When I first got my packraft, I was really keen to paddle the Hollyford Pyke because it really is a loop almost purpose built for an inflatable craft. From the road end at the end of the Hollyford Road, you paddle down the Hollyford River, across Lake McKerrow and down to the sea. Then you carry your gear along the coastline before climbing over a low saddle to the Pyke River, and follow that down, across two lakes and back to the Hollyford River, and walk back to your car. There's a tramping track beside the water, sometimes in the water when the lakes are high, but floating along with a current makes it a much easier proposition. Rather than spending 6-10 days walking through mud, it's a five to six day paddle and hike. With only a couple of days of actual hiking, it's also much kinder on your back!
The guys I did my initial packraft safety course with, were continuing on a guided tour with Arno of the Hollyford Pyke. I didn't fancy paying the couple of thousand for a guided tour, and after making friends in the packrafting community I found some companions to join me for a self guided trip. Stu Bilby, from Rotorua, had already done the circuit 4 times, and Jude Collett, from Arrowtown, had done it twice before. Both loved the trip and were super keen to do it again. Our fourth member was Xavier Bouyer, who we found on FB to make up the foursome, it being easier to have even numbers for the portages.
All eyes were on the weather. Jude and I, being South Island locals, had a lot more flexibility, but Stu had to fly down from the North Island. We decided on a one week window, then Stu graciously changed his flights to come a couple of days earlier and we were away...
Logistical issues for the trip are wind and tides. Particularly in summer, a katabatic seabreeze kicks up mid morning on Lake McKerrow, making for hard work paddling into a headwind. For this reason most people paddle the lake very early in the morning, often starting before dawn.
Then there are the tides. An outgoing tide from the lake outlet to the ocean makes for an easy float down from the lake outlet to Martins Bay, though with the change in the sandbar due to the big floods in February 2020, this was a mixed blessing. More on that later. From Martins Bay to Big Bay along the coast, walking the beach is by far easier than following the inland track, the latter being boggy and slow going. A low tide is necessary to get through the rocky promontories and past the seal colony. Timing was everything.
We planned to take seven days. This allowed for shitty weather and a rest day in one of the huts en route, because west coast right? We also tentatively planned to paddle the Eglinton on the way out, so decided to take two vehicles. The Milford Road in May is usually pretty quiet, but in Covid times it's dead as. Hitching back to a vehicle might take a while....
Whilst Jude picked up Stu from Queenstown airport, I drove down earlier in the afternoon to Te Anau, checked in to our accommodation, and went to meet Xavier. He was fairly new to packrafting, but was young and fit and seemed sensible enough. He only had a wetsuit, hired from Arno, the three of us had drysuits. The weather forecast was looking better and better, but seven days is a long time....
The next morning we were up early for the hour and a half drive to the end of the Hollyford Road. The floods in February last year washed out the road and a huge landslide destroyed much of Gunns Camp, but due to Covid funding, the road is being restored. It's not quite finished so we had a 3km walk, past the gnarly Grade 3/4 Moraine Creek rapids, to the put in at the old road end.
The Hollyford River is mostly Grade 1/2 paddling, with one Grade 3/4 rapid which is easily portaged. The biggest hazard are logs, both submerged and overhanging, which can trap you and your boat and drown you. Where we planned to put in was looking rather log jammed, so we decided to use the smaller Humboldt stream, and join the Hollyford a little further downstream.
After stowing our gear and inflating our rafts we set off. The following hour saw us climbing in and out of our boats numerous times to portage through shallows and over log jams. But at last we met the main river.
The river was in medium flow, the sun was out, and the wind was blowing from the south. Which meant mostly we had a tailwind. But rivers wind, so sometimes it was a sidewind, occasionally a headwind. But it wasn't too windy, and we were all warm, Jude having lent Xavier a paddling jacket, and the flow was strong enough to not make the wind a problem.
At Little Homer Rapid we pulled out and portaged through to the bottom of the rapid. There's a track made for winching jet boats, so we followed that, taking care to keep our boats away from any cables that might damage our inflatables.
Stu stashed a foodbag where the track met with the Pyke track, to pick up on our return. My meals are all dehydrated, and pretty light, so I opted to not leave any and just carry all my supplies the whole distance.
We arrived at Lake McKerrow before 3pm, checked out the hut and then Stu suggested paddling down the lake a further hour to Demon Trail Hut. This hut catches the sun, has better views of the lake and would give us a bit of a head start for the hard yakka down the lake the next day. We took his advice, first tethering ourselves to our boats before the tailwind assisted paddle. Once out on the water the waves created by the wind weren't the most pleasant, but they were going in the same direction as us so not too dangerous.
Whilst in whitewater, attaching oneself to one's boat with a tether is dangerous, because should you capsize you could get trapped and drown. But on open water like a lake, if you fell out the wind could blow your boat away and you wouldn't be able to catch it and then you would need to swim ashore. So Stu insisted on us all tethering up before we crossed any open water. And sticking together. No Jennies on this trip!
Demon Trail Hut was a pearler. Stu set his tent up on the lawn and the rest of us settled in the hut. Stu snores, and is considerate. He's an ace chap! Xavier got the fire going and we had a pleasant evening before hitting the sack.
The next morning we had a leisurely start. It was a stunner of a day without a skerrick of wind. We still tethered to our boats, but we had a pretty easy paddle down the lake. We stopped for lunch at Hokuri Hut then in to Jamestown, a failed settlement, and also popped in to the Martins Bay Lodge, which was closed up for the season. This lodge is one of three private lodges for guided Hollyford trips. They walk and jet boat the route, then fly back from Martins Bay. Personally, I think the serenity of packrafting beats the noisy but faster jet boating option, but both options avoid the muddy track along the margins of Lake McKerrow, known as the Demon Trail!
From Martins Bay Lodge we continued down the river until it met the sea. We were in an outgoing tide so we simply had to float. We stopped on river left to climb a sand dune and take some photos and then we had to cross back across the river to enter the lagoon.
Since the flood the Hollyford now enters the sea directly. It used to follow behind a sand spit through a lagoon to exit just past Martins Bay Hut. That entrance has silted up since the river broke through the sand spit further south. To get to the hut we had to get into the lagoon, by crossing the fast flowing outgoing tide to river right. A great time to practice our ferry gliding skills!
The lagoon entrance was pretty narrow, and the water was flowing pretty strongly against us. I opted to walk it, though Xavier managed to find enough eddies to paddle up the channel. Once in the lagoon it was an easy paddle up to the far end of the lagoon, where we deflated our boats and settled in to the hut for the night.
With a midmorning low tide and another beautiful sunny day, we opted for an early start the next morning to get through the exposed coastal section. Stu led the way, calling out to the seals we met, asking politely if they would move out of the way for us to pass. With quite a few pups still around, we didn't want to surprise a mama seal and get between her and her offspring.
Once around the rocky promontories and in Big Bay proper we could relax and take our time walking along the beach. Not far from the turnoff to the hut we met Xavier's friends, who were walking the circuit, but anticlockwise. He had hoped to share an evening in one of the huts with them, but they were heading to Martins Bay, having already spent two nights at Big Bay. They had left a very generous supply of firewood stacked up for us, good folk indeed.
That evening we set our clocks to get up to see the red moon, a partial lunar eclipse. We were rewarded with clear skies and a brilliant show. Worth getting up for.
The next morning was overcast and pretty dreary. We packed our gear for the hike over Pyke saddle to join the Pyke River. We walked back to the beach and waded across the river, a more direct route than taking the track and swing bridge. The walk follows a quad bike track, and is pretty easy going, although there are a couple of sections where signage gets a little confusing. We stopped for an early lunch and a cuppa just before reaching the Pyke, walking a little further downstream to where it was high enough for us to float easily. That's when Stu realised he had left his spray skirt back at the hut. Whoops!
Then on down the Pyke. It's Grade 1, with the occasional log causing a bit of excitement. My ferry gliding skills are pretty good now. At Lake Wilmot we tethered to our boats again and crossed to the true right. A strong wind was blowing down the lake, creating waves, but halfway across it died completely so we enjoyed a leisurely paddle along the lakeshore to its outlet, then down the Pyke again to Olivine Hut. We stopped in at Bruce's rock biv but he wasn't there.
At Olivine Hut were three jetboaters already staying at the hut. We had seen them earlier in our trip, on the Hollyford and again on Lake McKerrow. Jude, Xavier and I claimed the upper bunks, Stu slept in his tent again...
It rained overnight and was still wet the next morning. We decided to spend the morning visiting Olivine Falls before heading off in the rafts around lunchtime.
As the weather cleared we could see that the peaks were covered in snow. There was no wind, and the views were stupendous. We stopped in at Saxton Hut, where Bruce was now living and he showed us how high the river had come during the floods. Having survived the rising floodwaters, he opted not to be evacuated out, and spent the next few months seeing no-one but the pilot bringing in his supplies. Because there was no road access, there were no trampers, hunters or jetboaters. Although he likes living down there, he also enjoys visitors.
With ephemeral clouds shrouding the peaks we continued down the Pyke and onto Lake Alabaster. It was glassy smooth so we headed over to view the spectacular waterfalls coming off the sheer cliffs lining the right bank. Unless you have a boat you can't get that close to them. The tramping track follows the left bank.
Views down the lake to Mts Tutoko and Madeline, now covered in snow, guided our route down to Alabaster Hut, which we reached as the sun set. There was a group doing pest monitoring, who were using the staff accommodation, and later a chap turned up who was paddling the circuit in a $30 rubber dinghy. He'd had to stop often to repair leaks, and said he wouldn't recommend it. Our expensive boats had no issues in that department.
The next morning a brutal wind was blowing up Lake Alabaster. The jet boaters from Olivine Hut popped in, telling us we would have had a terrible job paddling into that headwind, and that the waves had been quite high. Lucky we opted to not have a full rest day at Olivine Hut!!
From Alabaster Hut the track follows the Pyke to rejoin the Hollyford Track. It's possible to paddle down the Pyke as far as Pyke Lodge, but since that would mean deflating and packing up wet gear, we thought it easier just to pack the gear at the hut and walk out the whole way.
It's totally doable to walk out to the road end in one day, but we were doing a leisurely circuit, and we still had enough food, so we simply walked to Hidden Falls Hut, picking up the stashed food bag and visiting the spectacular waterfalls along the way. A lazy evening playing card games with highly competitive companions was quite entertaining! Who's an arsehole???
Our final day was cold and blustery, but we were only tramping along a river valley, so perfect weather. We detoured to more waterfalls, including the massive Humboldt Falls, before arriving at the cars early afternoon.
The wind was blowing an icy gale from the south, so we decided to ditch our plans to paddle the Eglinton, instead rendezvousing at the Sandfly Cafe in Te Anau for a post trip coffee and refreshments. Stu and Jude declared that this trip had been their best so far. A mixture of great weather, no wind for the crucial lake crossings, the eclipse, great group dynamics, and a leisurely agenda. It can be hard to find trip companions who are on the same page when it comes to the speed of a trip. I'm sure Xavier could have easily done it faster, but he was happy to take his time with us oldies.
We headed back to Arrowtown and Wanaka. Stu still had a couple of days up his sleeves having changed his flight to arrive earlier, so Jude and Stu came over the hill and we paddled the Motatapu-Matukituki. This circles Rocky Mountain, and the Motatapu has had someone diligently cutting back the willow branches, making it a very cruisey grade 1 paddle back to the bridge at West Wanaka where we had left one of the cars.
I now know why everyone loves the Hollyford Pyke as a packrafting trip. It's the perfect combination of paddling and tramping, the paddling isn't particularly technical, and completely avoids having to tramp any of the nasty muddy sections. And it's spectacularly beautiful.
Of course we had perfect weather....