2023 WAS THE YEAR my eldest son, Trae, turned 21. And as that was a big deal and all, I gave him the option of having a 21st birthday party or going away on an adventure with his dad. Thankfully (being a man after my own heart), he chose the latter. What he didn’t know, was that I’d already organised a trip with my good mate Taz. All we needed to do was confirm dates.
As to where we were going … well, that was already decided: we were heading down the Hollyford River for a seven-day hunting trip. But the best part? We were travelling in style … Taz’s jetboat.
The Hollyford River (Whakatipu Kā Tuka) runs 72 kilometres through Fiordland, in the southwest corner of the South Island. It’s one of the more remote places in New Zealand – accessible by one road off the Milford Sound Highway. The Hollyford Rd is the starting point for a number of tramping routes – the most famous of these being the Hollyford Track. It’s also home to the historic and well-loved Gunn’s Camp – now engulfed by the remains of an enormous landslide when a huge chunk of Ocean Peak (1848m) slid to the valley floor, obliterating everything in its path.
Fiordland gets a lot of rain, but in February 2020, more than Invercargill’s entire yearly rainfall fell in three days on the Hollyford Valley, causing absolute carnage. Of that one metre of rain, 600mm fell in less than 24 hours – flooding areas that must be seen to be believed! But more on that later …
As mentioned above, Fiordland gets a lot of rain – up to 10 metres annually! And the day we left Queenstown for the Hollyford would confirm its reputation. Taz had driven the two hours to Te Anau with his boat the day before, joining a couple of his mates and their boats. Trae and I were travelling via helicopter and were meeting Taz and co. partway down the Hollyford at a section of river called Hidden Falls rapids.
The flight into the Hollyford Valley was pretty bumpy. We left Glenorchy in fine but windy conditions, and flew straight into rain and cloud! Gotta love Fiordland! But we were in good hands. The pilot expertly navigated the steep mountainous passes – and whatever nerves we had soon disappeared. He dropped us on a stony beach below Hidden Falls rapids before flying back up the river to pick up the three jetboats.
Jetboating the Hidden Falls rapids is not for the fainthearted … which is why 90+ % of boaters choose to either winch/drag their boats over a bypass track or use a helicopter to lift them over. The helicopter isn’t cheap, and the winch/drag option isn’t easy! But unless you’re one of the talented (crazy?) boaties who do take the rapids on, there aren’t any other options.
We didn’t use the bypass, but Taz has done it a number of times. According to him, the few-hundred-metre-drag through the bush can take well over an hour using manpower and a chainsaw winch, and is hard on the boats …
The helicopter was much more civilised…
Once the three boats had been lifted over, we packed our supplies into them and headed for the Olivine Hut, our base camp for the next few days.
Fiordland is stunning in the rain. And if you’ve been to Milford Sound on both fine and wet days, you’ll know what I mean. Spectacular waterfalls cascading down the steep slopes make for an impressive sight – and the Hollyford was no different. The wet hour or so trip to the hut – down the Hollyford, up the Pyke, across Lake Alabaster and finally, the Olivine River – was amazing.
The Fiordland rain had done its best to find its way through my clothing – but Taz and his seasoned Hollyford mates soon had the fire roaring. And it wasn’t long before the hut resembled a drycleaner with clothes hanging everywhere! One of the advantages of travelling in a jetboat is the fact that you can take a good amount of gear … and judging by the food we brought, we were going to eat like kings – not a freeze-dried meal to be seen!
The rest of the day was spent sorting gear, setting up the tent for Taz and me (we got the short straw!), and carefully tying off the boats to allow for the rising river. By evening, the rain had really set in – and Taz’s tent took a pounding overnight. Tent pegs got ripped out, the wind flattened the flexible poles on top of us, and it leaked!
Did I mention that Fiordland gets a lot of rain?!
In the early hours, during a tent ‘re-peg’ mission, we noticed in the darkness that the river was almost lapping our battered shelter – a good three metres up from where it should be! But thankfully, the rain was easing, and we managed a few fitful hours of sleep before dawn … unlike the rest of the crew in the hut, who were warm and dry!
Another advantage of jetboats is the quick access to country that would otherwise take hours to walk. The following few days saw us head up and down the Pyke, accessing a bunch of hunting spots Taz knew about. We saw plenty of deer – mostly young animals, as the hinds were fawning and tucked away in the bush.
My main goal was to get Trae onto a deer – this being his trip and all! He’d shot a few before, and it didn’t take long before he dropped a young yearling … his first Hollyford deer!
We each harvested an animal by the end of the trip – and I was mighty happy I’d bought extra baggage for our flight home.
The Pyke River, a major contributor to the lower Hollyford, has a fascinating history. While hunting the clearings in the valley, we came across old fence posts that were a testament to the days they used to run cattle in the area. The most famous of these hardy souls was Davey Gunn, who raised cattle from the late 1920s with leases totalling 25,000 acres until he tragically drowned crossing the Hollyford in 1955. He would drive these wild cows to the saleyards in Mossburn over 250km away!
His legendary status was bolstered when he assisted the passengers of a plane he’d seen crash in remote Big Bay. He covered the 97km, four-day journey to get help in just 21 hours … with a broken rib, saving the lives of all four survivors. And if that wasn’t enough, he once ripped his scrotum open after being charged by a cow and knocked off his horse onto a splintered beech stump. He calmly stitched himself back together without anaesthetic and returned to work.
When we weren’t hunting, we fished and explored the vast reaches of the Pyke, cruising over the beautiful Lakes Wilmot and Alabaster. On one particularly bluebird day, the valley finally revealed itself in all its splendour, with the snowy peaks of Tutoko and the Darran Mountains unveiled above the rugged bushline. Simply spectacular.
We explored the lower Hollyford to Lake McKerrow, where the river makes its final dash before emptying into the Tasman at Martins Bay. It was at McKerrow Island Hut that we fully appreciated the enormity of the 2020 floods. The hut, situated at the head of the lake, was mostly underwater – and four trampers were rescued off its roof by helicopter. The sheer volume of water that inundated the Hollyford was simply staggering!
And just like that, our time in the remote southwest corner of the South Island came to an end. As if on cue, the heavens opened, and the rain fell, leaving us absolutely drenched as a parting gift.
Did I mention that Fiordland gets a lot of rain?!
Happy 21st, Trae!