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Land of the Long White Socks
By Paul Rodger, NRMA, Australia 2011
No geological forcescould have created New Zealand's Fiordland. The cliffs are too steep, the lakes are too deep, and the whole vista is too drop-dead stunning for it to be a product of nature.
At least that's what the Maori thought. A story passed down by generations of the Ngai Tahu tribe says the South Island's Fiordland region was once flat and that a great demigod named Tu-te-raki-whanoa gave it shape and beauty. With his ko (digging stick) he carved the clefts that became the lakes, fiords and mountain ranges. In total he carved 14 fiords, but the last one was his masterpiece - what is now Milford Sound.
But the exquisite spectacle would have one drawback.
When Tu-te-raki-whanoa sat back and admired his handiwork, he was joined by Hine-nui-te-po, the Goddess of Darkness and Death. She warned him that people would be drawn to the beauty he had created. By occupying the land they would surely damage it. To preserve the area's natural beauty, she created namu namu (sandflies) and released them into Fiordland. Now people come and admire :F'iordland, but they never linger.
It's not just the nip of the namu namu that keeps people moving when they embark on the Hollyford Track. Situated at the northern edge of Fiordland, it's one of several trails in the region, but it's the only major one at low altitude that can be walked in any season and that connects with the Fiordland coastline. It's the lure of a new vista around the next bend that keeps trampers moving. That and the prospect of a hearty meal and a well-earned brew at the end of each day's walk.
For 56km the track follows the course of the Hollyford River on its journey to the sea. It's a three-day walk that requires only a reasonable level of fitness. Because all linen, towels and food are provided at two luxurious lodges along the way, there's no need to lug a heavy backpack. And there are enough comforts at the lodges to help recharge the batteries. There's a drying room in case any gear gets wet and hot showers to soothe tired muscles.
Starting among the Darran Mountains, the track winds its way through native beech forest. past waterfalls and over crystal clear rivers fed by run-off from the snowy peaks. Then through ancient podocarp forest where rimu, totara and kahikatea trees can be seen draped in rata vines. There's abundant birdlife, including wood pigeons, kea and warblers. And at the end of the trip, there's a chance to see rare Fiordland crested penguins and a colony of fur seals (see 'Sealing the deal').
Along the way, trampers cross the longest swing bridge in Fiordland and board a jet boat for the journey up Lake McKerrow. It's here one gains an understanding of ill-fated attempts by European settlers to gain a foothold in the Fiordland wilderness. It wasn't the namu namu that stopped them settling in the region, of course. It was the isolation and the lack of guaranteed shipping access. On the banks of Lake McKerrow is evidence of the abandoned settlement of Jamestown. Grand plans were hatched for it to become the capital of the South Island in the late 19th century, but the town was doomed before it began.
The trip ends with a stunning scenic flight out to Milford Sound, the crowning glory of Tu-te-raki-whanoa's labours.
Our guide for the trek, Bard Crawford. brings the natural and human history of the Fiordland region to life. A veteran of almost 400 walks along the Hollyford, it sometimes seems his knowledge of the valley's flora and fauna has no bounds.
Time and again Bard returns to the exploits of pioneer Davey Gunn, who made his name carving out a living in the wilderness and who spent his entire life extolling the beauty of the Hollyford. A rugged, no-nonsense man, he also established a reputation for extreme self-reliance.
At a picturesque clearing Bard tells how Davey was coming to the end of a day's cattle driving through the Hollyford Valley when he failed to see a jagged branch protruding from a thicket. The branch hooked into his knee and tore up through his inner thigh and scrotum. Realising how bad his injury was, he got out a darning needle and some nylon and stitched himself back up. Showing remarkable fortitude, he then carried on with the cattle drive.
"There's a reason why we guides tell that story," says Bard with a smirk. "It's so we don't hear you lot complain about sore muscles and blisters."
Our group of trampers laugh and we move on, the namu namu trailing in our wake.