Trip dates: 29/2/2020 – 3/3/2020
Report date: 6/3/2020
Participants: Arno Marten and Matt Burke
UPDATE 15/3/2020: Since we uploaded this report (almost 2 weeks ago) things have changed since Arno and I went in. The Milford road is open to the public to East gate but the Hollyford road (council maintained and owned – to the best of my knowledge) itself is closed and impassable a few hundred meters beyond Marian creek due to multiple slips and a 250m section of road missing just upstream of Moraine creek. It is certainly possible to walk the road and paddle the upper Hollyford for an extended loop but need to add 29km on to round trip. It will likely be sometime before a decision is made on the road and likely Gunn’s camp is almost certain to not reopen at all. We paddled Gunn’s camp to above moraine creek at g3 in above average flow but other sections upstream would be g3+ and g4 at moraine creek rapids. See DOC website for track status.
Following the recent February 2020 flooding event in Fiordland/Southland and reports from several sources on the suspected damage to the Hollyford road, Gunn’s camp and Hollyford track/river we obtained permission for access to inspect the damage from a Packrafting point of view from both a guided and private perspective.
We parked up at Marian creek as the gate is closed on the Hollyford road. This immediately adds an extra 29km on to a round trip and we encountered multiple slips on the road to Gunn’s camp including two major slips. The road is completely impassable by vehicle and a mountain bike would give you a bit of an advantage probably cutting the travel time in half. It is currently unknown if the road will be rebuilt at all, when, if it is, and to what extent.
Gunn’s camp survived the flood event but was hit hard by the landslide. Again unknown at this stage it’s future. The damage to the road and camp is major. We decided at this point to paddle the Gunn’s camp run (not normally part of the Hollyford loop but we use it for instruction). Normally G2 but due to river levels and the change to the river, it was more like G3 although likely still G2 at lower flows through the boulder garden. The only other option here is to continue walking the road (discussed later on our return). The normal takeout just before Moraine creek G4 was fine and we paddled a bit further down to a good takeout 100m or so upstream of the swingbridge. We expected the road from here to be totally gone around Moraine creek due to the pinch but it is fine! So it was possible to walk from the takeout to the road end/Hollyford track start and no slips were encountered.
We were still able to put in at the Hollyford road end but the main river runs now down the other side of the valley (see topo) so really paddling a tributary with very little flow until we met a log dam which we portaged to gain the main river. The Hollyford has generally remained unchanged and actually improved as many log jams have been flushed to the banks. It is most definitely wider in places!
We overnighted at Mckerrow Island hut which was damaged in the flood but has had some recent repairs although still needs work. Approx 8 hours from Marian creek to hut (with Gunn’s camp section paddled).
The only other major change of note is at Martin’s Bay lagoon, where the sand spit now has a new 500m wide opening to the sea mid-way along. This might present challenges at high tide in larger swells. The tidal effect can be felt as soon as entering the estuary (outlet Mckerrow).
Martin’s Bay hut is fine and made for a good long lunch break before pushing on to Big bay. The airstrip is buried under silt/sand. The walk from Martin’s bay to Big bay is essentially unchanged except for a couple of minor slips near the start. Big Bay hut is undamaged but full of bloody sandflies and mosquitos (nothing new here!). We spent the night after a long day from Martin’s bay. 12 hours in total.
Big bay to Pyke put-in has some slips and washouts but pretty easy-going mostly 4wd track. Pyke river is fine as expected and pretty much unchanged in the Pyke to the Hollyford confluence. Olivine hut (lunch stop) has some minor water ingress damage but hut seems ok (toilet took some digging out…). Cableway seems fine too but wouldn’t count on it just yet – Doc indicated they will need to check it out. Thanks to Bruce (Pyke river resident trapper) for cleaning the hut out. Alabaster hut – we only floated by but understand it is fine.
Hidden Falls hut (our last night waiting out a rain event 60-100mm rain overnight) all good but quite a bit of track damage slips, washouts and silted up. The Pyke lodge (private guided walks) is munted. Big bay to Hidden falls was another 12 hour day.
Lazy start on the last day waiting for rain to stop saw us with approx 6.5 hours back to Marian creek swingbridge. This is the most damaged section of the track by far. Multiple slips encountered sections of missing track with some short sections of bush bashing. DOC has removed the metal bridge over the creek about 1h15 from Hidden falls hut (Swamp creek). We had to use swift water techniques to cross the creek as the flow was strong, although we had rain, I expect it would still be a risky undertaking in all but the driest conditions. Most other creek crossings were manageable. Can get impassable with more rain.
The Hollyford road from the road end back to Gunn’s camp was an unknown as we had paddled the Gunn’s camp run. We had heard that a Heli had been in and a section of road was missing. Approx. 2km past Moraine creek we found the missing section where a river bend had eaten into the road. I estimate a section of 250m of road is gone although it is an easy bush bash to get around this. Again, multiple large slips, bridges out and lots of slippery silt.
We had considered walking out on day 3 and not staying at Hidden falls but glad we did not try tackling this section at night.
The major road damage will need to be repaired and/or an extended walking track established plus the Hollyford track from road end to Alabaster hut requires extensive work as it would be a serious undertaking if the creeks are running above normal. Awaiting further information on the way ahead. The Hollyford has diverted at the road end for several hundred meters. McKerrow Island hut was the hardest hit hut but repairs are underway. There is a new opening of the sandbar at Martin’s bay which could present issues at high tide in large swells. Expect up to an extra 29km of walking if the road is not repaired in any way. Gunn’s camp was badly hit and we are not sure of its future. Gunn’s camp run to above Moraine creek is more like G3 through the boulder garden at medium flows (used to be G2/2+). All up the Hollyford and the Pyke as a river are in a very good shape and the old loop has still its normal character. The biggest change / issue is the access.
Currently, the Hollyford road is closed and we are awaiting further information from NZTA, Milford road alliance, Ngai Tahu, DOC and local council. Packrafting NZ were granted permission to access the closed roads for this trip.