There and Back Again: A Trampers' Tale on the Hollyford Track
We wanted to do some tramping in New Zealand and the Hollyford caught our attention immediately for a few different reasons.
One: it isn’t a Great Walk like the Routeburn, the Kepler or the Milford track, which means less people and no exorbitant price tag. But it is still in the same gorgeous area so we could enjoy similar scenery without the crowds.
Two: Megan has bad knees so we try to avoid trails that are too monotonously hilly. We checked out the brochure to this one, and the highest point on the trail was only 168m on the first day. Also it seemed pretty flat for the rest of the hike too, so we felt pretty confident that her knee would be just fine. What we didn’t find out until later however was that part of the Hollyford was once considered to be the most strenuous non-alpine hike in all of New Zealand. And even after they updated the trails, it still seems like it. I guess the nickname “Demon Trail” should have tipped us off.
Three: we wanted to challenge ourselves. Neither of us had done anything longer than a 5 day backpacking trip before. This was 120km roundtrip which we aimed to do in 7 nights. If we pulled this off, then we would be backpacking legends for the rest of our lives - to ourselves anyways.
One thing worth noting about the Hollyford is that the times given to walk the trails are not generous at all. We do a lot of tramping around New Zealand and are always much faster than the signs indicate, however on this trail we had to keep a quick pace to make it even to the later end of the range. And if we stopped for breathing breaks or a lunch then we would always arrive outside of the given times. As one of our hut companions said, “To find out how long a trail will take, the DOC gets their fastest and slowest walkers from the office to do it. Then they average those times together.” The walkers from the Fiordland district office must be fit as then.
Another thing to note is that we quickly discovered the brochure paints a much different picture of the trail than what we experienced. For example, the brochure describes the entire Hollyford as a fairly easy hike which is only true the last 10km of trail. The inaccuracies occur in the description of the 25km section between Lake Alabaster Hut and Hokuri Hut. The brochure uses phrases like “relatively flat” with “some sections of mud,” however, after scrambling over boulders and multiple steep climbs to even steeper descents, we were forced to believe that the person writing the brochure had never actually walked that part of the trail before. It almost seems like they glanced at it quickly from a boat on the lake, and made up their own interpretation.
Another difference is that the brochure gives different walking times to huts than the signs on trail. The inconsistencies made it difficult to actually know how long we would need to walk each day because we didn’t know whether to trust the sign or the brochure. Although at this point, we know to never trust the brochure.
Brochure discrepancies aside, the hike itself was absolutely wonderful. What’s really great is how accessible it is to all interest and fitness levels. Some people fly out to the farthest end, Martin’s Bay, and then take a few days to hike back to the Hollyford Carpark. Others flew into Martin’s Bay, got picked up by a jet boat all the way to Lake Alabaster Hut, and then walked for a full day to the Carpark. We chose the whole “walk all the way there and all the way back” thing because it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than flying anywhere. We also ran into people who were pack rafting the whole lake out to the Martin’s Bay, and then completing the loop on their raft through Pyke River. So whatever you fancy, there’s definitely a way for you to enjoy it.
There are seven huts on the trail, and we decided to stay in different ones each direction, to keep the track interesting for ourselves. It definitely broke up the monotony and gave us something exciting to look forward to each night (OoOoh new huts)! Plus, having tried them all out, we could make an informed opinion about the ones we liked best. It’s definitely the McKerrow Island Hut in case you were wondering.
The first day was our longest distance covered on the whole track. Only 19.5 km lay between us and Lake Alabaster Hut and the brochure promised flat ground as well as not much elevation change. So with our 25 kg packs covered with plastic garbage bags to protect against the Fiordland rains and bursting at the seams with enough sustenance to last us 8 days, we set off. If you like hiking through forests like we do, then you’ll be totally stoked the entire time. Since you’re in the forest, most of the views of the nearby Darran Mountains are obscured by trees. So don’t expect too many spectacular views the first day, save a few gorgeous waterfalls and a peak or two of a glacier.
You’ll pass Sunshine Hut about 1 hour and 45 minutes into the hike. Sunshine is for guided hikes only, but don’t worry, a few more minutes down the trail is the turn off for the public Hidden Falls Hut. This beautiful 12 person hut sits in an open meadow, surrounded by mountains, and bathed in sun when the forecast allows. We stopped in to check it out and I was relieved we weren’t staying that night. A group of 8 who had flown in from Martin’s Bay 3 days prior as well as another couple were there already. Just behind us, three very tired looking trampers arrived and looking incredibly relieved to finally be at the hut. When they were told there were only enough beds for two of them, I swear I could actually hear the sound of dreams being crushed. (We later found out that they had walked from over 25km from Demon Trail Hut and skipped the closer Lake Alabaster because they were afraid it would be too busy). Later we would pass a lone tramper who was on his way here as well, although he seemed happy to sleep on the floor when we warned him. I assume everyone just got REAL comfy with each other that night, because there wasn’t a person under the age of 50 in that hut, so I doubt anyone else slept on the floor.
We left the jovial bunch, and walked on for another four hours toward Lake Alabaster Hut. We had our biggest climb that day, and at 168m, it was a bit of a joke. There were no views from the top to speak of (despite the brochures claims) In fact, if it wasn’t for a little sign at the top of the saddle saying we were there, I would have had no clue we had even climbed anything. It felt nice to get it out of the way though since it meant a flat trail until the two small hills of day three.
About half an hour before we arrived at Lake Alabaster Hut, we passed a lodge that caters mostly to the jet boat demographic. The signs indicating we were close were the tire marks from the 4x4 luggage vehicles, and the faint aroma of roasting filet mignon lofting through the air. We waved at the bourgeois behind their glass windows as we walked on and pointed to the muesli bars we had to look forward to that evening. I could be wrong, but I swear I sensed a hint of jealousy on their faces.
Finally we made it to Lake Alabaster, and the hut right on its shores. 24 bunks split up into two different side rooms and a large communal area for eating and relaxing indoors. It also boasted the nicest drop toilet of any of the others we saw along the way, so use this one while you can.
We wisely had decided to hike with our tent to save a bit of money (it is $15 PP to stay in the huts and only $5 to camp outside) and were quickly reminded which part of New Zealand we were in as the sandflies swarmed our record speed camp set-up, which netted us only a few bites each. We threw our stuff in, hastily zipped it up and ran into the hut to count our bites and see who else was staying there. When we arrived back out our tent however, we horrified to see what we had to look forward to that night. The sandflies had worked their way in-between the rain fly and the tent body. And when I say sandflies, I don’t mean like, 3 or even 10. I mean hundreds. Our tent was now so covered with sandflies that it looked as though someone ripped the top off a pepper shaker and chucked it at our tent. Only about 20 got into the tent with us though, which I consider to be pretty good since it was our first night and we hadn’t yet practiced our quick entries. We spent the rest of the night being lulled asleep by the sound of the sandflies hurling their bodies against the mesh trying to feast on us. Ah… so soothing, just like a light rainfall.
The morning brought about more sandflies and I was definitely starting to question if it wouldn’t be worth a few extra dollars just to put a solid wall between us and the Luckily, sandflies are slow, and the best remedy is moving so as we hiked they disappeared completely. This of course meant that if we rested for more than five minutes, they would be on us again so we kept snack breaks short. Otherwise it was snack, or be snacked on.
We were feeling great with one night down and our longest single-day distance already out of the way. Day 2 meant that we were going to skip McKerrow Island, and walk to Demon Trail Hut which was only five hours away. We figured with the comical 168m saddle done and behind us, that this would be a breeze. The trail might be rough or muddy, but the brochure showed maybe a 20m elevation change throughout the entire day, so we were stoked. This is the day that we lost our faith completely in the Hollyford DOC staff.
The day starts beautifully by crossing a sweet swing bridge with a fairly ominous sign posted before it.
I should also state that I (wrongly) got the impression early on that this hike was mainly for old people, which made a lot of sense in my mind. It was relatively flat, it can be turned into a nice boat ride and there aren’t a bunch of damn youths like the Great Walks. And everyone we had seen doing the trail at this point had been twice our age or older. So this, along with the brochure description convinced me that this would be a nice, easy track. So young... So naive...
Even though we were tramping through the forest nearly all day again, we could clearly see that this section of track was not maintained to the same standard. The track is mainly made up of large boulders precariously balanced against one another. We were glad it hadn’t rained the previous day, because the rocks were covered in very slippery moss that could have been deadly if damp. The brochure was right about one thing though. There were indeed large sections of mud. Megan’s boot barely made it out alive.
This is also where I happened to find the perfect walking stick, which I found to be super necessary. It saved me from more than a few nasty spills. Not to mention there are a ton of creek crossings where it helps to have an extra point of contact in the water.
All of that being said though, this is when the Hollyford Track started being really fun! The trail stops being flat and monotonous, and is instead undulating and surprising. Now we had to actually pay attention to where we were walking because if we didn’t we would slip. The weather also makes a huge difference on this section. On sunny days, the trail is rocky and you feel quite sure-footed, but when it rains, the trail turns into a creek. Make sure your boots are waterproof because chances are it’ll be raining at least once while you’re in the Fiordlands.
We also got to cross our first three-wire bridge this day which is incredibly fun as long as you don’t mind heights. Being suspended above fast moving water with only three flimsy wires is absolutely up my alleyway, but I could see how some people might get a little freaked and opt to do the river crossings the wet way instead. Traditional river crossings are only possible in dry weather, and could add considerable distance to your tramp. There are 6 three-wire bridges on the trail, each getting steadily longer and more precarious, so if you don’t feel comfortable with heights, plan accordingly. I thought they were a fun addition to an already gorgeous trail, but surely not everyone shares that sentiment.
The thing that bothered us about this trail is that the brochure made this section sound rather flat elevation-wise. But for over half of this walk, it felt like we were scrambling up steep sections of trail just to come straight back down again. So much so, that we thought maybe they had to reroute the trail after some landslides and then never bothered to update the brochure about it. Don’t expect a flat easy-going day on the way to Demon Trail Hut. They call it the Demon Trail for a reason.
After about 3.5 hours of walking, we reached the turnoff to go to McKerrow Island Hut. We opted to keep on going and stop at that one on the way back. This is where the Demon trail officially starts.
Even though it hadn’t been raining all day, there were still a few sections where we were walking straight through a creek. I had purchased new hiking boots before this walk since my old ones were full of holes, and in an attempt to preserve their sanctity, I tried to walk only on the tops of the stones poking out of the water. This lasted about 5 minutes, and after slipping for the 18th time I just trudged right through the water. And my feet didn’t even get wet! It was such a new sensation for me since my old boots let water in even on sunny days. Thanks actually waterproof hiking boots!
The rest of the day was similar to the beginning. We climbed over many slippery boulders, and worked our way over and then back down seemingly endless hills. The rain started to fall about 20 minutes before we reached the hut, so we were nice and damp and ready to take off our wet clothes when we arrived at Demon Trail Hut. We saw smoke coming out of the chimney so we knew we weren’t the only ones trying to warm up in there. Three teenage German dudes had arrived 10 minutes before we had and managed to strip off everything but their underwear and had it all hanging on just about every surface of the hut. They were kind enough to make some room for us to hang our stuff too. There was something very comforting about knowing that it was socially acceptable to sit in your underwear with people you had just met. I guess when you’re that far from civilization, anything goes.
They had done the hike from the car park to Martin’s Bay five days prior and were on their way back. They said we were some of the only people they had to share a cabin with the entire trip (which explains why they took it over so quickly). We also talked about how great the hut system was. They had purchased a 6-month hut pass for $60 (at that youth hostel rate. Damn youths!) and were taking full advantage of it. Instead of finding a campground, they would just find a hut and hike in to stay for a few days at a time. We said goodnight to them at about 9pm as it was starting to get dark. About 9:30 we heard a little of squeals and high pitched giggling. We were curious to see our first kiwi, or a possum climbing on the roof. We strained our eyes and caught a glimpse of three naked German boys returning from a skinny dip. Boys… Sigh….
This was our walk from Demon Trail Hut to Hokuri Hut. It was the shortest walk of our entire hike at only 9.6km but it was supposed to take 4-5 hours so we knew it would be one of the more challenging days - and it most certainly was. The Demon Trail was still going strong with many more slippery rocks, seemingly endless ups and downs, and many more river crossings. It also started raining as soon as we left at 8am and kept going well after we arrived 5 hours later at Hokuri Hut.
We donned our garbage bag pack covers and all the rain gear we owned and set out. The rain was light enough and we were covered by the trees so we didn’t really get soaked until about an hour into the hike. We built up so much body heat wrapped in our waterproof clothing that we got wetter from our own perspiration than the precipitation. So we shed our layers and let the drizzle cool us down.
We were also accompanied by heaps of little fantails and tom-tits. The rain didn’t seem to bother them because every time we looked up we would see a little tail flutter and hear the little peep of a fantail to go with it. We must have been stirring up quite a few bugs, because at one point I counted seven fantails fluttering around me. They would get so close too that I felt like I could get one to land on my walking stick if I held it still enough. Despite my perseverance, they always seemed to change their mind at the last second and veer away.
We crossed a couple more wire bridges this day as well, including the longest one on the entire trail. It spans more than 30 meters across and is suspended 6 meters above a rushing river. It is also the only one where you need to first climb a super sketchy wooden ladder just to reach the wires. Since it had been raining, the ladder was really slippery and the wires themselves were dripping with water. Being the chivalrous man I am, I offered to go first to show Megan how safe it was which was a huge mistake. It was fun for me because I love this sort of thing, but it freaked Megan out watching how the bridge bounced as I moved across.
On the other side, I could see how scared she was all of a sudden and figured this one would be problematic, even though she had no trouble crossing any of the other bridges like this. After five long minutes of her just standing on the wires immobilized by fear, I yelled across for her to turn around so I could help her. I left my backpack, walked back across, and offered to take hers for her. That alleviated her fears a little and she made it across without incident. So did I (again) and I filled my three- wire bridge quota for the day.
We reached Hokuri Hut after about 5 hours on the adventurous Demon Trail, which nearly marks the end of it. We were eager to strip down to our undies again to dry off our clothes. We were also pretty confident that no one would be hiking into that hut because the rain would have stopped any planes from landing in Martins Bay and we knew there weren’t any other hikers behind us. Of course we totally didn’t even consider the fact that any pack rafters would show up. And lo and behold! They did. But after a quick scramble to regain our decency before they walked in the door, we learned they were only staying five minutes. So we ended up having the place to ourselves after all. But decided to wait until nightfall to get REALLY comfy.
On our fourth day we made the final trek out to Martins Bay. It was raining yet again (yay.) but we decided to not wear our rain gear this time. We didn’t want to get stupidly hot like we did the day before and it turned out to be alright. Had it not been for the plague of sandflies we encountered, we would have been totally happy with our decision.
About 20 minutes into this hike we had the choice of hiking an extra 20 minutes to another three-wire bridge, or crossing at the river mouth. The German dudes from before told us the river mouth was the better option, and it had been light enough rain that we figured it wouldn’t be too deep. As soon as we got to the water’s edge we knew we could do it. At its deepest point it only went to our knees.
But it seemed like the sandflies knew when we would be at our most vulnerable. Our hands were full since we were holding onto our boots and each other (the current was quite fast). Our discomfort levels were up because the water was icy, and the stones underfoot were round and slippery. The flies were in full force because it was overcast and we were in their territory now. They relentlessly attacked us to the point where I fully understood how people could be driven insane by them. We easily sustained 30 bites a piece in the minute it took us to cross despite our best efforts to shake them free. Our only hope was to reach the other side and put on as much clothing to cover up as we could.
To any bystander, we must have looked like we lost our minds. We ran around in circles and slapped ourselves raw. And with most sandfly attacks, that is enough to at least keep them at bay. Not these ones though. These ones had tasted our blood and were clearly driven mad by how delicious it was. Even after we were fully clothed and walking as fast as we could with our packs on, they still followed us. I was under the impression that sandflies didn’t have large enough wings to keep up with an average human walking pace, but they weren’t deterred. I can only conclude that these were mutated beasts from hell itself sent for the sole purpose of destroying all living things. How we escaped to tell the tale I will never know.
Despite the onslaught of sandflies for the better part of 15 minutes, we were happy to be where we were. After the river crossing, we followed the beach along the lake and we relished the change of scenery. The flat, open space was such a welcome change from the never ending ups and downs on the Demon Trail.
We passed the failed settlement of Jamestown and almost missed the sight completely since it is only marked by a small sign like when we reached the Homer Saddle. There is good information in the huts about what Jamestown was, which is nice because otherwise I would have had no clue why it was important. To summarize, the New Zealand government sought to establish a port and a cattle industry in the Hollyford Valley. But after three separate boats crashed at the mouth of the river trying to get to Jamestown, no captains wanted to chance it anymore and the pioneers there were basically abandoned. Some tried really hard to convince potential settlers that it was still a cool place to be, but no one fell for it. Only a few people stuck it out, which is basically why the Demon Trail exists. It was used as a cattle track to get all the cows to Mossburn. How any of them used those three-wire bridges, I will never know.
After passing the Jamestown settlement, we continued on the beach for a little while longer until it suddenly veered into the wildest marsh and worst part of the trail yet. The trail markers abruptly lead off the shore and into the dense vegetation. We were walking across slippery downed trees, which I slid off, soaking myself to the knees. We got hung up on supplejack vines and I would have given up if it weren’t for Megan scouting out the trail marker way in the distance. I thought for certain that we had done something wrong, but we eventually came out of it and onto the beach again.
The path then clearly shot off into the forest where we passed an old waka (canoe) that washed up in a storm. The people who discovered it were so excited when they found it because they thought it must have been an old Maori boat. However upon further inspection, they realized it wasn’t made very well and clearly must have been of European descent. Bummer.
The path from here on is easy compared to the Demon Trail we just left. Even though it is still in the forest, it is flat in elevation as well as underfoot. It changes from dense forest, to grassland, to an airstrip, back to forest in a matter of an hour. We could hear helicopters and planes coming and going from the Martins Bay Lodge nearby but never ran into anyone else on the trail -likely because wheelie bags don’t do well with all the roots.
When we crested a hill and peeked out a gap in the trees, I almost cried because the view of the open ocean was so beautiful. We could smell the salt in the air and hear the crash of the waves about 45 minutes before we even reached Martins Bay Hut. When we came out of the bush, we must have looked like those feral kids in Russia who were raised by wolves. We were soaking wet from the rain and hadn’t properly showered in over a week, despite the fact that this was only day 4 on the trail.
There was already a family at the hut who had flown in just a few hours before. They looked so clean and well fed that I couldn’t help but feel slightly envious. They were extremely kind though. When I unpacked my backpack to dry the contents, I noticed that my foolproof garbage bag cover wasn’t so foolproof after all. It had been sloughing off water fine, directly onto my sleeping bag at the bottom of my pack. The dad saw my struggle and gave me one of his giant plastic bags to protect my stuff. Kiwi’s are the best!
Since Martin’s Bay hut is one of the easier to access for the non-backpacking folk, it had a lot more trash left behind. We were looking to start a fire and rummaged through the kindling box which normally is full of newspaper for burning. This one however was full of plastic food wrappers and used band aids. Not to mention the fireplace chimney was almost entirely clogged probably since people were just burning plastic. So when we did manage to light a fire, it filled up the room with smoke in a matter of minutes. We still haven’t gotten the smoky smell out of the clothes that we struggled to dry there.
After we had our stuff all hung up to dry (or smoke, rather) we wanted to take advantage of a small break in the weather to see if we could find some fur seals and Fiordland crested penguins. It is a short 15 minute walk to the end of the point where they are known to rest. We found a whole seal colony with lots of cute little pups. It started to pour on us and we wanted to give them space, so we tried walking around to the other side. Megan went first through some really tall flax and screamed in panic just as a surprised mother fur seal bolted for it. We had come around a blind corner too fast and disturbed her rest and she was very vocal about how unhappy she was. We were much more careful in how we came around corners after that, but despite our sneaking, there were protective seals around the other corners as well so we had to turn around without finding the elusive penguin.
We returned, soaking wet again and a little bummed but were rewarded with the best sunset of the entire trip. Once again, the views from the hut never fail to amaze.
We were in good spirits as we left the next morning because we knew that every step we took from now on was one step closer to our final destination.
After the easy 4 hour day prior, we knew this would be an easy day too. We only had to retrace our steps. Most people would balk from back home if they knew I considered a 13km walk a rest day but on the Hollyford Track, you take what you can get.
The walk back to Hokuri Hut was sunny (what a shock for the Fiordlands) and uneventful. I thought that by heading this direction, we would have an easier time navigating the bog part by the lake. We figured we had screwed up on the way in, and that it would be easier now. I was wrong. We both ended up even more off the track than the way in, frantically searching for any bright orange markers we could find. Megan loves the route finding aspect to trails, but I don’t particularly enjoy being wrapped up in supplejack vines and ankle deep in bog water. We obviously found our way out though or we wouldn’t be sharing our stories today. In retrospect, we should have just taken off our shoes and waded along the shore around the marshy bit. Oh well, next time.
We weren’t looking forward to the river crossing again because of the hellacious sandflies. But we needn’t have worried because it was much sunnier and none of them were waiting for us at the river mouth like last time.
There was a flat grassy spot outside the Hokuri Hut to set up our tent. Luckily no one else was tenting because the ground everywhere else was bumpy. We were joined at the hut that night by three Kiwis and a wonderful German couple who were on their 3rd trip to New Zealand exclusively to hike a few choice tracks each time. We felt lucky to be able to take a year off to explore it all, instead of only getting a few weeks every five years like them. They were great company and we ended up with them in just about every hut on the way back.
We awoke to the sound of pouring rain against our tent. At first, I thought it was just hundreds of sandflies again, but the soaking wet rainfly sticking to my sleeping bag from the outside gave it away. We got very good at taking apart our tent with the rainfly still up in an effort to keep things dry.
According to the most recent weather report that we received courtesy of our hut mates who had flown in from the outside world, the rain wouldn’t be subsiding until at least 11am. We wanted to get to McKerrow Island Hut that night, which was a 13.8km hike. On a normal trail that’s no big deal. On the Demon Trail, that’s a long day. According to the signs it could take us up to 7.5 hours. We didn’t want to wait for the rain to stop so we secured our garbage bag pack covers and set out early.
For once it was really nice to be wearing all our rain gear. It was coming down hard and much colder than all the days before. What previously had just been a rocky trail was now a full blown creek that we had to rock hop on. Megan slipped off of one rock and soaked her shoe through pretty early on. It was hilarious to see how quickly she resigned to her new fate of wet soles, because she gave up on the rock hopping and just walked through the creek trails the rest of the day.
The forest comes alive most in this kind of weather. Fantails, robins and tom-tits kept us company as we climbed along the trail. Any time we stopped for rest or water, I held out my walking stick to the entourage of birds following us. Even though the fantails never landed on it, a curious robin did. I was so stoked, and Megan even managed to capture a picture from really far away.
But the excitement was short lived. About five minutes later while walking down a particularly steep and slippery part, I slipped and felt something crack under me. Megan heard it and thought it was an ankle or a wrist, but it was much worse than that. I had landed directly on my hearty walking stick, effectively breaking it in two. Not even a robin would bother landing on such a puny thing, so I reluctantly returned it to the forest from whence it came.
With all the rain we were getting, we were a little worried about crossing the river before the McKerrow Island Hut. There are lots of warnings about not doing it during high water, and there are no bridge alternatives. One couple coming from that direction told us they wouldn’t dream of crossing that in this weather. When we asked them if they had seen it, they admitted they had skipped it altogether. So we weren’t entirely sure if we should take their advice. Our worries were alleviated when we met another hiker who had stayed the previous night there and had crossed after the worst of the rain. She said the waters only came up to below her knee so we needn’t worry much.
The weather started to clear just before we reached the Demon Trail Hut and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The sun was out and the wind was up, so it was perfect weather for taking off our soaking clothes and drying ourselves out. We lay out on the grass in our underwear until the sandflies found us, and moved inside for some lunch. Our new German friends were only about half an hour behind us it turns out, and we took our relationship to the next level real quick when they came upon us in our undies. But apparently Germans are cool with that since they just came in and sat with us at the table like we were fully clothed humans.
Once we were well rested we said goodbye and packed our things to continue on the final leg of the day. The walk was the same as before, until we reached a sign that pointed towards the McKerrow Island Hut 30 minutes away. We walked along the eroding cliff side until the trail abruptly stopped near the river.
The river is wide at roughly 50m across, but we didn’t have to worry about the depth. At no point did it come above our knees. And since it was the end of the day and we knew we’d have a fireplace to dry our shoes, we walked straight through it with no problems.
We followed the orange marker up the other side and into some nice bush. After about 10 minutes we got out to the lake shore. The orange markers were put onto driftwood here, which I feel like wouldn’t last very long if a good storm came along, but we decided to trust them anyway. Another 10 minutes of following driftwood and we made it to the little McKerrow Island Hut tucked away in the bush.
It is the only standard hut on the entire walk so we expected a lower quality than the others, but it was lovely! Definitely a little more rustic than the other ones, but it had everything we needed. There was a fireplace with plenty of driftwood to collect outside (as long as we made sure there was no trail marker first). Less than a minute’s walk from our door we had views of the entire Hollyford Valley lined by the Darran Mountains on one side. Apparently it’s really popular with pack rafting groups though because according to the comments in the hut book they made a complete mess of things. It looked clean when we arrived and we were apparently the only ones to brave the river since we had the hut to ourselves.
While we were eating dinner, I looked out the window and saw what I thought was a twig caught in a spider web. I couldn’t figure out how it had gotten there though since it wasn’t particularly windy. I inspected it closer and found out that it was a massive insect! A giraffe necked weevil to be exact. I thought the spider would be so happy with the hefty feast it caught, but it seemed to be more terrified and unsure of how to even begin eating this thing. After all, the weevil was at least five times bigger than the poor spider. So I decided to be the hero and save the weevil by holding a stick for it to grab onto. I brought it inside to relax after hanging upside down in that web for the last half an hour, and I couldn’t get over how funny it looked. It had a long abdomen, and what I thought was a neck actually turned out to be an equally long nose. The eyes were located near the base, and its tiny mouth parts on the very end of it.
It was such a cool insect that I made sure to look it up as soon as we got back to internet. It turns out the Giraffe Necked Weevil is a very uncommon insect in New Zealand as it is only found in the Marlborough Sounds. According to Wikipedia, there has only ever been 1 individual found in the Hollyford Valley before (this was disputed by one front desk lady at DOC that we talked to). So maybe that was our guy right here! We nicknamed him Weevil Kaneevil and released him back into the forest outside, where hopefully he’ll stay out of spider webs for a while longer.
The sunset was gorgeous from this cozy little hut as well. We had the best sleep here out of any of the others.
We woke up well rested and ready for our longest day of hiking on the whole trip. We had to walk 20km from McKerrow Island Hut to Hidden Falls Hut. But at least we knew that for the most part the Demon Trail was over and it would be smooth hiking for us.
The river crossing first thing in the morning was a little bit chilly on the toes. But the sandflies weren’t active yet so we weren’t rushed much. The walking was long but felt so flat in comparison to what we’d been through that it wasn’t so bad. We knew the only real uphill was going to be getting over the saddle again. And even that was only a short ten minute struggle.
Even a relatively easy 20km with light bags at the end of a very long trip can be rough on the mind. I had been lagging behind Megan for a while and was debating asking her to stop and take a breather because it felt like we were never going to reach our destination. As soon as I decided to shout out to her that I was going to rest, she said “You could do that. Or you know, do it at the hut. Since the turn off is right here.”
It was perfect timing! We made it to the hut in about 6.5 hours and had the whole thing to ourselves for long enough to lay some mats out on the deck and soak up the warm afternoon sun. Our German friends met up with us again and had walked all the way from the Demon Trail Hut. How they still had any energy left I will never understand. We were also joined that night by a guy we had met coming from Hokuri Hut to Martins Bay. He had intended to do the whole loop by continuing on the Pyke route, but the weather had been too rainy to try that. So he had walked 47 km in the last 2 days back along the Hollyford. And that’s when I really felt inadequate.
We found what seemed like a flat spot on the grass outside and set up our tent for the last night on the trail. Our hut mates said the weather wasn’t supposed to rain until about 9 am, so we didn’t bother throwing our tarp over the tent since we figured we would be packed up by then.
We woke up at 6:00 to very heavy rain and a new sense of never trusting the weather report from four days prior. Apparently our “flat” site hadn’t been so flat after all, since I awoke in a pool of water. It could have been more water I guess, but because I had laid my freshly dried socks at my side for easy access, they sponged up a good portion of that standing water.
We rushed out of the tent trying to salvage what dry things we could, but there wasn’t much we could do but hang it up to dry under the patio. The hut was relatively sandfly free in the sun the day before, but with this turn in the weather we were under heavy siege. It was too early to wake everyone inside, so we hunkered down in our mummy bags under the awning and read ‘The Hobbit’ to each other convincing ourselves it could be worse.
We knew it was only a two hour hike to the car park, but we wanted to avoid coming in absolutely soaking wet if we could. Everyone took their time waking up since we all seemed to have the same idea about staying dry. Our German friend felt so strongly about it, that he refused to put on pants and we watched him run to the loo in just his underwear. No point in getting everything wet if you can avoid it I guess, and we clearly were already at that comfortable point in our friendship, so why not?
After a few hours of the dark grey skies turning a lighter shade of grey, we decided to just get on with it. The forest would protect us from most of the water anyways. It was such a wonderful walk back too, knowing that the car park was a mere two hours away. We hadn’t walked for only two hours on any given day since we had started. And we met so many people coming in as well, which was quite shocking considering we probably hadn’t seen more than 15 the whole trip. We stopped to let a large tour group of at least 25 people pass us on a particularly thin section of boardwalk. Judging by their looks, we must have been quite a disheveled sight. One older Canadian gentleman even stopped to ask us how long we had been out there for. I told him 8 days and his eyes widened in surprise. He gave me an enthusiastic high-five and many congratulations on such a feat. That’s when a feeling of accomplishment started to sink in.
8 days, 7 nights, and 120km later. We challenged ourselves by doing something we had never done before. We carried more weight than either of us ever had on a backpacking trip. It was an incredible feeling to overcome the challenge, and we accomplished it without dying, or even feeling like there was a point we were going to die.
I still recommend the Hollyford track to everyone I meet who likes to tramp. It is a great track to get away from hordes of people. It is gorgeous the entire way through, but also challenging enough for anyone who is up for it. Not to mention there are so many different ways you can do the track, by walking out and back or in a loop, by taking planes or boats or any combination of those. So it’s a track where anyone can find what they’re looking for.
If you have any fun hiking stories, share them in the comments below!