Nine of us would be spending six days cycling together, taking in the hills, the food, the beverages and the sights of New Zealand’s South Island. It helps to get on with everybody in a small group. And when the cycling starts, you want to be able to keep up. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Queenstown
So here we go, on a six-day cycling tour of New Zealand’s lovely South Island.
Seven riders, two guides, several hundred kilometres (I’ll tell you the exact figure when it’s all over), lots of hills, one van for carrying gear, and us too if things get really grim, wind and sandflies guaranteed, rain forecast. Continue reading
Now thanks to swing bridges, a track and a guiding company, anyone who doesn’t mind getting mud on their boots can walk New Zealand’s most beautiful valley. (I realise I’m out on a limb here, but if someone knows a more beautiful one, please lead me to it.)
Twelve intrepid adventurers meet in Queenstown for an evening briefing. Operations coordinator Natalie Maxted does the introductions – Keith and Jo from London, with their boys Ben and Sam, Shelley and Will from Wellington, Richard from Sydney…
Max unrolls the map. The Hollyford Track runs through World Heritage-listed Fiordland on the west of the South Island. We’ll be tramping 40km over the three days, jet boating down Lake McKerrow, and finishing with a flight up Milford Sound. It looks great.
Max issues backpacks and rain jackets to those who hadn’t understood that tramping happens outdoors and suggests we get an early night.
At 6.45 next morning the Bleary Dozen board the Hollyford minibus that will carry us to the track, four hours away. When driver Suz phones our coffee orders ahead to the Sandfly Café, we realise we’re with an organisation that takes survival in the wild seriously.
Over lattes in Te Anau we meet our guides Bard and Blair. Bard has spent seven years leading Hollyford walks in the footsteps of his hero, the legendary Davey Gunn, and tells us his story as our bus approaches the road end…
When a light plane crashed near Martin’s Bay in 1936, tramping guide Davey set out alone to get help for the critically injured passengers. The nearest phone was 90km away, but he covered the distance in just 20 hours by rowboat, on horseback and finally hiking through unbelievably rough terrain. His heroic feat saved lives and won him a Coronation medal.
Suitably inspired by Davey Gunn’s example, we strap on our backpacks and set off. The undulating track follows the Hollyford River as it winds through mossy beech and fern forest, fed by the waterfalls gushing off the snow-capped Darran Mountains. We’re walking on a mosaic of bright red and gold leaves.
It’s magical Lord of the Rings landscape, but this trip isn’t just about scenery. Bushwalking with Bard and Blair is like taking short university courses in geology, ecology, history and above all, botany.
If there’s one thing the Hollyford Valley has enough of, it’s plants. Green stuff is everywhere. ‘This broadleaf is tutu, coriaria arborea,’ says Bard. ‘It poisoned two circus elephants in 1968. These are good to eat though.’ He hands young Sam from London some berries to taste. ‘You might notice a slight hallucinogenic effect.’ Sam’s mum looks a bit alarmed. ‘Joke, bro,’ Bard adds quickly, and we move on.
The Hollyford is far less crowded than some Fiordland tracks and we meet few other walkers. Blair used to guide on the Milford Track but says, ‘Too many people walk the Milford just to say they did it. Here they’re into the whole experience.’
After a few hours’ brisk tramping we’ve clocked up 17km. On track sections where navigation is no problem we can string out, walking at our own pace, though usually we stick together. The group is bonding and Davey Gunn jokes are flowing. ‘He must’ve carried his horse up this bit.’ ‘Are those Davey’s tooth-marks on that tree-trunk?’
At dusk we reach Pyke’s Lodge, to be greeted by Helen and Jenny, our young hosts. With a minimum of fuss they offer cleansing ales, direct us to hot showers, and serve a brilliant meal of venison followed by lemon pie.
Bard’s stories keep coming; ‘Davey’s son Murray was a character too. He was worried hunters might mistake his favourite brown mare for a deer, so he took white house paint and wrote HORSE on her flank. On the other side he painted COW. He reckoned city slicker hunters were too stupid to know the difference. Besides, he needed the milk.’
After dinner we go armed with torches to feed a swarming mass of eels in the river. Then we visit a nearby glow-worm cave before finally staggering into bed. Been a full day, eh bro?
Bard wakes us at dawn with a Maori song as Helen and Jenny prepare eggs benedict. It’s raining. Annual rainfall in this area is a whopping 4-5m, but ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, mate, only bad clothing.’
We slip on Goretex jackets and slosh along, our boots filling with water. It’s fun. It makes us feel we’re on an adventure, and we know there’s a warm lodge waiting for us tonight.
Crossing a long swing bridge takes us to the ominously named Demon Trail. It’s rough – twisted tree roots and treacherous slippery rocks along the banks of Lake McKerrow. On a wet day like this, even Davey Gunn would have found it daunting.
Fortunately we have Bard, and Bard has a radio. A jet boat is summoned to whip us down the lake to the site of Jamestown, where an ill-conceived attempt was made to create a settlement in the 1870’s.
The spot has a sad history. Jamestown could have been a major port for trans-Tasman commerce, were it not for the slight drawbacks that (1) the road to it was never built, and (2) sandbanks rendered the river mouth unnavigable.
Government planners abandoned the starving settlers they’d sent to take up the new land, and eventually the settlers were forced to abandon Jamestown. Now only rotting trunks of apple trees remain, above the graves of children.
We tramp on through ancient podocarp forest where tangled rata vines and kidney ferns cling to massive trunks. Our guides’ enthusiasm for the forest leads us to appreciate not only towering rimu trees 1200 years old, but also the tiniest orchids and ferns. Blair knows words like tmesipteris, which I intend to use in Scrabble one day.
There are streams to wade across and we’re wet through, but when we emerge at a hut in a clearing, we find that the hot soup fairies have left us lunch there. Maybe we’re not in total wilderness after all.
The rain starts to clear as we reach the rocky coast, though there’s enough mist to add magic to the peaks surrounding lovely Martin’s Bay. We make an excursion off the main track to visit a fur seal colony; then jet boat back to our lodge, which is tonight serving fresh Stewart Island salmon with excellent Marlborough wine. How’re the legs feeling, okay?
Next morning it’s a two-hour wander along the deserted beach and through the dunes, past old Maori hangi sites, where stones cracked by fire remind us that we weren’t the first to enjoy fine seafood here.
Bard shows us how sap from flax plants relieves the itchy bites of sand flies. Yesterday’s rain kept the sneaky little critters quiet, but now it’s dry they’re making up for lost time, feasting on my wrists and ankles. Surprisingly, flax juice really seems to work – they ought to bottle the stuff.
After lunch, Cessnas land behind the lodge to take us on a short, spectacular flight over the famous Milford Sound. And there’s Suz again with the minibus, taking coffee orders. We’re back in civilization.
Email addresses are exchanged and promises made to send the photos. Our thanks to our guides are heartfelt. They’ve been caring, intelligent, informative and entertaining. They’ll do it all again in two days time, but not for a moment did we catch them running on autopilot. We feel we’ve made friends.
You can walk the Hollyford Track independently in 4-7 days, carrying your own supplies and staying at Department of Conservation huts. This is a cheaper option, though you’d miss the botany lessons, the hot showers, great meals and the Davey Gunn stories.
Anyone of reasonable fitness can comfortably manage the tramp, so if you’re looking for a serious physical test in an open-air gym, maybe the guided tour is not for you. But it’s an ideal wilderness experience for those of us who enjoy a moderate walk in the woods, and these are some of the greatest woods we’ll ever see.
Richard Tulloch was a guest of Hollyford Valley Guided Walks.
When to go: The Hollyford Track can be walked year round, though summer is the most popular tramping season.
Hollyford Guided Walks operate October–April and cost NZ$1655 per person including all meals, accommodation, activities and transport from Queenstown or Te Anau. http://www.hollyfordtrack.com
The Land of Doing Without: Davey Gunn of the Hollyford by Julia Bradshaw
(pub.Canterbury University Press 2007.)
Tramping in New Zealand by Jim DuFresne (pub. Lonely Planet) includes guide notes and maps of the Hollyford Track.
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney
I’m glad there are no mirrors in the change-rooms at Queenstown Rafting HQ, where I’m being fitted with my wetsuit. ‘Fitted’ isn’t quite the right word; only people in James Bond films actually fit into wetsuits. I’m exhausted just from pulling it on, and once my body is shoehorned into the rubber, it bulges in all the wrong places.
Luckily not many people will see me, not where I’m going. The Landsborough River is remote and wild, cutting across New Zealand’s South Island on its way to the west coast. Few people have seen the Landsborough; just occasional hikers, deer hunters and rafters.
I prise my wetsuit off, and board a minibus for a 2½-hour drive north from Queenstown. On the way, I meet those who’ll be my companions for the next three days: Jim and Maurine from San Diego, Queenstown locals Rebecca and Matt, and Danish students Dorthe and Michael. Harold and Dave, teachers from Auckland, have just spent two weeks riding mountain bikes and hiking the demanding Rees-Dart Track. I’m impressed. Most Landsborough rafters are over 35, I’m told, though many are younger. No rafting experience is required, but it’s advisable to be active and confident in water.
Our guides Gabi, ‘KC’ and Roger give us a cheerful commentary on the landscape as we move into the lush forest of the west. It’s a lovely drive, along pristine lakes with mountains beckoning in the background.
At Clarke Bluff there’s a helicopter waiting to shuttle us to Top Camp, up the river. Hey, how cool does that sound? ‘They choppered us in and it took two days to raft out!’ The river snakes below us. It looks flat from above though, as we land, rain starts to fall steadily and the river looks grey and threatening. And beautiful.
Top Camp is already set up in a grassy clearing surrounded by beech forest. There are comfortable large tents with stretcher beds and air mats. While we make ourselves at home, our guides prepare an amazing dinner – spring rolls and perfect venison medallions, then butter chicken and vegetables on rice, all cooked on the campfire and gas stove. Beer and excellent New Zealand wine are all part of the service. To finish off there’s a superb chocolate pudding with lashings of whipped cream. ‘Wicked stuff, eh?’
Overnight the rain sets in and next morning the river is even higher. Out here, the river is the Boss, and the Boss says no rafting today. Water gushes past our camp at 150 tonnes a second. I’ll take KC’s word for that – no way am I getting in to test it.
The plan was to raft a few hours down to Bottom Camp, then paddle out the rest of the way tomorrow. But we’re stuck here for the night and if, as forecast, the rain stops and the river drops, we’ll raft the lot in one long day.
So for now we have time to kill, chatting, reading, enjoying nature, and explaining cricket to the Americans, as you do when you have them as a captive audience.
After lunch, the rain eases enough to hike through the drizzle for a few hours. We tramp through brilliant silver beech forest, tangled, mossy and dripping. We see hares, fantails and paradise ducks.
Now and then we come to streams tumbling out of the mountains, feeding the Landsborough. We rock-hop across the first couple, trying to keep our feet dry then, finding that impossible, we just slosh through regardless. As we turn for home the clouds lift, revealing the snow-capped mountains and rugged cliffs around us, promising magic for the morrow.
So it proves to be. Sunday dawns spectacularly. The clouds that rained on us have dumped fresh snow on the peaks above the dark forest, turning them a brilliant white against the clear blue sky.
After a massive breakfast we lever ourselves back into those wetsuits. ‘How’s it feel, Richard?’ asks Roger. ‘Fine,’ I squeak. I can see venison medallions and a bottle of Pinot Noir poking out of my navel, just below the mushrooms and scrambled eggs. Then yellow helmet and lifejacket are added, and I become a giant Playmobil man, my torso totally rigid. Good. Nobody will expect me to do any paddling work, and if I fall in I’ll just roll down the river bouncing off rocks.
Into the rubber rafts we tumble. KC gives us a quick safety lecture and our paddling instructions, ‘Forward! Back! Left! Right!’ Nothing too tricky. I quickly become expert at the ‘Hold on! Get down!’ manoeuvre we’re to use when hitting a rock. Nobody grips a safety rope tighter or crouches lower in a raft than me.
We push off and immediately snag on a submerged boulder. ‘Jump like kangaroos!’ yells KC. This is a new one. We bounce up and down as the raft spins in the current. ‘All left!’ We throw ourselves left and the raft lists. Swirling water tosses us off the rock and whips us downstream. We’re underway. ‘Whoo! Way to go, team!’
Gabi rides ahead in a little kayak. She was an Australian white water champion, so we trust her judgement. She signals the best way through the rapids and waits to scoop up any of us who topple overboard. ‘Gabi’s driving the Ferrari, we’re in the bus,’ says KC.
Most Landsborough River rapids are graded 3 or 4. ‘Grades go up to 6,’ KC tells us, ‘Niagara Falls is a 6.’ We rookies can manage a 4 without flipping, though we have some exhilarating close calls and we’re soon soaked through from the spray.
The nice thing about rafting is that the river does most of the work. We seldom need more than a few strokes to position ourselves to ride the current, and when the river slows down between the rapids we have plenty of time to admire the gorgeous passing scenery. Even a Playmobil man can do it.
Late in the afternoon we reach a little beach where the Landsborough meets the Haast River. It’s the end of our journey. We unload the gear, strip off our wetsuits and pull on dry clothes. We congratulate each other and thank our guides. They have been exceptionally good company, knowledgeable and considerate, not to mention talented five star chefs.
On the minibus back to Queenstown, Jim and Maurine arrange another quick rafting trip next morning before they fly out. ‘That’s sweet,’ says KC, ‘Bring your luggage and we’ll drive you straight from the river to the airport.’ If I could join them I would.
The writer was a guest of Queenstown Rafting.
When to go: Trips to the Landsborough run Friday-Sunday in summer only (November-March)
Further information: Queenstown Rafting’s guided 3-day Landsborough Wilderness package costs $1495, including all equipment, transport, tent accommodation, meals and beverages. http://www.queenstownrafting.co.nz
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney