The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 9 (April 1, 1933)
Famous New Zealanders — No. 1 — Pathfinders in Fiordland — The Hermit of Milford and the Discoverer of McKinnon's pass
Famous New Zealanders
Pathfinders in Fiordland
The Hermit of Milford and the Discoverer of McKinnon's pass
(”… Every mystery made plain, every unknown land explored, exalts the spirit of the whole human race—strengthens its courage and exalts its spirit permanently. The trail-breaker is an indispensable ally of the spiritual values which advance and sustain civilisation.“—Amundsen, the Polar Explorer.
(Two names stand out above all others on the roll of South New Zealand explorers who have drawn the veil of mystery from the Dominion's most rugged and formidable region, the Fiordland National Park, home of the torrents and the crags, mighty waterfalls, profound canyons, and all but impenetrable forests. This summer has seen more travellers than for many years past gazing in wonder at the mile-high granite walls of Milford Sound, and tramping along the famous overland route between Lake Te Anau and the coast. With that strange, savagely beautiful land the names of Donald Sutherland and Quinton McKinnon are imperishably linked. Each was essentially a lone-handed explorer. Sometimes in their trail-blazing they had the company of others, but they did not require the backing of human society; the solitary life had no terrors for them, even in that land of tremendous, overpowering landscapes and vast difficulty of travel.
It is close on thirty years since I first met Donald Sutherland, in his home at the head of Milford Sound, on the spot where he had pitched his tent in 1876. He was a type that fitted that unconquerable dour country, his native Highlands on a far grander scale. A big, gruff, hard man, who had been sailor, soldier, bush-scout, gold-digger, for many years before he came to an anchor for good in the towering gloom of Milford Sound, to enjoy what he described as “the quiet life.” Most people would call it anything but enjoyment, set down there with dog and tent and gun and a few stores, in that terrific solitude. But Sutherland was no ordinary man.
Donald Sutherland's Adventures.
The Lone Hand of Milford Sound.
In the early Seventies the well-seasoned sailor and carbineer was serving before the mast in a Government steamer under Captain Fairchild, and on one of the vessel's cruises around the coast he was several times in Milford Sound. He had a turn, too, at seal-hunting on the Southern coast. That was the period when whaling and sealing were the two chief industries of the far south. The celebrated old barque “Chance,” of which one reads in Frank Bullen's “Cruise of the Cachalot,” was waddling around Foveaux Strait with her Maori and half-caste crew under Captain Paddy Gilroy; and schooners and cutters and even open whaleboats went cruising into the West Coast Sounds after fur seals. Sutherland conceived the notion that Milford was a likely place for gold, and when he finally resolved to settle there he spent most of his time prospecting, with intervals of seal-hunting to provide the means for the purchase of the supplies the “Hinemoa” or the “Stella” brought him once every six months or so. His gun and his fishing lines kept him in what food he required besides his bags of oatmeal and flour, his tea and sugar. For two or three years he lived quite alone, before he was joined by a mate, John Mackay, with whom he afterwards prospected and explored well into the Eighties.
This gigantic, silent place seemed to him an excellent retreat in which to live his own life, undisturbed by others' chatter, unworried by orders, his own master, able to choose his own day's work or not to work at all, if the fit so took him. His dog was sufficient company; his treasure-hunting was an eternal fascination. There in his tent, and later in his slab whare he spent month after month in perfect solitariness, the only human being on the shores of all the fiord country.
Up Sindbad Gully.
Some strange, even romantic fancies this otherwise hard matter-of-fact Scot entertained. He believed there were diamonds in the Milford country; and he believed page 27 in the existence of some mysterious amphibious creature which he thought was very likely the original of the Maori legendary taniwha. He had read the Arabian Nights, and he gave the name Sindbad Gully to a defile which runs up at the side of Mitre Peak, and which in some way reminded him of the valley of diamonds in the Oriental story. Two of us went up this wild gulch one day with Sutherland. It is a fearful gully, full of huge rocks confusedly piled, and holes and caverns half-hidden by the decaying vegetation of centuries; a place of twilight gloom, arched over by great twisted trees and drooping fern-plumes. A far wilder place, one imagined, than anything ever seen by Sindbad the Sailor. Sutherland stoutly maintained it was “likely country” for the jewel stone; but all his prospecting was in vain. There was more likelihood of gold, and he once had some men putting in a drive on a supposed auriferous reef a little to the northward of Milford Heads, but there again no luck.
Two places on the Fiordland map preserve Sutherland's name. One is the great waterfall in the upper part of the Arthur Valley, near the McKinnon's Pass track; the other is a fiord just south of Milford, between it and Bligh Sound.
Discovery of Sutherland Falls.
It was on November 10, 1880, that Donald Sutherland first set eyes on the triple water-leap that bears his name. His were the first human eyes to see this marvel, unless we credit the wandering Ngati-mamoe, the lost tribe of the Sounds, with having wandered up that far from Lake Ada, where their stone-marked camping-places were found by Maoris who came seal-hunting to Milford from Foveaux Strait in the early Seventies. Sutherland was then accompanied by John Mackay; he was travelling ahead, slashing his way through the bush when on rounding a great mountain spur in that tangled garden of the gods he saw the upper part of a waterfall flashing between the trees, dropping from a cloudy alpine wall.
It was not until another expedition was made, some three years later, that the explorer managed to get near the foot of the cataract, and his early estimates of its height were very much astray. It is hard to judge heights in that country of vast dimensions; it was thought at first that it was 4000 or 5000 feet high. Not until 1888 was the exact height of the falls, 1904ft., fixed by a Government survey party sent round from Dunedin. And now comes in the story which links up that plucky explorer Quinton McKinnon with this overland route and Milford Sound.
Quinton McKinnon's Explorations.
For several years Quinton McKinnon, sometimes accompanied by his friend, W. S. Mitchell, had been engaged in exploring the western shores of Te Anau and various parts of the unmapped wilderness between that great lake and the West Coast. He was particularly anxious to discover a route from the head of Te Anau to Milford Sound, but always he was baffled by the impracticable nature of the country and hampered by bad page 28 weather. His headquarters was a hut he had built on the west side of the lake, and he had a whaleboat which he used for his cruises. For some weeks in September-October of 1888 he had not been heard of by his friends; he was somewhere in the wilds looking for a pass.
Meanwhile, Mr. C. W. Adams, Chief Surveyor of Otago, with a party of men had landed at Milford in order to inspect a track which Donald Sutherland had contracted with the Government to cut along the Arthur from the Sound-head, and to take measurements of the height of the falls. Accompanying the party was Mr. Thomas McKenzie (the late Sir Thomas), who was an enthusiastic and courageous amateur explorer in those days. He, too, was ambitious to discover a pass to connect Te Anau with the coast.
McKinnon Comes Over the Pass.
The rest of the story is told in a narrative which the late Mr. Adams (he was the father of the present Government Astronomer, Dr. C. E. Adams) wrote for me in the form of a letter, dated May 31, 1906. He described the work of the expedition in measuring the falls, and continued:
“I may state that there was a little friction between Tom McKenzie and myself. He wanted to monopolise Donald Sutherland altogether to help him in his exploration. Now, I had to inspect Sutherland's contract for cutting the track to the Falls, and only a limited time to do it in, so it was necessary that Sutherland should accompany me, as a good deal of his work was not up to the mark. McKenzie used to express his contempt for surveyors as explorers. He said they were all right with a theodolite and chain, but when it came to exploring, they were not in it. And he lost no opportunity of ridiculing my faith in McKinnon, as I said if there was a pass, I was sure McKinnon would find it. And what made Tom McKenzie more savage was the fact that if he had followed my advice he would have been the first over the pass. It was true that I advised him to try Joe's River (at the head of the Arthur) but it was found to head in the wrong direction. But one morning, one of the road men told me that he had seen ‘three explorers’ come over the pass, and he pointed up towards where McKinnon's Pass is. So I said: ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I was up this morning by daybreak and I looked up and saw three black swans coming over to this side from the other, and as birds generally fly over the lowest gaps in a range, I should not be surprised if that is where the pass is.’
“I told Tom McKenzie of this, and strongly urged him to explore up in the direction of Roaring Creek—only it had not been so christened at that time. He refused point-blank, as he said he had taken my advice once and gone up Joe's Creek, and he saw enough then to convince him there was no pass in that direction except what birds could fly over. But instead of trying where I advised, he explored the head waters of the creek that flows past the foot of the Sutherland Falls. I told him if he did find a pass in that direction it would not lead him into Te Anau, but rather into one of the West Coast Sounds. You may perhaps ask why I did not take a hand in the search for a pass, but I had my hands more than full of my own work. I had to make a sketch survey of the track and the valley of the Arthur and tops of all the country in sight, and measure the height of the Sutherland Falls as well, and get back to Milford Sound in time for the coal steamer which was to call in for us, by a certain day, and we just managed to get through in time.”
A few days after that (October, 1888) McKinnon came down the valley from the direction where the black swans had flown. He had penetrated the Clinton Valley, climbed the watershed between that gorge and the Arthur, and crossed the saddle that is now known as McKinnon's Pass. He was all alone. So he was the first man to find a way from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound.