Tramping in Fiordland used to mean long johns and porridge, sponge beds and long drops. Peeling off your muddy boots on the deck of a DoC hut and trudging through a curtain of sandflies to fill a billy with enough water to make mushroom soup. Booze? Only if you wrapped the bottle in your small clothes and carried it for eight hours. A shower? If you stood outside, one was sure to come along soon.
It wasn't easy going, but it was worth it to see somewhere so untouched that entering it felt like going back in time. Fiordland is the size of Israel and much of it remains unexplored. Many of its millions of trees were born around the same time as Jesus. After a rain, makeshift waterfalls careen off the cliffs into valleys and the whole place shivers with life.
Still it's not for everyone. Work is tough and holidays are much-needed respite. If we're going to spend our precious weeks off toiling through dense bush, we want to be rewarded with more than just some Maggi noodles and Earl Grey. That's where Ngai Tahu Tourism comes in. Their three-day guided walk along the Hollyford Track is aimed at enticing people who would have otherwise only seen Fiordland in Lord of the Rings.
It blends the glamour and luxury of a hotel getaway with the rugged beauty of a great tramp. No heavy packs. No sleeping bags or bathing in icy rivers. Every day ends on a cosy couch at a heated lodge, drinking an alcoholic beverage and waiting for a three-course meal. They call it glamping.
We were picked up from the lakeside Rees Hotel in Queenstown for our glamp through the Hollyford valley. Lightly laden (all we had to pack were clothes, camera and toothbrush), our party of 12 set off from the end of the Lower Hollyford Rd, bound for Pyke Lodge. Within five minutes our guide Graham had stopped for what would be the first of numerous briefings on the surrounding wilderness. This first one was on stinging nettle. Don't touch it, he said. It stings.
The walk is built around these talks. The guides' encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of the valley is meant to make the tramp a more rich, immersive, experience. For the most part, it's a success. We were told our path roughly traced the one cut by the legendary bushman Davey Gunn in 1936 as he ran through the night on a desperate mission to find survivors in a downed plane near Big Bay. Gunn covered 97km in 20 hours despite a broken rib. He got to the plane just in time. Four survivors were rescued from its wreckage.
His heroics helped put the aches of our first day in perspective. It's an undulating eight-hour walk, including stops, through the beech forest alongside the Hollyford river to get to Pyke Lodge. The track is sprinkled with awe-inspiring views, the snow-capped peaks of Mt Madeline and the 2723-metre-high Mt Tutoko the most impressive. But we were grateful to emerge from the bush to see our grinning host Renee standing outside the lodge, holding a tray of cut fruit like it was halftime in a school soccer match.
At Pyke our Hollyford experience divorced itself from traditional tramping. A drying room is there for your damp gear. If you want to take a hot shower, towels are available on the heated rail beside your freshly made bed. In the lodge's large central lounge, a fire is lit and the bar is open for you to take your pick of anything from Mt Difficulty Pinot to pale ale. Renee's partner Massa served up a sharing plate of food from his native Japan as we waited for dinner. Then Graham took us down to the nearby Pyke river to feed leftover veal to a waiting swarm of eels.
The section of the Hollyford track following the Pyke Lodge is one of the most notorious in Fiordland. It was reportedly cut by an inexperienced ranger who took little heed of geography or practicality. Mud pits, slippery rocks, fallen trees and floodwaters make the route dangerous and difficult. Trampers have long named it the Demon Trail.
Luckily our hosts have eliminated it from the track. Instead of floundering in mud, we watched the Demon Trail fly by from a jetboat as we navigated the rocks of the Pyke River and headed into Lake McKerrow on our way to Martins Bay.
Our only stop along the way was at the abandoned settlement of Jamestown. These days all that remains of the place are a plaque and a few ancient rose bushes and apple trees. Graham told us that when it was established in 1870, Jamestown was trumpeted as a prospective shipping port for vessels crossing the Tasman. No cargo ships came. Vital supplies were lost when a boat sank off the coast. Eventually all the families trickled out of the area, defeated, leaving Davey Gunn the sole resident of the Hollyford Valley.
We got off the jetboat near the Martins Bay aerodrome and had lunch in a purpose-built hut before setting off up the coast. The day's walk ended at a seal colony where mothers were still nursing their pups. From there we jetboated back to the Martins Bay lodge for salmon steaks and wine as the sun set over the Tasman Sea.
The next day was mainly spent dodging sandflies in the dunes. For the final section of the track, we walked about 1.5km down Martins Bay beach. It felt strangely therapeutic watching the wild waves crash in. At that moment, Auckland city couldn't have been further away.
A helicopter landed on the lawn outside Martins Bay lodge to take us home. We were buffeted for 10 minutes around the coast, before turning a corner and all-of-a-sudden seeing the majestic Milford Sound spread out below us. We flew down it as tourists photographed waterfalls from boats underneath. Our bus home was parked next to the helipad.
VERDICT: The guided Hollyford Walk is a great way to see some of the most beautiful scenery New Zealand has to offer without ending up looking like Tom Hanks in castaway. Cutting away the difficult bits opens tramping up to nearly anyone, from pensioners to schoolchildren. But it also means you never feel completely cut off from civilisation.
Hollyford Valley Checklist
GETTING THERE: Jetstar and Air New Zealand fly daily from Auckland to Queenstown.
Hayden Donnell travelled as a guest of Ngai Tahu Tourism Holdings.