THE HOLLYFORD LOOP | HIKING FIORDLAND'S BACKCOUNTRY
100KM, 41HRS, SOLO (NEW ZEALAND 2020)
A birthday tradition fulfilled; two days of river wading and bushwhacking; and a newfound respect for a land the mix of European Alps, Malaysian jungle, Scandinavian coastline and the best of British bogland.
Perhaps not a merry birthday, but certainly one to remember. What began as a casual hike around the Skippers Mountains of northern Fiordland soon became a 41-hour epic of bushwhacking and swamp crawling. When sea meets mountain meets rainforest and the very land around seems to stand in indifferent resistance to your passing: neck deep river crossings, endless lost trails and trackless forest thickets, torn clothes and skin, blisters, chafing, literally hundreds of climbs over and under fallen trees and around landslides, chest-deep sucking flax marshes, sandflies, torch-lit lake wading, and even a final hobbling escape from an angry sea-lion.
‘If you don’t spend 90% of your time on an expedition wishing you weren’t on an expedition then it’s not an expedition… it’s a holiday.’
— Andy Torbet —
- STORY & GALLERY -
January-February 2020 and I find myself working at a small wilderness lodge in the remote back-country of far northern Fiordland—New Zealand’s largest and most wild National Park. Four days walk from the nearest road, and realistically accessible only by helicopter and, on a good day, boat, the lodge—Awarua Guides—is the life-work of Warrick Mitchell, and the current iteration of a long history of bushmen, deer hunters and pioneers. Having lived on the land for generations, the Mitchell family had seen and orchestrated the golden days of the Chopper Boys—men of incredible courage and insensitivity for self-preservation who would launch themselves from airborne helicopters onto the antlers of galloping deer in an effort to capture live the invasive species. Now covertly famous for its world-class, yet utterly empty, surf-breaks, Warrick shares this incredible locale with an eclectic mix of the high-status and pro-surfer guests (plus of course us rag-tag bunch of young-people): a wilderness experience like no other.
I had contacted Warrick through a mutual friend and after a short email exchange found myself there a couple of months later, working as a general hand in the camps population of four. Warrick is a mentor like no other, providing an education in outdoor practicality little present in today's world, for there I received the opportunity of a lifetime without paying so much as a dollar, earning my way through sweat, muscle and initiative. And so it was, through deer hunting, fishing, surfing and trail blazing, that I began to explore the wilderness of Big Bay—the Awarua.
A day running the mountain ridges of Queenstown’s Ben Lomond whilst waiting for a weather window for my transit to the lodge
For the intrepid of the New Zealand trampers, there is a well-known track—the Hollyford Track—that ventures from the south, down the Hollyford River valley, to end at the bay around the headland from Big Bay—Martin’s Bay. From there the adventurous may embark on the Pyke-Big Bay Route—note not a ‘track’—that follows the headland around Long Reef Point, before crossing Big Bay and delving up toward the Pyke river, eventually to return down its mighty valley to the Hollyford Track far inland. All told, a complete circumnavigation of the Skippers Mountain Range of northern Fiordland.
As it so happened, my 24thbirthday was to pass during my stay, and in line with a tradition I’ve kept for a number of years (with the exception of the last as a result of my run in with lepto), I had 24 miles to complete on the day. What better way than to hike the loop—a 100km, or 60-mile round trip—as a joint exercise to both explore this incredible wilderness, and tick-off a ritual that needed fulfilling.
Home sweet home: camp of the Awarua
Fiordland. The Shadow Lands. The mountains of temperate rainforest. It is a place known for its incredible lushness and mist-enshrouded jungles. And there’s a good reason for that. It rains here. A lot.
Fiordland receives anywhere from seven to ten meters of rain annually. That’s three times the rainfall of the wettest of western Scotland. It’s wet. In the air, on the ground, everywhere. Rivers flood without warning, landslides tear through the forests and an extensive network of swamps constitute a major portion of the valley floors.
About a week and a half before I set out, we received a pretty spectacular storm. The worst rainfall, as it turned out, to have hit the region in over 20 years. We loved it, and on one particular day that received over a meter in just 48 hours, those of us at the lodge enjoyed one of the most fun—and definitely the wettest—trail-runs I’ve ever experienced.
Fiordland: where trails become rivers in a matter of minutes
However, we later found out that the storm had actually been a pretty big deal, and resulted in major damage across the region. Both the Hollyford and Milford roads were shut until further notice, and as I discovered only after the hike, both the Hollyford Track and the Pyke-Big Bay route were officially closed until further notice on account of flooding and landslides. I guess it was no wonder I found the route so difficult and saw not a single other person—according to the hut books I was the first to walk the route since the storm and floods. Of course, I knew nothing of this when I set off… idiot.
On flying out at the end of my stay, about a month later and a couple of weeks after my hike, we saw the destruction from the air, still very much a reality. Landslips and fallen trees filled the mountainsides (as I could attest to…) and the Hollyford Road further down the valley had been totally destroyed by river reformation and slips from above.
That said, in all honesty, when I actually did the hike I was in many ways extremely fortunate with the conditions. Whilst the storm did result in many diversions, landslips, fallen trees, destroyed tracks and plentiful frustrating hours of lost trails, the weather was sunny, river levels low (and always drinkable), and light winds sufficient to deter the worst of the dreaded sandflies. Indeed, I aimed to fit the hike into a short spell of fine weather, setting out on the 14th for a couple of days of beautiful forecasts in advance of a new storm front set to arrive on the afternoon of the 16th. I had my window.
Scenes of devastation on the Hollyford Road
Day 1 | The Pathlessness of the Pyke
16:30hrs; 32mi; 460m
Bag packed with a large box of venison stew I headed onto the trail at 6am. The flax loomed high in the darkness, and the moon cast a silvery light across the sand flats of the bay. I crossed the plank over the small stream and passed the orange marker at the entrance to the Pyke track.
I knew the trail well. I’d spent the last three weeks building bridges of rocks at every wash-out and new creek, cutting new trails where paths had collapsed in the storm. It’s a good track, large enough for a quad-bike and I made fast progress, reaching the dry Awarua river as the sun began to rise beyond the valley. I took a slight wrong turn just before the Pyke itself, meeting the Paulin Creek slip higher up before following to the intersection southwards. Giant tree-ferns ringed the gravel beds and many deer wandered off in front as I made my way down.
The Pyke river itself was beautiful: the mountains in the mist beyond framed the rainforest canopies that stretched across valleys on each side. Before me lay a clearing of yellow-tinted flax-land. The Garden of Eden it was called by the local bushmen, and I could see why—a thousand knife blades glinting in the sun, set beside a slow-winding ribbon of many-coloured pebbles. I crossed the clear water in two sections without problem—it was low: knee high at most and slow-flowing—and paused for breakfast on the far bank. Oats in a bag with fresh cold water from the river before the sandflies chased me onward.
Clockwise from top-left: The entrance to the Pyke Track (photo taken afterwards); Big Bay at dawn; and trail markers in the Garden of Eden
The river bank led me to an area of tussocked rocky ground, before the openness gave way to thick flax bogs. Unable to find the trail markers I mentally-fixed my direction and started in, pushing and tunnelling through the green blades that stretched far overhead. Visibility was close to zero and at times I had to tunnel through narrow gaps on my knees, but within half an hour I’d found my way to what seemed to be a trail. That in turn disappeared, only to be found and lost again many times. Occasionally I’d see the triangular trail markers, but they were scant and hard to follow—if any real trail even existed. I’d fast discover that this was to become the theme of the day, and it soon became clear that finding orange markers amidst Fiordland’s verdant sea of bush was nigh on impossible with colour blindness.
And so the early hours stretched into late morning, and the pattern remained the same. Deep in the forests around the Pyke’s east bank I would lose and find the trail, relying on deer trails and what intuitive sense of direction I could muster. At around 11am I watched a helicopter fly up the valley overhead: the latest guests destined for the Lodge at Big Bay.
Many times even the deer trails ran out, and I would find myself clawing and wriggling through thick brush, oftentimes emerging on an unexpected bog or river. A couple of times I had to climb down steep banks and cross with backpack on head, wading up to my neck in the clear water. The water was cold and refreshing in the late morning’s heat and I drank greedily. Immersion seemed to reawaken and strengthen: the sun dried my clothes within minutes.
I made a navigational error in mistaking a pool for the river through the trees, and spent a good hour struggling on the mountainsides to the east—climbing up and crawling down vertical scrub slopes around the base of the mountains. After a painful fall trying to cross a fallen tree amid tangled creepers, I slid-climbed my way back to the river bank and sat in the sun on a gravel bar. Venison stew in the cradle of a mountain wilderness is hard to best.
The best of the Pyke: A mountain valley in all its wild magnificence
Back into the bush, sometimes on a path that allowed faster movement, but more frequently in the clutches of pathless forest, moss-covered pits and rock-strewn ground. I passed Lake Wilmot and headed on, many times emerging onto sun-soaked slips of white rock and battered tree-trunks: the deep scars of storm-swollen floods from the month before. I could see how serious the flooding had been. The rivers had torn through the forests, ten meters or more above their normal levels. We are truly at the mercy of the forces of nature: I wouldn’t have made it a mile, and I dread to think the consequences should one become caught in such weather. I was lucky: the valley was entirely, indisputably impassable in bad weather
My thoughts were compounded at the Olivine Hut, where after another chest deep river crossing and a rusty old cable-way that required far more effort to winch than expected, I found it devastated: beds thrown against the walls and criss-crossed lines of mouse prints across a floor of deep silt. Clearly it had been hit hard. I paused a few minutes and dried my feet in the sun, finishing the last of my gourmet stew.
From the hut led a good path. At least, until I lost it less than half an hour later—never again do I want to search for orange triangles. It was then I entered the deepest thicket yet. The flood had broken the trees, and I tried to climb atop the mess of branch and trunks, only to fall through into the tangled mess below and orchestrate belly crawl to force my way through the following hundred meters. My legs stung raw with bloody scratches from thigh to ankle and the scrub ripped at my shirt and pack, clawing holes in the fabric and tearing at the skin beneath.
Finally I emerged onto a massive slip, only to spend half an hour searching for a trail on the other side. Incredibly I found it and no sooner had I entered the open fields beyond I came to the Black Swamp. I’d been dreading it from the beginning, and each new extremity of difficulty I encountered enlarged it’s potential in my mind. It didn’t disappoint. It stands firmly as the most extreme section of ‘trail’ I have walked to this day. Chest deep in places, I half-waded, half-swam through the swallowing blackness that wound in deep runnels between the flax stands. I slipped and fell, losing a map to the mud below, forcing on in sheer disbelief as I found yet more orange triangles, standing proud on sticks above the water. This was indeed, unbelievably, the track.
And the worst of the Pyke: A selection of photographs of the terrain that made up the ‘trail’
Finally, as it began to grow dark I emerged into a thick forest, running, wriggling and wading with abandon between the trees, heading on an intuitive bearing in a last-ditch hope to reach the valley’s end before dark. I emerged into open fields as the sun began to fall, and half an hour later stood on the northern bank of Lake Alabaster: one final hurdle before the hut.
The steep mountainside on the Lakes eastern shore meant that the only passage was to wade knee deep, but at least I had a clear direction as dusk fell. Three and a half miles of underwater boulders, reed thickets and thousands of fallen trees. Yet I was content, and as a magnificent sunset cast its reflection across the glassy water I paused a moment to take it in. The glowing eyes of possums stared back at me from the bank as I continued for an hour by headtorch, climbing and ducking under the fallen skeletons of bark-clad giants. At the end of the lake I hunted for the hut in the darkness, finding it at last a little set back from the water’s edge: deserted yet homely. I settled in for the night, gorged and watered myself before falling at once into a deep sleep.
A final push along the shores of Lake Alabaster
Day 2 | Of Demons and Chafing
14:40hrs; 32mi; 660m
The next morning I woke leisurely, repacking my kit and preparing a breakfast of oats, dates and peanuts. I found the hut logbook and wrote myself a birthday message below an ominous previous entry: a warning to trampers to the south that the track beyond—that which I’d walked yesterday—was damaged and closed. The last entry before that dated back to mid-January. I guess I must have been the first to pass since then.
I was out the door by 8:30am and down the manicured trail to the suspension bridge at Alabaster’s base. From there the Demon Trail stretched before me, and at first I made good time running the flatter sections. Soon though it became more technical, and rocky ground gave way to boulders and steep trails of cascading water. But it was trail—clear and well-marked—and so I was happy.
Passing the McKerrow Island Hut turning I had to take a short detour through the trees where the path had fallen away to the river forty feet below. From there the trail became more challenging: endless ups and downs and fallen trees across the rocky passage. The path continued much the same all morning and into the afternoon, past the Demon Trail Hut and then Hokuri three to four hours beyond. At each I took a brief respite, cleaning my feet and taking ten minutes to eat in wonder at the incredible views to the lake below.
Blisters and chafing were developing badly now; my feet were incessantly wet, and sand, foliage and mud filled my socks however many times I emptied them. I lost time searching for the path at a couple of larger slips and in one hopeless circling up and down a steep creek bank where it kinked unexpectedly beneath a major treefall. By now I must have clambered over more than three hundred of these blockages.
The Demon Trail rose high one last time in parting spite and then down to the lake and a fording of Hokuri Creek—thankfully low and easy.
The trail trials of Day Two
I made up good time along the rocky beach of Lake McKerrow, past the ruins of Jamestown, and onto the track that dove back inland. From there I encountered the best trail yet—a wide single-track of mounded gravel through the tree-ferns—and I ate up ground, three miles per hour and faster. The blue conservation markers at Martin’s Bay Airstrip threw me off, and after ten minutes of circling amongst the rabbits I saw the sign that instructed the tramper not to follow them, helpfully placed at the far end of the field.
Then it was up and over the dunes to the shore behind the Hollyford Bar, deep in a single-minded focus to push aside the pain of raw thighs on shorts. The chafing was numbingly painful by now; my blisters less bothering. It is a funny thing about pain, that what previously occupied the mind sits quiet in the presence of novel agonies of greater relative cruelty.
The dunes undulated wildly, through forest and over sand. The trail wound ahead well-defined, but a number of vast washouts meant near vertical gullies to climbs in and out of, sometimes in excess of five metres deep. A final unnervingly high balance-walk across a fallen tree led me to the edge of the lake outlet, where I turned and stood in reverent wonder. Behind me stretched the Bar, and beyond that the vast magnificence of the Hollyford Valley. It was quite a sight—mountains, sea, forest and lake—the material of verse and classic literature: New Zealand’s natural wealth at its best.
The jewel of the Hollyford
A little further on I came to the Martins Bay Hut. It compelled me to unpack and stay the night, and as I took some minutes to eat a bag of oats I struggled mentally between comfort and ambition. So far that day I had covered 23 miles: not yet the 24 that my years demanded. Yet if I headed on I knew I wouldn’t reach journey’s end until gone 11pm. It was never a decision to make, and my mind swung back to the inevitable, taking note of the sign to avoid the beach beyond Long Reef Point at high tide. Of course it was indeed jut past high tide.
I crossed Long Reef Point with a feeling that it stood at the ends of the earth, jutting out into a darkening ocean beyond. From there I began boulder hopping, climbing up and over car-sized monoliths in a narrow strip of land between flax-thicket and ocean.
In a sudden flurry of motion and fury, a large brown shape lurched from between the flax stands, flapping and pounding toward me across the rocks. The sea lion forced me into a painful stumble-run, pursuing me long beyond her nest. Satisfied with her scare she waddled back home, but I carried a stone thereafter, and edged carefully round corners glancing up nervously to the flax.
The boulders seemed to last forever, and darkness fell in a golden display on the mountainous inlet before me. I took a brief stop as it edged to full dark, digging out my headlamp and refilling from the trickle of water that straddled the beach. Then, as the beach grew thin I finally reached the track I knew, and strode ankle deep in the waterlogged track toward McKenzie’s Creek, accompanied by the glowing eyes of deer and rabbit that slid out of sight.
Long Reef Point marked the start of hours of boulder hopping and a spectacular sunset.
Overshooting slightly I made my way back to the beach, where low tide afforded me hard, flat sand below the pebbles. I walked fast, in denial of pain and fatigue, counting steps in the blackness that engulfed me. The world shrank to thought and footfall: imprisoned by the dark vastness beyond.
Shaking off sleep and drifting eyelids, I concentrated on the painful numbness of my thighs as I marched: fearful to look at the bloody mess I was sure it would be. Suddenly in trancelike awakening I became aware of quad tracks below my feet. Someone had been out to look for me; Warrick, as I later found out, had attempted to intercept me, following my tracker from Long Reef Point.
2600—or 2700: I lost count—steps later I headed up the beach to hit Big Bay Hut, from which a short walk between the flaxes revealed the twinkling lights of Awarua Camp across the water. They’d left the rowing boat on this side for me, but I had finish on foot; had to close the loop the way I’d begun. I waded into the black water, backpack on head one last time, in a final effort of triumph in the night. I emerged to Geo and Carly lighting my face with their headlamps, and stepped the final few feet to the path where I’d taken my first step the morning before. I was spent entirely.
Company and conversation were warmly appreciated after the two days of solitude, and I was presented a birthday dinner to be envied: a plate of rice piled high with freshly shot venison stew and sausages, seated beside a fire roaring in the burner: the cabin was a true haven of comfort amidst the wilderness. I was too tired to eat and couldn’t stomach more than a mouthful, but after a shower I returned and demolished the plate in its entirety. I slept deeply that night.
Darkness falls and an exhausted wild-thing crawls up from the river
Post-expedition recovery was very fast, and even by next day my blisters had reduced and muscle soreness all but gone. I think the lack of ascent made a massive difference compared to, say, my Cape Wrath experience, meaning that muscles just weren’t that stressed. It was also only a couple of days, and any surface or deeper degradation could only get so bad.
However, whilst I was good to go by the following afternoon, the chafing around my thighs and more unfortunate regions caused me a lot of grief, getting sorer and sorer for a couple of days. Only two days later did I realise that infection was the source of the pain, and a single dose of antiseptic cream solved the issue overnight. Otherwise however, damage was limited, and with the exception of a few days’ worth of sleep deficit, I recovered pretty quick.
Big Bay and the Pyke Valley from the air
1) The Huts
Not strictly a personal positive, but I can’t help but make a point of just how impressed I was with the NZ Department of Conservation’s hut network. Each and every one, with the understandable exception of the recently flooded Olivine, was well kept, spacious and inviting. They really are havens of homeliness amidst the Fiordland bush and I look forward to using them again.
2) Recovery Potential
As mentioned, after a night of good sleep and a little hobbling, my muscles and body was pretty much recovered. Considering the minimal training history of the past few months, it’s encouraging to know that I can perform this sort of undertaking as baseline and not be entirely destroyed.
3) Powdered Milk
Oats, muesli, nuts and/or fruit in a ziplock bag and add water. It’s something I’ve done many times—I’m a fan of simple and repetitive on the trail. But add milk powder to the original mix and it becomes unbeatable—I don’t know why I’ve never thought of this before. True food of champions: definitely to be repeated.
4) The Potential in the Pathless
The Hollyford Loop gave me a new perspective on my, and indeed generally, ability to cross pathless and ‘impassable’ terrain. Many miles of chest deep swamp and dense thicket can in fact be crossed when one has to, and doesn’t actually take as long as one might think. My eyes have been opened to just how extreme a landscape we can pass though, and the resilience of human locomotor potential. What otherwise I would have dismissed as too much effort or time to be an option, I may now see as a potential path. Such a realisation affords new bounds of freedom and expeditionary possibility and is an exciting prospect.
5) Kit and Systems
In general, my equipment and expedition systems were pretty effective. Food and hydration worked perfectly, I was efficient at the overnight stop, with little more than an hour or two of the 41 hours that wasn’t sleeping or moving. Of course there is always room for refinement, but I’m getting better, and very much enjoy this self-contained nature of existence on the trail.