On the tracks of the ancestors

Fiordland’s Hollyford Track has heartfelt significance for those who guide visitors through this ancient land

Mt Madeline reflected on Lake Alabaster (image courtesy of Ngai Tahu Tourism).

Mt Madeline reflected on Lake Alabaster (image courtesy of Ngai Tahu Tourism).


Every time hiking guide Kahurangi Mahuika-Wilson glimpses Fiordland’s Mount Tutoko, he feels quite chuffed. Fiordland’s highest mountain rises to 2746 metres and is set among the granite alps of the Darran mountain range on the Hollyford Track. Hollyford hikers typically see the peak just a few hours into day one of their three- day trek. Its sheer size and presence are enough to make them stop, gawp and take photos.

But for Kahurangi the mountain holds extra- special meaning. It’s a tangible reminder of his personal connection to the national park and the Hollyford Track.

The 18-year-old grew up on the West Coast in Greymouth and Bruce Bay. He is a member of the Makaawhio sub-tribe of Ngai Tahu and began working as a Hollyford guide for Ngai Tahu Tourism late last year.

He’s also a direct descendant of the last Māori rangatira to live in the Hollyford Valley, chief Tutoko.

“Tutoko is my great-great-great-great- great-great-great-grandfather,” says Kahurangi. “His daughter, Kawaipatiere, was born on the track itself at Martins Bay. In later life she went north to where I’m from, married and settled down there. My family and I come from her relationship with one of our local chiefs.”

Early records show that chief Tutoko lived in a pa at Martins Bay with his wife Hinepare and two daughters at the time of European settlement. He so impressed Scottish surveyor Dr James Hector during the latter’s visit in 1863 that the doctor officially named Mount Tutoko in his honour.

Kahurangi says he’s walked the 56-kilometre track as a Hollyford guide several times and it’s always a thrill to look up at the mountain and acknowledge his forebears as he strides past.

“This year’s been amazing; I’ve absolutely loved being out here on the Hollyford. It’s my first full season and it’s been awesome to walk where my ancestors walked and to feel that deep connection with this place,” he says.

The Hollyford Track is a three-day guided valley walk that starts inland at the end of the Milford Road and follows the Hollyford River north to Martins Bay on the coast.

Every year, between April and October, tourists from all over the world (but Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom mostly) walk the track in groups of up to 16. They hike through native beech and ancient podocarp forest and take in an impressive range of rare plants, including centuries-old rata and a quirky moss species known for holding double its weight in water.

The track is also home to plenty of fascinating pioneer history. There are plaques commemorating characters such as Davey Gunn, the valley’s first tourism guide, who spent 30 years eking out a living as a host, cattle farmer and horseman before drowning in the river at the age of 68.

The failed settlement of Jamestown set up on the edge of Lake McKerrow by the Otago provincial government in the 1870s is marked by the residual stones of an old fireplace, a plaque and a few glass bottles.

In 2003 Ngai Tahu Tourism purchased the Hollyford Track, adding it to a clutch of tourism ventures that includes Shotover Jet, Dart River Jet Safaris and Franz Josef Glacier Guides.

General Manager for Ngai Tahu Tourism’s southern region David Kennedy says there are many elements that make the Hollyford special and its Māori history is undoubtedly one.

“It offers so much – there’s the Maori and European heritage and stories, the flora and fauna that change from the mountains to the sea, the well-appointed lodges, the wonderful food, the small group sizes, the knowledge of our guides and the hospitality of our lodge hosts.

“There’s amazing scenery, oh, and jet-boat and helicopter rides! What we try to do is give people an unforgettable New Zealand tourism experience that they will remember for a lifetime. A big part of this is manaakitanga and treasuring our customers,” he says.

Susan Wallace, General Manager of Te Runanga o Makaawhio, started working directly with Ngai Tahu Tourism four years ago. Their initial idea was to team up to give young rangatahi with leadership potential an opportunity to walk the track. But the idea soon grew into an annual hikoi, involving Hollyford staff and tribal elders as well as young rangatahi.

Kahurangi, then 14, was one of the first young people nominated to join the hikoi and the only one to become employed as a Hollyford guide.

“I was stoked to go on that first trip and I’ve never missed one since. It was incredible. I don’t think any of us had ever seen Mount Tutoko before. We knew its history and its relevance to Makaawhio, but seeing the mountain right there in front of us was a big deal. People cried. People paid their respects. I’ll never forget it. Visiting Tutoko’s original pa site, checking out the old middens and the tuatua beds – it was really moving. We all came away feeling very much part of this place and part of its history.”

“I was stoked to go on that first trip and I’ve never missed one since. It was incredible. I don’t think any of us had ever seen Mount Tutoko before. We knew its history and its relevance to Makaawhio, but seeing the mountain right there in front of us was a big deal. People cried. People paid their respects. I’ll never forget it.

kahurangi Mahuika-Wilson, hollyford track guide

Susan says the annual hikoi serves two main purposes. It gives hapu members the opportunity to reconnect with and walk the land of their ancestors, share their knowledge with guides and access a remote and culturally significant place.

For the Hollyford team, it’s a wananga: a learning forum and a chance to pick up information they can later share with their guests.

“We don’t expect all the guides to tell our stories. Some may prefer to focus on the Hollyford geology or the flora and fauna and that’s fine. Others may feel more passionate about the pioneering history of the track,” says Susan.

“These cultural exchanges are really an opportunity for those who are interested to find out more and to become familiar enough with our stories to make them their own.”

The runanga’s approach is all about incremental change and doing things slowly, bit by bit, says Susan. Last year, for example, it began hosting Hollyford guides at its Bruce Bay marae to mark the end of the tourist season. It was a great success, says Susan, and the runanga repeated it in April this year.

“Our marae has a lot of references to Tutoko. He’s in our carvings, in our waiata and in the pou (poles) of our meeting house.

“Bringing Hollyford staff home to Bruce Bay gives us a chance to reciprocate the generosity we receive from them during the annual hikoi. And it gives Hollyford staff an even deeper understanding of what our ancestors and the Hollyford Track mean to us. It’s through the guides and the great work they do that we are able to share our stories with the world.”

This story was first published in Heritage New Zealand magazine. In 2015, it was runner up in the Travcom 2015 Awards for Best Travel Story About a Māori Experience.

Māori and the Hollyford

  • The Māori name for the Hollyford Valley and River is Whakatipu Ka Tuka.

  • The Hollyford Track is one of the South Island’s historic pounamu trails used by Māori to transport greenstone from the West Coast to the east coast for trade.

  • Fiordland’s highest peak, Mount Tutoko, is named after the last Maori chief to live in the Hollyford Valley.

  • The sandspit at Whakatipu Waitai (Martins Bay) is the site of chief Tutoko’s original pa.

  • Te Runanga o Makaawhio, a small sub-tribe based in Bruce Bay, is the kaitiaki (guardian) of the Hollyford Valley and River area.

Martins Bay lodge at night (image courtesy of Ngai Tahu Tourism).

Martins Bay lodge at night (image courtesy of Ngai Tahu Tourism).

The Hollyford Track


The three-day guided walk from October to April costs $1895 per adult (15-plus) and $1495 per child (8-14). This covers guides, food and lodging, briefing, return transport to Te Anau or Queenstown, jet-boat rides and
a Milford Sound flight. The Hilton Queenstown Resort and Spa can add accommodation to the package.


Suitable for most ages and abilities.

Day one is a 17-kilometre walk (the only day carrying 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 12-kilometre 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 Martins Bay Lodge.

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


Hiking boots, waterproof clothing, a water bottle, sandfly 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.


  • 0800 832 226

  • info@hollyfordtrack.co.nz

  • www.hollyfordtrack.co.nz