There’s something about a birthday ending in 0 that prompts people to do unusual things, especially when it coincides with an equally significant wedding anniversary.
A decade ago, we celebrated these milestones with a Hollyford Track guided walk, and last summer we repeated the experience … pretending we were no older than the first time.
Back in 2010, I was a newbie tramper, so the easy-paced, three-day valley walk in the breath-taking Unesco World Heritage Fiordland National Park was the gentlest of introductions to the noble activity of tramping.
The luxury of comfortable lodges, gourmet cuisine and fine wines not to mention a thrilling jetboat ride around the gnarliest part of the track, and a breathtaking helicopter flight to magnificent Milford Sound make it an ideal treat for a special occasion. And being mainly flat, it’s accessible to people of all ages with moderate levels of fitness. Hikers carry only light day packs and are accompanied at all times by guides with encyclopaedic knowledge.
* The Hollyford Valley – flooded and forgotten
* Why every Kiwi should explore Fiordland’s Hollyford Track
* Walking the Hollyford Track: A soul-rinsing encounter with Fiordland’s finest features
I never tire of Fiordland. It’s like a magnet to me, profoundly nurturing to the soul and deeply satisfying to the senses.
As we meandered once more along the 43km track from the mountains to the sea, the landscape seemed more spectacular than ever – the startlingly-clear blue waters of the Hollyford River fed by thunderous, foamy waterfalls; the vivid greens of the rain forest in the glacier-hewn valley; snow-capped Mt Tūtoko, and the surreal, storm-blasted sand dunes and rocky headlands of Martins Bay pounded by the relentless surf of the Tasman Sea. Our party of 10 had this vast wilderness to ourselves.
But the Hollyford is more than a scenic experience. At the end of three days, we had an impressive compendium of the botanical, Māori and common names of hundreds of plants and trees along the track, and natural remedies for all manner of ailments. Our guide Graeme even taught us how to combat scurvy with Captain Cook’s ‘spruce beer’ brewed from rimu bark and manuka leaves.
Deep in the forest, we heard about the genius of nature and the delicate balance between such species as the rimu and the flightless kakapo, our critically-endangered native parrot. The kakapo is only fertile when the rimu seeds, once every three-four years, depending on the warmth of the spring.
The Hollyford is resonant with the voices of early Māori, ancestors of the present-day South Island iwi, Ngāi Tahu, who purchased the track business in 2003.
Māori established a coastal village at Martins Bay between 1650 and 1800, gathering abundant food from the sea, lakes, rivers and forests, guarding the highly-prized pounamu trading routes of the region, and building waka (canoes) from the giant trees of the forests.
Standing by a plaque at Jamestown on the shores of Lake McKerrow, we learned about the harsh lives of the doughty European pioneers in this most remote of outposts. Founded in 1870, Jamestown was supposed to become the new capital of the South Island but the settlement was ill-planned from the start – crucial supply ships were often forced to by-pass the town due to foul weather, or sank on the treacherous Hollyford bar, and the promised road link to Lake Wakatipu never eventuated.
Stories about Davey Gunn, ‘the Trampers’ Friend’, who began guiding guests through the valley on horseback as part of his cattle musters in the 1930s, are legendary. He became a hero on December 30, 1936 when a light plane crashed into the sea at Big Bay, injuring the pilot and five passengers, one of whom died soon afterwards. Davey rowed and ran for 20 hours to fetch help, a 90km trek that would normally have taken four days. He was awarded the King George VI Coronation Medal for his heroic deed.
There were wildlife encounters too. We watched our gumbooted guide hand-feeding a writhing mass of hungry eels in the river shallows, and paid a nocturnal visit to a glow-worm cave where we learned that the bright light of the arachnocampa luminosa shines out of their rear ends! At Martins Bay, we clambered over rocks to a colony of New Zealand fur seals where dozens of cute pups were playing in the sheltered rock pools of Long Reef.
At the end of each day, we were greeted by our beaming hosts at Pyke and Martins Bay Lodges. While they prepared sumptuous meals, we had hot showers, relaxed in cosy lounges by roaring fires, sipped fine New Zealand wines, and chatted with our track-mates, lodge hosts and guides.
Platters of elegant canapés were followed by succulent venison, delicious hot-smoked salmon, lemon tart with passionfruit topping and the best chocolate brownie I’ve ever tasted. Extraordinarily well-fed, it was bliss to retire at night to private rooms with comfortable beds, crisp sheets and soft pillows.
The trip ended with the ultimate indulgence. Helicopters landed on the Martins Bay Lodge lawn to whisk us to Milford Sound, flying along the rugged West Coast and up the entire length of Milford Sound past world-famous Mitre Peak and the stunning Stirling and Bowen Falls.
The Hollyford Track is a seamless, professional operation but there is nothing slick about it – just a bunch of warm, talented people doing what they know and love. They are the true stars of the experience, hand-picked for their exceptional knowledge, good humour and personality.
And underlying it all is the Ngāi Tahu concept of ‘manaakitanga’ or hospitality.
Their ancestors were guides for the first European explorers and their connection to the land goes back over 400 years. They are fitting caretakers of this pristine place.
Their motto is: ‘Mo tatou, a, mo ka uri a muri ake nei – For us and our children after us.’
We’ll be back in another 10 years for our next Hollyford treat. I just hope they can fit walking frames into the choppers.
Justine Tyerman was a guest of Hollyford Track. www.hollyfordtrack.com
* The Hollyford Track is a 43km 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 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, gourmet 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 guarantees a highly personal experience.
* The track is open from January 2 to March 28, 2021. If you book before the end of September, there’s $400 off for Super Gold Card holders.