Almost exactly to the day a year later, Hugh and I returned to the Hollyford Pyke loop – but this time with a few extra in tow.
(If you're keen to know how this all started, here's their Hollyford trip a year ago: Packrafting the Hollyford)
With less than half of us with any packrafting experience – many things could have gone wrong and resulted in a really long walk. And to make things more exciting, we threw the group in the deep end and set our sights on Martins Bay for our first night, New Year's eve.
This meant we were planning on covering almost half the route in one day, relying on a favorable wind (which predictability never exists), and was expecting our crew to paddle about 30 times longer in a packraft than they had ever before. But it wouldn’t be an adventure with us without a bit of over-facing yourself.
With warnings of low rivers, portages, and the abundance of punctured boats from past trips, some of the crew (somewhat sensibly) decided to set off a day early and avoid the dawn on the river.
For the rest of us, the alarms went off for a 5am start on the trailhead. Wandering down the rocky shores in search of the mighty Hollyford river. The looming mountains above us filled us with awe and anticipation. The early morning light hits the snow-capped peaks, creating a sliver of gold for us to follow below.
With only one small portage before the expected exit at Homer Falls Rapid portage, froth levels were high, sandfly counts were low and everyone's faces were illuminated by the adventure unfolding. We bumbled down the hunting track to relaunch on the water, aiming to get to the lake by 10am.
After a dehydrated meal in the sun at the head of Lake McKerrow, we chucked tow ropes on the boats to keep the group together. We couldn’t believe our luck with the glassy lake set before us. We had an exit strategy in case the headwind stopped us from making our way up the lake, aka Demon trail hut, which we passed within the first hour.
We were greeted early on by a seal that had done a remarkable job swimming to the top of the lake on the last day of the year. Our intentions of meeting our friends at our destination that evening seemed like child's play.
But of course, the wild West Coast always has the last word, and after progressing 5km we realised that, at stages, we were going backward. The headwind turned up, punctual and punching, and suddenly our resolve seemed slightly less sensible than before.
For three or four hours, our progress was slow but progress nonetheless. I kept my focus ahead, not talking, just paddling, a job to do, and to be honest – not wanting to know the struggle that Ollie and Brooke were going through behind us – I know their arms would have felt like they were falling off – however, Brookes constant chatter continued on, a sign of life from the raft behind us.
Some months later, I still feel how hard that was and how relieved we were to finally come ashore about 9 hours since we started. We didn’t pull off at the top of the lake, but we got to a point we knew we could at least walk and get to our destination eventually. The group separated at this point, entering into our own little pain caves, marching on with the internal monologue ringing loud.
One of the group later recounted that there were times she felt like she had reached her limit, the 13.5 hours being more than enough. However, we all know the greatest sense of achievement comes only from bringing yourself up from a place you feel at odds to recover from. She's capable of so much more but needed to prove that to herself.
As we collapsed into Martins Bay one by one, greeted by a much fresher earlier group, we certainly all had a bit of self-reflection to get us through the final evening of 2022. And there cannot be a better sight than the glow of the best coast closing out on the year.
The next day we had our sights set on Big Bay. While not a particularly long distance to travel, the rocky path makes the always visible wide half-moon of the next bay seem impossibly far away. We set off in groups, those less technically minded headed off with an early start, hoping to nab a cot at the smaller hut on the other side.
The day was calm and stunning, started off by greeting (from afar) a cosy cluster of seals parked up on the beach, as we stepped our way (slowly) through mud and rocks and slippery slopes. We had previously been advised not to think about paddling from Martins Bay to Big Bay (and last year listened to this advice), but the glassy flat ocean was tempting us to have a crack at the short voyage across the shore. Hugh and I talked about the possibility as we walked. Evie (the most experienced seafarer of us all, due to years of surf lifesaving) chatted to us about the risks of the offshore wind, which did not appear to be present. We meandered along, trying to find a good launching pad, almost playing chicken with each other and repeating: “we don’t have to do this if you aren’t keen”.
The rocky shore and snail-like progression prompted us to give it a crack. We chose what we thought was the calmest rocky outcrop section and then performed a slightly awkward maneuver of blowing up the packraft and strapping on our packs while in a rockpool, battling the sets of waves crashing on the rocks. I must admit, I still feel slightly nervous thinking about it now. It was probably mellow in hindsight, but there is something larger about the roar of the ocean that rightly keeps you on your toes.
Once we were set up we had a plan for me to climb in at the end of a set and for Hugh to launch me over a wave and then jump on himself. All we needed to do was get over the breakers. “Easy as” we lied to ourselves – while nervously glancing at the barnacle-ridden rocks which could swiftly end our endeavour with a puncture.
I took a breath and launched myself to the front, only to be met head-on with a wave immediately and unlike our masterly crafted plan of being launched over, the wave flipped me and the packraft backward into the pool, somehow unscathed but shaken. Luckily our landlocked group had already walked ahead, so we had no witnesses because it would have looked pretty stupid! Hugh and I looked at each other, waiting for the other to pull the pin, surely that was a sign that it was not a smart idea? But instead, I jumped back on, didn’t look back and he launched me over a slightly more tame wave. We had done it! And he was on, over the breakers and into the calm waters. We turned around and saw the trailing group cheering, great timing for them to arrive! They obviously did not see our earlier attempts.
I could see that Harvey and Freya were evaluating the same option, the adventure being too hard to pass up. We didn’t know if they launched or not – I wasn’t turning around – we had one destination – Big Bay – and a rolling set of breakers to contend with when we decided to head on shore. Despite my anxiety (Hugh had become ridiculously composed somehow) it really was a calm paddle across the bay – and quite satisfying as we looked at how much progress was being made on those walking on the shore. I found the rolling waves quite disconcerting and it took us a while to pick a place we could exit safely, as close to the hut as possible, the West Coast not being known for its flat, soft beaches…
We picked out a point, talked about what ifs, and as the swell started to grow, realised we were going to have to commit. The waves seemed to have a lot of push as we got closer, and after riding a few we inevitably got flipped out as the packraft folded in half. My white-eyed look of horror was quickly met by a hysterically laughing Hugh, who was standing in knee-deep water and looking back on the waves which were far far smaller than we had realised. Sumner beach would have given them a run for their money! We pulled the packraft on shore and felt like explorers – entering an untouched beach by the ocean (bar the large plane on the beach).
After checking out the empty hut, we soaked up the sun and were greeted not far after by Harvey and Freya – who, might I add, had been somewhat more successful than us on their entry to the beach. It was a pretty cool way to travel. No, we are not advertising it to anyone other than those experienced with sea travel, as I think the conditions that day were unreal and not a common occurrence.
The next day, we waded across the estuary and charged toward the Pyke river. Our last day in the boats (thankfully, as we were pushing some of the team well beyond their paddling fitness levels). The Pyke is so stunning it's hard not to love it, even if your arms are falling off. Even a constantly deflating single wouldn’t kill the mood – (ok that is a lie I did get a bit grumpy near the end).
Near the end, all we had to do was paddle the final 5 or so kilometers across Lake Alabaster. And for once, the wind was on our side or behind our backs, realistically. The tailwind had Freya devise a plan to get the team across the lake and finish our paddling adventure in style. I took off ahead in my sinking boat, keen to nurse it to its final ending, stopping and lying down every ten minutes to blow more air in. I turned back and saw this large tent fly-turned-kite coming towards me – with all of the group attached to it. It was a pretty epic sight – almost as epic as the grins that were plastered onto everyone’s faces – the adventure running through all of them as a reflection of the epic journey we had been on.
We spent our final night at Lake Alabaster hut (the nicest of them all) and then consolidated the trip with a 4.5-hour rampage back to the Hollyford Road end the next day.
Brooke and I spent a bit of that unpacking the team dynamics – on one hand, the need for me to communicate and give the others an understanding of how far we had to go when the pain cave had gobbled us up. From the other perspective, we deliberated on the best way to communicate to the leader of the group to not make them feel like you are lumping them with the success or failure of the trip. Nature is always the best teacher of them all. And a pretty easy conversation when you have managed to pull off something as awesome as the past few days.
I am immensely proud of our group. To some reading this, you may have knocked the whole loop off in a day. But it takes a certain type of courage to say yes to an adventure like this when you are totally out of your comfort zone, heading blindly into the great unknown – forever grateful for the trust they put in us and their unfaltering attitudes.
They learnt out there what they are capable of – and did it with humility, grit, and a whole lot of humour.