What comes to your mind when you think about typical NZ tramping? True remoteness, bush bashing, river crossing, epic weather and pristine scenery are some of the images coming back to me. Finding those unique and almost secret itineraries is not easy. For a long time, I looked for the South Island most epic hikes. After a failed attempt on the five passes - which ended up spending 20 hours in a long drop and a miraculous rescue by a jetboat - and an amazing venture to Lake Adelaide, I figured out I would tick the box of an authentic coastal experience. Scanning through the Moir’s guide, the journey to Jackson’s bay sounded pretty appealing. The seed was sowed and stayed somewhere in the back of my mind for months until the opportunity arose.
My visa was nearing expiry so my partner and I decided to travel across the country with nothing but our legs and thumbs. It was sort of a two-month pilgrimage to say goodbye to this place that felt like home. We started with a hike on Stewart Island and ended up some days later in Te Anau. This was the occasion I was waiting for. I had done all the research already, and a quick visit to the library allowed me to print the maps, the tide chart and the forecast. My major concern was the weather but the early Fall was offering us a perfect 7+ days window. No time to wait.
We got to the Hollyford trailhead around lunch time but couldn’t eat because of the thirsty sandflies. So it started. The trail gently took us into the wild through the gorgeous bush along a perfectly maintained path with close to no elevation. From time to time it crossed a river and these openings offered epic views on Fiordland’s sheer black walls and white summits. Can you think of a better trail to start a long journey on, when your pack is stuffed with 12 days worth of food ? Once we got to the confluence of the Pyke and the Hollyford, things started to change. The almost paved trail disappeared along with the flatness of the terrain. Here began the so-called Demon Trail. A narrow path with straight drops winding through the thick bush and steep ups and downs covered by slippery mud and rocks. A lot of fun! The handful of walkwire bridges and the improving views, like hidden beaches bathing in morning sun on the shore of Lake McKerrow, helped transform this delightful hike into real bliss. The nice weather made this rough terrain easier. I can definitely imagine how diabolical it could be in more typical Fiordland weather.
All of a sudden, the landscape flattened out and the bush changed with numerous flaxes, the transition between Fiordland and Westland. At that time we were travelling through an impenetrable fog that cleared up to a mystical atmosphere: a silent and flat dark blue lake, evaporating bush, fairytale haze stabbed by morning sunbeams and blue sky patches. Then we noticed a muffled sound in the background of the birds ever-present melody. It intensified with each step until we realized that it was the Tasman Sea roaring on the wild West coast. It appeared to our minds before we could get a glimpse of it. We entered a swampy area that led us to the shore and Martins Bay hut, the end point of the Hollyford trail.
The real journey began! From here, there was no more trail but the rough coast to be followed. The birds vanished and were replaced by a seals colony and several dolphins cruising a few meters offshore. The sun was harsh and we couldn’t believe how lucky we were with the weather. But the Westcoast also offered thousands of starving sandflies happy to have those two stupid humans delivered to them. They weren’t fair-play, biting us even when walking, rushing into our eyes, mouth and ears. Lovely ass. This first coastal stretch gave us an overview of what to expect next : rock hopping, boulders stepping, sandy beach walking, bluff scrambling. Big Bay’s hut was a charming old-fashioned fisherman's place, the perfect spot to hide from an unexpected twenty-hour-long heavy rain. Everything was rushing in my head, what the rivers would look like, what if we pushed through and then got stuck with more rain later? We had planned two extra days of food for this kind of scenario, so all we could do was to accept it, cook some food and think what we could cook next. The major issue was that we were already running out of tea.
The rain stopped as it started, abruptly. The most amazing weather you could imagine of followed and we rushed out to make the most of it. The biggest unknown factor remained the river crossings. Even though I had studied it thousands of times, I kept going back to the tide chart, calculating our speed and estimating when we would hit the major crossings. The recent rain added some uncertainty but the first stream lifted the curtain, it was not too bad. After re-re-checking we both knew what to do in any scenario, we linked arms and entered the water. It quickly raised up to our knees, hips and stomachs, but (being 30cm smaller) my partner was chest deep into the water and totally lost control, which almost made us both lose balance. I strongly anchored myself on my legs and pole, holding her with my other arm and slowly dragged us out. That deepest spot was actually really short and we were quickly back to hip- and to knee-deep water.
The first serious crossing behind us, we kept following the coast, mostly rock hopping, but the high tide forced us to backup inland and struggle with thick bush bashing. We finally made it to Awarua point. It took us way longer than expected. However, this did not refrain us from spending some time contemplating this unspoiled nature epicness, surrounded by the sea, the westland bush, the rocks and boulders, the sandy beaches, the Olivine mountains dominated by the Red Hill on our left, the Fiordland summits overshadowed by Mt Tutoko and Milford mouth in the background. Pristine scenery was all around us all along the coast. At every step we wanted to stop and gaze, but the sandfly plague prevented us from stopping more than five seconds. The terrain changed from one bay to another and so did our speed. From slow slippery rock hopping or boulder stepping to fast hard sand walking with a whole range of other terrain in the middle, such as bush bashing or shingle sinking. It was hard to estimate how much distance we would be able to cover in a certain amount of time as we did not know what was behind the next corner. All we could do was to keep going and fully appreciate this stunning wilderness, remoteness and loneliness.
Loneliness? Not really. Looking for the best place to cross another of the numerous rivers, we found backpacks and no one around. I went upstream, calling for those pack owners. Eventually four DOC rangers popped out the bush. Heli-dropped earlier for a conservation mission, they gave us the latest forecast which confirmed that we should hurry up North but that we should just have the time to be out before the next storm would hit.
Even if expected, the most fulfilling encounter was when, after a particularly rough bluff, we ran into the Long’s family paradise. Out of nowhere we were suddenly walking on an airstrip cut through the flaxes, Tasman sea crashing on the rocks on one side, steep rainforest covered hill on the other. By the end of the strip there were two small buildings, a tiny DOC hut and the “NZ remotest” family's house. We did not want to impose our presence so we first went into the lovely hut for some snacks and fully appreciated the absence of sandflies. Ten minutes after we arrived, a helicopter landed and dropped three hunters with equipment for ten. That was the moment Catherine Long came out and invited everyone for a cuppa and a piece of cake. We spent two hours chatting with those awesome open-hearted people about all kinds of subjects, including the backstage of the TV program “Where the wild men live”, possum trapping, and the choice of living out of society. The three Jafa’s were pretty astonished by what we were doing and offered us a cold beer - the best Speight I ever had - with some chocolate before Robert and Catherine gave us a boat ride across the Gorge river without which we should have had to swim.
Some of the best memories of this tramp are the stunning sunrises and sunsets, on our own, on the sandy beaches by the sea. Even if we had to hide in our tent from the moment we stopped to the very last moment we left, those were absolute ecstasy for the soul. We used to pack before dawn to avoid the worst memory, the sandflies. Another sour moment happened on our last day when, first thing in the morning, we got lost in dense bush trying to find some sort of a trail over a bluff for almost two hours. This episode tired us for the rugged last coastal section made out of boulders, gravel and floating trees. When we finally got to the Hope river confluence we were cooked and tried not to think that we still had 20km to get out, while admiring the roughness of the sea.
After a last glimpse into the Tasman blue, we went inland and walked up the river bed, with thigh-deep water until we spotted the beginning of the 4WD track we were supposed to follow. It was already 3PM and we should have stopped here but we really wanted to get out before the rain hit again. This urge was motivated by the last crossing ahead of us, at the very end of our journey, the biggest of all, the Cascade river. We figured that if we pushed we should get there before dark. And so we did. Walking on a proper trail was an amazing relief and the kilometers were flying by. Going through forest, meadows and wide river beds, we met some hunters who were surprised to see anything else than deers and pigs. Thankfully they did not shoot at us, even if they joked about it. We then entered an endless openland, the huge Cascade valley, while the sun was gently going down, lightning fire in the clouds. We crossed extensive farmland before facing our last obstacle, the Cascade. It was quiet and wide but we were mentally prepared for it. We quickly found the best spot to cross, and easily entered the water as we were already wet anyway. Knee-deep at first, it changed to hip-deep for a distance and then chest-deep... for me (I’m 6’3’’). My partner had already lost her footing and I was holding her, trying to keep my balance. As I was only holding on the tip of my boots, we almost reached "the swimming point" but finally managed to get back on our feet. We did the last kilometer to the road dripping with water and arrived just after 8PM. That is where we met Marshall, the cattle caretaker of this huge beef farm. He made the end of this incredible adventure even more unforgettable when he offered us to get dry inside with a cuppa and spaghetti on toast before driving us 20 km further on the dirt road so we could easily hitchhike up to Haast on the next morning. We pitched one last time the wet tent, totally exhausted but so proud, and fell asleep, dreaming of the shower and dry bed waiting for us in Wanaka.
Tramping, cycling, running, skiing, travelling, I keep exploring this amazing planet we live on. The following texts give an insight of my various wanderings. From poetry to trip reports or thoughts on particular subjects, this pages try to reflect how I travel through this modern world.