Fiordland Private Museum stands among a jumble of weathered cabins eight kilometres from Marian Corner where the tourist route continues to Milford Sound via the Homer Tunnel.
It is a onetime Public Works Department camp known as Henderson’s and there is a transient look about it — like everything in the area — as if awaiting the next flood to wash it away. Yet this small building, a mere 500 square feet, holds within its walls a slice of history that is filled with heroic endeavour… and magnificent failure.
The curator, Murray Gunn, is the only son of legendary bushman and mountain guide Davie Gunn. Murray’s ferreting instinct, combined with a penchant for identifying and recording historical objects, has kept him in the Hollyford Valley for the past 34 years, collecting the memories of a remarkable era.
Murray’s lifestyle is ‘almost pioneer’. He uses electricity only when there are enough people staying in the camp to warrant starting the generator. He has no telephone and anybody wishing to book a cabin has to send a telegram, without expecting a reply.
Apart from peak times, the camp is quiet. Dougal McScratch, Murray’s long haired black and white with a bit of tan dog died about three years ago, and is not to be replaced. The camp and museum are on National Park land, and introduced animals are technically not allowed.
A man he fondly calls The Recluse lives in the camp much of the time, and he has frequent visits from Beansprout, a locally famous hermit (apparently named because on one occasion he removed his hat and revealed beansprouts growing in his hair).
Getting the exhibits to the museum has been a job in itself, often involving a two day journey by boat and packhorse. But the result of Murray’s efforts is a unique collection of pioneer artefacts and objects of interest.
Every nook, cranny and corner (including the rafters) is packed with the memorabilia and paraphernalia of those who dared to explore and settle this wild, inhospitable region, south of the Arawata River to Milford Sound and west of the Main Divide.
Many of the exhibits date from the settlement of Jamestown at Martins Bay in 1870. High hopes were held for this remote outpost at the climax of the southern gold-rushes. It boasted the shortest distance to Australia and eliminated the risk of sailing ships having to face the Roaring Forties on their way to Dunedin, the country’s busiest port at that time.
The only problem was getting across the Divide. The access was never finished and starvation finally drove the settlers out.
The McKenzie brothers, Malcolm and Hugh, were the only ones to remain at Martins Bay after the turn of the century. Cattle farmers, they eventually sold out to Davie Gunn in 1926. Among the museum’s exhibits is a draught board they fashioned on the bottom of a barrel, along with a ploughshare and anvil from the abandoned McKenzie homestead.
Some say the roads were n trade if vessels were enticed to the western side of the province. A few Maoris survived because they were able to grow their sweet potato and camp on the sand dunes, out of sandfly range.
These, and a variety of little known facts and figures, are duly recorded next to the relevant artefacts in the museum. More recent developments and catastrophes are also there, such as the completion of the Homer Tunnel in 1953 and items on the numerous search and rescue missions that have been mounted in the area. A twisted propeller is all that was recovered from one airborne jaunt that ended in disaster.
But it is the stories of people that make this museum so distinctive that breathe life and soul into it. Real people.
Characters that, thanks to Murray, have left their indelible mark on these great U-shaped hanging valleys, among the glaciers and icefalls of towering 1500m buttresses — the highest mountains in the world to come straight from sea level.
There are the families: the McKenzies, Greens, Martins and Webbs, the explorers, the loners, hermits and drifters. Chief Tutoko, Quentin McKinnon, Donald Sutherland, Samuel Turner, William O’Leary (Arawata Bill), Captain Alabaster, Patrick Caples, James Hector, Talbot, Graves, Williamson and Barrington, to name just a few. And, of course, Davie Gunn.
Davie originally left for Martins Bay in 1926 to “wrestle the neglected McKenzie cattle back under control.” To do this he set up a series of camps between Martin’s Bay and the Eglington Valley, where he lived in primitive conditions before setting up base camp, first at Deadman’s Camp and later at Henderson’s.
Murray joined his father in 1954. A year later the Hollyford River claimed Davie’s life and in 1956 Murray began his museum.
In the middle of the room stand the pack saddle boxes made up for Samuel Turner’s attempts to climb 2746m Mt Tutoko. It wasn’t until Turner’s sixth attempt in 1924, with no expense spared, that he finally made the top. On one of his earlier attempts he came close to starvation.
According to Murray, Arawata Bill used to do a bit of prospecting in the Red Hills area, but it was only an excuse. It was the mountains, the bush, the birds, the exhilarating loneliness that drew him, and the ever-changing face of nature on a grand scale.
The museum records Arawata Bill’s crossing of the Barrier Mountains, over a 1500m pass through snow and ice, in his thigh gumboots with only his old horse for company.
Murray’s little museum is strong with the aura of endeavour and the will to survive — blended and served up with a touch of backcountry humour.