For active relaxers, Fiordland's Hollyford Track offers the perfect short break to leave you refreshed and in awe of Aotearoa's history and beauty, writes Stephanie Holmes
It's not a Great Walk but it is a great walk and perhaps one of the most magical you will take in your life. Over three days you'll travel by foot, jetboat and helicopter, immersed in diverse and dramatic landscapes — sheer mountains, mirror lakes, native lowland forest, sand dunes, wetlands, rugged coastline and the majestic beauty of Milford Sound. It's an unforgettable journey and one that definitely deserves to be on your New Zealand travel wishlist. Here are five reasons why.
1. A walk to remember
A multi-day hike is a rite of passage for New Zealanders but the thought of tramping while carrying a 20-plus kg backpack puts many people off. The Hollyford Track offers a more luxurious experience. Private lodges, fully made up beds, hot showers, roaring fires, fully-catered meals and a well-stocked bar mean you only have to carry the clothing and personal belongings you'll need for the three-day journey.
Even better, on days two and three, you get to ditch your backpack altogether as it will be transported along the rest of the route for you, while you swap it for a daypack of only your essentials.
You still have to walk the walk of course — about 45km — but as the track follows the Hollyford Valley there is barely any elevation at all. Days can be long — on the first you'll walk around 19km — but there are regular rest stops and the beauty surrounding you will distract you from aching feet.
While the first tourists were guided along the Hollyford Track in the 1930s, people have actually been walking this land for centuries. There's evidence of Māori settlement at Martins Bay dating back to the 1650s, and the track follows ancient pounamu trading routes that took tribes from Te Tai o Poutini (Westland) to Murihiku (Southland). The track has been owned by Ngāi Tahu since 2003, adding it to their portfolio of tourism experiences. It was a natural fit for the iwi, whose ancestors were the first guides for many of the European explorers visiting the valley.
2. The art of storytelling
The consensus among our group after the trip was that the best part of the experience was how our guides Bex and Grace brought the history of the Hollyford Valley to life.
From the pre-trip briefing in Queenstown, to the coach journey to the start of the track, to the walk itself, we were treated to fascinating tales about the many legendary characters whose footsteps we were walking in.
Bex was a master of storytelling, giving engaging accounts of both pre- and post-colonial history, from Tūtoko, a highly respected rangatira (chief) and the last to live in the valley, to the European early settlers who tried to establish a small town in a patch of dense forest on the banks of Whakatipu Waitai/Lake McKerrow.
We stood at what remains of Jamestown now — a small plaque in the midst of the trees — while Bex explained what life was like for these intrepid pioneers. In a word: horrendous. The isolation and seemingly untameable land proved too much for most of them, who quickly left to seek better fortunes elsewhere.
But the biggest legend belongs to Davey Gunn, a Waimate farmer who in the 1920s moved away from his wife and children to live a solitary life in the valley, farming cattle and establishing the first tourism venture on the track.
When your feet begin to ache after a long day's walking, Davey's stories will inspire you to push through. This is a man who lived mostly alone for decades, who would drive cattle through the unforgiving landscape and would let no injury stand in his way. The men in our group visibly flinched when Bex told us about the time Davey fell on a sharp stick that tore through his scrotum. Unfazed, Davey got on his horse, rode back to his hut, splashed on some iodine and stitched the wound up himself.
At the end of 1936, he travelled 90km on foot from Big Bay to Marian's Corner to phone for help for three surviving passengers of a crashed plane. The journey would usually take three days; Davey completed it in 20 hours.
This was a feat in itself, but when you consider Davey also rowed 15km into a headwind across Lake McKerrow, with mismatched oars and a dislocated rib, his efforts will probably make your blisters feel a little insignificant.
3. Forest bathing for beginners
New Zealand is covered in stunning native forests but for me, those in the Hollyford Track are the most magical I have ever seen.
The track is in the 1.2m-hectare Fiordland National Park, which itself sits within the 2.6m-hectare Te Wahipounamu/South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, along with Westland Tai Poutini, Aoraki/Mount Cook, and Mount Aspiring national parks.
You'll travel through silver beech and ancient podocarp forests and be dwarfed by mighty kāmahi, kahikatea, mataī, rimu and rata, some more than 1000 years old. The forests are also abundant with ferns, mosses, lichens, fuchsia, pepperwood and more. In fact, there is so much green everywhere that you could almost forget other colours exist.
The mauri (life force) of the forest is palpable — every breath you take feels infused with extra energy and you can't fail to feel revitalised at journey's end.
4. The resurgence of birdsong
Birders will be delighted with a visit to the Hollyford Valley, with the chance to see a wide variety of species including pīwakawaka (fantail), korimako (bellbird), tītipounamu (rifleman), miromiro (tomtit), kākā, kererū, tūī, and Fiordland crested penguins.
We stood still and silent in the depths of the podocarp forest, and the birdsong was captivating. It was a different story as recently as a decade ago — then, the forest was quiet. Predators had increased in numbers to such an extent that the birds had gone — either killed or forced from their habitats to find a safer place to live.
But thanks to predator control programmes from DoC, Ngāi Tahu and the Hollyford Conservation Trust, the birdsong is steadily returning. An April 2020 report released by the Hollyford Conservation Trust said that the number of encounters with key native bird species had "nearly doubled over the monitoring period, from 33 encounters per km in 2014 to 65 encounters per km in 2019".
While you'll spend much of your walk getting to know your fellow guests and taking the opportunity to talk about life, the universe and everything, make sure you stop occasionally. Stand quietly, listen to the birdsong carried through the trees, and realise what a privilege it is to hear these sounds.
5. Water, water, everywhere ...
Rivers, waterfalls, lakes and ocean — you can't get away from water on the Hollyford Track. Part of your journey involves a jetboat ride along Lake McKerrow where you'll no doubt be awed by the near-perfect reflections of surrounding forest on the lake's surface. On our trip, the rich red rata blossoms provided a stunning interruption to the reflected sea of green.
A morning mist at Wāwāhi Waka/Lake Alabaster gave an even more magical feel to our surroundings, and an inlet at Martins Bay provided the perfect way to cool off after a hot day of hiking.
There's also likely to be rain, and lots of it, whatever month of the season you visit. Fiordland gets on average 200 rainy days a year, and an annual rainfall varying from 1200mm in Te Anau to 8000mm in Milford Sound.
In February 2020, however, an extreme weather event saw 1000mm of rainfall in just three days, causing flooding, slips, damage to tracks and lodges, and roads into the valley being completely cut off.
Bex was at Martins Bay Lodge with a group of guests at the time, and retold dramatic tales of hunkering down in the lodge waiting for helicopter rescue while the water rose around their feet.
The season was cut short, the track was closed and the remainder of 2020 was dedicated to rebuilding the lodges and track so guests could return this year.
While it's hoped the flooding was a one-off event, you still need to be prepared for rainfall. Bring waterproof jackets, pants and boots but most of all, a good attitude. No matter how good your clothing is, you're likely to still get a little bit wet. "Your gear might be waterproof," Bex told us, "but it's not Fiordland-proof."
Don't be put off. It all adds to Fiordland's magic, and the powerful natural beauty of the Hollyford Track.
A three-day fully guided walk on the Hollyford Track is priced from $2795 per adult, and $2395 per child (aged 10-14) including accommodation (pre-night in Te Anau as well as on track), coach and helicopter transfers, and food. The current season ends on April 12, and the 2021-2022 season is scheduled to run from December 1 to April 10. hollyfordtrack.com