It’s said a face with wrinkles holds a thousand unspoken stories and I believe mountains are no different.

Gazing up at rugged peaks protecting Lake McKerrow in Fiordland National Park, I sense they have witnessed many tales in their time.

White waterfalls and rock landslides exposing brown earth resemble scars slicing through the emerald green bush. Clearly they’ve weathered some storms over the years but are no less beautiful.

If the mountains could talk, they would surely tell stories of Davey Gunn and of families fighting for survival. They would have witnessed women delivering their own babies and then getting on with their usual chores, baking bread for the family that afternoon.

I’m lucky to hear these stories from our trail guide, Graeme, who’s leading a 13-strong group, my brother Alec and me included, along the Hollyford Track.

It’s a special way to see a rugged and remote part of the country, and enter a storybook of New Zealand history.

“Righto folks,” Graeme says and we gather around, excited for another story. A fantail darts from the top of a young lancewood onto a ponga fern; heavy raindrops make the leaves dance, the trees working in unison, putting on a choreographed show for us.

The first of our two and a half day tramp has started wet. It is a rainforest so I shouldn’t expect anything less. At the beginning of our journey, we stop at Gunn Camp and learn a little about Davey, the man who spent his years leading horse treks from this camp and through the bush. He knew the land as a dear friend.

Thanks to a very good raincoat, trudging along the track in steady downpour is refreshing and therapeutic. Passing a small waterfall running into a rocky pool of fresh water,

I hold my drink bottle under the steady stream, take a swig and pour a little of the cool liquid over my face. It’s special to be able to, quite literally, absorb nature’s goodness.

“Righto folks,” I hear Graeme call out. I hurry along to join the group for yet another tale, about how plants adapt to their surroundings. “Plant intelligence,” Graeme calls it.

It’s fascinating to hear how young lancewood trees evolved to sprout their leaves just out of reach of hungry moa. Now there’s evidence of these trees growing leaves at a lower level, but still above the height of their current predators, deer.

A cheeky fantail flutters across the track as we move on. HollyfordIP2  

By the time we reach Pyke Lodge, our base for the night, I’m soaked to my core but boy, do I feel alive. We’ve walked
19.5kms through the rain; a warm cuppa, then a wine and a scrumptious meal cooked by the hut crew is the perfect reward. But first, a warm shower. I take a moment to appreciate the luxury.  

Heavy rain pounding on our hut roof makes for a soothing sleep, but I know with it comes rising river levels and absolutely no chance of dry tramping boots the next morning.

“Righto folks, are we ready?” Graeme slings his pack over his shoulders. But there’s time for another story before we set off. This time, it’s to learn the fate of Davey Gunn. Although he knew Fiordland like the back of his hand, the unpredictable way of nature claimed his life. We’re silent while we reflect on the life of a man we feel we knew personally.

A fantail rests on his memorial plaque.  

We move on to Lake Alabaster before crossing the longest swing bridge in the park and catching a jetboat across Lake McKerrow to the small settlement of Jamestown, or what remains of it.

Huddling together at Graeme’s familiar call, we’re silenced again by the fascinating history of our home country. New pioneers thought it would be a good idea to develop a town on this remote strip of coast, not understanding how isolated it is, or how ferocious the seas were that ships bringing in supplies would have to negotiate. Jamestown didn’t work; all that remains today is a heap of old iron from housing foundations and some glass bottles.

By mid-afternoon the rain has cleared and the curtain of white mist that’s cloaked the mountains all morning reveals powerful peaks. It’s magical and the ethereal land is where fairies like to play. We approach a clearing and see a green tent. Unzipping the door, we find a banquet of delicious food and drink awaiting us for lunch. “Fairies,” Graeme replies to a few puzzled looks. We dig in, grateful. HollyfordIP

Crossing bush to ocean is special. Snippets of a rugged coast slowly become visible through canopies of towering rimu, macrocarpa and ponga ferns. Long Reef is moody.

Grey clouds threaten to spill and the bar is choppy; it’s no wonder ships wrecked here.

We squint towards the grey boulders and make out plump New Zealand fur seals camouflaged on the rocks. They’re real characters, pushing each other off and yelping, before splashing into the water. We spend the afternoon laughing at their show before heading to Martins Bay Lodge for the night.

“You know when something’s so beautiful you just want to cry?” I whisper into my mouth piece. The helicopter pilot beside me nods. Our final day in Fiordland has dawned clear, perfect weather for flying out of the bush. After following the west coast, we turn sharply and sweep through Milford Sound. I gaze down at a scattering of cruise ships on the glassy water, their wakes leaving white trails behind them. A collection of waterfalls gush down the towering mountains.

I’m certain my Hollyford adventure has given me a dozen new smile lines. I don’t mind if they turn into wrinkles because, like the mountains, each mark is a souvenir of the stories I enjoyed and a keepsake of the memories I’ll hold with me forever.

Reported by Monica Tischler for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue

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