Hollyford-Pyke Loop (I/II)

The Hollyford-Pyke loop is probably NZ’s most famous packrafting trip, turning an arduous 10-day tramp into a magnificent 5-6 day packraft. It is suitable for relatively inexperienced paddlers, with a few specific cautions/caveats.

Just about anyone who has heard of Packrafting in NZ has done or wants to do the Hollyford-Pyke. These days the hut books in the Pyke are dominated by Packrafting groups. Best reserved for a good weather forecast, it has to be one of the most scenic and varied trips in New Zealand.

Overview

The loop takes you through rivers, lakes, lagoons, estuaries, along wild west coast beaches, lowland scrub and lush beech forest. Seemingly defying gravity, there are only 2.5 days walking out of 6, and that walking hardly climbs more than a few hundred meters. It’s a chance to visit some relatively remote parts of south-Westland, and if the weather’s good, you’ll have spectacular views of the incredibly rugged Darran Mountains.

Suggested itinerary

This description breaks the trip down into recommended days, though you could easily spend more time if you wanted to. In fact, having a day or two up your sleeve for adverse weather is a good option, as some sections (such as Lake McKerrow) required good conditions to be able to paddle. The walking alternative would be much slower and more arduous. The same goes for the Pyke Valley.

DayRouteTime
1Hollyford road end to McKerrow Island Hut6.5hrs
2Onwards to Martin’s Bay Hut via Lake McKerrow (weather crux is the lake paddle)5-10hrs
3Martin’s Bay Hut to Big Bay Hut4-5hrs
4Big Bay hut to Olivine Hut6-7hrs
5Olivine Hut to Alabster Hut4hrs
6Alabaster Hut to Road end5.5hrs

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Plenty of huts on the famous Hollyford track make it easy to wait out any bad weather and escape from the sandflies. They also provide lots of options to chunk the trip into smaller days. With the lesser amounts of track maintenance in the Pyke valley compared to the Hollyford, very few folks venture up that way by foot; Packraft is indeed the weapon of choice to explore that area.

Rainstorms can make this river rise by meters, flooding tracks and making the river a seething brown torrent that no one in their right mind would paddle. This is a wet and wild part of the world, so pick your weather carefully and factor delays into your plan.

Is it really ok for beginners?

It can be, though it is long journey, to a wild part of the country, with plenty of hazards which need managing.

The tramping part of the route is suitable for people with multi-day NZ tramping experience. Although the Hollyford track is reasonably well maintained, between Martin’s Bay and Alabaster Hut, tracks are less formed and trampers require reasonable navigation and sometimes route-finding skills.

The paddling itself is more like sea kayaking than white water, with the ‘rapids’ being gentle to moderate wave trains in a wide river channel.

But because of the regular and sometimes biblical-scale flooding, there are (literally) hundreds of mature trees in the scattered through the river, which become a very real and life-threatening hazard. Float into one of these, get stuck and it’s game-over.

At the time of writing, nothing hazardous is mandatory; almost every section with current could be portaged.

Images (c) Dan Clearwater unless otherwise credited

Planning

Check out the Hollyford Valley area page on the DOC website for more information about huts, hut fees, Hollyford Track notes, Pyke-Big Bay track notes and other short walks in the area. The information about the huts has GPS coordinates, and some are less visible from the river, so it is worth having the hut waypoints if you are bringing a GPS.

Wind and tides influence travel on the lake, estuary and coastal parts of the route, so it’s worth doing your homework on these before you go. The closest tide table location is Jackson’s Bay (northeast of here) and you should definitely have an offline copy to bring on your trip.

Since you are floating for the first part of the trip, it’s well worth bringing gourmet food and drink. This has the effect of making friends at huts, who then seem to want to take up packrafting….

Gear suggestions

It’s probably best to think of the paddling as ‘sea kayaking’ rather than white water when it comes to paddle gear selection. We didn’t take helmets and didn’t feel they would have been necessary. Barely saw a handful of boulders in the rivers the whole trip. A throw bag is well worth having, as the number of trees in the river means that some way of rescuing someone on a tree is well worth it. The river is quite wide in places 30+ meters so consider the weight vs range of your throw bag.

If there’s any hint of anything but baking hot, settled weather in the forecast, then good cold water protection is important. The water is pretty cold, and out on those big lakes, you can feel quite exposed. Any decent wind on the lakes can make for serious chop, which is probably more likely to tip you out than the rapids are. On hot days, the valley’s experience a sea breeze, which can whip up those waves. We wore drysuits through drizzle, torrential rain and windy hot days and felt comfy the whole time.

A GPS is probably a good thing to have for the section between Big bay Hut and the Pyke River. Here, the track meanders a lot and is poorly formed and sparsely marked. You’re in the forest the whole time, so it’s tricky to orientate yourself. Losing the track wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would be very time consuming trying to bash through to the east. Better would be re-tracing your steps via GPS and then re-intercepting the track.

If you like fishing, get yourself a freshwater fishing licence and take a collapsible spin fishing setup. The rivers are quite big, deep and somewhat featureless from a fishing point of view, so spin gear covers lots of water when blind fishing. You can also troll from your packraft as you paddle the lakes. Contouring the drop off might take you a little longer, but also might help shelter you from the wind if its there..

Martins Bay Hut and Big Bay might offer some sea fishing opportunities, but probably not ones that you can effectively do with anything less than a decent surfcasting rod. The ocean is generally very rough and the shore quite rocky (not in a good way for fishing). We did find it easy to get a feed of muscles at dead low tide from the rocks around Big Bay.

Don’t forget your insect head net and some bug repellant. Sitting outside without these is an exercise in tolerance that won’t last long without those bits of kit.

There was usually plenty of side streams along the way, so a small Nalgene as a mug and water bottle works well and saves carrying unnecessary water weight in your pack.

Day 1: Hollyford Road to McKerrow Island Hut 6.5hrs

  • 2hrs Hollyford road end to Hidden Falls Hut
  • 15mins Hidden Falls to Little Homer Rapids
  • 10-20min Little Homer portage
  • 4hrs Portage to McKerrow Island Hut

The Hollyford Rd end is about 2hrs from Te Anau, which is the best place to stock up on fuel/food. Gunn’s Camp (about 8km before the road end) provides a place to stay before/after your trip as well as last-minute food or fuel.

Whilst the upper Hollyford includes some very hard kayaking runs, below the road end the river is a very different proposition. Its reasonably big volume class I, with the occasional little wave train that might just make class II, virtually all of which can be easily portaged. There are plenty of long slow sections, where you can paddle along, or just lay back and enjoy the incredible views of major summits of the Darran Mountains, such as Madeline and Tutoko.

The greatest hazard of the middle Hollyford is logs. The frequent floods in the area have sprawled the river with huge numbers of trees. Most rapids have a few in them, and some have enough that you almost need to scout the line through the wood. Indeed, a few times we needed to catch an eddy behind one tree in order to make the move to get through the gap below. So even though it’s basically class I water, you need decent class II skills to be safe.

It’s about 2hrs from the road end to Hidden Falls Hut (12 Bunks, serviced hut). The hut isn’t visible from the river, but if you take out immediately after the confluence of Hidden Falls creek, and scramble up the scrubby bank to the flats to the east, you’ll be able to see it then. There are a few trails through the grassy flats to the hut. The hut looks large, but about half of the volume is wardens quarters!

The Little Homer rapids (class III+) are just after glacier creek enters on the true left. They are very easy to spot: huge boulders start to appear on the horizon and you can easily hear the rapid.

The jet boat portage is on the true right, immediately above the boulders. If you’re paddling near the true right bank, it is easy to find. Jet boaters winch their boats through the forest, through a muddy, uneven ‘track’. Quite odd to be passing a powerboat in the forest…

For packrafters, it’ll take you 10-20mins to use the portage track. It’s muddy and slippery and you’ll curse the extra wine and cheese (just remember the rest of the first part of the trip is all downhill!). It’s not possible to portage the whole Little Homer Rapid on the river bank, so generally packrafters will use the portage track.

Apart from one notable class II wave train just above McKerrow Island, the rest of the middle Hollyford is the same as the first section. It’s about 4 hrs from Little Homer Rapid to McKerrow Island Hut.

McKerrow Island Hut (12 bunks, standard, fireplace, mattresses) is just inside the bush edge as shown on the map. There are little informal tracks from the true right of the river, directly to the hut, but they are a little harder to find from the river (easy from the hut). Cutting the corner of the sandspit and walking south on the beach, you’ll soon discover a big orange triangle which indicates the short path to the hut.

This was a great place to stay, with lots of character… Especially when you consider the hut was flooded to the roof level in the February 2020 floods, and the occupants had to kick holes in the cladding to let the water through the hut to stop it from being swept away….

Day 2: McKerrow Island Hut to Martin’s Bay Hut 5-10hrs

Do your homework on the tides, winds and get an early start! Well worth factoring in a spare day if you had to wait out the weather, or break the section into chunks using Hokuri or Demon Trail Huts.

This day is the technical and physical crux of the trip. The wind is the primary factor affecting this section, followed closely by the tides in the lower Hollyford estuary. If there’s any strong wind or whitecaps on the lake, don’t even bother. It’s better to wait for a day or start the 10-12hr walk to Martins Bay.

Unless there is a dominating wind forecast, generally an up-valley sea breeze will develop over the course of the day. The standard tactic is to wake up very early (like a few hours before sunrise) so that you are on the water at first light (sunrise minus about an hour). This allows you to get as much paddling done before the sea breeze kicks in.

Demon Trail Hut is easy to spot from the lake, as it sits on a bluff about 10m above the lake. It appears that there’s a beach to land at just south of the hut, where you could probably bush bash up to intersect the track, though we didn’t check this.

Hokuri Hut is not visible from the Lake, but if you’re following the map carefully, you should be able to spot the DOC signs on a beach just below the hut. These indicate a short track up to the hut. The hut location isn’t that great; in the forest without any view nearby and far enough from the lake to be an effort to carry your boats, so I wouldn’t suggest planning to stay there.

Beyond Hokuri Creek, the Hollyford track goes along a gravel beach. By this stage the wind had come up for us, so we got out and walked the shoreline dragging our rafts by our throw bags. Was probably about the same speed, but much less effort and used different muscles!

To paddle the estuary or walk the track….?

At the northern end of Lake McKerrow, there are a few orange triangles where the track heads inland. This is a key decision point. To choose whether to paddle the estuary or walk the track and you need to consider the tides and wind.

An important factor is that since the February 2020 floods, the mouth of the Hollyford has moved 2.5 kilometres from where it’s shown on the map.

  • If there’s a headwind, or the tide is incoming, I’d suggest the track (3-4hrs walk) even if it is hard work. The tidal surge heads a long way up the estuary, so even if it past high tide, the water might be still heading up valley.
  • If the tide is out going, the outflow will make the initial section between the mouth and the sand island harder. Packrafters report having to drag boats from the shoreline at times, depending on the outflow and distance from the mouth.

After the sand island, it’s an easy flatwater paddle along the estuary.

Martin’s Bay Hut (24 bunks, serviced, heating) now has a new beach, which is a great spot to watch the sunset from as you enjoy your fancy (heavy) food and beverage whilst the trampers look on longingly…

Day 3 Martin’s Bay Hut to Big Bay Hut 4-5hrs

The track begins well-formed from Martins Bay Hut to the Long Reef Seal colony. There are plenty of seals around; keep your distance and observe them from afar. In the past, packrafters used to rock hop/go via the beach when the tide was low and the ocean calm. Since the track was re-cut, this is no longer recommended, there has been more than one story of a packrafter getting harassed by a bull seal after nearly landing on one sleeping between the rocks! The track is much faster and gives the seals their space. Please respect the wildlife by using the track.

The track is well marked and easy to follow to Big Bay. It’s muddy and boggy in places, and crosses a few little streams along the way, with plenty of options for collecting drinking water until Three Mile Beach.

Orange triangles mark the track across penguin rock as marked on the map. East of the private hunter’s houses, there is an old bulldozed track which is much faster travel than the gravel beach.

Both Martins Bay and Big Bay huts have warning signs about the shifting gravels of the McKenzie Creek mouth, which will change between each flood. It could be an ankle-deep quicksand crossing, a deep estuary pool or something else entirely. Enjoy the surprise, and be glad you’ve got a packraft should you need it…

4-5 hours from Martins Bay, you’ll reach Big Bay Hut (9 bunks). It isn’t visible from the beach: you need to be at the high tide mark to spot the DOC sign that shows the trail to the hut.

There are lots of private white baiters huts in this area: remember to respect private property.

Big Bay Hut is a great hut, with plenty of character, set back from the beach, but unfortunately without any views.

Day 4: Big Bay Hut to Olivine Hut 6-7hrs

  • 3hrs from Big Bay Hut to the Pyke.
  • 3-4hrs paddling to Olivine Hut.

It’s a reasonably sized day through to Olivine Hut, but if you can time your start to be within an hour or so of low tide then you’ll save yourself some time. To access the start of the Pyke track via the swing bridge takes about 45 muddy mins, but going directly across the river mouth, north of the hut is on via grassy tracks and takes about 15 mins.

The Pyke Track is a quad bike size track, which is pretty easy to follow right up to the Dry Awarua River. There are also plenty of side streams for water in this section.

East of the Dry Awarua, the track becomes less well marked, more overgrown and meanders a lot. A GPS would be worth having in this section in case you lose the track. There isn’t any more drinking water till the Pyke. The final part of the track heads down a (usually) dry river bed.

The upper Pyke river is a scenic highlight of the trip. Incredibly deep pools, crystal clear water and few rapids make it a sublime float. There are still plenty of logs to watch out for though.

The gorgeous water clarity ends at Lake Wilmot, which is very silty.

Downstream of Wilmot, there is a section of Didymo infested water, which is very upsetting: please do your bit to check, clean, dry your gear between waterways.

Olivine Hut (6 bunks, standard, mattresses, bunks, stove) is just visible from the river, as is the cableway.

Immediately downstream of the Olivine confluence, there is usually a gravel beach. From the downstream end of the beach, search for a very obvious informal track, where you can carry your boats up to the track and easily onwards to the hut.

Day 5: Olivine Hut to Alabaster Hut 4hrs

The paddle down the middle Pyke is much the same as the Hollyford. Some small class I-II rapids, lots of trees and lots of floating.

Lake Alabaster isn’t as big as McKerrow, but you wouldn’t want to be out there in significant wind. The prevailing sea breeze is likely to be at your back though.

Lake Alabaster Hut (26 bunks, serviced, heating) can just be seen from the lake, though there aren’t any signs at the lake edge. It’s behind a reasonably obvious gravel beach at the southern end of the Lake.

If you are planning to head on to Hidden Falls Hut today, then you can continue paddling downriver. There are a few takeouts along the way, but the most obvious is just downstream of Pyke lodge. The further you go downstream, the higher the chance of missing a take out and having to do a bit of bush bashing to find the Hollyford track.

If you’re stopping at Alabaster Hut for the night (It’s a great spot!) Then it’s probably better to use the afternoon/evening to dry and sort the paddling gear so your pack is a little lighter and nicely packed ;0)

Day 6: Alabaster Hut to Road end 5.5hrs

  • 3.5hrs Alabaster Hut to Hidden Falls Hut
  • 2hrs Hidden Falls Hut to Road end

The Hollyford Track is a very well graded highway compared to the other walking so far. It’s almost a ‘clean boot’ walk to Hidden Falls Hut, via Little Homer Saddle. From Hidden Falls (worth the short detour) it’s another 2 hours or so to the road end.

Gauge

Visual.

As we’ve said plenty of times, there are epic floods in these valleys, so make sure you’ve got a non-epic forecast before heading out!

2 Trip reports Log your trip

  1. Courtney Edwards says:

    Hi there,
    I was hoping to aim for this trip 2020. Juat wondering what month you guys usally do this, how much it costs. I would like to start planning for me and a few friends if possible. Im from nz but living in Aus now, done a few hikes and kayak yrips around fiordland but mu friends will be inexperienced. Its is something to train for 🙂

    Thank you,
    Courtney

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