A once-in-a-lifetime trip through the Hollyford Valley combines wilderness and comfort


Wandering through this part of pristine Fiordland doesn’t require the gritty determination of its earliest pioneers. But it is just as likely to inspire an obsession.

Davey Gunn, the first man to guide walkers along the Hollyford River, was a tough bloke. In 1926 he set out from Ōamaru for Fiordland, leaving behind his confectioner wife and three children for a solitary life in an area he called The Land of Doing Without. Initially, Davey ran cattle on a 10,000-hectare lease and lived in a hut called Deadman’s on the banks of the Hollyford River.

He returned home twice a year reeking, his wife noted, of bush smoke and extolling the beauties of the Hollyford, which had become something of an obsession with him. By 1936, he had begun guiding parties through the Hollyford Valley and down to the Tasman Sea at Martin’s Bay. He continued to do so for 20 years, earning many legends for bushcraft and heroism, and for charm and gruffness.

Would he approve of today’s lucky Hollyford Wilderness Experience guests and their soft beds of crisp linen, bathrooms stocked with shampoo and hairdryers, and three-course meals accompanied by fine wines and craft beers? He was more of a resourceful sort of a chap than a luxury-seeker. After badly lacerating his thigh and scrotum in a fall over a cliff, he sewed the wounds shut with a darning needle and fishing gut. Job done.

However, he so loved this untouched part of the universe — and wanted others to also fall in love with it — that a 100 per cent focus on absorbing the magnificence of it all would surely please him. No need for visitors to be distracted by inconveniences; they should live in the moment and enjoy every second of it. And there is much to absorb without the usual pitfalls of being in a remote area of wild forest; no steep hills, no heavy packs and no indigestible freeze-dried food.

Today’s guides, the modern-day Davey Gunns, are of a more sensitive nature perhaps, and closely attuned to the interests and needs of their 21st-century clients. The Hollyford Wilderness Experience is for those who love creature comforts more than the ability to stitch up our own wounds with fishing gut. It is perfection for lovers of the natural world who feel walking under the forest giants in a world heritage park to be among life’s greatest privileges.

As one visitor put it in a guidebook, it is the Goldilocks of Walks; not too long, not too short, not too steep, not too ordinary. Not ordinary at all — quite extraordinary. With its jet boat ride down Lake McKerrow (saving many gruelling hours of hard uphill slog) and an incredible helicopter ride from Martin’s Bay on the West Coast through magnificent Milford Sound, it ranks as one of the country’s most amazing experiences.

In fact, Davey Gunn might agree that it now deserves to be renamed the Land of Not Doing It Tough At All.

NOTEBOOK

The fully guided Hollyford Wilderness Experience takes care of every aspect of the trip. Guests only need to bring their walking gear and camera. It is a three-night, four-day experience and includes a jet-boat ride on Lake McKerrow and a helicopter flight from Martin’s Bay to Milford Sound. The three days of walking are not hard.

If you have a reasonable level of fitness, you will find it pleasantly challenging and highly rewarding. Daily walking takes 3-7 hours without significant elevation. It’s just the right amount of exercise to make shedding tramping boots at the end of the day feel like heaven and the glass of wine fully deserved.

What it costs: $2795 per adult.
When to go: December to April.
What to take: Thermals and tramping boots for the walk and casual clothes
for evenings in the lodge. Even walking poles, packs and rain gear can be provided if required.
What to Expect: A walk through the experienced eyes of local guides and learn about the unique relationship of Ngāi Tahu to this special place. You will learn more about the Ngāi Tahu creation story, Te Waka o Aoraki, Chief Tūtoko, and the important pounamu (greenstone) trails found within the valley.
How to book: hollyfordtrack.com or 0800 832226

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NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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