Ancestral adventure in New Zealand

Jacqui Gibson walks the Hollyford Track in New Zealand’s Fiordland

Martins Bay, Hollyford Track (image care of Ngai Tahu Tourism).

Martins Bay, Hollyford Track (image care of Ngai Tahu Tourism).


The young man walking ahead of me stops suddenly, interrupting my hiking-induced torpor, almost causing a five hiker pile-up.

There’s something about the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other that settles the mind. Mine, at least.

And there’s something about the shhhhhhing sound of nearby Hollyford River that relaxes rankled shoulder muscles and gently sluices away one’s workday niggles.

I’m not thinking of much when tourism guide Kahurangi Mahuika-Wilson stops mid-step, struck by an urge to go for a dip.

“Come on you lot, I’m going in,” Kahurangi says, actually looking a bit unsure.

A light rain has been falling since we started out from Road End about seven hours ago. The day’s a tepid 60 degrees at best. We’re all wearing thermals and raincoats.

Kahurangi perseveres with his idea. “I swim every time I’m out here – except maybe twice. It’s a warm day for the West Coast. It is. Truly. Any local would tell you that,” he says, convincing himself but not convincing me.

The other hikers (bar one) agree with me. That’s everyone except my husband, Richard, of course. He’s in his 40s. Kahurangi is half his age. But you know how it is - he can’t let a plucky whippersnapper show you up. That’s the rule.

In they plunge. One boy, one man, both naked to the waist. The pair dive off a lichen-covered log into water so clear we can still see the river stones on the bottom, despite the ructions on the water’s surface.

When Kahurangi resurfaces, he’s sucking in air, arms flailing. Then, wrapping both arms around himself in an attempt at a warming cuddle, he pauses for a minute before diving back in.

Richard, on the other hand, is on the march towards dry ground.

Day one on the Hollyford Track

It’s day one on the Hollyford Track, a three-day walk in a remote corner of New Zealand’s South Island. We’re a party of 15, Kiwis and Aussies mostly – though one (François) is a retired Sydney-sider originally from Belgium.

François and her Australian partner travel the world on naturist adventures. They are lean, fit and their skins are golden from months in the sun. Her eyelids are tattooed with a tiny strip of powder blue eyeliner and she has a permanent line of red ink marking the outline of her lips, so she “never has to worry about make up again”.

Today, like the rest of us, they’re fully kitted out in thermal leggings, hiking boots and waterproof pants and jackets. Yes, it’s mid-summer. But we’re a long way from the balmy temperatures of the Pacific – the destination of the couple’s last all-nude vacation – or the big cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland, where most of us live.

Instead, we’re in a southwest pocket of Fiordland, surrounded by a thousand-year-old beech forest, nosing our way along an ancient river valley scoured out by glaciers more than 20,000 years ago.

Hollyford Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks (image care of Ngai Tahu Tourism).

Hollyford Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks (image care of Ngai Tahu Tourism).

Hollyford's three main narratives

There are three main narratives told on the Hollyford Track.

There’s the story of its unique flora and fauna – of rare orchids and century-old rata. Head guide, Lesley ‘Mush’ Horder, has these down pat.

She stops regularly to point out an exemplar moss species known for holding double its weight in water or to encourage a wee nibble on a fuzzy fern frond, which does, in fact, taste like walnuts as she promises it will.

Mush reports on the changing landscape, as she leads the way out of native beech forest into an ancient podocarp forest. She orientates us, informs us, keeps us grounded in a place that can, at times, feel a little ghostly and otherworldly.

I figure it’s because the landscape is so enormous. For the entire three-day trek, we’re walking the base of the Darran Mountain range, dwarfed by Fiordland’s highest peak, Mt Tūtoko (9,000 feet).

But there’s an ethereal ambience in the mists that hover over the ground at dawn and in the dreamy quiet of the place. There’s no one out here on the track – just us and a handful of Hollyford staffers. Really, there’s no one. Not a sausage.

According to Mush, this is a relatively new thing. “Back in the day, pioneers came out here from Europe to try their luck with gold, to farm and to seek shelter after months at sea on whaling ships. One guy set up the region’s first tourism business.”

Pioneer tales of the Hollyford

These pioneer tales are the second narrative told on the Hollyford. Mush doles them out over breakfast, before and after lunch, each time we approach a sheltered resting spot. We even guzzle them down with fine New Zealand wine over dinner.

The tourism guy, Davey Gunn, gets a pretty good airing. There was the time, in 1936, when he temporarily abandoned his tramping party to raise the alarm for the victims of a serious plane crash. Gunn’s heroic double-marathon took 20 hours (mostly on foot) and saved their lives.

The son of a Scottish shepherd, Gunn was a noted cattle wrangler and horseman. And, perhaps, most remarkably of all, spent 30 years in the Hollyford living off his wits before drowning in the river at age 68. New Zealand’s answer to Bear Grylls couldn’t swim.

Kahurangi's stories

But it’s the third Hollyford narrative I’ve grown fondest of. It’s the lesser told of the three. They’re Kahurangi’s stories, the stories of the land and its people from a young man whose Māori relatives, New Zealand’s indigenous people, arrived here an estimated 800 years ago.

Kahurangi tells me this is his first season guiding on the Hollyford Track, but he’s been coming here on an annual walk with tribal elders since he was small.

With each walk of the land, he’s picked up a little more of his tribe’s history and his place in it.

It was his ancestors, he says, who used the Hollyford Track to transport pounamu (greenstone) from coastal hot spots like Big Bay to the South Island’s east coast where they traded it for use and distribution throughout the country.

And it was his people who claimed Martin’s Bay (Whakatipu Waitai) as their southernmost settlement, following successive tribal wars.

In 1852, 17 Māori were recorded as living in the area, including Kahurangi’s most well-known descendant, chief Tūtoko, and the chief’s wife and daughters.

A decade later, only the Tūtoko family would remain to encounter the West Coast’s first European explorers – the likes of sealer Captain Alabaster and Scottish surveyor Dr James Hector.

Final day on the track

The sun is shining on our third and final day as we walk the length of Martin’s Bay, the site of Kahurangi’s ancestral homeland.

Starting out, he recounts the story of Tūtoko and, from the sand dunes, gestures in the general direction of the chief’s original hut and shellfish beds.

After a bit more poking around further inland and a couple more tales of the Martin’s Bay pioneers from Mush, we head home, trailing one behind the other, like ants, along the shoreline.

“It’s too hot for shoes,” says Kahurangi, kicking off his boots – Richard and I agree, following suit.

Next minute, this young man is threatening a swim in the Tasman convinced we should do the same.

Hollyford Track walkers (image care of Ngai Tahu Tourism).

Hollyford Track walkers (image care of Ngai Tahu Tourism).

If you go

The package: Three-day guided walk from October to April (New Zealand's summer). Costs cover guides, food and lodging, briefing, return transport to Te Anau or Queenstown, jet boat rides and a Milford Sound flight. Hilton Queenstown Resort and Spa can add accommodation to the package.

The walk: Suitable for most ages and abilities.

  • Day one is a 10.5-mile walk (the only day you’ll carry a full pack) through native beech forest. Stay at Pyke Lodge and visit a nearby glow worm colony and resident eels in the evening.

  • Day two is a 7.5-mile walk (carrying a light day pack). Visit Lake Alabaster and take in views of the mountains. Jet boat across Lake McKerrow to the historic site of Jamestown. Walk through ancient podocarp forest to the local seal colony. Stay at Martin’s Bay Lodge.

  • Day three starts with a jet boat ride to the beach, followed by a five-mile walk along the sand dunes and lagoon (again, carrying a light day pack). Scenic flight to Milford Sound and travel back to Te Anau or Queenstown.

The gear: Hiking boots, waterproof clothing, a water bottle, sand fly repellent and blister protection. Company can provide backpacks, raincoats and pack liners at no extra cost. Both lodges have drying rooms to dry gear overnight.

To book: visit the Hollyford Track website.

This story was first published in Food, Wine & Travel magazine for a US audience.

The writer would like to thank Ngāi Tahu Tourism for hosting her.