Hiking in the Hollyford Valley – Fiordland
A Blog By Thomas Lindsey, team member at Milford Lodge
Finishing off ten straight days of work at the Lodge during the fast-paced holiday season had left us mentally exhausted, however my partner Chelsie and I were giddy with excitement for the adventure that awaited us during our four days off. Hiking in the Hollyford Valley had always been on our list to do so we decided to give it a go. Living in Milford Sound during peak holiday season does have its downsides; mainly the difficulty in finding seclusion and solace when over two thousand people navigate their way into Milford each day. However, isolation in Fiordland is the norm and the busy-ness of Milford is the anomaly. An adventure awaited us in a nearby valley, and we couldn’t wait.
The weather cleared the way the morning of our first day off for us to catch a flight on a small six-seater Cessna from Milford Sound’s airport through the fiord and around to nearby Martin’s Bay, the start of the 60 kilometre Hollyford Track. The flight itself was such a surreal experience. I expected more of that sinking feeling one experiences on a commercial aircraft. That loss of G’s, I guess, on take-off that makes one’s stomach drop. But the feeling on the Cessna was more of a lift of a feather; all of the sudden we were airborne, cruising with only the most minimal of turbulence through the spectacular fiord- seeing first-hand what I had only seen in fly-over documentaries of Fiordland.
After twenty minutes in the air Sean the pilot dipped down over the outstretched delta of the Hollyford Valley. He instinctively mashed on multiple control levers and we smoothly descended to a closely-cropped lawn airstrip. Back on the ground, and ecstatic after such a rush, we bid adieu to Sean and tramped toward the Martin’s Bay Department of Conservation (DOC) hut where we would spend the rest of the day and night. Settling there and making tea during the warm afternoon, we were properly introduced to the most numerous and notorious resident of the Hollyford Valley, the inspiration for quirky poems and quips: the sandfly. The swarm awaited us at the Martin’s Bay hut, covering the windows and doors outside. We had to open and close the doors in a rush to avoid the black cloud accompanying us inside. This would be a recurring theme during our Hollyford adventure, and cause for us not to take more breaks to soak in the magical place.
In the hut we properly met our fellow passenger (the only other passenger besides Sean, Chelsie, and myself), Paul, a Kiwi from Hamilton. And our two other hut mates that day were Jo, a transplanted Scot residing in Wanaka, and Tomo, a transplant from Japan living with her Kiwi partner in Curio Bay. All three proved to be good company and we exchanged some stories before Chelsie and I wandered off on a little trek to find this seal colony we heard lived on a rock outcropping a few hundred metres north along the shore. We stumbled across the slumbering seals thinking they were rocks at first. My wilderness senses definitely not in tune that day as we nearly walked over one after coming out of the bush onto the rocky shore. They all seemed mostly indifferent to Chelsie and me except if we got between them and the ocean or stared too long at the pups. We managed to find a rock of our own and spent the afternoon as the seals were, lounging in the sunshine trying to find spots where the sandflies would not bother us.
With the sun reddening us a bit too much, we returned to the hut. There Jo and Tomo made us an offer we could not refuse. These superwomen had just paddleboarded down the Hollyford River and Lake McKerrow over a few days previous, then offered us a lift over to the adjacent sandspit that was separated by deep, fast-flowing channel of fresh water leading out to the sea by a couple hundred metres. Chelsie, Paul, and I were grateful at such an offer, as I’m sure many tramper visitors to Martin’s Bay would have strong desires to access the pristine beach that features prominently in the film Ata Whenua. We were shuttled across the channel, each of us passengers sitting Indian-style the front of the surprisingly steady paddleboards. There on this pristine beach with the waves of the Tasman Sea crashing onto the beach we all wandered in different directions. I focused my attention on beachcombing, finding an assortment of goodies: pieces of iridescent paua shells, soft driftwood, and bleached bones. For the sunset we all met on a large dune and watched as the sun descended into billowy clouds and as the forest behind us, the Hollyford, turned from a light green to a darker hue.
Awaking on Day 2 in the hut to sandfly swarms, we were keen quite quickly to get underway. The sandfly has trouble, apparently, seeing its victims during night time, but once the sun shone through the windows, and Chelsie was on the bunk directly underneath one, the swarm inside went to work. So we were forced to apply the nasty repellent before breakfast for some reprieve. Once fed and after a spot of coffee for myself, we went off hiking the Hollyford Track. The first few kilometres sped by on a well-maintained trail. Once we reached the terminus of Lake McKerrow before it turns to estuary, the trail began to disintegrate into a tangle of roots and sand, but certainly still easily navigable. We came across a group of four others headed the opposite direction who advised us gravely about the challenges of the trail ahead (this would be another recurrent theme). We skirted along the shores of the lake, which is long and narrow like the fiords to the south, and experts believe could have once been the northernmost fiord of Fiordland. The brilliant sunshine was enough in itself to produce high spirits; a perfect day to tramp through ancient forest.
The reputation of the difficult trail could be partly due alone to nomenclature. The Demon Trail was a historic cattle route used by the tough fellows the utilized the fertile Hollyford before the land became a protected UNESCO site. However these fellows were aware of the magical aspects one feels in the lush, Jurassic-like forest. Their descriptions only make sense after a first-hand account. The sounds of the bird calls reverberated through the dense Southern beech forest; then the microclimate would obviously change as the forest canopy rose to reveal ancient podocarp trees interspersed with ribbonwood down at the human height.
As an experienced hiker, the Demon Trail did prove to be a technical challenge. Much of the time, focus had to be centred on the trail as partial steps on roots and slippery rocks were the norm and nearly as numerous as clean flat footsteps. So attention on the sounds and feelings of the forest was in the periphery, but definitely enough to set a tone that sets apart a hike in the bush from an alpine walk. The technical track was broken by numerous crossings over single-wire bridges that make creek crossings in any condition safer. But by no means was walking slowly on a solitary wire an easy task as the sandflies took advantage of the slow pace to make an assault. Due to that flying annoyance, we only took short breaks to eat and admire. During the longest of these breaks, a quick lunch at the Hokuri DOC hut, we met a threesome of young solitary trampers. We had a good laugh and chit chat with these fellows. And on the way back to the track, one of them, Matt from the States, made us a fortunate offer. Could we drive his car from the end of the Hollyford Road back into Milford and leave it at the airport? Yes of course! That would save us a difficult hitchhike out of the one-way Hollyford Road back up to the Highway 94 into Milford.
Continuing on the track to the next hut, languishing in our good fortune, we managed to cover over 23 kilometres by mid-afternoon and bunked in the Demon Trail DOC hut for the night with Paul and two young Germans that had little to say about much.
The morning of the third we set off after a leisurely breakfast and caffeinated beverage and put our feet to work on the ends of the Demon Trail. The track proved a decent challenge but nothing that lived up to the warnings of the people hiking opposite us. That day we had no end goal in mind. As last day of 2015 we were torn between making an attempt to return to the Lodge and celebrate with our surrogate family of co-workers, or soaking in the remnants of the year surrounded by nature. We decided a verdict would manifest eventually, so we just kept walking.
Reaching the eastern end of Lake McKerrow we struggled for a bit to find the track leading up the Hollyford River; distracted by another day of amazing sun in a cloudless sky. Back on task we did decide to go for a swim in the next lake, Alabaster. Arriving on the peddle-studded shore of this lake and looked about for the DOC hut that we knew from the map was nearby. Instead of spotting the reflecting metal roof, I instead saw a plume of smoke; a bushfire in wet Fiordland? On closer inspection I saw a few fellows in a bucket brigade at the base of the plume. Not good news there. I pointed the incident Chelsie and told her I was walking over to lend a hand.
On arriving at the scene, I saw that the flames were put out and all that remained were the hot, charred, smouldering remains of about 30 square metres of driftwood and foliage. The half dozen men there were still moving buckets of lake water quickly up to the area to fully douse what remained before the strong wind blew it back to conflagration. After that experience and feeling slightly bonded to these other guys, we had a cuppa in the well-outfitted Lake Alabaster Hut. It turned out that the fire had started when an unexperienced English hiker decided to light his garbage on fire in a pile of dry driftwood in a high wind blowing inland; not a great combination. But I had to admire the fellow for getting help and sticking around to help fix the mess he caused. Soon the conversation topics shifted and the volunteer hut warden providing most of the verbal entertainment, until an old bushman, Dave, began expounding on some of his exploits on the other end of the lake. He invited Chelsie and me, part jokingly, to spend New Year’s Eve around a big (controlled?) bonfire on his end of the lake. Both of us felt good about staying at that hut with the good company for the end of the year.
However in the end though, the pull to make it back to our current home in Milford was too strong. We shouldered our packs and got ourselves back in “hiking-mode” at 3:00pm with 20 kilometres to go until the end of the track. Walking on the now well-maintained track back was swift. The focus, as our bodies tired, was on the tangible feelings of the forest around us. But with smooth track, we could look up and around more often, taking in more of the surrounds. Six hours after leaving Alabaster we arrived in the Hollyford car park and spotted Matt’s little green Honda.
Arriving just as the light faded at the Lodge, exhausted after our 35 kilometre hike that day, but excited to spend the last two hours of the day with all of our friends definitely made the fatigue worth it. The whole experience was one where no regrets were involved, but not without its challenges. As with any trek, although this one was brief, it represents a microcosm of life and its troubles and elations. Having explored our neighbouring Hollyford Valley, it gives a greater sense of place to where we live and how lucky we are at this time in our lives.