Thursday, 11 December 2014

Pioneers of Fiordland

Milford Sound has had scenic appeal for tourists since colonial times. Photo / Paul Rush
Milford Sound has had scenic appeal for tourists since colonial times. Photo / Paul Rush
A gentle stroll along Te Anau's lakeside path soon tells me I'm in the very heart of Fiordland National Park.
Beside the Visitor Centre I meet Quintin McKinnon, the bold Scottish surveyor who discovered the first overland route to Milford Sound, now known as the Milford Track. The bronze statue of this short, stocky pioneer presents him as a confident man with a faraway look in his eye.
I meet local identity Ray Willets, a current Milford Track guide at a sprightly 76 years of age.
"I grew a beard and played Quintin McKinnon for 12 months, to raise funds for the statue that was built in 1988, to mark the 100th anniversary of the first crossing of McKinnon Pass," Ray tells me.
"Before the Milford Track route was opened Te Anau slumbered on the edge of the unknown. It was McKinnon's exploits that gave birth to our community."
This brief encounter with Te Anau's colourful past inspires me to join Richard Parkinson on his Heritage Trails mini-van tour of the town.
From a prominent lookout point, we gaze across the lake to Garden Point where McKinnon lived in the bush for a number of years.
"He lived in isolation to cure his intemperance and guided parties on the Milford Track," says Parkinson.
"In 1892 he disappeared on a solo trip to Milford. His boat was found submerged at the Dot Islands, but the non-swimmer's body was never discovered."
Te Anau sits serenely on the eastern side of the South Island's largest lake, straggling along the shoreline in one of the country's most scenic locations.
The first resident was Richard Henry, who built himself a slab cottage on the south shore of the lake, opposite the present motor camp, in 1883.
Within a few years he became disillusioned by the increasing crowd of tourists coming through. This was providential indeed, as in 1894 he was appointed curator of the world's first island sanctuary for birds.
For 15 hard years he worked in Dusky Sound, trapping endangered kakapo and kiwi and transferring over 700 to Resolution Island.
During this period misguided politicians approved the introduction of mustelids for rabbit control. Henry realised that the stoats and weasels were swimming to the island and undoing his efforts. After years of perseverance, he had to admit defeat but he is still revered as the grandfather of New Zealand's wildlife conservation movement.
Our heritage tour brings us to Te Anau Downs harbour where boats leave daily for the Milford Track.
Parkinson recounts the exploits of James McKerrow, who conducted a waterborne survey of the lake in 1864. Welsh sealing captain, John Grono, helped McKinnon cut the Milford Track and William Homer discovered the saddle above the tunnel on the Milford Road.
I travel by bus to Milford Sound and gaze in wonder at the grand scene of sheer rock walls plummeting into the black depths of the fiord. Mitre Peak's cleft summit rears up sharply from the black depths, mirrored to perfection in the glassy waters.
According to Maori legend, the great sea-god, Tu-te-Raki-Whanoa, carved Fiordland out of a solid mountain block with his great adze. Milford Sound has long been recognised as his greatest work.
The Waitaha and early Maori tribes followed the Greenstone and Hollyford Valleys to the West Coast in search of pounamu or greenstone.
Milford's first settler, Donald Sutherland, arrived with his faithful dog, John O'Groat, in 1877 and erected thatched huts by the freshwater basin he called the "City of Milford". He had set out from Dunedin in 1877 in an open sail boat, passing through Foveaux Strait and making the perilous passage up the Fiordland coast. Milford Sound was to become his home for the next 40 years.
He went on to construct a 12-room hotel to serve the growing influx of steamer passengers on sightseeing cruises.
Sutherland possessed a whimsical sense of humour and referred to his visitors as "asphalters" (city dwellers) and "shadow-catchers" (photographers). During the winters he lived a hermit-like existence.
With fellow adventurer, John McKay, he explored the Arthur River in 1880, having spotted a distant flash of water over the treetops. They came upon a waterfall and tossed a coin for the naming rights, which were won by McKay.
Later, they arrived at the base of a giant cascade, which became the Sutherland Falls - the third-highest in the world.
On a recent three-day tramp down the Hollyford Valley to Martins Bay, my guide recalled the exploits of Davey Gunn, who he earnestly described as "the greatest man who ever lived".
Often referred to as New Zealand's own Davey Crockett and the first real Southern Man, Gunn was as tight-lipped and laconic as any Speight's-drinking actor on today's flat screen.
In 1926, the legendary Gunn took over the Hollyford cattle run from the sons of Daniel McKenzie, the pioneer of Martins Bay. When the spread of red deer ruined his pastures he diversified into tourism, taking horse treks to remote wilderness camps.
One evening he heard a Fox Moth aircraft crash into the surf on Big Bay beach. Running into the sea he found one person dead and four injured. Realising they needed urgent medical attention he rode his horse, rowed a dinghy and ran on foot on an incredible mercy dash that covered 90 kilometres in 20 hours.
Fiordland has a panoply of pioneering heroes. The first European explorers, surveyors, run holders and traders all contributed to the beginnings of Te Anau.
Today, when I look at the modern Southern Man who receives an accolade from his cobber for producing a pack of Speight's beer on a muster, I think of the true pioneers that have gone before and feel humbled by their achievements.
It takes a visit to Te Anau and a wilderness tramp in the heart of Fiordland to understand the sacrifices they made and the hardships they endured.

Thanks to NZ Herald to run this article written by Paul Rush.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

A Romance of Lake Wakatipu


Note 15.—Clutha River.


From Victoria University website:

Mr. James McKerrow, formerly District Surveyor of Otago, whose early explorations and, considering the state of the country in these days, astonishingly-correct observations did far more towards settling the country and developing its resources than those of any other man, makes the following pertinent remarks regarding the economics of these inland water systems: "The lakes are a very great feature in the natural history of the country, and perform a most important function in its economy. They act as regulating reservoirs to the mountain-torrents emerging from them, for over their broad surface the floods find room to spread their volume until there be time given for the accumulation to pass away in the steady flow of one river. The value of the lakes as a means of restraining such rivers as the Clutha within safe limits will more readily appear when it is considered that the Wakatipu alone covers 114 square miles, the Wanaka 75 square miles, and the Hawea 48 square miles—altogether 237 square miles of lake to regulate its volume. These lakes have also a rise and fall of several feet. From the data thus given it will be evident that but for the tempering influences of the lakes, the Clutha, in place of flowing along a well-defined channel, a perennial stream, would devastate the whole country."
After nearly thirty years' European experience, the soundness of this theory, put forward at a time when the interior was terra incognita, can be fully attested. With the exception of a few miles of low-lying country at its mouth the Clutha has never been known to overflow its banks. With a body of water like this well confined, the bed in some instances has been scooped out to a great depth, the banks alone in these cases giving a drop of from 50ft. to 60ft. The country through which it flows is widely diversified in its aspects, varying from alluvial flats of great extent to abrupt mountain-gorges, in which barely sufficient room exists for road-making. Through some of its rocky defiles the river runs with great velocity. The average current, however, does not exceed four knots. In appearance these defiles are, as a rule, wildly grand. They form so many necks or funnels in the body of the river, at which the channel gets so contracted that the current receives all the greater impetus. The rush is for the most part that of a smooth volume, without any sign of submerged rocks or boulders. It does not demand great powers of imagination to invest these defiles with a handful of satanic lore and describe them as the devil's mill-streams, although it must be confessed the hydraulics are not generally recognised branches in demonology. The scene overhead is equally wild and suggestive. The precipices are high, the gorges in that way getting completely walled in. These precipices exhibit rocks and boulders striking all manner of threatening attitudes, from the slight list forward to the distinctly dangerous-looking, overhanging ledge. Some of these mighty excrescences look like turrets, embattlements, and hill-forts, but they are all too great, too magnificent, to be associated with the warlike operations of man. If we are to do them substantial justice we must bring the imaginative powers again into requisition and people them with a race of giants, armed to the teeth with the artilleries of heaven. That is the only way oat of the difficulty, and even then we may congratulate ourselves upon having escaped lightly.