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New Zealand: Hollyford-Pyke Route

A warning sign at the start of the Pyke Route
The warning sign at the start of the Pyke Route... and they're absolutely right

Not wasting any time after finishing the Kepler Track, I got straight back on the road and headed up the Milford Road, past Lake Te Anau, to Gunn's Camp at Hollyford. While walking the Kepler Track, 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 tougher and the overall distance much longer – 112km there and back compared to 67km for the Kepler round trip – but I was feeling pretty confident after and didn't feel 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.

The Hollyford River
Dawn mist rising off the Hollyford River near the start of the Hollyford Track

Tempting Tracks

Lake Alabaster
Perfect reflections in the southern end of tranquil Lake Alabaster

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 heads back down the left-hand side, back to the stem. Although this loop track sounds ideal, reducing the only repeated section of the walk to 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 an interesting option if I'd been with a group.

The Hollyford River south of Lake McKerrow
Wild scenery along the Hollyford River, just south of Lake McKerrow
Hokuri Hut
Hokuri Hut peeping out of the Hollyford forest

Teaming Up

Mark heading east from Martins Bay
Heading east from Martins Bay

So on day 4, Rick and I set off together on the trail to Martins Bay, which marks the end of the Hollyford Track. The walk was pretty lovely as it followed the beach on northern Lake McKerrow, before ducking into more bush and arriving at the Lodge...and here we asked for the weather report, nervous as to what it might say. It turned out that it would be fine for at least a couple of days – and no Fiordland weather report can be relied upon beyond a couple of days – so we committed to our plan (and should have been committed, frankly); the Pyke Loop it was.

Big Bay
Wild and beautiful Big Bay

Into the Wilderness

The bush at 6am
To tackle the Pyke Valley you need to get up early, but the Kiwi bush is beautiful and rewarding at 6am

On day 5 we got up at 5am to make an early start, mainly because we wanted all the walking 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 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, and it all looked so easy on the map. If only we'd known.

The Pyke Valley
The remote Pyke Valley is an untouched wilderness of cloud-topped mountains and temperate rainforest
Lake Wilmot
The placid waters of Lake Wilmot
Mark wading across the Barrier River
Crossing the Barrier River

Going Nowhere Slowly

Rick on the cage bridge
Rick on the cage bridge

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 our experiences with the river bush, we were determined to keep to the path now that we had it in our sights, so if we lost the markers we'd turn back and try again. Cries of 'marker!' from whoever was leading were like manna from heaven.

Sunset over the Pyke River
Sunset over the Pyke River from the comfort of the Olivine Hut

Well-earned Rest

Mark at the north end of Lake Alabaster
Arriving at the north end of Lake Alabaster after hours in the bush

The rest day is a long-honoured and essential tramping tradition. Back in the Pilbara, Scott and I spent a wonderful rest day on the George River, massaging ourselves in the fast-flowing rapids, and slowly getting our aching bodies back into shape for the return run. The rest day 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 for miles into the wilderness.

Rick trekking along the shore of Lake Alabaster
Rick trekking along the rocky shore of Lake Alabaster, knee deep in cold water
Looking south down Lake Alabaster
Looking south down Lake Alabaster
Sunset over Lake Alabaster
Sunset over Lake Alabaster

The Black Swamp

Mark knee-deep in the oozing Black Swamp
Knee-deep in the oozing goo of the Black Swamp

One good thing about the river escapade was that it enabled us to pinpoint our 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 and with boots full of silt, I discovered that Rick had found the track, and had been yelling my name for ages. That's another nasty aspect of the bush; it eats all sound. But we were so glad to have found the track again, I didn't really care.

Mt Madeline
Mt Madeline from Alabaster Hut
Rick and Mark at the end of the track
Rick and me at the end of the track

1 Southlanders – that's people who live in Southland, which includes places like Invercargill and Te Anau, right at the bottom end of the South Island – have an accent all of their own. 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 a bit 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 around there. There but for the Grace of God...