The Hollyford: An awe-inspiring wilderness adventure in the arms of luxury

Because is too short to struggle uphill for five hours on a track named for the devil himself

On the scale of disheartening things, a tramping sign pointing ahead to a track named the Demon Trail is right up there.

Especially when guidebooks advise the five-hour track is “challenging”. It may be faint-hearted, but no thanks. Trampers on the Hollyford Valley track spot just such a sign after crossing the longest swing bridge in Fiordland — a swinging experience, if ever there were one — over the Pyke River. The Demon Trail heads up, up, and away… an arduous climb into the Hollyford Valley and pristine Fiordland forest.

For a fortunate few, the sight of the track winding steeply into the distance is a good reason to laugh in relief. There is no need to stiffen the sinews or summon the blood for a slog. These lucky ones turn their backs and retrace their steps on the swaying bridge and down to the water’s edge at Lake McKerrow.

There, jetboats await travellers for a trip to the next stage of the day’s easy walk and luxury overnight accommodation. No demonic effort is required, merely cardio fitness enough to cope with the heart-stopping beauty of the vistas.

This is day two of the four-day Hollyford Wilderness Experience operated by Ngāi Tahu Tourism. The small group of 16 trampers carry a light daypack with drinking water, wet-weather gear and cameras. Yet their two guides often offer tasty treats and eye-opening insights into the forest around them and its 1000-year history, curious tales of previous inhabitants and the relationship of its Ngāi Tahu guardians.

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A guide might even ask if any food is available from the bush — should the their snack packs of baked treats not suffice. (Hardly a likely scenario.) Soon guests will be hunting for the tasty tips of the kareao (supplejack vine) that can be eaten raw and taste like asparagus spears when steamed.

For the rest of the day, exclamations of delight will follow the finding of a green “asparagus” tip.

Such is the joy of new knowledge and shared experiences among a small group. Friendships form when guests settle into the second of their luxury-lodge evenings (after hot showers in one’s own ensuite) and while holding a generous glass of something delicious and sampling the treats on a tempting pre-dinner platter. The extraordinary nature of the Fiordland wilderness does that by opening minds and hearts to new experiences and new ways of seeing the world.

The first Pākeha guide who tried to farm the area was Davey Gunn, and he set the standard for falling in love with the Hollyford Valley. He’d only occasionally return home to his wife and family in Ōamaru and then couldn’t stop extolling the beauties of the valley.

Today’s guides are similarly passionate about sharing the magical history of the mighty podocarp forest giants, revealing the Māori relationship with the land, and telling the curious history of the ill-conceived Jamestown settlement. He called it the “Land of Doing Without”, but today’s guest of the Hollyford Wilderness Experience will only do irksome noise (helicopters permitted as guests embark on one of the world’s most incredible scenic trips from Martins Bay to Milford Sound).

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Would Davey approve of the modern cocoon of luxury? For sure, as he was always won over by anyone awestruck by the spiritual glories of this unique valley.


The fully guided Hollyford Wilderness Experience takes care of every aspect of the trip. The three-night, four-day trip includes a jetboat ride on Lake McKerrow and a helicopter flight from Martins Bay to Milford Sound. The daily walking (three to seven hours) is not hard for a reasonable fitness level as the terrain is essentially level and the pace considerate.

COST: From $3595 per person, all rooms have ensuites.

WHEN: October to April. As the numbers are strictly limited, it pays to book early — the Hollyford Wilderness Experience books out most years.

WHERE: Guests are collected from and returned to Queenstown.

NIGHT ONE: Distinction Hotel, Te Ānau

NIGHT TWO: Pyke River Lodge

NIGHT THREE: Martins Bay Lodge

TAKE: Thermals for the walk and casual clothes for evenings in the lodge. Walking poles, packs and rain gear can be provided if required.

EXPECT: This is not a Great Walk, so there’s no slog and sweat. However, a great experience is guaranteed as the guides reveal the unique relationship of Ngāi Tahu
to this special place within their creation story of Te Waka o Aoraki, Chief Tūtoko and the important pounamu (greenstone) trails found in the valley.

BOOK: or 0800 832226

WATCH OUT FOR: An overwhelming desire to return and do it all again.

WINNER: New Zealand Tourism Awards 2022 Visitor Experience recognising the commitment to meet and exceed visitor expectations.

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