The Hollyford Track

The Hollyford Track is a 56km, 4 -5 day walk through forest along rivers and lakes of the Hollyford valley in the Fiordland National Park. The combination of crystal clear lakes and rivers and lush forest makes for a stunning hike, but not being one of New Zealand’s Great Walks it can be enjoyed in relative isolation. Be warned, however, that the Hollyford Track is comprised of two very distinct and disparate parts and consequently some blogs and magazine articles describing the walk can be misleading for those hikers undertaking the full length of the trail. Sections of the track walked by trampers enjoying the luxury of the commercially operated lodges of the Hollyford Track guided wilderness experience (www.hollyfordtrack.com) are generally flat groomed trails and can be hiked with relative ease (and most journalists writing about the track do so at the invitation of this organisation). However, those hikers leave the track and are transported by jetboat between the private Pyke River Lodge and the end of Lake McKerrow, skipping the difficult and more adventurous half of the track.

Independent hikers undertaking the full length of the track are confronted by a sign immediately after the swingbridge over the Pyke River confluence that only “fit and experienced” trampers should proceed past that point. Once the swingbridge is crossed the reason for the warning becomes obvious, the track changes to suitable for mountain goats over the rocky outcrop above the Pyke River. The track from this point to the end of Lake McKerrow,  includes the aptly named Demon Trail, and requires the hiker to traipse through mud, crawl beneath fallen trees, traverse slippery rocks and tree roots, clamber over boulders, get wet on river crossings and balance on three wire bridges. The male contingent of our group loved it. Others (mainly me) found it exhausting.

Access to the Hollyford Track is either by light aircraft or helicopter from Milford Sound to the Martins Bay end and car at the lower Hollyford Rd end. Ending our hike with a helicopter trip along the coast and down the Milford Sound was one of the highlights of the trip.

Best time of year

Unlike many of the walks in the South Island, the Hollyford Track can potentially be walked at any time of the year. Access to the track may be affected at any time, if the Milford Sound road is closed due to avalanche risk or weather prevents access to Martins Bay. The Milford Sound area averages nearly 7 metres of rain and 190 precipitation days annually. Hikers should be prepared to stay additional days on the track.

Nearest town

The jumping off point for most hikers is Te Anau, where supplies and transport to and from the track can be obtained.

Transport

Car access is only available at the lower Hollyford Rd end of the track (off Milford Rd and about 2 hours from Te Anau). Accordingly, unless you want to walk the Demon Trail twice or return via the even more difficult Big Bay – Pyke route, aircraft or jetboat transport will have to be arranged for access to or from the Martins Bay end. The jetboat operates between the end of McKerrow lake and the Pyke River confluence which means that hikers selecting this option will still have to hike back from the Pyke River lodge to the lower Hollyford Rd (4-5 hours). Jetboat transport must be pre-arranged – see http://www.hollyfordwilderness.co.nz.

We arranged our transport to and from the track through www.tripsandtramps.com at a cost of $280 per person for a mini bus from Te Anau to the lower Hollyford Rd, plane from Martins Bay to Milford Sound and mini bus from Milford Sound to Te Anau. We pre-arranged a change to a helicopter pick up in the event (which occurred) that the weather was too inclement for a plane to fly and land at the Martins Bay airstrip. This comes at an extra cost, the exact amount of which is affected by the number in your group and time of year. Other transport operators include www.tracknet.net and www.hollyfordwilderness.co.nz.

Accommodation

There are 6 standard DOC huts on the track: Hidden Falls (12 bunks), Lake Alabaster (28 bunks), McKerrow Island (12 bunks), Demon Trail (12 bunks), Hokuri (12 bunks) and Martins Bay (24 bunks). Each hut has water, a pot belly stove and mattresses. McKerrow Island and Demon Trail are only 1 and a half hours apart and provide alternative accommodation for the night. Care should be taken when using McKerrow Island as rainfall may make the river too deep to cross and leave you stranded at the hut until the level subsides.

We broke up our trip by staying at Hidden Falls, Lake Alabaster, Demon Trail and Hokuri. We did not walk the extra hour and a half from the Martin Bay airstrip to the Martin Bay hut to stay overnight, but instead flew straight out. Most Kiwis think it is mad to do the Hollyford and not stay at Martins Bay. We, however, had been told by other Australians that the sandflies at Martins Bay were in plague proportions and they had been unable to spend much time on the beach. For those staying at the hut there is apparently a seal colony and the chance of seeing Humboldt penguins.

Lake Alabaster Hut, Hollyford Track
Lake Alabaster Hut, Hollyford Track

We did the track in early December 2012 and other than the first night at Hidden Falls had the huts to ourselves. Our favourite hut was Lake Alabaster and anyone planning to do the track should consider making sure they stay at this hut and go swimming in the lake.

Day One – Lower Hollyford Rd to Hidden Falls (9km, 2-3 hours)

The morning of our first day was spent viewing sites along the Milford Rd and a cruise on the Milford Sound. We also had the chance to help check out and re-lay a few stoat traps, our driver, like many locals, volunteers to help with conservation programs in the area.  As we didn’t arrive at the end of Lower Hollyford Rd until after lunch we decided to have an easy afternoon and only walk as far as the Hidden Falls hut.

We accessed the track from Lower Hollyford Rd by crossing the Humboldt swing bridge. Once the bridge was crossed we followed quite a wide track up a small initial incline. The track moved away from the river and traversed the side of a bluff, occasionally descending to board walks over flood prone areas. The track rejoined the river and then turned away from the river just before a privately owned hut was passed. Shortly after the private hut we reached the short side track to Hidden Falls. A further 20 minutes through the forest over a flat track and we arrived at the turn off to the hut.

Swing bridge before Hidden Falls Hut, Hollyford Track
Swing bridge before Hidden Falls Hut, Hollyford Track

Day Two – Hidden Falls to Lake Alabaster (10.5km, 3.5 – 4 hours)

The Hollyford Track after the Hidden Falls hut was flat and leaf strewn passing through ribbonwood and podocarp forest for 2km before commencing the ascent (100m) up to Little Homer Saddle through beech forest. As we neared the top of the pass there were good views across to Mt Madeline and Mt Tutoko. After the saddle the track descended and passed Little Homer Falls. The track was then flat and after half an hour reached the Hollyford River which it followed for about 2km. At about the point where the Hollyford River meets the Pyke River we passed a sign indicating the jet boat pick up and drop off.  From here it was a short walk to the private Pyke River lodge. As independent hikers we had to walk along the Holllyford Track through these grounds, pass the Pyke River swingbridge to arrive at the Alabaster Lake hut (about 30 minutes after the lodge).

We enjoyed a well earned swim in the lake and later that evening a visit and chat from one of the locals – Bruce the possum trapper.

View from Little Homer Saddle, Hollyford Track
View from Little Homer Saddle, Hollyford Track

Day Three – Lake Alabaster to Demon Trail Hut (14.7km, 5 – 6.5 hours).

The morning commenced by backtracking (which after ascents is my least favourite hiking activity) 20 minutes to the turn off to the Pyke River swingbridge. We ignored the “fit and experienced only” sign and crossed the longest swingbridge in the Fiordland area. The track proceeded up and down a rocky bluff above the Pyke River confluence over worn tree roots and mossy rocks. We picked our way over this section slowly and carefully having read a number of entries in the Lake Alabaster hut visitor’s book which referred to broken bones and sprains. After a while the track descended off the rocky bluff and entered podocarp forest, veering away from the river. Whilst this part of the trail was generally easier than the rocky bluffs, there were also long sections of mud to wade through. After about two hours the track emerged from the forest and re-joined the Hollyford River, which it followed until the sign for the turn off to the McKerrow Island hut. This section of the track included several clambers over large boulders. After the McKerrow Island turn off the track followed Lake McKerrow along the Demon Trail. It was not, however, a flat lakeside amble. Instead the track went up and down contours on rocky bluffs above the lake and we were introduced to the first of many three wire bridge crossings. It took us a bit over 2 hours to complete the section between the turn off and the Demon Trail Hut (the DOC information indicated it should take 1 and a half hours).

The Demon Trail, Hollyford Track
The Demon Trail, Hollyford Track

Day Four – Demon Trail Hut to Hokuri Hut (9.6km, 5 – 7 hours)

The short distance and long DOC suggested time gives a pretty good indication of the trail, we took a good 8 hours. The Demon Trail continued, commencing with a climb up a rocky mossy path, which with a bit of recent rain had turned into a stream. Once the top of the climb was reached we descended. This process was then repeated for most of the day, interspersed with short flat sections and occasional three wire bridge crossings. At about the half way point for the day we reached a sign which indicated alternative paths – one via a stream crossing and one via a three wire bridge. At that stage the novelty of the three wire bridge crossing had worn off and after a quick look to make sure it was safe to cross we opted for the stream crossing. It turned out, however, that the stream crossing was not the easy option as the stream involved three separate branches, each of which had to be crossed followed by a climb up a 10 foot cliff. Our friends Geoff and Hwee opted for the three wire crossing but advised that this was the hardest crossing of the day – we spent the evening arguing about who had taken the harder path. The last of the three wire crossings occurred in the most open flat part of the day’s trail. From this point the going was fairly easy until we reached the hut about 40 minutes later.

The Demon Trail turned into a stream.
The Demon Trail turned into a stream.

Day Five – Hokuri Hut to Martins Bay Hut (13km, 4-5 hours)

About thirty minutes walk from Hokuri Hut was Hokuri Creek, which in low river conditions can be crossed near the creek mouth, rather than diverting up to the three-wire crossing 20 minutes upstream. It took us a bit longer than 30 minutes due to my foot becoming trapped in a bunch of tree roots (Rob’s suggestion of going back to the hut and get the axe eventually saw me able to yank my foot out).

Once the creek was crossed it was a simple matter of following the lake shore to the bay where the settlement of Jamestown once stood. Once that was passed there was a short diversion around an inaccessible part of the shore into the forest. Unfortunately this part of the track, at least while we were there, was a bit of a swamp and it took us about 20 minutes just to wade back to the lake shore, and to continue the tramp along the shoreline.

After about 1.5 – 2 hour’s walk on the shoreline of Lake McKerrow, the track left the lake and we continued for another hour to the Hollyford Airstrip and Martins Bay Lodge (private). As this section is where the lodge walkers rejoin the track the path was once again groomed, flat and easy.

Martins Bay Hut, situated at the mouth of the Hollyford River, was a further 1.5 – 2 hours from Martins Bay Lodge. As Martins Bay Lodge was the aircraft pick up point for departing hikers we opted not to hike out to Martins Bay Hut which would have required an extra nights stay and return walk to the airstrip (otherwise known as a long cleared field) at the Lodge the next day .

A short exhilarating flight by helicopter from Hollyford airstrip we were back at Milford Sound, from where a bus took us back to Te Anau.  The helicopter flight was stunning, the rain had all of the waterfalls along the sound working and the flight path meant you were at about the halfway height of the walls of the sound.  A great way to finish the walk.

 

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