Justine Tyerman, 61, is a New Zealand journalist, travel writer and sub-editor. Married for 36 years, she lives in rural surroundings near Gisborne on the East Coast of New Zealand with her husband Chris.
True-blue trampers are not accustomed to being plied with fine cuisine and wine at the end of a day of hiking in the great outdoors. After an invigorating cold wash and a change of socks, we usually hover over a tiny gas burner in a back country hut, squabbling over which of the three dehydrated packets of food to open for 'dinner', jealously guarding the thimble of red wine we allow ourselves as a treat at the end of the day. Food, clothes, sleeping bags and cooking utensils are all lugged uphill on our backs in ridiculously-heavy packs.
So my eyes popped out of my head at the end of our first day on the Hollyford Track when our hosts at Pyke Lodge met us at the door with beaming smiles, refreshing drinks and divine carrot cake, and sent us on our way to steaming hot showers and private bedrooms with real beds, crisp sheets, soft pillows, fluffy towels, heated towel rails... and a mirror.
After a hair wash, a full change of clothes to lodge attire and a dab of lipstick, I joined the other eight in our party in the luxurious lounge by an open fire. A massive platter of elegant canapés appeared from the open kitchen and we were offered a choice of six top New Zealand wines including my all-time favourite, Gibbston Valley Pinot Gris.
Trying to look nonchalant in front of our American track-mates for whom all this was obviously de rigueur, I took my time pretending to appraise the wines before casually requesting a glass.
I found myself a bit fidgety watching hosts Dave and Samantha doing all the work in the kitchen, but a second glass of pinot gris seemed to ease my conscience. I slipped into the pampered guest role with alarming ease, chatting to our ruggedly handsome guide Graeme Scott and fellow trampers about our fabulous first day on the track.
After quite a few drinks by the fire, our rosy-cheeked group of Americans, Australians and two Kiwis bonded well, comparing photos of the 20km hike and playing one-upmanship with high-tech toys like the Fitbit fitness super watch our new friend from the USA was demonstrating to my husband.
The aromas emanating from the open kitchen were tantalising and dinner more than lived up to olfactory expectations - the succulent venison followed by lemon tart with passionfruit topping was a five-star dining experience in the middle of the wilderness.
The following night at Martins Bay Lodge we were treated to more delectable hors d'oeuvres and New Zealand wines, delicious manuka hot smoked salmon with citrus glaze and the world's best brownie prepared by hosts Emily and Heath. Accustomed to sharing a bunkroom with 40 unwashed others, it was utter bliss to retire to a private bedroom: comfy bed, warm duvet... and hot water bottles.
Enough said about gourmet food and the luxurious lodges. We seasoned trampers had not travelled all the way from Gisborne for mere pampering and pinot gris, but a hearty outdoors experience in the Fiordland wilderness.
Lower Hollyford Valley, Lake McKerrow (left) and Lake Alabaster (right). Credit: Ngai Tahu Tourism.
We have hiked many a track but the Hollyford guided walk stands out because of the spectacular variety of the landscape, "a journey from the mountains to the sea", and the fascinating historical, geological, botanical and everything-else-ological context provided by a team of extraordinarily knowledgeable guides.
The easy-paced 43km low-altitude, largely flat track begins beyond Gunn's Camp 100km from Te Anau, and meanders along a glacier-hewn valley through vivid green ancient beech and fern forests beside the Hollyford River.
On day one, swing bridges take hikers over side-streams flowing from the exquisite Hidden Falls and Little Homer Falls. After a picnic lunch on a sunny beach beside the Hollyford, which was so blue it looked as though artificial colouring had been dumped in it somewhere upstream, we climbed to the track's highest point at Little Homer Saddle, all of 168m. No oxygen needed to summit that one.
Fiordland's highest mountain, the lofty snow-capped Mt Tutoko (2746m), named after an important Maori chief in the area, was visible from the top of the saddle, peaking through the clouds.
Pyke River swingbridge - Fiordland's longest swingbridge. Credit: Ngai Tahu Tourism.
Along the way, Graeme introduced us to the strange, the ingenious, the risqué and the comical - a carnivorous snail, frogs that have no tadpole stage and don't like water, cross-dressing ferns (males with long skirts) and the world's largest fuchsia, aka the kotukutuku or 'silent dog tree' because "it keeps losing its bark". The kaka parrot scratches the trunk of the kotukutuku which oozes sap and attracts insects - the clever kaka then returns to feast on both.
One of the most magnificent sights in the forest was the 'tree of life', a giant 1000-year-old rimu wrapped in ancient rata vines and an 'overcoat' of more than 140 species of epiphyte.
The chortling bird-song in the forest was sublime but nothing compared to the deafening sound of several hundred years ago. Graeme said Captain Cook could hear the dawn chorus more than 6km out to sea.
Giant beech trees on the Hollyford Track. Credit: Ngai Tahu Tourism.
After dinner that evening, we followed our gumbooted guide to the river where he waded in to feed a thrashing mass of huge, hungry, fanged eels. In contrast to the somewhat horrific sight of the eels consuming our leftover venison, we also visited a silent glow-worm colony and saw the delicate sticky silk tendrils they spin to catch insects.
Our second day began with an easy walk to an ethereal, misty Lake Alabaster. Maori, who inhabited the area from 1650 to 1800, built their waka here. They felled logs into the lake, cut off the branches and spun them in the water for several weeks until they were water-logged and achieved a natural balance. The logs were then taken across Lake McKerrow to a village where they were hollowed out and fitted with outriggers and sails. The vessels were fast. Captain Cook once recorded that a waka paddled by four Maori men passed his cutter at a great rate of knots.
Jesse loaded us aboard his grunty twin-engine Hamilton jetboat and we hooned off down the rapids of the Hollyford River and along Lake McKerrow on a day so calm the mirror surface of the turquoise-ink water made it hard to differentiate between the mountains and the reflections.
The 60-minute high-adrenalin ride circumvented the infamous 20km Demon Trail along the side of the lake which takes even the fittest of trampers at least nine hours. I felt a sense of shame at taking such a shortcut but it vanished remarkably fast when we crossed the Pyke River on Fiordland's longest and swingiest swing bridge to stumble a few metres down that gnarly, uppy-downy track.
On Lake McKerrow, we encountered the world's longest fault-line, the Alpine fault, at the point where the Indo-Australian plate subducts under the Pacific Plate. In 1777, there was a massive earthquake which moved landmarks so drastically Captain Cook did not recognise the coastline he had mapped when he returned in 1790.
Our Hollyford Track group. Credit: Justine Tyerman.
We stopped at historic Jamestown on the shores of Lake McKerrow. Standing by a small plaque at the centre of where the ill-planned settlement once stood, Graeme explained Jamestown, founded in 1870, was supposed to become the capital of the South Island. He told us heartbreaking stories of years of deprivation as promised coastal supply ships sank or bypassed Jamestown due to foul weather and the treacherous Hollyford bar. My heart ached for the parents who lost five of their seven children in this most remote of outposts and the mother who gave birth to her fifth child alone at night in a ferocious Fiordland storm with flood waters lapping at her bed, while her husband rowed and ran for help.
The most famous character in the Hollyford is the legendary Davey Gunn, 'the Trampers' Friend', a larger-than-life bushman, cattle farmer and unlikely lothario who began guiding guests, mainly women it seems, through the valley on horseback as part of his cattle musters in the 1930s.
Davey became a hero on December 30, 1936 when a light plane crashed into the sea at Big Bay, injuring the pilot and passengers, one of whom died soon afterwards. He ran and rowed for 20 hours to fetch help, a 90km journey that would normally take four days, a deed which earned him the Coronation Medal. Davey died tragically on Christmas Day, 1955 while crossing the Hollyford River on horseback with a 12-year-old boy behind him. The horse stumbled and both riders drowned.
Graeme also had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the traditional medicinal uses of hundreds of plants along the track. Had we become stranded, I was confident our own Davey Gunn would have kept us fed and sheltered, and cured any ailment from toothache to impotence.
Our gallant American taster-tester track-mate was game to sample many of nature's remedies including the leaves of the horopito or pepper plant which he confirmed were "******* hot". It's a versatile plant, effective against both diarrhoea and constipation. Early Europeans also used it for toothache and skin diseases. He decided against trying out the Viagra-like properties of the lancewood with its leaves like sword blades. "A man knows his limits," he said.
Had anyone developed a nasty case of scurvy while on the track, Graeme would have brewed up a 'beer' using rimu bark and manuka leaves, a remedy Captain Cook found highly effective back in the 1770s.
The salt and the roar of the mighty Tasman Sea were in the air long before we emerged from the forest at Martins Bay.The remote, wild West Coast beach was an awe-inspiring sight with the late afternoon sun making iridescent rainbows in the spray from the massive breakers.
A few nimble rock-hoppers ventured out to see the super-cute, brown-eyed seal pups cavorting in pools, sheltered from the waves by truck-sized boulders at Long Reef.
Martins Bay Sandspit. Credit: Ngai Tahu Tourism.
Our last morning was spent exploring Martins Bay Spit. In ancient times, the kilometre-high glacier that carved the Hollyford Valley stretched 10km out to sea from where we stood on the other-worldly, wind-swept sand-dunes. We walked the length of the 8km granite-sand beach, deep in thoughts of the last three days in this pristine place.
At the end of the trip, we could have stayed true to our tramping ethos and retraced our steps back up the valley but we took the easy way out, a thrilling helicopter flight from Martins Bay Lodge along the rugged West Coast and up the whole length of mesmerising Milford Sound. I'll never forget the heart-pounding, nerve-tingling, edge-of-my-seat exhilaration of that flight past Mitre Peak and the stunning Stirling and Bowen Falls.
An experience like the Hollyford alters your perspective on life. I felt enriched on a physical, spiritual and intellectual level… not to mention my tummy. It's a seamless, professional operation but there is nothing slick about it - just warm, talented human beings doing what they know and love. And underlying it is the concept of hospitality (manaakitanga) which filters down from the owners of the walk, Ngai Tahu Tourism who bought the business in 2003.
Their ancestors were guides for many of the first European explorers and their connection to the land goes back over 400 years to settlements at Martins Bay and the pounamu trail that ran through the valley so they are fitting caretakers of this precious Unesco World Heritage site.
If you go:
The Hollyford Track is a three-day/two-night all-inclusive guided wilderness experience from the mountains to the sea, along the Hollyford Valley by foot, jet boat and finally helicopter to Milford Sound. The track is 56km long, of which hikers walk 43km. 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, first-rate 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 provides for a highly personal experience.
*Justine Tyerman was a guest of Hollyford Track.