"Wong Way" reads the street sign leading to the Sandfly Cafe in Te Anau where the 18 of us meet up before our three-day tramp along the Hollyford Valley.
I'm wondering if it's an omen, when Mike distracts me by naming a far more unlikely scenario for Fiordland than getting lost in the bush: "It's a drought," he declares in astonishment. "We haven't had a decent rain for two weeks."
Outside the sun is shining in a blue sky, the mountains are sharp and clear. It's perfect weather for our guided walk out to the sea at Martin's Bay and, in a valley that receives around five metres of rain annually, we know how lucky we are.
Not that Mike and Matt, our guides, see it that way: "It's just as spectacular when it's wet, if not more so," they say. It's hard to imagine how that's possible, once we're on the track a couple of hours later. On either side snow-capped peaks rise from the bush, bright chunky glaciers caught in the dips between them.
The river is see-through turquoise, running between banks lined with flax and toitoi, and beaches of smooth stones. We're following its course through pristine beech forest fringed with ferns, and crossing streams fed by tumbling waterfalls where we sway along sturdy swing bridges and catch glimpses of eels and fish beneath us.
It's a beautiful stroll in the park - Fiordland National Park, that is - along a well- maintained track that climbs to just 168m at its highest point, and for us ends each day in lodges where friendly hosts are waiting to spoil us with comfort and canapes.
Again, we know how lucky we are: at frequent stops along the route to look at some point of interest, anything from moss to a mountain, Mike tells us the stories of this valley, the struggles, fortitude and disasters of the explorers and settlers who came this way 150 years earlier.
The undisputed star is Davey Gunn, whose epic 20-hour run, row and ride for help over a distance of 97km in 1936 saved the lives of two men and ensured that his name still lives in the valley, although the river took him 20 years later. At Pyke Lodge next morning, we hear the story again as we stand by his memorial, which calls him "Davey, the tramper's friend".
Our great friend on Day Two, however, is Rob.
We've taken a walk from the lodge to cross Fiordland's longest swing bridge, 100 metres of swaying wire, and had a peep at the next section of the track along the side of Lake McKerrow. It's a nightmare of rocks and twisted roots, steep and crumbly and well-named the Demon Trail, and we scuttle back again to where Rob is waiting for us in his jetboat at the end of a newly-cut path from the lodge.
"There's a drought!" he tells us as we scramble aboard. "The river's too low for the usual place." Not too low for a jetboat's miserly draught, however: these conditions are what it was invented for, and there's real satisfaction in skimming along the shallow river past rocks and logs, white water pluming up behind us as we leap-frog past two days' worth of hard tramping.
We stop in the lake to note where the Alpine Fault passes through the ranges either side, but Rob can't help marvelling at the glassy surface of the water, reflecting the dark bush and the white peaks of the Darran Range: "I've never seen the lake like this," he says. We're taking it for granted, but then we stop at the site of Jamestown, an ill-conceived and ill-fated settlement that in 1870 was to have been a great port. Now it's marked only by three dead apple trees and a small brass plaque, and when Mike tells us about Margaret McKenzie giving birth here alone on a bed surrounded by flood water, we get a glimpse of the Hollyford's other face: "inch-a-day rain", he says succinctly.
The ancient podocarp forest we walk through, draped with moss and lichen, lush with ferns and twining rata vines, is more proof that we're in a high rainfall area; and when we emerge onto the coast, the sun has gone and the waves are breaking in clouds of spray over the rocks at the fur seal colony, the wind-whipped flax lining the path tied into knots.
We're pleased to meet Rob again, who delivers us to a warm welcome at Martin's Bay Lodge and a salmon dinner that tastes all the better for the rough wind shaking the building. "Perhaps the drought is breaking at last," says Blake hopefully.
But in the morning it's still dry, though the cloud is low over the hills and there's a moody, mysterious feel that's well suited to Mike's stories about the Maori who lived here as we follow chief Tutoko's still-clear path across the stony sand. This is where Margaret McKenzie's family ended up when Jamestown failed, at the base of the notorious Hollyford Bar that claimed one ship in three braving the river mouth's swirling currents. We walk its length into the teeth of the wind, oystercatchers peeping mournfully amongst the dunes, a seal cub galumphing into the waves: it's much further than it looks and we're happy to be picked up by Rob at the end.
Even better is to turn from the lunch table and see two small planes taxi up onto the lawn outside, an incongruous sight but a welcome one. Our flight along the rugged coast and into Milford Sound is so spectacular that even the hordes of voracious sandflies that boarded with me aren't enough to detract from the magnificence of the scenery. The coach is at the airstrip to meet us and returns us unerringly to Wong Way in Te Anau, where we say goodbye to Mike.
"Sorry about the drought," he says. The funny thing is, I think he really means it.
Pamela Wade was hosted on the Hollyford Track.
The Hollyford Track, the only Fiordland walk to go from the mountains to the coast, is a guided three-day nature experience with accommodation in comfortable lodges. The season runs from October to April, 3 days, 2 nights, food and accommodation included, $1795 adults, $1395 children. Transfers from Queenstown and Te Anau, jetboat and aeroplane rides are included. For more information visit hollyfordtrack.com.
In Queenstown, enjoy some peaceful luxury before and afterwards at the lakeside Hilton: queenstownhilton.com.
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