Dubbed the finest walk in the world, the Milford Track’s history is as colourful as its scenery.
With more than one million people expected to visit Piopiotahi/Milford Sound this year, it’s incredible to fathom the iconic landscape was once considered nearly inaccessible.
Today, it is easily reached by car in less than two hours from Te Anau, but wind the clocks back before the 1954 opening of the Homer Tunnel, and there was no road access at all.
Go back further still, before the 1888 discovery of McKinnon Pass, and the only access was by ship.
A carefully managed 14,000 visitors now walk the Milford Track every year, following in the footsteps of pioneering settlers who found and forged the route some 74 years after the sound was discovered, kickstarting the tourism boom for New Zealand’s most recognisable postcard location.
Prior to pākehā discovery, however, it is believed the inland route between the head of Te Anau and Piopiotahi was used by Māori to gather and transport tangiwai pounamu.
The precious stone, clear like glass, is the most ancient form of pounamu and is found almost exclusively only in Milford Sound. It was sought for tools, weapons and trade, and likely shipped in larger quantities through the Sound.
Retired DOC ranger Ken Bradley – who worked in Fiordland for nearly 50 years – says there is little archaeological evidence of early Māori using the now famous track but he says they would have explored the area extensively, and likely used an inland route to Milford Sound.
“I imagine that within 100 or 150 years of arriving, there wouldn’t have been one gully left unturned – there was nothing else really to do but explore, find food and somewhere to sleep,” Bradley says.
“And they would have had no real trouble gaining food down there.”
Fur seals, fish, eels, and ground birds were plentiful, and following European settlement early accounts tell of now endangered pāteke, whio, kākā, kākāpō and kea being shot for the dinner table.
Settler Quintin McKinnon (1851-1892) supposedly cooked an omelette with 42 whio eggs, Bradley says – cringeworthy when you consider his meal equates to more the one per cent of the estimated population today.
Abused as it was, the land’s abundance was not to last, and before the 20th century ticked over, the influx of pests and corresponding silence of native birds was ringing alarm bells with scientists.
James Richardson spoke of the rapid extermination of endemic species at a meeting of the Otago Institute in 1891, saying: “It would have been deemed impossible that either kākāpō, kiwi or weka could become rare during the present century, but 30 years ago the same might have been written regarding the native quail. Yet today, the quail is, I believe, absolutely extinct.”
Despite being killed off in their thousands, namu – Fiordland’s infamous sandfly – remain irritatingly abundant in the region, with no sign of decline.
So thickly do they plague the Milford Track, the end of the route – Sandfly Point – bears their name.
Namu were spawned in legend by Hine-nui-te-pō, Māori goddess of night and death, to keep Fiordland safe from human intervention, and its small population today suggests her scheme may have been successful.
Their havoc is described graphically by writer W.L in an 1891 issue of the Otago Witness: ‘What you desire most is a longer vocabulary; because by the time you have combed a pint and a half or so of sandflies out of your hair and beard, and your paper is blotched with the dead, and your hands disfigured with gore you have generally exhausted pretty well all the expletives in the language.’
How early residents protected themselves is subject to much conjecture, but covering exposed skin in the fat of fur seals is one idea suggested by researchers, Bradley says.
“You can imagine what that would have smelled like at the end of a hot day. I think in a lot of respects, people just get used to them, and they don’t react as much unless the sandflies are really thick.”
Its isolation – and possibly namu – kept Piopiotahi in an undiscovered slumber until 1812, when Welsh explorer Captain John Grono visited, and gave it the name Milford Haven after his home town.
The sound’s narrow passage to the ocean had, until then, been bypassed by sailing explorers, including Captain James Cook in 1770.
Milford’s early trailblazers were a hardy bunch who chose the life of solitude in New Zealand’s wettest inhabited place.
The first pākehā to settle was Scotsman Donald Sutherland, who arrived in 1877 and built thatched huts he dubbed ‘City of Milford’. He became known as the Milford Sound Hermit, and remained until his death in 1919.
His biggest claim to fame was his discovery of Sutherland Falls, thought at the time to be the world’s highest.
Although long dethroned of this title, the impressive feature added further wonder to the region, and it remains a must visit side trip on the Milford Track.
As the story tells it, Sutherland and John Mackay were surveying the Milford valley in 1880 when they stumbled upon a beautiful – but much less impressive – cascading falls, and decided to toss a coin for naming rights. They made a gentleman’s agreement that whoever lost the toss could name the next waterfall.
The winner – although, perhaps not in hindsight – was Mackay, after whom the attractive, yet comparatively small, Mackay Falls is now named.
“Then, of course, they found Sutherland Falls, and Mackay must have been quite miffed about that,” Bradley says.
At 580m, Sutherland Falls became an iconic feature of the Milford Track, but “they could just as easily have been named the Mackay Falls,” Bradley says.
The first woman made the overland journey to the falls a decade later. She was quoted but unnamed in an Otago Witness article saying: ‘Its magnificence is too great for me, and requires to be seen.
‘I intend to return the same way if not prevented, and be a living witness of what may be accomplished even by a woman.’
According to the report, the trip nearly cost her life when she tripped and landed on a sharp sapling which pierced her skin behind her left ear and tore a large scalp wound.
‘I shall carry the marks of it to my grave,’ she said.
The same year also saw the first successful climb of the falls, by young surveyor William Quill – who gave his name to the source lake.
Using simple equipment, he ascended the 580m falls in three and a half hours, reporting to his chief surveyor that ‘the least slip would send me down the perpendicular rock to be dashed to pieces hundreds of feet below’.
Quill returned ‘without a scratch or bruise’, but died less than a year later after falling off a 600m cliff near Homer Saddle. Eerily reminiscent of his earlier report, his brothers found jaw, skull and scalp fragments at the bottom after a 42-day search, and he was identified by the hair still clinging to his scalp.
The Milford Track route over McKinnon Pass – although likely already known to Māori – was discovered by Scotsman Quintin McKinnon in 1888, who was employed by the Otago Survey Department to find an overland route to the sound – now a popular tourist destination.
He gave his name to the pass and became the first Milford Track guide. The route soon became well worn by the feet of visitors, who, prior to the route’s discovery, could access the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ only by ship.
McKinnon died four years later – he was last seen sailing on Lake Te Anau in November, 1892. A search party recovered his wrecked ship and belongings, but his body was never found and a memorial now stands at the pass.
By 1901, control of the track had been taken over by the government’s Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, and walking the track soon became limited to guided walks.
With the male-dominated explorer era of the 19th century now over, the 20th century gave way to a feminine majority.
Ray Willett – a Milford Track legend whose involvement stretches back to the late 50s – says it wasn’t uncommon to have 30 women, and just two or three men on guided expeditions.
“No red-blooded Kiwi male was going to go on a guided walk – it just wasn’t their thing,” he said.
Willett started guiding on the track in 1958, and fondly recalls the time as the most memorable working days of his life.
“We cut down trees to cook food and we had four pack horses to carry gear, and they never broke an egg,” he says.
Guided visitors came from all walks of life, Willett says, but the track itself was a great leveller of people.
“There was never any discrimination of the groups. Whether they were truck drivers, lords or ladies, they all had to queue up just the same for their dinner.
“There was no alcohol, either. If we could carry a dozen beers on a pack horse, then we could have carried more diesel, kerosene or food.”
The middle of the century saw the track open only to commercial guided tours, which few could afford, and by the early 60s, disgruntled Kiwis were beginning to take exception to the elitism happening in their own national park, and decided to take action.
In a bold move now known as the freedom walk of 1965, members of Otago Tramping Club walked the track in protest, without the permission of the Tourist Hotel Corporation which then managed the track.
The publicity generated by the walk put pressure on the government to open the track to the public, and in 1966, the dual system was established, allowing independent and guided walkers to coexist on the track and stay in separate facilities.
Today, it’s a smoothly run operation, but Willett says it was not always so.
“It was originally set up with no booking system, and it was a bloody disaster. You would have a 40 bunk hut, with 80 people in it,” he says.
“We had to make it run similarly to a guided walk, only independent walkers paid less and didn’t get showers.”
From the days of settlers’ shacks and exploration, to pack horses and privatisation, the Milford Track has changed dramatically over its 130-year history, but for Willett, there is comfort in the timeless spectacle of the route.
“What hasn’t changed is Mother Nature. You still have those glacial carved valleys, the crystal clear Clinton River… it just hasn’t changed,” he says. And long may it continue.