There is nowhere else on earth quite like Fiordland. And definitely nowhere like the Hollyford Track.
A wild and remote land of steep mountains along the sea, glaciers and dense temperate rainforests and home to some of the weirdest and wildest birds, Fiordland is spectacular.
Topping the bucket list of many is to take in the Milford Track or exploring the many incredible tramps in the region. Most are based out of Milford Sound, one of the wonders of the world, few go beyond its steep walls and thundering waterfalls.
But once you do manage to voyage beyond Milford, you’ll discover a pretty special part of the world.
After a couple of tedious and slow-to-recover injuries this winter in New Zealand, by the time early summer rolled around, I was itching to get back in the hills and pop my hiking boots back on.
Unfit and definitely not tramping fit, I knew I needed to start out on something more accessible and shorter than a week-long adventure to get my feet wet again before venturing further. Combined with a tight schedule right before moving house, I only had a short window to get out in the hills.
It couldn’t have been more perfect to try out the iconic Hollyford Track on their 2 day heli-escape. This historic Fiordland tramp that has been on my mind for years.
One of the many reasons the Hollyford Track has been on my mind is the connection there between the people and the land. The Hollyford Track sits on Māori land, Ngāi Tahu land, and it is owned by Ngāi Tahu Tourism.
As the original inhabitants of this part of New Zealand, it’s pretty special how they have come to share it with the world. Ngāi Tahu’s tourism roots extend back to when their ancestors were the guides for many of the first European explorers on the South Island. Now they are guiding a different kind of explorer, the modern traveler.
This connection between the people and the land around the Hollyford Track is powerful and impactful. It certainly made my experience there all the more memorable.
The 2 day heli-escape on the Hollyford Track should top all kiwi bucketlists and is a must-do for visitors wanting a taste of the best New Zealand has to offer.
You can also walk the Hollyford Track independently over 4 – 8 days in a variety of ways staying at DOC huts along the route.
The trip begins in the most epic way possible – flying via helicopter from Milford Sound to Martins Bay. Just the roadtrip out to Milford is impressive, but to combine it with a heli-flight? Next level awesome.
We flew directly out of Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea, before following the coastline north some 30 kilometers before landing in Martins Bay.
Martins Bay is my new favorite part of Fiordland, and a place few know about. What I find fascinating is that if a few decisions were made differently, Martins Bay might have been another Queenstown and a massive hub for tourists – there was a plan for a long time to connect the Hollyford Road with the Haast Pass on the west coast.
Instead, few know about its existence at all.
Once a hub for local Māori on their pounamu (jade) trails and for gathering, by the time European settlers began to explore the area in the 1860’s, few people were left. Martins Bay and the Hollyford was (and still is) wild and remote.
For twenty-odd years, European settlers tried to make a life around Martins Bay, even building a settlement inland called Jamestown. There was hope it might turn into a commercial port, but eventually people realized it was just too damn hard with so many factors involved that it was slowly abandoned.
One of the last settlers, Alice McKenzie, wrote a book about her childhood as a settler in Martins Bay that is fascinating. I plowed through it on my evenings on the Hollyford, wondering how the hell they even managed to survive there as long as they did.
What was really cool is that on the guided track we got to see so many of the remainders and marks from the early pioneers in the area, something I probably would have never spotted on my own.
On the first day of the walk we spotted a massive maple tree in the middle of the Fiordland bush, marking the place where one of the settlers lived and planted this foreign tree.
How on earth they lived here I can’t even imagine.
After landing in Martins Bay, we were treated to a yummy lunch before heading off in the bush towards the coast for the afternoon.
In classic Fiordland weather, it absolutely bucketed us with rain. One of the wettest places in the world, rain comes with the territory here. Call me crazy, but I’m one of those people that thinks that Fiordland is more beautiful in the rain.
After all, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just being unprepared. Mostly.
Probably one of the best benefits of journeying along the Hollyford with the guided options is just a massive step up in comfort level than walking on your own. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Fiordland bush, and it’s wet. Really wet.
The first thing they did once we landed in Martins Bay was provide us with long, super waterproof rainjackets that covered me from my head to knees. It was perfect.
Then, once we got back to the lodge for the night, they have the most amazing drying room, full of warmth, where you can hang out everything you need to so it dries by morning.
I really don’t love putting on wet hiking boots, so this blew. my. mind.
On the 2 day heli-escape on the Hollyford you hike about 7 kilometers per day over easy terrain. It was beautiful, and beautifully flat.
Absolutely bucketing down with rain, we made our way through the dense, lush forest, learning about the local plants and animals while hearing the stories of the settlers who tried to make a go at life in remote Fiordland.
Spoiler alert – it didn’t go well.
We finished the first day out on the coastline looking at a seal colony on Long Reef and admiring how the mountains drop to the forest to the wild seaside. It’s a magical place.
We could see the coastline is brimming with food, like paua (NZ abalone) and crayfish, along with amazing wildlife.
Rugged and wild, it’s exactly the kind of place I love to explore.
Lucky for us, the Hollyford Track has its own jetboat – which comes with an absolute cracker of a jetboat driver – to come pick us up along the coast and whizz us back to the
hut lodge in time for cheese, snacks, and wine.
Hello! This is the kind of tramping I could get used to!
There are hot showers and snacks and endless cups of hot tea, inside and out of the weather. I was in heaven! We curled up by the fire and immediately dozed off.
As the sun set, an epic thunderstorm rolled in. With thunder booming and rain tapping on the roof and windows all night, it made for the most magical experience.
I love listening to the rain, and it really felt like we were in the wild as the storm rolled out to sea.
I still can’t even begin to fathom how settlers tried to live here back in the day.
That night I barely remember falling asleep, tucked into a cozy bed with the pitter patter of the rain outside. It was so peaceful.
The next morning was still, clear, and fresh, with no rain and the sun breaking through the clouds as we climbed into the jetboat again and made our way to historic Jamestown to begin our hike back to the lodge.
Walking through the ancient podocarp was ethereal. The trees shimmered with the rain from the day before and it smelled damp, earthy and alive. I felt my lungs inflate with happiness and thought to myself, yes, maybe I could live here.
Then a sandfly bit me on the face, and I thought, nope, better just for visits.
I definitely rate the Hollyford Track as one of the best hikes and experiences you can have in New Zealand. It has everything.
History, culture, forest, sea and mountains, birdlife and plants, it’s a dream spot for people like me. And it’s still relatively off the beaten path.
I will definitely be back for longer next time!
Have you ever been on an adventure like this? Did you know about the Hollyford Track? Would you be keen to head into the Fiordland bush like the original settlers? Spill!
The pioneering days of the 19th century were the subject of Alice Mackenzie’s book The Pioneers of Martins Bay, which recounted her childhood as a settler at Jamestown and Martins Bay. You can buy at the hut on the track.
When the tide was low at Martins Bay by Alice McKenzie
I stood upon the sandy shore
As evening shadows fell;
The sun was sinking in the west
Across the ocean swell.
O’er the sea the sun was casting
Each brightly tinted ray
As the waves came sweeping onwards
To the shore at Martins Bay.
The moon was rising o’er the hills
As the sun sank in the west,
And her silvery light was gleaming
On the ocean’s heaving breast.
And those ever moving waters
Sparkling brightly as they roar
Are dashed in foaming billows
On that wild and lonely shore.
All around are wooded hills
No matter where your eyes are turning;
You see no human habitation
Except where one lone light is burning.
Here solitude doth reign supreme,
All scenes are lonely and drear,
But there’s music in the lonlineness
Which solitude will make us hear.
A whispering sound among the trees,
There is music in the ocean’s roar,
There’s a voice in the wandering breeze
Which is sighing along the shore.
And the voice of nature speaks to us
In every flower that grows,
And the voice of God is calling us
In every breeze that blows.