Immerse yourself in majestic Fiordland, where you will find the story behind one of the country’s most beautiful areas. Justine Tyerman tunes her senses to the language of the wilderness on the Hollyford Track
The journey to the highest point
The swing bridge over the Humboldt Creek at the start of the Hollyford Track is like a causeway to another world.
As we set off on our three-day guided walk along the 43km track from the mountains to the sea, we enter an enchanted forest, populated by ancient trees twisted into humanesque forms, stoically supporting a tangled mass of rt vines, epiphytes and fungi. There’s an absence of sharp shapes in the forest, where everything is draped in soft green moss sparkling with diamanté droplets after overnight rain. Walking under the protective canopy of trees and ferns, the bright sunshine is filtered to soft mottled light. It’s as soothing to the eye as the cool moist air is on the skin.
Apart from the muffled footfall of hiking boots on leaf litter, the only sounds are those of nature’s repertoire interspersed with the joyful chortles of birds. The volume builds from the conversational gurgle of the Hollyford River to the thunderous roar of the Hidden Falls, as the cascades fight to be first through the cleft in the rocks in a flurry of foam and spray.
After a picnic lunch on a sunny beach beside the blue-green, gin-clear river, with the Darran Mountains rising steeply above us, we climb to the track’s highest point at Little Homer Saddle, all of 168m. Fiordland’s tallest mountain in the area, the lofty snow-capped Mt Ttoko (2746m), named after Maori chief Ttoko, is visible from the top of the saddle, peeking through the cloud shroud.
For those who need to catch their breath, there are frequent stops along the track. We paused to listen to guide Graeme Scott, who peppers botanical knowledge with light-hearted comical moments. He tells us botanists “go gaga” over the plant life in the valley, like the 460-million-year-old ‘hanging fork fern’ (Tmesipteris). He then introduces us to the avian equivalent of a pub for wood pigeons. They fall off their perches, drunk with over-indulging on the fruit of the miro (Prumnopitys ferruginea) tree.
We also hear about the first people to arrive in the area. Ngi Tahu’s ancestors established a coastal village at Martins Bay between 1650 and 1800, gathering food from the sea, lakes, rivers and forests, guarding the highly prized pounamu trails of the region, and building waka from the giant trees of the forests.
Ngi Tahu Tourism purchased the Hollyford Track business in 2003.
The beaming smiles of our Pyke Lodge hosts are a welcome sight at the end of our 20km hike. After refreshments and hot showers, we are treated to elegant canapés and fine New Zealand wines beside a roaring fire, followed by succulent venison and lemon tart with a passion fruit topping.
After dinner, we follow a gumbooted Graeme to the river, where we watch him feed a family of voracious eels. Later, we visit tiny glow-worms, where all sorts of comments are said after learning their lights shine from their rear ends.
For a tramper accustomed to basic Department of Conservation huts, sleeping in my own bedroom in a real bed with crisp sheets, soft pillows and a hot water bottle is heaven.
Demon Trails, a legendary bushman and the South Island’s ‘capital’
The second day starts with an easy walk to Lake Alabaster, where the term ‘mirror lake’ was coined. Wisps of diaphanous mist veil the mountains, giving the place an ethereal beauty.
Along the way we hear the story of the legendary cattleman-bushman Davey Gunn, whose 90km mercy dash in 20 hours saved the lives of those injured in a plane crash at Big Bay in 1936.
We walk across Pyke River on Fiordland’s longest swing bridge to view the start of the infamous Demon Trail, so-named for very good reason. We are more than happy to jump in a jetboat and bypass the Demon, whizzing down the rapids of the Upper Hollyford River and along the waters of Lake McKerrow to historic Jamestown.
Standing by a small plaque at the centre of where the settlement once stood, Graeme explained that Jamestown, founded in 1870, was supposed to become the capital of the South Island. He told us heart-rending stories of the early pioneers who led such harsh lives in this beautiful but unforgiving land.
Late on day two, we emerge from the podocarp forest of giant rimu, ttara, kahikatea and rt at Martins Bay to the deafening sound of the Tasman Sea pounding the remote West Coast beach.
A colony of fur seals inhabits Long Reef, the exposed headlands at the northern end of Martins Bay. Graeme warns us not to pup-nap the appealing liquid-eyed babies that are playing in pools sheltered from the waves by massive boulders. The other residents of Long Reef, the rare Fiordland crested penguins, are sadly elsewhere.
Luxury awaits us at Martins Bay Lodge, where our group, now well-bonded, shares wine, hors d’oeuvres and animated conversation by the fire before feasting on delicious hot-smoked salmon and the best brownie I have ever tasted.
Once was a glacier
Our last day is spent at Martins Bay Spit, exploring the 8km stretch of granite-sand beach and surreal, storm-blasted sand dunes. The area had been subjected to extraordinarily violent weather, and possibly a tsunami, in the 1700s. We see evidence of Mori fire sites, umu (earth ovens) and middens (rubbish dumps) dating back hundreds of years. It is staggering to think the kilometre-high glacier that carved the Hollyford Valley once stretched 10km out to sea from where we stood.
The pièce de résistance is saved until the end. After a sumptuous lunch on the last day, the characteristic beat of rotor blades sets my pulse racing. Soon after, helicopters appear on the lodge lawn to whisk us to Milford Sound, passing low over the dramatic coastline and close by iconic Mitre Peak and the Stirling and Bowen falls. I sit on the edge of my seat, heart pounding, wishing I had a remote control to replay the last three days of my life.
To book the Hollyford Track Guided Walk (hollyfordtrack.com) – the Hollyford Track Guided Walk is an easy-paced, three-day/two-night all-inclusive guided wilderness experience from the mountains to the sea, along the glacier-hewn Hollyford Valley by foot, jet boat and finally helicopter to Milford Sound. The track is 56km long, of which hikers walk 43km. The low-altitude, largely flat track begins 100km from Te Anau in beech and fern forest, descends to coastal podocarp forests and ends at the sand dunes of Martins Bay at the mouth of the valley. Expert guides, first-rate cuisine, comfortable lodges with private bedrooms, transport from Queenstown or Te Anau, day packs and rain jackets are included in the price. Hikers carry a light pack with clothing and lunch on their first day and thereafter an even lighter day pack to hold wet weather gear and water. A maximum number of 16 guests provides for a highly personal experience.
Be sure to take – insect repellent, long-sleeved shirts and leggings to protect against sandflies; a notebook to jot down some of the fascinating facts and stories told by your guide.
Handy hint – the Hollyford Track is flat and accessible for all levels of fitness, so a guided walk would be a great surprise gift for a significant birthday or anniversary.