Tramping escapades in the Hollyford Valley.

In which it rains, I build a raft, and we are marooned on McKerrow Island for two days surviving only on emergency potatoes and oxidised wine…

Chrissy Hamill one of our guides, reports on a previous trip into the Hollyford Valley...
Note: She has since grown up a little and has substantially more knowledge about how to cross rivers, the benefits of bringing extra food and what it is like to immerse in the wilds of New Zealand.

And so it was, on the eve of my 17th birthday, that myself and 5 friends found ourselves squished into a rather small car borrowed from someone’s dad, listening to 80′s pop hits on the road to Te Anau. The weather forecast was positively awful, but we had a car, 5 days all to ourselves, and the blissful exuberance of never having done this before. Our plan was to tramp into the Hollyford valley, some of New Zealand’s most beautiful pristine rainforest and rejoice in our youth and the fact that no one had managed to cut down all the trees there yet.

At the start of the Hollyford Track

At the start of the Hollyford Track

Day One. Road End to Alabaster

After an exceedingly late start (the car broke down and we didn’t get to track until well after midday) we trekked through to Hidden falls, and then on to Alabaster by about 7 pm. The weather (contrary to the forecast) was gorgeous and the forest insanely beautiful.

This area of Fiordland seems so much older and wilder than anywhere else, full of gnarled ancient trees and vines and mosses, every inch as far as you can see taken up by something either growing or decomposing. Like old forests anywhere it seems to have its own timezone, a certain slowness.

We cooked couscous for dinner on our temperamental gas stove, and sat by the lakeside at Alabaster, killing sandflies until it got dark. 

Swing bridge!

Swing bridge!

Day Two. Alabaster to McKerrow Island

The second day we decided to make a crossing out to McKerrow Island and stay the night, which at the time wasn’t an entirely silly idea. About midday however, the rain set in. I never was much of a fan of  walking in the rain but a Fiordland downpour is something else… The sky seems as though it is emptying the entire ocean; and the whole forest is taken over by the water and the sound and smell of it moving through everything.

After about 15 minutes I think we’d given up on the idea of staying dry, and just went with it, enveloped in the downpour.

We got to McKerrow by late afternoon, crossed the river successfully , and although exhausted and steadily getting colder, it was incredible to be out in the open, with the mountains and the sky and tiny tin roofed DOC hut just sitting there. It’s incredibly isolated , and almost terrifyingly beautiful.

I’ll never forget the image of Philip, exultant on the beach screaming “We’re in the middle of bloody nowhere”  to the sky, his voice nearly lost in the wind.

To add to it all, there was a thunderstorm that night, one of the most powerful I’ve ever experienced. The noise was deafening; the thunder, and of course the rain on our tiny tin roof; and then the lightning! Huge cracks that stretched across the sky, illuminating the entire room for a split second or two. I don’t think anyone got much sleep that night…


Day Three.  Stuck on McKerrow Island

By early morning, the rain had cleared, but as we’d expected, and rather dreaded the rivers had swollen, and transformed into swift, raging, well over the thigh type things. We did try to cross a couple of times in the morning, but after much tension (there’s nothing like making life or death decisions together to test friendships), decided to resign ourselves to our status as marooned.

It was actually all rather exciting. I created a raft from driftwood and harakeke (nz flax), which wasn’t entirely successful, but the most fun I’d had in a long time. Later on I accidentally created a bit of a kerfuffle when I went off to check the river without notifying the party, which caused, apparently, some panic, a spontaneous search party, and debates about whether to set off the emergency locator beacon. I recollect I had to divide up my remaining chocolate in order to absolve my guilt for all the stress.

However, the hut was warm, we found an entire sack of emergency potatoes, and a stack of men’s magazines as kindling, so we did rather well for ourselves.

Disappointingly, the wine, which we had carried all the way and had dreamt much of, had oxidised somehow and tasted like vinegar.

The five of us celebrate our successful river crossing after being flooded in for two days.

Day Four. McKerrow – Road end, Te Anau and hot showers!

Finally, by morning, the rivers had gone down, and we were able to cross. We’d run out of bread by that stage and so had cold pasta and instant pudding in a bottle for breakfast. It took us about 10 hours to get back out to the carpark. Thigh deep mud is not an exaggeration. After that though, we headed back to Te Anau, and I had a shower, and washed my hair with shampoo for the first time in 3 months (but that’s another story).


Organise your own trip to the Hollyford Track here..