Not wasting a great deal of time after finishing the Kepler Track, I got back on the road and headed up the Milford Road, past Lake Te Anau, to Gunn's Camp at Hollyford. I'd decided on my next plan: to conquer the Hollyford Track. The Hollyford Track is a step up from the Kepler Track, being a 56km track from the road end to the sea... and another 56km back again. The track is much harder and the return distance considerable, but I was feeling pretty confident after the Kepler, and not at all tired, so the Hollyford it was. I'd already stocked up with ten days' worth of food just in case, so after a night at Gunn's camp, I headed for the start of the track.
You might be wondering what a tramper has to carry on his or her back; well, for a long walk like the Hollyford, it's a hell of a lot. For a start, this is Fiordland, so you need clothes for all types of weather, from boiling sun to freezing hail, so the clothes take up a fair amount of weight, with waterproof tops and bottoms, long trousers, shorts, T-shirts, sweatshirts, plenty of socks, swimming trunks... and more. Then there's the food for ten days (always take a spare day or two, just in case you get stranded), which in my case included 1kg of muesli, powdered milk, 40 Ryvita, cheese, meat paste, seven packets of rice, four tins of tuna, tomato paste, spices, coffee, sugar... need I elaborate? Throw in my Trangia cooker and half a litre of meths, and it's getting heavier. Add in a sleeping bag and inflatable pillow, a toiletries/first aid bag, things like torches, candles, compass, map, book and so on, and you have your survival pack for over a week.
I could hardly lift the bugger as I set off for the track, but it gets lighter as you go on, and you get fitter, which can't be a bad thing.
The rain started straight away. Still, I couldn't moan, seeing as I'd had four days of glorious weather on the Kepler, so my first day, tramping to the Alabaster Hut on Lake Alabaster, wasn't that thrilling; I couldn't see anything of the Hollyford Valley that I was walking down, and the promised mountains weren't anywhere to be seen. Still, the motley collection of people I found in the hut soon dispelled thoughts of the rain; if the Kepler had been full of rather predictable traveller-types, the Hollyford was full of New Zealanders from all walks of life. From the six Tararua Tramping Club members to the two mad adventurers who had braved insane terrain to get there from Queenstown, the conversation flowed as freely as the water down the panes.
I met a guy called Rick who had the same sort of plan as me – nine days to go to the end of the track and back – and a family from Timaru who provided their own little soap opera in family politics for us all to enjoy, with an ancient but tough-as-old-boots mother taking her three late-twenties kids on the track, as well as two tag-along American friends who were well out of their depth. The Hollyford, being constructed as a one-way track, ensured that I'd end up with most of these people every night (except the Tararuas who were heading south); this seemed a reasonable prospect, as long as nobody snored. Luckily nobody did.
One of the stories the Tararuas told was of the Pyke Loop. The Hollyford is a one-way track, but there is a continuation of the track up the coast and back down the Pyke river, coming out at the Alabaster Hut again; if you imagine the whole loop as a Y-shape, then the Hollyford Track goes from the bottom of the Y to the top of the left fork, and the Pyke Loop crosses the top of the Y and back down to the stem. Although this loop track sounds ideal, making the only repeated section of the walk the last day from Alabaster to the road end, it's not really a sensible option; it's classed as a route rather than a track, which means it's hardly marked, it's not maintained, and if it rains you're in serious trouble, with flooding rivers, big swamps and only two huts on the entire 60km stretch. When I'd first looked at the walk details for the Hollyford I'd briefly entertained the idea of doing the Pyke Loop, only to read that the walk was only suitable for experienced, well-equipped parties, so I'd stuck to the Hollyford. Half of the Tararua group had just returned from the Pyke Loop, and with mud up to your waist, fast-flowing rivers and seriously thick scrub lacerating your legs, it sounded like the Hollyford was the better bet. Still, the Pyke would have been interesting to see if I'd been with a group.
The second day took me through forest bog and along the first section of the cutely named Demon Trail, up the eastern shore of the north-south Lake McKerrow (the left branch of the Y, if you like). The rain had mercifully stopped, producing some interesting views in the morning over Lake Alabaster, with wispy clouds hanging round the tops – 'hogs backs' as Rick said the clouds were called – but the track was pretty nasty, coming complete with big mud puddles to negotiate, and heaps of moss-covered boulders that were even slimier than a Kiwi politician. It didn't take too long, though, and was a pretty little walk, and by lunchtime I'd arrived at the Demon Trail Hut, where I found a beautiful little beach and washed all my clothes. By now the sun had truly come out, and apart from the sandflies, who were epic all the way along the track, it was bliss. I also met more people – Phil, Tash and Steve from Christchurch – and before long we were all yarning the evening away. Too late we all discovered that Phil's snoring was about as loud as a human being's can be, but after a day's tramping it takes considerable noise to keep you awake, and besides, I'd packed my earplugs. There were some tired looking buggers the next morning, though...
Day 3, Saturday 4th, consisted of the rest of the Demon Trail to Hokuri Hut, almost at the northern tip of Lake McKerrow, and apart from a couple of breaks in the bush, it was mainly tricky and slippery track, undulating along the lakeside, but totally enclosed by thick forest. Hokuri Hut was a welcome sight, and here I met Bill and Gary, who had just come from a trip anti-clockwise round the Pyke Loop. They looked in a real state, with scratched legs, raw elbows, and some serious stories. Gary kept on going south, but Bill stayed the night and kept us all entertained with tales of places like Lake Wilmot and the Black Swamp, both evil spots by the sound of it. That's when I caught the glint in Rick's eye.
Gary, you see, had got the wrong end of the stick. I'd told him that I'd have loved to try the Pyke, but I wasn't equipped, and besides, I was on my own, but when Gary had bumped into Rick on the Demon Trail, he'd told him that if he wanted to do the Pyke, he should talk to this guy with a beard in Hokuri Hut; me, in other words. So Rick told me this, and we laughed and dismissed it out of hand, but as Bill unfolded his story of a living hell, we started looking at each other in that 'whaddya reckon' way. And so was born the germ of an idea that grew, and by the time we went to bed we were considering the Pyke Loop, against all common sense. It all depended on the weather, and we could get a weather report from the Lodge at Martins Bay the next day (the Lodge being the private hut for guided walkers, where they have luxuries like radios and food).
So on day 4 Rick and I set off together on the track to Martins Bay, which marks the end of the Hollyford Track. The track was pretty lovely, walking along the beach on northern Lake McKerrow before ducking into more bush and arriving at the Lodge, where we asked for the weather report. It said it would be fine for at least a couple of days – no Fiordland weather report can be relied upon beyond a couple of days – so we were committed (and should have been committed, frankly); the Pyke Loop it was. We pushed on to the Martins Bay Hut, along a glorious beach, and stopped for lunch there, at the end of the Hollyford. Suddenly Martins Bay had changed from the end of the track to the beginning of the Hard Part... and the butterflies were there in my stomach. Without a doubt we were entering dangerous territory where people had died, territory where you can't afford to give up, because if you give up, you get stranded, and if you get stranded, you either get rescued, or you get discovered weeks later. We'd both told DOC of our intentions, as one always should, but they wouldn't be searching until a day or so after we were supposed to return, and then they'd still have to find us. It was a sobering thought.
We pushed through to Big Bay that afternoon, crossing the top of the Y. It was instantly obvious that the type of walking had changed; there were no more lovely tracks, just little worn routes with the odd marker. The walk, though, instantly became much more interesting; the path from Martins Bay to Big Bay was mainly along the coast, passing a truly stinking seal colony, amazing rock sculptures, and always ahead of us, these huge mountains such as Mt McKenzie, with snowy tops and large barren areas, where nothing grows at all. Big Bay itself lived up to its name, and the long slog along the beach was painful after such a distance, but with views like this, it's amazing how you forget your aching feet and straining shoulders. The hut, right at the northern end of the bay, wasn't one of the most delightful I've ever seen, but we didn't care and, apart from one other person (who turned out to be a boring sod from Te Anau1 so we left him to his own devices) we were totally alone in one of the most isolated spots in New Zealand. It was quite wonderful.
Big Bay might have been isolated, but there was one surprise in store. People tend to leave their excess food in huts, just in case a needy traveller turns up, and among the bags of milk powder and sugar was a packet of blackcurrant Vitafresh, a cordial powder that makes dodgy creek water taste palatable. And there, emblazoned across the packet that dated back to 1995, was a competition; 'Win an Acorn Home Computer' it proclaimed, along with the logo and a picture of an ancient Acorn machine. Of all the places to find a bit of advertising from the company who were effectively paying my way round New Zealand...
Into the Wilderness
On day 5, Monday 6th, we got up at 5am to make an early start, mainly because we wanted all the time we could get. The next hut, Olivine, was too far away for a normal day's walk, and most people camp out halfway along the loop, but having no tents we had to try for the hut, or stay out in a homemade bivvy (which was quite a feasible proposition, just not as nice as a hut). Bill's party had taken 14 hours to get from Olivine to Big Bay, so we set off with some idea of what lay ahead, but it all looked so easy on the map. If only we'd known.
The track started off with a reasonably simple trudge through thick forest – in which we managed to get lost, rather worryingly – and across a swing bridge, and then we struck out due east, heading towards the Pyke River. After about 10km of bashing through the bush we reached the Pyke, and here the fun started. After crossing the river, which was quite braided at this point and only just above knee deep, we hit the track, only to find it went through flax quagmire, not the most pleasant walking in the world. After wading through knee-deep water, by which time our boots were well and truly soaked, we decided that walking in the river itself might be a good idea, seeing as it hadn't been raining that much recently.
This turned out to be a good idea. While the track passed through goodness only knows what, we simply stuck to the river, crossing it in a zigzag fashion and sticking to the insides of corners where there was plenty of silt to walk on. The added bonus of river-hopping was the astounding view as we waltzed through the deep blue water (which was pretty damn cold, but refreshing nonetheless after the bush); looking down the valley we could see the Skippers Range rising up ahead on the right, the Little Red Hill Range on the left, with occasional glimpses of the mighty Darran Range in the distance. It seemed that the stories of a living hell had to be wrong; this was beautiful tramping.
Before long we reached Lake Wilmot, where we stopped for a late lunch. The lake was pure beauty, and apart from some confusion with regard to the map – the one I was using was a 1988 revision, since which the whole area has been flooded a large number of times, changing the area considerably – we'd managed really well. After lunch, full of Ryvita and confidence, we picked up the track along the east shore of the lake, making great progress to the southern end of the lake by about 3pm. And that's when things started to go wrong.
We lost the track pretty quickly, which wasn't so hard as we'd been following our noses, there being no markers at all along the lake track. The problem was that we'd seen two different versions of the route on various maps; the one on mine said to go straight on after the lake, sticking to the east side of the valley, but the more modern map had shown a different track, crossing along the southern shore of the lake to the western side of the valley, and following the river down (which flows out of the southwestern tip of the lake).
We tossed a mental coin, and headed along the lake shore to the river, reasoning that having come this far down the river, we could probably continue to follow the river down. Whoops.
When a river flows out of a lake, it's going fast and deep. As we reached the southwestern tip of the lake, it became painfully obvious that we weren't going to be able to follow the river any more, even if we stuck to the banks, so we decided to try to follow the river bank a few metres in from the water, through the bush.
This was when it really began to fall apart; I have never experienced the likes of hardcore Kiwi river-flat bush, and I hope I never do again. Imagine the thickest thicket, and double it; our progress was by inches, there was no respite, and the only tracks we found were made by deer. It's not just a case of slow progress either; by far the worst aspect of bush bashing is the pain involved, and here we discovered the source of Gary and Bill's bloodied legs – the scourge of the bush bastards.
Going Nowhere Slowly
It took us about an hour of bush bashing to realise that it was hopeless; we were getting nowhere, and were in considerable pain to boot. We turned right around, smashed our way back to the lake – what a gorgeous sight after that hell! – and threaded back to the southeastern corner of the lake, where we nursed our pride and tried to save the day by finding the track. The relief when we found the first marker deep in the considerably easier bush was huge, and we followed the markers through beech forest until we hit the Barrier River; we constantly lost the track, but after the bush bashing exercise we were determined to keep to the path now that we had one, and if we lost the markers we'd turn back and try again. Cries of 'marker!' from whoever was leading were like manna from heaven.
The Barrier River posed no problems, being only knee deep, and the next stage was relatively easy, passing through the river flats where Davey Gunn, a legendary figure in the area and original proprietor of Gunn's Camp, used to run his cattle. After crossing the Diorite Stream, from which we could see the beautiful waterfalls tumbling off the Little Red Hill Range near the Diorite source, we hit more bush, the last stretch to the hut. If only it was that simple; the track wound round and round, going on for ever, and we kept finding areas that had been completely washed out. What do you do when a track disappears into the river? You get inventive, but when the sun's already ducked below the mountains and the hut has got to be close, it's soul destroying.
How we made it, I don't know; I was on autopilot as my legs followed the rutted track, even though I couldn't see the ground through the bush. I now understand what it's like to have a huge beer belly, when your feet become old friends you never see any more, but eventually we got to the Olivine River, where a strange contraption awaited us: a cage bridge. This involved getting into a cage, one at a time, and winding your way over the river, a painful and tiring experience after the 14.5 hours we'd been walking... but at last we could see the hut, and boy, it looked cosy.
That night we slept like the dead, after cooking a hasty meal and passing on all our tips onto the two Kiwi women in the hut who were doing the Pyke the other way around. We got plenty of tips off them for the ensuing trip back to Alabaster, but most of it went over our heads, and when we woke up late on day 6, life was beginning to return to normal after the nightmare of the day before.
The rest day is a long-honoured and essential tramping tradition. Back in the Pilbara, Scott and I spent a wonderful day on the George River, massaging ourselves in the fast-flowing rapids, slowly getting our aching bodies back into shape for the return run, and it gives you time to reflect on where you are and how you got there. After all, tramping isn't so much a destination, as a journey – indeed, quite often the destination is the same car that you left from – and the rest day is when you can sit down and enjoy the complete solitude and total lack of the human world that you can only get by walking miles into the wilderness.
I spent most of the day writing letters, talking with Rick about the hardships we'd suffered to get to where we were, and counting my scars. It felt good to know that the worst of the trip was over – the journey to Alabaster sounded easy in comparison – and we spent the day revelling in the knowledge that we'd managed to conquer the Pyke Loop. If only I'd known what lay in store for the next day as I watched the stars appear in the clear night sky; it's not over until the fat lady sings, and she hadn't even turned up yet...
Day 7, Wednesday 8th, saw an early start of 6am, and more beautiful weather, with strong sunlight and a gentle breeze to take the sting out of the ultraviolet. On paper the route looked pretty easy; follow the river for no more than about 10km, before hitting the northern tip of Lake Alabaster, from where it was plain sailing if you just walked in the lake, according to the Kiwis. How could we go wrong? One word: washout.
We lost the track relatively early on, when we came upon a dry river that crossed our path. We crossed that easily enough, but soon after we hit the bush again, we realised we hadn't seen a marker for a while. Never mind, we thought, we'd stick to the river bank, where we assumed the path would have been if the river hadn't washed the markers away. That was our mistake; the track actually headed inland, but we missed it, and the rest, as they say, is history. Bush bashing our way through reasonably thick bush – not as thick as around Lake Wilmot, but thick enough – we eventually came out at the river again, rather lost, but heading in the right sort of direction. That's where Rick decided he needed to get out of the grass.
Poor old Rick; he suffered badly from hay fever, and we'd walked through a field full of pollen-heavy grass almost first thing in the morning. He'd gone in front, and had looked like he'd got an exhaust pipe fitted, the way he stirred up the pollen from the grass heads, and now he was swelling up all over in a fearsome rash.
He needed a break from the bush, and there was the river, all shallow and silted, so we decided to walk down the river again. It had been such a success before, so why not again? It all went swimmingly for about 3km, and that's when we tried to cross the river back to the eastern bank, but by this time it wasn't such a friendly, shallow trickle, it had got its act together.
It's vital to take river crossings very seriously. The biggest cause of death in areas like the Pyke is drowning – indeed, Davey Gunn drowned in the Hollyford, and he would have known the dangers better than anyone – and as we tried to cross the river, now waist deep, it became increasingly obvious that if one of us was to lose his foothold, we'd be swept away. We aborted the attempt, and after a couple of further tries, we realised we would have to tramp back to our original crossing place, and resume the bush bashing.
The whole river episode had been a waste of time and effort, but we looked at it philosophically; braver and more stupid trampers might have pushed on and tried the crossing, and they might have drowned. We, on the other hand, were suffering, but very much alive2.
The Black Swamp
One good thing about the river escapade, though, was that it enabled us to pinpoint out position on the map; we were just north of a river that flowed across the track, and we reasoned that if we could get to the river, we could walk up and down it relatively unhindered and find the markers. We soon found the river, and Rick headed west towards the Pyke, while I headed east. I must have walked for a good half a kilometre through waist-deep, brown water, not seeing or caring what lay in the muddy creek; I was just glad that this wasn't northern Australia, or I'd have been chomped up by a crocodile in no time at all. By the time I returned, soaked to the skin with boots full of goodness knows what, I discovered that Rick had found the track, and had been calling me for ages. That's another nasty aspect of the bush; it eats all sound. However, we were so glad to have found the track again, I didn't care.
Actually, finding the track turned out to be a mixed blessing. The next obstacle was the one with the most emotive name on the map: the Black Swamp. We'd heard stories about the Black Swamp, and every one of them proved correct. It stank of rotting vegetation; it was, indeed, a very black, swampy area, dotted with odd tussocks of vegetation with strange grassy growths appearing out of the top; and it was waist deep in gooey, quicksand-like mud, as both Rick and I found out as we waded through it. We had started out by trying to hop from clump to clump, but this turned out to be pretty hopeless with the combination of heavy backpack and unstable vegetation, and by the end of the swamp, which can only have been about 200m wide, we were filthy, soaked, and, frankly, having a ball. When you're already muddy, you might as well wallow in it.
After the Black Swamp we miraculously managed to keep to the markers, despite large numbers of washouts. I had decided to wear my waterproof over-trousers to keep out the hook grass, as my legs were too sore to cope otherwise, and progress was generally good, although the bush we bashed through was monotonous, dark and pretty soul destroying. As we emerged onto the beach at the northern tip of Lake Alabaster, I sank onto the ground and just collapsed into lunch; we'd taken the best part of seven hours to get from the hut to the lake, a very long time for such a short distance.
The view, though, was like no other. It was quite dreamy sitting at the end of the lake and looking south towards Mt Madeline and the Darran Mountains (the highest peaks in the region), especially after the darkness of the bush. From here on the walk was as near to perfect as you can get; we skirted the eastern shore of the lake, walking in the water which only came up to our knees, and making full use of the beaches when they arrived. The map reading was pretty easy too, as the western shore had a number of obvious features, and the relief of being able to gauge our progress after the numbing frustration of the bush was huge. We arrived at the Alabaster Hut just in time for tea, and for a wonderfully warm swim in the sun-heated lake.
On our last night the sunset had to be seen to be believed. There were pinks and violets and purples and reds, all reflecting off a huge lake, with the strangest cloud formations making the sky look like a poster from the late sixties. It was no coincidence that we slept bloody well that night, and the next day the tramp out to the car was blissfully easy, with well-formed tracks, no mud and no bloody hook grass; it wasn't long before I'd met up with Zed – a welcome sight, I can tell you – dropped Rick off at his bus stop, and hopped into a gorgeously hot shower back at Gunn's Camp, probably one of the most pleasurable moments of a long tramp.
After eight days in the bush – one less than originally planned, but far more challenging and rewarding than originally planned, too – even the rugged and rustic charm of Gunn's Camp, with its fire-fuelled hot water system and friendly sandfly population, was civilised. That night I slept the sleep of the just.
1 Southlanders – people who live in Southland, which includes places like Invercargill and Te Anau, but not Dunedin – have a weird accent. The area was settled by the Scottish, and as a result the locals have a very distinctive 'r' sound, derived from the rolling r's of the Scots. These days it makes Southlanders sound like people from Devon, but they tend to speak very slowly and have an odd habit of repeating themselves. All this tends to make Southlanders sound incredibly simple, which is a shame, as they're actually the salt of the earth. What a pity we had to be stuck in a hut with the only one who lived up to his accent...
2 It's a serious point, this. I later read in the paper about a German who died on the Tasman Glacier when he fell off a moraine wall while taking a photograph; I'd spent Christmas Eve on the Tasman Glacier, and I'd climbed plenty of moraine... it makes you wonder.