boots and pack off and made for the lodge bar to buy a cold beer; a hot shower could wait. I contemplated my first day and tried to figure out if I could identify a rimu from a totara, or a kahikatea from a matai. I gave up and ordered another cold one.
Pyke Lodge was named after Vincent Pyke, a former Otago mining industry warden, in 1860. The current building dates from 1999 and houses a general dining and lounge room and has 16 bunk-type beds. Davey Gunn, a legend in these parts, first came to this location in 1926 and continued living in the Hollyford until 1955. After filing in a number of ventures, he became the first person to encourage tourists to the Hollyford by cutting tracks and offering accommodation in huts he rebuilt. Mind you, his huts were less than basic; earthen floors, sack bedding, long drop toilets, and mice infested. Meals consisted of rice and venison with maybe the odd trout, pigeon soup or a few potatoes.
That night, after a discussion with the Yanks on what Vegemite is and that Jim Beam and Coke comes in a can in Kiwiland, we tucked into dinner. Sushi, garlic prawns, hummus, guacamole dip and fresh bread for starters. Dinner was wild venison on a bed of kumara and potato mash with a warm summer salad topped with carrot and sautéed red onions
Day 2 – 12km. After we’d hiked to Lake Alabaster, we were picked up by a jet boat and whisked down the final stretch of the Hollyford River before crossing the wide expanse of Lake McKerrow, carved out by glaciers during the last ice. West of the 1860 settlement of Jamestown that was abandoned for good in the 1890s, we continued our hiking trip. The forest had changed. Ancient totara and rimu were swathed in vines.
It was misty and dark where water droplets ran off curved ferns – it was almost mythical like somewhere in Tolkien’s world. On the horizon storm clouds were brewing. A keruru or wood pigeon swooshed between trees. Chris had another name for them, “Illegal Tegel.”
The forest opened out where an ephemeral waterfall had washed away nearly everything in its path. At one edge, a hand-made depth gauge read from the lowest point upwards: Dog Paddle, Swim, Raft, Kayak, Jetboat, and at the highest point it read, Ark! David suddenly asked Malcolm, “Are you itching or just nervous.” It was like having The Odd Couple along for a hike!
We crossed over Jerusalem Creek and through coastal bush out to long Reef Point to look at fur seals before the Jetboat again picked us up. This was Fiordland’s west coast. Oyster catchers huddled together on a sandbank. A white heron stood alongside the ramshackle hut of a whitebaiter that reminded me of an old photograph I had of a bark-covered Maori hut.
Day 3 – 8km. After another feast for dinner in the well-appointed Martins Bay Lodge, we set of the next morning for a last hike as the sun rose across the sand dunes and sea grass on a long stretch of spit which bordered the Tasman Sea. As nature intended, the forest had also regenerated itself in a magical garden of growth tucked at the back of the dunes, but worn down by wind and weather.
Whenever something looked a bit tired or had seen better days, Chris would comment that, “It’s just suffering a little bit of ill thrift.” Malcolm of course had worn a pedometer on the route and finally calculated we had completed the journey in approximately 49,000 footsteps – don’t you just love Americans?
As we flew out of the lost wilderness of Martins Bay and headed for an overnight Milford Sound boat cruise, I realised the Hollyford Track was not a just a trail, but a chance to journey through nature and through life.
Open: October to April
Distance: Approx. 37km total hike
Cost: NZ$1,655 including GST
What’s Included: The Hollyford Track is the only guided walk to that combines, walking, Jetboating and a stunning scenic flight
Includes: Pre-departure briefing, specialist guide for the whole itinerary, coach transport from Queenstown to start of track, Lodge accommodation on the track in well-appointed twin share rooms, All meals on the track, duvets, towels, shampoo, soap, hairdryers and hot water bottles, Jetboat journey across Lake McKerrow, Scenic flight to Milford Sound, Return coach transfer from Milford Sound to Queenstown, use of backpacks and rain jackets?Optional extra: Overnight cruise on Milford Sound with private on-suite cabins