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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Discovery of McKinnon's Pass

The Discovery of McKinnon's Pass.

While the Adams party was at the foot of the Sutherland Falls, another explorer, a fellow-countryman of Sutherland's, was bravely fighting his way over the unknown country between Lake Te Anau and the Arthur Valley. This was Quinton McKinnon, great-heart of the wilds, an explorer whose ambition it was to discover a pass over the tremendously rugged lands of mystery between lake and ocean. He had vanished from all human ken for many weeks; no one knew where he was.

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One morning, in the upper part of the Arthur Valley, Mr. Adams met one of the road cutters.

The roadman said: “I saw three explorers come over the Pass this morning.”

Mr. Adams: “What do you mean?”

The roadman: ‘Well, I was up this morning at daybreak, and I saw three black swans flying over to this side of the mountain from inland. You know birds generally fly over the lowest gap in a range. I wouldn't be surprised if that was where the pass is that you want to find.” And he pointed up to the lofty wall above him, between two huge precipitous mountain peaks, a gateway of the gods.

McKinnon, his gun slung over his shoulder, swag on his back, slash-hook in his hand, clambered slowly, clinging on to shrubs and snow-grass, up the cliff of that tremendous cirque of granite rock, the head of the Clinton Canyon. He had a companion, his staunch comrade E. A. Mitchell, who had been his mate on exploring expeditions from the western fiords of Te Anau towards the coast. The pair reached the passtop, the first human beings to scale this wonderful saddle down between the cloud-hung crags of Mt. Balloon and Mt. Hart.

They looked long at the grand panorama of ice and rock peak around them, then crossed the narrow pass, with its small tarns like green eyes, to the other side, the precipice that looked down on the new unknown valley that trended seaward. Two thousand feet below the little mists drifted about the tree-tops; a green riot of forest filled the profound gulch; and streams and cascades glinted like threads drawn through the green page 277 and down the mountain ridges. Directly opposite a glacier flashed white fire, bedded in the lap of a black mountain—the Jervois Glacier and Mount Elliott of our maps.

The precipice below seemed vertical, overhanging in places. How could they descend that fearful wall? Well they knew from experience that it was more difficult and dangerous to descend a cliff than to scale one. But slowly and carefully they went down the wall, zigzagging their way, clinging to snow grass and the tough shrubs that here and there had tenacious roothold in the granite cliffs. Avalanches crashed from the impending glacier, echoed in long thunder rolls from side to side of the glen. They reached the deep-down forest at last. With bounding hearts they slashed their way through the mossy and tangled jungle, and forded its fierce little streams that tore down the gulch.

That day was the 16th of October, 1888. The explorers camped about half-way between the Pass foot and the Sutherland Falls; next day they came to Sutherland's track, near the camp now known as the Beech Hut. Presently they saw a tent gleam through the green; this was a 10 × 12 ft. tent belonging to Mr. Adams' party. They followed the track to the boat landing on the Arthur River at the head of Lake Ada. Finding no one there they returned to the camp at night, a fearfully rough journey in the darkness. They heard the thunder of the Sutherland Falls and next day went along the track, found a newly-built hut, and gazed up in wonder at the cataract. It was the day after that before they heard the first human voices in that vast forest solitude and met Tom McKenzie and his exploring page 278 companions, Pillans and Wyinks; and on the 20th of October they were hailed gladly by Mr. Adams and his party. The observant track-cutter's casual prophecy a few days before had been fulfilled sooner than the surveyors dreamed. The pathfinders had come over dangerland heights in the wake of the wild fowl.

Free-roving Quinton McKinnon was soon back in the heart of his beloved wilderness, exploring, track-cutting. Four years later he was drowned in Lake Te Anau while sailing his whaleboat single-handed in squally weather. His boat was discovered stranded; he was never found. A Highland cairn, built of granite rocks by the Gaelic men of the South Country, now stands on the pass-top, fittingly rugged memorial to the discoverer who linked lake to sea-fiord by this route that has become one of the world's great wonderpaths.