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Hero Stories of New Zealand

Explorers of Fiordland

page 270

Explorers of Fiordland

Donald Sutherland and Quinton McKinnon

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. With that strange, savagely beautiful land between the heads of Milford Sound and Lake Te Anau the memories of Donald Sutherland and Quinton McKinnon are imperishably linked. Each was essentially a lone-handed explorer. Sometimes in the trail-blazing each 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 more than 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.”

Talking there on the inner shore of the great fiord, with the Bowen Falls making a perpetual background of water thunder, and again by the blazing tawai logs in the living-room of his accommodation house, Donald page 271 Sutherland told us about his early adventurous years. A native of Wick, he went to sea when a lad, and served in the brigs and schooners around the British coast before he joined the clipper ship that brought him out to this part of the world. From 1863 to 1870 he was soldiering against the Maoris, with an interlude of gold-digging. He was a militia-man, a Water Transport man on the Waikato River in General Cameron's time, an Armed Constabulary man under Whitmore. The Waikato and Taranaki wars, the East Coast expeditions after Te Kooti, the Urewera and Taupo campaigns, he fought in them all. He was in more than forty engagements, pa-stormings and skirmishes in his time. He had wild tales to tell of bush warfare, and of head-hunting in the pursuit of Titokowaru's Hauhaus. In his Milford home he had an armoury of guns, ranging from his old muzzle-loader to his warpath carbine and modern rifles.

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. That was the period when whaling and sealing were the two chief industries of the far south. The 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 round to 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 page 272 spent most of his time prospecting, with intervals of seal-hunting to provide the means for the purchase of the supplies the Stella brought him once every six months. This strong, tough, level-headed Scot deliberately chose to live by himself in the most savage spot in all New Zealand, a place full of dangers for most people, very grand of scenery but oppressive to the mind in its tremendous cliff architecture, the stormy gloom of its enormous mountains that stand about the narrow fiord so closely that it seems but a sea-trench cut through a mass of solid granite. Sutherland lived in Milford quite alone for two years before he was joined by a mate, John Mackay, with whom he afterwards prospected much of this formidable country for gold. His canny Scottish brain was not unbalanced by the inconceivable loneliness of this existence, with only his dog for company. After the noise of the money-chasing world, and after six or seven years of soldiering, this gigantic, silent place seemed to him an excellent spot to live his own life, undisturbed by others' talk, unworried by orders, his own master, able to choose his own day's work or not to work at all if the fit took him. His dog, his gun, his boat, and his seal-hunting and gold-prospecting expeditions gave him all the company and the occupation he needed, and there in his tent and then his whare, in the little backwater of a basin near the Bowen Falls, he spent many and many a month in perfect solitariness, the only human being on the shores of all the Fiord Country.

∗ ∗ ∗

Early one morning in 1878, the Government steamer Stella entered the Sound, on her six-monthly trip. The page 273 startling sound of the syren brought Sutherland out from his tent. The steamer was not yet in sight of his camp. He waited until the long echoes died away and then fired two shots from his gun. The steamer passed the narrows and anchored at the head of the Sound. A boat came on shore, bringing stores for Sutherland, and a passenger. This was John Mackay, an old friend of his, who had come to join him in gold-prospecting explorations. For two years Sutherland had lived there quite alone. The two gripped hands fervently. Sutherland was delighted to have a friend in his solitude. His dog Bruce gave tongue to vociferous welcome.

“It's fine to see you, John.”

“Aye, Donald. It's a grand lot o' glens ye have here all to yourself.”

“It is that, but I wish there were some of our good Sutherland deer roaming the Cleddau yonder. I'm weary of weka and pigeon. I'd almost give away Bruce here, the deevil, for a dinner of venison chops in the frying-pan.”

Mackay pitched his tent alongside his friend's and the two planned prospecting and exploring expeditions around the coast and up the valley of the Arthur that led inland they knew not how far.

Sutherland and Mackay, with guns, slash-hooks, and prospecting-dish, and Bruce, were clambering the rocky side of Lake Ada. They made a rough bush bivouac. In the morning, with the mists clearing from the Arthur valley, the prospectors tested the Arthur's sands for gold. No luck; they moved on. They discovered a very beautiful series of falls. The cascade descending through the forest was named after Mackay. The two Scots discovered also the curious Bell Rock on the river bank. page 274 As they went on they blazed the tree trunks here and there with the slash-hook.

On the evening of the third day from Milford the explorers camped in a very deep and mossy forest, where the trees, hung with green beards, leaned over them in fantastic attitudes. In camp that night, they heard the steady dull thunder, rising and falling with the breeze, of some great cataract.

“Hear yon watter falling doon,” said Mackay to his mate.

“Eh, but it's beyond the ordinary. We'll see something grand in the morning.”

After their bush breakfast, the pair slashed their way through the ferns and mossy trees, in the direction of the great thudding sound. It shook the very earth as they approached. They could not see anything until they were nearly at the foot of the vast precipice over which it poured. Then suddenly they emerged from the forest and saw the cataract, dropping almost from the clouds. The explorers stood in amazement, gazing up at the waterfall. Mackay broke the silence.

“What do ye think o't, Donald?” he asked.

“Eh, John, but it's a de'il o' a drop!”

“How high d'ye make it?”

“A mile of water on end,” said Sutherland. “That nick in the cliff must be nearly as high as Mitre Peak, and that's more than five thousand feet high. Aye, but this will be a sight to tell the Government about when they come in to Milford again.”

“But they'll no' believe us, Donald, I'm thinking?”

“Oh aye, John, they'll no' believe us.”

page 275

That discovery was made on November 10th, 1880. It was eight years later before the Government sent surveyors in to explore the unknown hinterland of Milford, and to measure the height of the great water-fall, which had been named after Sutherland. The Chief Surveyor of Otago, Mr. C. W. Adams—father of the present Government Astronomer of New Zealand, Dr. C. E. Adams—was the Government Surveyor sent round by the steamer to Milford Sound to make accurate observations and explore the district. With Adams was Mr. Thomas McKenzie—later Sir Thomas—who had done much pioneer work exploring Fiord-land. Young C. E. Adams was a cadet in his father's party.

The mile-high estimate was reduced to 1,904 feet by the surveyors' measurements; it is divided into three leaps. Even so, it is the highest waterfall in New Zealand, or in any part of the Southern Hemisphere, except perhaps some of the great cataracts in the forests of Brazil towards the Andes.

∗ ∗ ∗

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.