Hollyford River by SUP

A first hand account of paddling the Hollyford River on Paddleboard. By Mike Stewart

There are some areas that simply stun you, even call to you.  The Hollyford Valley, deep in the Fiordland World Heritage Park, is one of those places.  Over the past 20 years I have flown over the area by helicopter and plane as well as having rafted and jet boated on the river.  I have also walked along the beautiful tracks through the valley many times.  Therfore it was only natural that as soon as I tried my first inflatable SUP I immediately thought about this region and how using a SUP would be the ideal way to run this river.  And that thought turned into a real idea and then actual reality.

Anyone who has completed a “mission” based around adventure and mother nature will know it is always far from easy, far from predictable and not really in your total control – hence it being a mission !!!   The one we were about to take on was all of this.   We had to time our run based on a few factors such as access, transport by other operators in jet boats and helicopters. Then of course we had to all have the time off work and families to make it happen.  Finally mother nature had to behave with enough water in the river….but not too much.

So after a year of planning and getting the vital ingredients together we were actually packing cars, prepping gear set to leave.  We had Jerry flying in from Auckland, Nathan driving back from Christchurch and the rest of us dropping everything to disappear into the unknown.  This part of New Zealand, and the world, is truly so remote and so untracked that you could vanish very easily never to be seen again – if you wanted too !!

There we were driving in pitch blackness with driving rain and the temperature dropping rapidly.  Oh and we were all well aware of the weather forecast – 100 kmp/h winds and rain, like real heavy wash you away rain.  Ha ha – we were still going with all of us positively saying how often weather forecasts are wrong.  We were committed and this mission was on track no matter what happened.  The team gathered were all kiwis, Dave, Jt, Jules, Jerry, Nathan and myself.  We all had a wild array of water sport ability and various skills that may, or may not, come in handy on the adventure.  Although Dave’s exact skills, being a playboy investor, were a little unclear ??  We drove from Queenstown towards Milford Sound, stopping twice on the way….once for Nathan to be randomly pulled over and breathalysed by a lone police car in the middle of absolutely nowhere and the second for some greasy Chinese food.  Our final destination was down a dark, windy, gravel road to the dead end destination called Gunns camp.  If a three headed man had popped out and asked us if we wanted a shot of absinthe it would not have seemed odd at all, yeah this place is odd anyway, but classic kiwiana ( New Zealand culture) at its best.  We had booked, strangely via satellite internet, a small hut to sleep 6.  Despite torrential rain, yup it was really wet, the fire was roaring and the room was warm and we all unpacked and slid into sleeping bags.  Mistake number one – we should have checked gear.  ALWAYS check gear well before you need it.

We woke and what a surprise “its still raining, ha actually its even heavier than last night !!!”  But we were all fizzing and the damp outlook did not even come close to ruining our buzz.  At times like this I always laugh as each individual has their own way of showing their excitement and also their skills, or lack of, in preparing.  All in all 6 strong personalities all trying to run around in circles but the chaos flowed well until our mistake of the night prior hit us – Hard !!!  We had a hole in one of the inflatable SUPs.  It had been sent down by plane the day before, with no box or protection and had obviously been treated really rough as the side was pierced.  We were all gutted, but certainly not giving in.  We charged into repair mode…..which was mistake number 2.  We rushed the repair,  the glue time, and the wait time – of course !!!!  30 minutes later on the rivers edge as we pumped the board up the repair blew off and the SUP started going down with a hiss. Argrghhhhhh.  We were now losing vital time and the stress levels did rise with Jerry starting to look like becoming a resident of Gunns camp for a few days !!!  But we calmed ourselves, dried and warmed the damaged area and basically did the repair again, but in far superior way. In fact we read the instructions and followed them !! Amazing !!  And it worked !!! We had a full team again and I have to say we were a team, although no one offered to take the repaired board. It was Jerrys with no discussion required.

Gear was strapped on, water proof bags sealed, and safety gear checked.  This river had claimed the lives of some of our friends in years past and while we were excited we were also very aware that we needed to have safety as a focus. Especially as now it was raining hard again and rivers rise really fast around here due to the huge catchment areas above the valleys.

As we left there was certainly a sense of the unknown and slight apprehension as we had a few challenges along the river to contend with, such as grade 2-5 rapids, log jams and by now 70kmph wind gusts slamming down the hill sides.  We also had a time factor as it would be dark by 6pm and we had lost nearly 2hrs with the board repair. We had a vital connection with a jet boat which had to happen before dark but we really had no exact idea how long the trip was going to take as there were so many variables.  So paddle hard was the call, take in the scenery but don’t stop moving.  Luckily there was amazing scenery at every turn, every corner and it was not lost on us as we moved through the eerie mist that hung due to the low cloud and rain.  It was actually odd as the mist was thick yet the wind was fierce so it swirled in the gusts before the wind hit us,  at times knocking us off our boards.

At first there were plenty of small rapids and log jams but nothing too tricky, but we knew that approximately 10-12kms into the trip there was an impassable set of rapids.  The funny thing is that even though I knew jet boats, rafts and kayakers all carried there crafts around these rapids I still thought maybe on a SUP we could nail it.  Jerry was almost paddling down it gung-ho and ready to tackle these rapids head on before we pulled him up.  We went ashore and checked the rapid out and I have to say it was a pretty clear NO-GO no matter how hard you thought you were.  There was no clear line at all and some absolutely massive boulders and rapids everywhere.  No real discussion needed,  we simply grabbed our boards and started the walk through the bush, taking us around this rather large and imposing obstacle.  As we walked we were very glad our SUPS weighed only 7-10 kgs as we wondered how the guys pushed their 350+kg jet boats through the mud and underbrush.  We certainly had an easier task and 15 minutes later we were below the rapids and ready to go again.  But it was actually a great wee side adventure and certainly added to the fun of the trip

The white water coming through the bottom of the rapids was impressive and there was certainly no way anyone would make it through that monster washing machine.  The river sped up a little from here on in and we soon joined the Pyke river with the confluence again being an “interesting” wee section of water to navigate.  The log jams by now were incredibly thick,  with trees the size of buses scattered along the rivers edge, sticking out at weird and dangerous angles.  All of us had discussed the issue of having leg ropes attached if caught in a log jam and we all had quick release set ups to allow us to ditch the leg rope and board easily if needed.  The power of the water could easily turn a simple fall into an absolute nightmare, so we were cautious around these log jams.

We were now back on track time wise so we used the waterproof radio we had to advise the jetboat we would be ready for a pick up in 1 hour.  Making this call was quite amusing as here we were so far from civilization, using a radio in terrible conditions to a jet boat that was based in this area only because it provided transport for the Hollyford Track guided walk.  We were exceptionally lucky to have this transport as they just happened to be on the river as they were moving the last gear out from the huts for the end of the summer season.  They were happy to be able to help us out….as they don’t get many visitors like us in the area.  This jet boat had been driven around via the coast, over the serious surf bar at Martins Bay and then up the river to be based in this area. All fuel and spare parts were flown in by helicopter……so yes it was a very rare means of transport in the area.

We ended at the shores of Lake McKerrow, deflated boards and packed gear ready for the jet boat pick up.  We then spent the next hour swatting the huge sandflies that haunt anything that has blood and moves.  More than 5 on one limb and you might get dragged away – they are fierce and strong !!!  So seeing the boat arrive, our escape from the dreaded sandflies, was very much appreciated. The trusty driver, Hedgehog, sped us away down the lake,  saving us a very long, tedious paddle. Due to the 70km head winds the 18-20 km journey may have even been impossible to complete that night without this motorized means of travel. Hedgehog dropped us at the remote hut in Martins Bay, only 800 metre’s from the pounding 5metre swells hitting the coastline.  We started a roaring fire, cooked some food, got warm and settled in for the night.  The cold beers we had with us tasted sensational and soon the stories got longer, wilder and the truth stretched beyond reality.  Then weariness took over, with us all climbing into our sleeping bags and falling asleep.  The storm increased during the night with impressive thunder, lighting, rain and winds that hammered the hut and the bush around us.  We were all feeling exceptionally happy we had a solid hut and not just tents as had been discussed in the original plan.

Morning dawned with not a breath of wind and moody mist hanging low around us.  We decided we could fit in a quick paddle up the river to explore before the homeward transport arrived to collect us.  We paddled around the small islands and used back eddies to take us effortlessly up the river, all the while being entertained by playful seals who were very curious and keen to check us out.  The calls of the birdlife in the area were wild and loud in such a tranquil area and all in in all the feel of the place was like something out of the Lord of the Rings.  We were very aware we were the only humans for a very, very long way and felt quite humbled by the grandeur of the mountains and landscape.

The tranquility was broken by the sound of a motorized engine and we scanned the clouds for it.  Soon it was buzzing us overhead and landing by the hut.  We headed back down stream to deflate the SUPS and start packing them into the waiting helicopter.  Here the practical advantage of inflatables was obvious as they had to go into a small pod, originally designed for heli skiing, attached to the side struts of the helicopter.  Then the 2 and 3 piece paddles were dismantled and fitted in also along with all out gear.  Finally we all clambered in, wetsuit’s and all …… the excitement, heat and dampness steaming up the windows as we took off, bound for Milford Sound.

The trip home was amazing as we flew along the coast with huge surf generated from last nights storm, pounding the coastline while the mist hanging around the mountain tops swirled to offer glimpses of snow capped peaks and cascading waterfalls.   We must have seen well over 500 waterfalls by the time we landed, all flowing fast.  Once back on the ground it seemed quite incredible how in only 24 hours we had fitted in so much, travelled so over so many kilometres and with so many various modes of transport.  We were all pretty stoked and felt no doubt much like our early ancestors, the early conqueror’s of age old nations.

The 4 hour drive home was pretty quite and reflective with the scenery unfolding from wild and grandiose, into rolling farm land and finally back into civilization.  The funniest reality check after such a full on mission was when my kids asked where I had been.  I explained it all in detail only to have them say “oh yeah, cool….hey can we have a spa with you ?”

But the memory will last a long time and I will be doing it again for sure…… perhaps even with my kids one day soon !!!!