Holly and Hugh Tackle the Hollyford with their packraft.
I was fizzing to get the packraft on a proper adventure finally. I had heard a lot from the Godzone crew about the Hollyford Pyke as an awesome training mission.
The Christmas holidays gave us plenty of time to set off and conquer the beast, not that anyone conquers the West Coast – it usually spits you out on a big ol' waterslide.
Hugh was new to paddling and had never pack rafted but never fear – we had a good attitude that would surely get us through (and all the necessary safety equipment, of course).
I had heard a bit of chat that 24 hours was the standard time for the loop (I probably didn't read the fine print – that's a pretty fast time that doesn't involve a lot of sleep). So this was the logic behind my decision to ditch a few of our dehydrated meals in the car before we left; we don't need those heavy old things. Hugh looked at me with a furrowed brow, but who was he to know? It was his first packrafting trip.
So we set off, packs light, charging down the Hollyford track, which is much like a great walk highway. Easy peasy, we will be flying through here for sure.
We launched on the Hollyford, admittedly some 2/3 km later than we needed to, trying to get on the river before being eaten alive by sandflies. We were treated to the beautiful, very easy-to-paddle Hollyford river. Other than a slightly rogue portage to avoid some more gnarly white water at the Little Homer Falls, we floated down to Lake McKerrow just after midday.
We were told not to paddle Lake Alabaster in the afternoon and to wait until early morning when the coastal winds died. So naturally, I told Hugh we would give it a shot and made our way into the headwind towards Martins Bay. Not that we made it very far; after about an hour of paddling and very little progress, we relented and headed to the shores, where there was a marked track we intended to walk.
Marked does not mean easily walkable, however. If the abusive messages in the DOC hut book or the name "Demon Trail" do not indicate a fairly technical washed-up track, then I'm not sure what is. But, again, little progress was made, and we found our refuge from the sandflies at the Demon Trail hut (a pretty epic hut, so a great consolation).
As we settled for the night, Hugh kept shuffling around our food stores, and I soon realised he was doing a little maths of his own. A quick scan of topo maps showed we had much more ground to cover but not quite the amount of food we needed. Oh well! Better walk fast then!
We set off the next morning around 5 am; dawn brought some stunning glassy scenes on Lake McErrow, surrounded by snowy peaks and West Coast grandeur. We paddled and walked to Martins Bay in no time, where we met a group at the hut making the loop in a few more days than us, soaking up the best the Coast has to offer; maybe there is something to be said for that in hindsight.
From Martins Bay to Big Bay, a rather technical walk along the beach takes much longer than expected (which seems to be a theme). But it's hard to complain when you soak up the West Coast views; the sun was shining, spirits were high, and Big Bay hut was a welcome sight for a quick coffee.
Big Bay is an unreal white baiting community village; whether you support it or not, it's pretty hard to not see some merit in this isolated version of life on the Coast. Anyway, we didn't have long to linger as we hoped to make it to the Olivine hut by nightfall.
When we reached the Pyke, we made the call to make a camp for the night, not knowing how long the river section would take us. We also met some bedraggled walkers coming in the other direction that the non-existent track had beaten down from the Olivine Hut to the crossing point of the Pyke. (this information became crucial in Godzone later that year, where my team made the same call to abandon the track in favour of some sleep by the river – so shout out to the random hikers for the intel).
Our campsite was found by a possum trapper that patrolled the area and was somewhat of a warden of the Pyke Crossing. We didn't have a tent, so we blew up the pack raft and made a shelter out of it, praying for it not to rain on the West Coast. Surprisingly it didn't. Unfortunately, I decided to mix one of our last dehydrated meals with the "shake method", which resulted in most of it spewing onto the ground and us eating it off the moss with our spoons. Somehow Hugh remained in good spirits despite my many nutrition faux pas.
On the final day (somewhat over 24 hours by this point), we set off with frozen fingers down the Pyke and were treated to a glorious 4/5 hours paddling down a pretty awesome stretch of water. Past Lake Wilmot and Lake Alabaster, we pulled ashore and dried the packraft out for the final time of the trip, setting off on foot back down the Hollyford track.
Some 12 hours since we had set off that morning, we reached the car – happy, exhausted, and much lighter than when we left.
We will surely be back, this time with more food and some slightly more realistic trip estimates. If you get a chance to packraft this loop, it will be one of the coolest things you will ever do.
Written by Holly Weston: (@holly.weston.nz)
If you want to start your own packrafting adventure, here's another blog you might find useful: Pack Raft Paddle Size Guide NZ