This story won the NZ Maori Tourism Award for the Best Travel Story about a Maori Experience at the 2017 Travel Media Awards.
The way Lomu and her desperate, writhing pals attacked the venison scraps proffered by our Hollyford Track guide Kahu, it looked like they hadn't eaten in months.
For someone a bit squeamish about eels, it was a gruesome sight: About 30 of the creatures, battling for the meat with their strong jaws and sharp white teeth. A few were so desperate to get at the tucker they slid on to the riverbank. I edged backwards.
Kahu fondly chided the river monsters for being greedy and pushy, singling out Lomu — a huge 4.5kg female — as his favourite.
We'd been relaxing in front of the fire after a superb dinner at Pyke Lodge on the first evening of our three-day/two-night guided walk through the Hollyford Valley when Kahu led us outside by torchlight to meet the eels.
It'd been a long day in Fiordland National Park. We'd walked 19.5km, a total of about 34,000 steps, over eight hours. It was my first decent bushwalk and I was surprised how quickly time flew.
After a briefing in Queenstown the night before we'd set off at 6.30am for the pretty two-hour drive to Te Anau. Driver Carmen provided a running commentary as we hugged the eastern side of Lake Wakatipu and passed through the Devil's Staircase, Garston, Athol and Mossburn.
It was early December and there was still snow on the mountaintops. Dark-purple and mauve lupins were in full flower, contrasting against the beige tussock and bright yellow gorse that covers Central Otago. A hawk on a fencepost eyed us as we drove by; there were paddocks of sheep, deer, and alpaca.
At Te Anau, we'd collected the rest of our 15-strong party (two of whom were the guides, Kahu and Matt) and, with the Murchison Mountains out to our west, turned the bus north again for another couple of hours' drive through the Eglinton Valley to historic Gunn's Camp.
This is where Kahu told us the first of many stories about Davey Gunn, one of the area's pioneering bushmen and the first person to bring tourists into the valley in 1936.
Built in the late 1930s for married men working on the Hollyford-Okuru Rd and bought by Gunn in 1951, the camp is used by people hunting, fishing and tramping in the area, and has a small museum.
Another short drive and we were finally at the start of the track, where we hoisted our light packs on our backs, filled up our water bottles in the river, and set off over the first of many swing bridges encountered on the walk to Pyke Lodge.
Here, courtesy of our hosts David and Anna, we'd find comfortable and spacious and comfortable bunk rooms for two, hot showers, that amazing meal and those horrible eels.
One of the first stories Kahu told us was about the end: Davey Gunn's final moments in this valley that he loved and showed off to so many on his guided walking and riding trips. Gunn believed if anything was going to get him it would be the river - he couldn't swim - and so it did, on Christmas Day, 1955. The 68-year-old was on a hunting trip when his horse, Dick, tripped while crossing the Hollyford. Gunn and a young lad also on the horse were swept away by the fast-flowing current. His body was never found. It was quite fitting, Kahu says: "Man of the valley, taken by the valley."
The great man is best known for his mercy dash from Big Bay on the coast inland to Marian Corner on the Milford Rd for help when a plane crash-landed in the shallows. Gunn helped everyone out on to the dunes, then went for help, despite a dislocated rib. While rowing the 17km across Lake McKerrow with uneven oars the rib luckily popped back in, but Gunn still faced a long horseback journey to Marian Corner — though he abandoned the nag because he could run faster than it could. Incredibly he covered about 97km in 20 hours and was honoured in 1937 with King George VI's Coronation Medal.
We covered a lot of ground too - literally and figuratively — over the next three days as we made our way from the mountains to the wild Tasman Sea; 88km in all, 43km of that on foot.
The journey was as much about the stories as the walking. Kahu and Matt shared yarns and information on botany, history, geology and culture, from Maori and European perspectives.
Kahu is of Ngai Tahu descent and directly related to Chief Tutoko, a great war chief who was sent to nearby Martins Bay to keep an eye on one of the pounamu trails the tribe used to move the precious stone out of the area - in this case, the Hollyford River.
The lively and passionate young guide told each anecdote like it was the first time.
As we hiked through native beech forest and, on day two, through the mighty podocarps — matai, miro, rimu, totara, kahikatea — past chocolate-box scenes of burbling waterfalls, glimpses of the crystal clear river, and always through a wallpaper of vibrant greenery, Kahu paused to talk about the flora and fauna. We learned how Maori used plants for medicinal and practical reasons.
Worryingly, the forest was surprisingly silent, with just the occasional sighting of, or warble from, a bellbird, tui, fantail, tomtit, kaka, kereru or kea.
Blame the predators. Rats, stoats and possums have wiped out much of the birdlife. Two years ago, the Hollyford Conservation Group private charitable trust was formed to carry out pest control at Martins Bay. The hope is the birdsong will eventually return.
Our second day began with a hearty breakfast of eggs benedict and fresh coffee before a short hike to a misty Lake Alabaster, then a walk along the Pyke River swing bridge, the longest in Fiordland at 101m. To skip the gnarly Demon Trail at the other end of that bridge, guests take a jetboat 7km up the river and across Lake McKerrow to Martins Bay.
Driver Tony brought us to a stop partway across the lake, and for a few moments we bobbed about on top of the Alpine Fault Line, an area which averages three earthquakes a day.
Then came a highlight: a visit to the failed settlement of Jamestown on the lake's eastern shore. It was here that the Superintendent of Otago, James Macandrew, had grand visions in the 1860s-1870s to create a link between Otago and Australia. Settlers came, but found an undeveloped, isolated place, without promised road access but with a nightmare harbour bar. Within a decade, after much toil and heartbreak, the site was largely abandoned, and all that remains today is a plaque, a broken bottle and three apple trees. It was officially surveyed so you can still bring up Lake St, Jamestown, on Google Maps, an eerie reminder of what could have been.
We had our first glimpse of the angry Tasman Sea at the mouth of the Hollyford River as we made our way to the fur seal rookery at Long Reef Pt. A pair of rare Fiordland crested penguins darted into the bush in front of us on the track, and when we got to the rookery the guides were surprised to see several more, as the penguins were supposed to have moved on by then. We spent about half an hour quietly watching the fur seals — some extremely grumpy, some enjoying a swim in the tumbling surf — and the curious-looking birds, with their bushy yellow eyebrows, going about their daily lives.
After a fantastic baked blue cod dinner at Martins Bay Lodge, cooked by Andy and Laura, Kahu recapped the day and we realised though we'd only known each other for two days, it felt like a month.
The final day, an absolute cracker, was a much more relaxed affair, with just 8.5km to walk.
Six of the kilometres were along the desolate stretch of beach at Martins Bay, after a backwards race up a sand dune of course (much harder than you'd think), where we saw the first signs of Maori occupation in the area — cooking sites and middens.
At the southern end of the beach we visited the site of Fiordland pioneer Daniel McKenzie's homestead, later sold, with his leases, to Davey Gunn. The McKenzie family's stories of hardship and survival have been passed on by Daniel's youngest daughter Alice, who wrote the book Pioneers of Martins Bay while in a rest home at the age of 76. The book has an account of what may have been the last known sighting of a moa by young Alice in the dunes around 1880.
After a quick lunch we boarded three helicopters for our final adventure, and for the next 15 minutes we soared southwards, chasing each other along the rugged coastline, before turning into busy Milford Sound, which was awash with boats, kayaks and some leaping dolphins. As a special thrill our pilot hovered underneath a waterfall right beside the cliff face — or maybe he really was washing the rotor blades.
As far as first bushwalks go, it would be hard to top the Hollyford — though I did wonder aloud how I'd go on a self-catered tramp where I had to carry my bedding and food and possibly a tent on my back.
If he'd heard me say that, Davey Gunn — a man who reportedly sewed up a wound that ripped open his scrotum with a darning needle and fishing line — would have turned in his watery grave.
Many people walk the Hollyford to mark special milestones, and in our group of 13 walkers there were two pairs of honeymooners (from India and the US), as well as a couple of Auckland women celebrating a big birthday, three Germans in New Zealand for the first time, and an older Australian couple.
• Though the first day is long it's not particularly difficult - the track is in great condition and mostly flat. Larger packs are swapped for day packs on days two and three.
• You need to invest in some proper boots - 43km is a long way to walk in bad shoes, and there are patches of mud and the odd stream to cross - and make sure you're protected against the giant, hungry, persistent sandflies.
• If you're worried about the distance the track covers, a few long walks at home (in your boots) should be enough to get you ready.
• There's no phone reception, so be prepared to switch off.
Details: The Hollyford Track season runs from late October into April. There are a maximum number of 16 on each group, including the two guides. Low season rates start from $1795, and you can depart from either Queenstown or Te Anau. Packs, day packs, pack liners, linen, towels, soap, shampoo, rain jackets, and all food is provided, even down to scroggin. Alcohol and soft drinks are extra.