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.