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There was no motor racing on, so Mrs Petrolhead/Melanie and I decided tag along. There was a briefing at a hotel on the Sunday night which was promptly forgotten by everybody. It was really an excuse to get together and have quick meal to try and get to know each other over a pizza and a glass of wine at the Cow (a former prison - quite fitting really). We'd all received a list of names but didn't really know each other, other than as nodding acquaintances from conferences.
We assembled bleary eyed at breakfast on Monday morning, 11 March to catch the Hollyford bus. Breakfast was eaten in a zombie-like state at 6am! Not a time well-suited for conversing with one's fellow travellers. The people walking with Melanie and myself were Alistair and Alison Argyle from Argyle Welsh Finnigan in Ashburton; Geoff and Karen Nicholas from Welsh McCarthy, Hawera; Graeme Mathias, Michael Badham and Debbie Welsh from Thomson Wilson, Whangarei, Hamish and Sharon Kennedy from Kennedy& Associates in Motueka; and Tina McLennan (Kaimai Law Bethlehem) and her father Paul from Bethlehem/Hamilton respectively. We were also joined by one Aussie who had left New Zealand many years ago and kept coming back to walk round the country.
Early starts, even for glampers
We were picked up from the Heritage at about 6.30 am and all promptly fell asleep (well, I did) on our way to Tē Anau. There was a brief stop there to pick up our two guides and two more walkers from Tairua, the various flat whites, lattes, etc. that were required to wake us up and then we were off for a further two hours to get to the head of the Hollyford Valley. Our two guides were Mike and Jackie. They both worked for Ngai Tahu Tourism; Mike was the senior tour guide. Things got off to a bad start for me. Mike mentioned that we were travelling towards Gunn's Camp which was where Davie Gunn had set up a small camping outfit back in the 1950s to take advantage of tourism in the area. He ended his remarks about Gunn's Camp by saying that Davie Gunn was "the greatest man that ever lived". I laughed at this and Debbie Welsh sniggered (I reckon it was the other way round), but I was targeted with “Is there something wrong with that - mate?" Bugger - I was tagged as a troublemaker. I didn’t lose it either no matter how many meaningful conversations I had with Davie Gunn's disciple.
We got to the start of the track, shouldered our packs and marched into the forest full of vim and vigour. The track was well kept and the deeper we got into the valley the more picturesque it became. At times you would look around and be utterly awestruck at the beauty of the landscape, the bush covered hills running straight into a lake or a river, the towering peaks behind, some still with snow on them and the absolute serenity of the place. Because it was so dry we could see all of the landscape around us (no cloud) and despite Fiordland's reputation for having rain every other day, there wasn't a drop to be seen. The sand flies weren't much of a problem. However I have to say that the so-called 'six hour protection’ claim on the insect repellent was rubbish. It was more like marinade for humans giving the sandflies a yummy target to aim at.
About two-thirds of the day into the tramp we came to a waterfall with a pool at the bottom. Michael Badham decided to brave all and jumped in. The temperature of the pool both took his breath away and shrunk various body parts to a minute size. We did receive reports that all was well and he had recovered.
We reached the Pyke River hut at about 6.45pm and were all very glad to see it. What started out as a light pack got heavier and heavier the further in we walked. We were fed and watered very well. There was a three course meal, starting with sushi followed by venison and a dessert to follow accompanied by some fine wines and beer (sounds tough - eh!).
Everybody was very glad to see a shower and we all applied blister plasters to our feet at various times. The next morning we were roused out of bed at about 6.30 am (yes, believe it or not - this is luxury tramping) to wander down the track to look at Lake Alabaster, which was like a mirror. Again, it was utterly beautiful and serene. The spirits of some of the group lifted when a very pretty German hiker walked past. One of our group did suggest to her that she could join our tramp if she wished because there was a spare bed, but funnily enough this was declined. It might have been the age difference that got her - not sure really ... nope - not me. Her tramp to Martins Bay was going to take her two days.
It took us one hour by jet boat, firstly down a very shallow river with a hair-raising ride through the very shallow bits and then a scoot down Lake McKerrow to firstly, Jamestown and then secondly, Martins Bay Lodge where we were to stay on the second night. By this stage our packs had been taken from us and we were using day packs only; a blessed relief. The tramp out to the fur seal colony was fairly light and we did see a few fur seals. Because the birthing season had just finished, it wasn't wise to wander too close to the fur seal pups as the parent could become aggressive and we could become lunch.
Martins Bay Lodge was based right on the banks of the estuary near the river mouth. Back in the 1800s, there had been plans for ships to sail in over the bar and into the estuary to Jamestown to deliver goods to the south west of the South Island. Having seen the bar on a relatively calm day, it was easy to see why sea transport never became a fixture in this part of the world. The bar looked incredibly dangerous and even with a very mild sea running, there was a heap of turbulence and, according to history, only two in three ships ever made it over the bar. These aren't ships that you and I know, but rather big, square rigged ocean going sailing vessels which were probably as maneuverable as a refrigerator and sank like one.
Another pleasant evening was had at the Martins Bay Lodge, again with fine dining, and wine and beer. It was capped off with a court being convened where various members of the group were prosecuted for their sins, starting with our tour guides who were fined a potato each (yes - a potato, we didn’t have anything else to fine them with). They were told they had to carry the potato until the end of the tramp. Petrol Head was the prosecutor, Geoff Nicholas was assigned as defence counsel and Graham Mathias was the judge. Michael Badham also provided commentary on the side. Needless to say, Mr Nicholas, showing his adept skill as a conveyancer, threw in the towel at the earliest possible moment. He never ran a meaningful defence and the defendants were all found guilty and the summary of embellished facts was read out to the court and the assembled horde. Badham tried to have me summarily executed but this failed miserably, as it should have, for lack of evidence of wrongdoing. It was a hilarious way to finish what had been a really enjoyable two days and certainly was the last night that we would all be together.
Surge to the finish
The next day was again a beautiful day and we were ferried across the lagoon by jet boat and then walked down to a historic homestead site and along the way were educated about the flora and fauna in the area. Mike, our tour guide, was incredibly well informed about the history and about the animals and plants that abounded in the Hollyford Valley. We finished with a tramp along the beach to meet the jet boat. Sharon Kennedy showed a clean pair of heels and left us all trailing in her wake by walking down the beach at a helluva clip. Actually fast doesn't describe it - bloody quick more like!
We had lunch at the lodge and were then picked up in small groups and ferried by helicopter out of Martins Bay and down the coast of Fiordland and finished with a flight into Milford Sound. On our flight one of the group (who shall remain anonymous - again not me) made the mistake of sitting in the front seat of our helicopter and, when the pilot came up over the brow of the mountain ridge bordering Milford Sound and plunged down towards the water, tried to climb into the back seat.
We then went by bus back to Tē Anau and then to Queenstown to be dropped off at the hotel and then to depart in various directions headed for home. I suspect this will be a welcome relief from the usual utterings by me about car racing.
Put this on your bucket list All I can say is that if you haven't got a bucket list then make one and put the Hollyford tramp on it. If you have got a bucket list, put the Hollyford tramp on it. It was a truly amazing experience and one that will certainly live with all of us for some time to come.
The only other thing that needs to be mentioned and unfortunately was never photographed because I believe it was a bit like the yeti, heard about but never seen, was Geoff Nicholas' dayglo orange hunting jacket. He had it to make sure that no deer hunters shot him. Having caught a glimpse of this jacket, I can assure you that no self-respecting hunter would ever shoot him other than to put him out of his misery at having to wear such an item of apparel and anyway no deer ever looked like that. We had heard unconfirmed rumours that some 747 pilots flying over New Zealand at 36,000 feet had spotted a flash of dayglo orange in Fiordland but these rumours haven't been confirmed as yet.
• David O'Neill