Date: 2-10 September 2014
Leader: Maud Tissink
Trampers: Thomas Andrews, Snorre Sundsbø, Quentin Stoyel, Ray Li, Emma Morris, Julian Bryant
It was late October before I took the time to sit down and write this trip report. However, the memories are still fresh in my mind and the calluses left on my feet by the blisters from this trip remain, so I like to think I can get away with it.
Now, to tell this story I must take you back to early September, when the seven of us decided to postpone our studies into the last possible moments of the break. I could enlighten you with a series of tales from before we reached the start of the track, but I am afraid that this report would end up too lengthy.
It was 1.00pm and we all sat down in front of the sign marking the start of the Hollyford Track to have some lunch. We had been awake for many hours and made the journey from Queenstown to the Hollyford Track start, entertained by the fact that all our drivers in the process had been called Brian.
Anyway, at 1.02pm we were aware that the sandflies would become at least a minor nuisance over the coming week. Soon afterwards we commenced our tramp.
The weather was wonderful, and it did not take long for me to decide that all the planning effort had been doubly worth it. The first day took us past amazing waterfalls, clear stretches of river such as I had never seen before, an impressive abundance of wildlife (especially wood pigeons), all with an awesome backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
We arrived at Alabaster Hut after dusk, having been delayed throughout the day by a troublesome shuttle bus. Following a good dinner we sat down to discuss the next day’s route. Our options were either a Hollyford Track return journey, or a more treacherous circumnavigation of the entire Skippers Range. With the weather forecast looking good as far as was foreseeable, we decided to take the risky option, and thus the next day we embarked on the infamous Pyke-Big Bay route.
It was 7am. The track disappeared about 10 minutes away from the hut, but the scenery was all the better for it.
We were now hopping along the shore of Lake Alabaster- an experience I would recommend to anyone. The lake was beautifully clear and really, the terrain wasn’t all that bad if you didn’t mind wet feet. Snorre and Quentin, who did mind wet feet, insisted on clambering through the dense bush just above the water level, but even they admitted defeat after some time. Bush bashing in that region is not for the faint of heart… The Pyke-Big Bay route had a different feel to it than the popular Hollyford Track. It was very clear that this was not commonly travelled area, and that it was special that we were able to see this.
Around noon we reached the end of the lake and proceeded to tramp into a swamp. We realized how lucky we were with the weather- it had not rained for three weeks in Fiordland, which meant that we only encountered thigh-deep mud! Miles of swamp eventually turned into a more navigable bush, and we were pleased to reach Olivine Hut with some time for a swim in an icy river that we could see running straight down from the Olivine Ice Plateau.
Because we anticipated a long, 14 hour day ahead, we woke early and left the hut one by one to take the one-person cableway across the river. Approximately 40 minutes later, all seven of us had crossed and so it was at 6.30am we actually began to tramp.
We followed the Pyke River along for hours until we reached Lake Wilmot. Edging past Lake Wilmot turned out to be slightly harder than edging past Lake Alabaster, and we were forced to push our way through some dense rubble, bush and along steep and slippery rock faces. Nonetheless we all came out on the other side uninjured, and decided that some lunch was in order. We finally succumbed to the charm of the sparkling turquoise Pyke River and jumped in for the most satisfying swim I had ever had. Truly, I had not seen a river with such colour and clearness before and I felt privileged to be able to swim in it.
Around 4pm, we crossed the Pyke River where it was wide but shallow. We realized that the good weather had enabled us to complete the track much more rapidly than the times we had accounted for. Spirits were high but nonetheless, we had a number of hours ahead of us. So we said goodbye to the Pyke River and entered a valley that would take us to the coast, while keeping a good pace.
The forests began to change and vegetation gradually became more coastal in nature, but this meant that the forest became darker, colder and wetter. While keeping conversation, everybody listened out keenly for the sounds of rolling waves. Then, all of a sudden, the forest stopped rolling by and we had walked onto a sand dune. It was a bit of a surprise at first to see people again. We had known that there would be a number of private shelters out on the coast, but we had just walked into an unmapped bustling whitebait fishery town! The fishermen were extremely friendly and advised us to wade through the lagoon and take a shortcut to the Big Bay Hut. We took their advice and arrived on the beach in time to see the wonderful West Coast sunset.
I woke up at 7.40am, convinced that I had had a luxurious sleep-in. We had all thoroughly acclimatized to 5am wake ups. I arose despite the early hour and had nice coffee on the beach with Tom, while others decided to sleep in. The weather had remained clear and sunny, and we did not have to leave until 11am, as we had to wait for low tide to get from Big Bay into Martins Bay, where the next hut awaited us. Tom and I returned to the hut and found the others awake and getting ready to leave- someone had left the screen door open on their toilet venture and sandflies had invaded the hut. All we could do was leave as soon as possible. Thus, we were on our way at 10am.
The day quickly turned into intense rock hopping- a sport we found we all enjoyed. The further we left the hut and the private batches behind, the larger the rocks became and the more seals we began to see. By the end of the day, we were all intoxicated with sunshine and stumbled upon a fur seal rookery. The sight of the seals wading about in the rock pool was entrancing, and we stayed and watched for a long time. By the time we arrived at the hut it was late. As we prepared dinner, we found that Tom had gone missing. Makeshift “search parties” set out and we soon found him asleep on a rock under the stars -thankfully he’d left his head torch on.
We woke up and left before dawn on a mission to find penguins. Quentin, Snorre and Tom burst off to climb rocks and find a suitable lookout point, but Julian and I found ourselves drawn back to the rookery. The fur seals were different than the night before. They were actively dancing around in the relative safety of the rock pool, while the power of the massive waves dissipated as they crashed onto the surrounding rocks. We eventually left in search of penguins, and were succeeded at finding some Fiordland Crested Penguins back in Big Bay. Euphoric, we went back to the hut, packed our bags and began another long day of tramping.
It was obvious in the quality of the track that we were back on the Hollyford Track, and for the first few hours we raced along. We had morning tea and a swim in Lake McKerrow in the abandoned gold-miners’ settlement known as Jamestown. Following the track along, we hopped onto the slightly more uncomfortable Demon Trail, where we encountered some three-wire bridges that thoroughly excited the engineers amongst us. Particularly Ray. Just Ray, really… We arrived at the Demon Trail Hut at dusk after a long day. That night, we used the paua shells we had gathered as shot glasses and worked our way through the remaining liquor.
After a pre-dawn swim in Lake McKerrow, we began the tramping. Everybody was glad to be off Demon Trail, which was not as undeveloped as the Pyke-Big Bay route but simply unmaintained and all the more bothersome for it. A bonus feature at the end of this section of the track was a large swing bridge across the Hollyford River, which allowed us to admire its size from above. This was by far the largest river we had come across. From here on we backtracked to stay the last night in Hidden Falls Hut, where we all decided not to assess the state of our feet.
There was some sadness in the moment as we said our goodbyes to the last hut that morning. A gentle two- hour walk to the track start marked the end of the Hollyford Track. We reached the track start long before we would be picked up and so we went for a good final swim. Following this, we were picked up by Brian and taken back past the Milford Sound to Te Anau. The next Brian then took us from Te Anau to Queenstown, and we retreated back to Bungi Backpackers that I’d recommend for those of you who like your free vegetable soup. I must include that those of us who could find the time in their flight schedule to go out for the morning then woke up at 3am and climbed Mount Ben Lomond to watch the sunrise from its summit. The views were majestic.
By Maud Tissink