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Comment: The Country's Jamie Mackay writes about his walk on the beautiful Hollyford Track Guided Wilderness Experience, where he got more adventure than he bargained for thanks to Mother Nature.
When I was first approached to take on one of Fiordland's finest walks, my initial response was the only tramping with a back pack I was interested in was hiking around the Otago Golf Club carrying my weapons of self-destruction.
After all, four-and-a-bit hours of going cross country (I'm somewhat wayward of the tee) carrying my clubs over hill and yonder on New Zealand's oldest golf course was all the connection with nature I needed. And, besides, my natural disposition to a snap hook meant that I spent plenty on time tramping around trees every weekend.
But then the team from the Ngai Tahu Tourism-owned Hollyford Track Guided Wilderness Experience hit me with the one word that was too good to refuse. Luxury Tramping.
As a marathon runner in a past life I was always going to be up for the exercise. Anyone who can run 42.2 kms in under four hours could surely walk 43 kms in three days.
What I wasn't up for though, was sharing a bunk room with 20 snoring and farting companions in some sandfly-ridden DOC hut, eating two-minute noodles and not having a hot shower or a cold beer when I got to said accommodation.
So The Hollyford Track team had me at the promise of… "At the end of each day you arrive to a warm dry lodge, a hearty welcome from your lodge hosts and the enticing aroma of delicious cuisine and fine wines. Lodges include all bedding and linen supplied in twin-share rooms, shared bathroom facilities and plenty of hot water".
But you couldn't write a script for what unfolded over the next five days of our (supposedly) three day walk. I knew we were going to enjoy one of the finest wilderness walks in the world, but I hadn't bargained on all the expert guiding, fine fare, comradeship, and adventure in store for us.
Day one (Friday, January 31) dawned fine and sunny and with temperatures in the low-20s, it was ideal conditions for our biggest day of walking. A mere 19.5 kms of relatively flat hiking, carrying our full pack, from the start of the Hollyford track at the Te Anau end to the exceptionally-appointed Pyke Lodge on the banks of the Pyke river.
Dinner that night was nothing short of sensational, with a seafood and gourmet cheese platter for starters, followed by a succulent venison main, then a delicious desert all washed down by the fine wine or craft beer of your choice. So much for roughing it!
I can't believe I'm saying this but one of the real highlights after dinner was wandering down to the river to feed the eels - all 40 or so of the big, fat, slimy creatures. For the less squeamish there was the option of also visiting the nearby glow worm colony.
Day two was a much easier ask on foot, with only 15 kms to navigate, and only a small day pack to ferry. We had a quick gander at Lake Alabaster then a brief jaunt over the longest swing bridge (80 metres) in Fiordland to the other side of the Pyke River. Then it was on to a jet boat, down the Pyke River and up Lake McKerrow to the historical township site of Jamestown, a pioneer settlement back in the day, that once promised to be a gateway for Central Otago gold making its way to Melbourne.
Up next was a wander through a Podocarp forest amongst native giants, some up to 1000 years old, followed by a native fur seal colony visit to Long Reef on the rugged rocks of the West Coast. Then it was off to our final destination, the plush accommodation of the Martins Bay Lodge and lip-smacking blue cod for dinner. Did I mention I was really warming to this lark?
By day three Mother Nature had decided she'd given us a way-too-easy run in Fiordland for the first couple of days, so she decided to kick us where it hurts! The rain set in big time but it was still pretty mild so we all enjoyed our 8.5 km trek around the vast expanse of sand that is the Martins Bay spit.
We were due to chopper out that afternoon, around and down the coast to Milford Sound, but there was definitely no hardship spending another weather-bound night being wined, dined and entertained.
On the morning of our unscheduled day four at the luxurious Martins Bay Lodge, the heavens had absolutely opened. Word was we might not get out until Wednesday! What could we do to while away the hours?
I learnt how to play the card game 500 and read a fantastic book, The Land of Doing Without, on Davey Gunn of the Hollyford, who became known throughout New Zealand as a back-country hero for his 20 hour journey (that should have taken three days) to raise the alarm after a fatal plane crash in Big Bay in 1936.
However, not wanting to get cabin fever, the real excitement of the day came when an intrepid few of us went exploring to check on some whitebaiters' huts. I hope they had insurance!
We were woken early on our unscheduled day five (Tuesday, February 4), not only by the ankle-deep water lapping around the bottom of our bunk room, but also by our guides telling us we were about to be evacuated by helicopter after an aborted rescue attempt the previous evening.
For someone who's afraid of heights, coupled with the fear of the Kobe Bryant curse, I was remarkably calm when we were told we had to clamber into a scoop net, dangling 20 metres below the helicopter, to be transported to an awaiting chopper a kilometre away. From there we were to be air-ferried back down over Lake McKerrow, up the Hollyford River, over the Divide to Knobs Flat and then bussed back to the safety and sanctuary of Te Anau.
Mind you, it helps to calm the nerves when your rescue helicopter pilot is none other than Sir Richard 'Hannibal' Hayes, knighted for his services to search and rescue and the biggest thing to come out of Te Anau since the Fiordland Moose.
And the final word goes to the wonderful staff at The Hollyford Track. To our guides – Bex, Pam, Ken and Guy – you guys went above and beyond to ensure our three day walk became a five day adventure none of us will forget. To the warm and generous hosts at Pyke Lodge
(Clayton and Kylie) and at Martins Bay Lodge (Cogs and Danni), you were great and your venison and blue cod was even better.
Your lives and livelihoods have been damaged by the full fury of Mother Nature at her belligerent best. But like the Hollyford Track and the other great walks of Fiordland, you'll be back. And so will I. I reckon I could really learn to love this thing!