Offbeat New Zealand: Martins Bay, Fiordland's lost metropolis

The only land route to Martins Bay in Fiordland is the Hollyford Track.
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The only land route to Martins Bay in Fiordland is the Hollyford Track.

Martins Bay could have been one of New Zealand's main tourist centres - a major hub to rival Queenstown, or even Auckland.

But things didn't quite go as planned, and chances are you've never heard of this deserted piece of paradise, located just north of Milford Sound in Fiordland.

Martins Bay was settled by Maori from 1650 to 1800, but wasn't discovered by Pakeha until 1861, when two farmers spotted its shores from the top of Key Summit.

Rare Fiordland crested penguins at Long Reef, Martins Bay.
Ngai Tahu Tourism

Rare Fiordland crested penguins at Long Reef, Martins Bay.

It took two more years for a European to actually set foot there. That was achieved by an Irishman named Patrick Caples, who was traversing Otago in search of gold - and in 1863 became the first European to cross over from Lake Wakatipu to the West Coast. He followed the Hollyford River (which he named after his hometown), finally emerging at Martins Bay.

Caples was so scared of being captured by local Maori he set up camp without lighting a fire. He snuck around, examining the area, before returning up the Hollyford, where he drew up a detailed map and reported his findings to the Gold Fields Department.

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Sunset on Martins Bay Beach.
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Sunset on Martins Bay Beach.

Shortly after his return, a whaler named Captain Alabaster headed to Martins Bay with two companions to explore its gold mining prospects. They encountered Ngai Tahu chief Tutoko, who, despite Caples' fears, turned out to be extremely hospitable - even letting the trio borrow his canoe so they could explore Lake McKerrow.

Captain Alabaster showed his gratitude by naming the highest peak in Fiordland National Park after Tutoko.

Next to make the journey was geologist Dr James Hector, who went on to break through to Queenstown from the coast, travelling up the Hollyford Valley.

The Hollyford Track is lesser known than its neighbours, the Milford and Routeburn, but just as impressive.

The Hollyford Track is lesser known than its neighbours, the Milford and Routeburn, but just as impressive.

He proposed building a road from Queenstown to Martins Bay, where a major shipping port could be developed, connecting Otago with Australia. 

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The Superintendent of Otago, James Macandrew, had lofty ambitions of expanding his region from coast to coast, and liked this idea very much.

Settlers started arriving at Martins Bay in 1870, forming a small community in Macandrew's honour named Jamestown.

But the isolated settlement was doomed from the start. The first boatload of settlers from Dunedin ran aground on the Hollyford bar. While no one was hurt, the families onboard lost most of their belongings.

Forests were cleared for farming, but the land was unfruitful. Supply ships were forced to dump deliveries on the beach because they couldn't make it up the river. The planned road to Queenstown was eventually downgraded to a bridle track.

Facing starvation, settlers survived on a diet of fish, wekas, kiwis, and pigeons. Unsurprisingly, by the end of the decade, most had abandoned Jamestown.

The last remaining resident of the Hollyford Valley was Davey Gunn, a local legend who famously ran through the bush for help when a plane crashed into the sea at Big Bay in 1936. The journey from Martins Bay to Marian Corner would normally take four days; it took Gunn 21 hours, with a broken rib. 

Sadly, Gunn drowned in the Hollyford River in 1955. His body was never found, but his legacy lives on. Before his death, Gunn was guiding tramping parties through the valley as part of his cattle musters. This would eventually become the Hollyford Track, a beautiful, rugged, 56-kilometre tourist tramp through Fiordland National Park.

Tracing Gunn's steps, the track spits walkers out at Martins Bay, where you'll find a lodge, a DOC hut, and a few private dwellings. There is also an airstrip, so walkers can fly out rather than backtracking the same route. 

Hoping to see traces of what could have been in this wild, untamed land? You'll be sorely disappointed. These days all that remains of Jamestown are some ancient rose bushes and apple trees.

 - Stuff

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