From the impersonally deodorised comfort of a rental car, I can see the man picking his wad over the boulders of the stream-bed far below in the mountain valley, now coated with snow.
Straggling behind him is a girl no more than 13 years old. It is bitter winter and the pair are not making easy progress. They appear to be carrying only a blanket each. Whatever equipment and food they have must be tied within the blankets, but the man has an axe.
High above, the light of dusk is pink on the mountain peaks, but the valley has become an austere monochrome of rock and snow. They must travel fast to reach the firewood and shelter of the tree-line before nightfall.
The valley seems shrouded in silence, but the man, to keep up his daughter’s spirits, is singing. The great granite walls rising 600 metres up from the valley floor somehow magnify both the silence and the song at the same time.
I turn my car-heater up, set the windscreen wipers to sweep the snowfall clear and drive on, thinking about the sight I’ve seen so clearly—those two, alone in this wild, strange country. The fire of determination, the pursuit of a dream to the end.
I know where they’re going and I know their names. Dan is taking his daughter Alice to boarding school, 10 days trek to the east. The harshness of the journey, where no track is cut, will see her hospitalised, and she will not make school. The year is 1886.
Those figures I imagine there in the snow could belong to any one of the hundreds who last century sailed from the smog-bound cities of industrial Britain to this side of the world for their slice of Pacific paradise. They came to Fiordland instead—to a territory of rock, moss, mountain, jungle and unceasing pouring rainfall that ultimately defeated all but a few.
I found the best way to understand their hardship—and Fiordland itself—was to picture them alive today, travelling the same country they travelled so long ago. Their story gives some text to the exotic tourist postcard that for many this place has become.
I’d just spent a week in the mountains myself, among other things walking a track that leads from an inland lake over a mountain pass and down to a fiord at Milford. At night, by candlelight in the bush huts, I’d read about the early people, the people who disappeared.
At first it was the Maori—feet wrapped with flax leaves and wearing cloaks of kiwi skins and feathers—who crossed into this country. But they came only on nomadic forays no more than a month or two, mainly to gather greenstone for clubs, adzes and ornaments, but also to harvest seal.
Early Pakeha reported tantalising glimpses of cooking-fire smoke far into the hills, with the occasional camp of crude flax shelters, but there was very little contact with the Maori themselves.
These fleeting ghostly glimpses of human life in harsh territory gave birth to the story of the Lost Tribe,said to be have been remnants of Kati Mamoe driven west by tribal warfare into exile. No evidence of any settlement capable of supporting more than a small nomadic party has been found.
Cook first visited in 1770, and again three years later, when in Dusky Sound he cleared an area of bush from which to make astronomical observations. The stumps of these felled trees have survived with the original axe-marks intact, but it was Cook’s reports of the sealing potential that left the biggest scars.
The sealers, with the rapacious markets of the northern civilised world to service, rapidly exhausted the herds before moving to the new killing ground of subantarctic waters only four days’ sail to the south. One ship, the Favourite, took 60,000 skins-20,000 more than New Zealand’s present entire seal population. One sealing gang built New Zealand’s first Pakeha house in 1792, but, like the Maori, these itinerants of a different age were not intent on making Fiordland their home.
It is the stories of those who came to settle, more than any other, which throw Fiordland into clearest relief—the stories of those who came with families, who carried with them rose bushes to plant in hoped-for front gardens, who suffered terribly before giving in.
Alice McKenzie’s journal records the trek with her father to boarding school back in 1886: “We encountered very bad weather. The rain fell nearly every day, a drenching rain, and even if it cleared for a few hours the bush was sodden and we were wet through. The creeks were up and at Hidden Falls we were detained two days before we could get across. I held on to my father with one hand and held a stick in the other. Even so, the swift current swept my feet from under me, and but for my father holding me firmly and dragging me across I would have been swept down the river and drowned.
“I was always too tired to help my father [at night], and I used to marvel at the patience of Father fanning the tiny flame among the wood shavings till he got it fit to light larger pieces of wood. The ground was always wet, so he gathered armfuls of fern, wet like everything else, but when they were shaken they would not be so wet, and at least would keep us off the sodden ground. Then each of us rolled in our blankets, which were also cold and damp. I was generally so tired I could sleep in spite of the cold.”
They went hungry: “Only a little butter, sugar and tea remained . . . pieces of butter rolled in sugar helped to allay the pangs of hunger. Father must have gone short of food before it was finished. When our bread was nearly done I remember him saying he was not hungry and preferred to smoke. Darkness came on when we were some distance down the Greenstone [Valley]. I was cold, wet and hungry. Father lit a fire, and as I began to get warm, weakness came over me and I fainted. When I recovered, Father wanted to go ahead and get some food; but I was too terrified at the thought of being left alone and helpless in that long, lonely valley.”
Then there was the story of William Webb, another Martins Bay settler, bearing the body of his small child alone through a storm to the cemetery of a township that was never built. He found on his return a distraught wife at the door of their fern-log hut, who gave the news that their second child had died, too, from the poison of the bright-coloured berries. They lost two more children, from other causes, before they abandoned their hopes.
At Milford itself the Sutherlands, an elderly couple, stayed on to the end. It was in the depths of winter in 1919 that seriously ill Donald fell from his bed. His wife Elizabeth couldn’t lift him, but shifted his bed to the floor where, without hope of medical help, he died. For six weeks, until spring thaw and help came, she was forced to live with the corpse.
By this time the Milford Track had been cut for 30 years, and the Sutherlands were running a guesthouse, but in winter, when avalanche danger and a snowed-in mountain pass prevented access, they discharged their staff and stayed on alone.
Avalanches can still cut Milford off from the outside world for weeks at a time. Last winter saw record snowfalls and record monster avalanches which buried the road under 20 metres of snow and avalanche debris.
It was under the threat of avalanche and in incredibly cold conditions that 200 men on a Depression work scheme began construction of the Homer Tunnel that would finally, in 1953, allow the road to reach Milford. Three died when, in separate incidents, avalanches overwhelmed the work camps.
Now, road-workers have established monitoring points to warn of dangerous snow build-up on the vast snowfields that lie out of sight above the cliffs that line the road. These monitoring points are checked daily by helicopter in the avalanche season, and explosives are used to trigger controlled snowslides. Driving past great swathes of trees flattened by avalanche wind-blast remains faintly unnerving.
I travelled to Martins Bay from Milford by small hired plane which, to reach my airstrip, had already spent two hours trying to dodge through the fog, rain and low cloud that dangerously obscured the mountains. My pilot, Steve Ditmar, had spent those hours trying the Homer Saddle and the Mackinnon Pass before finally making it via the early Maori route along the Greenstone Valley. Fiordland pilots in heavy conditions feel their way along precisely the same trails, valleys and mountain passes first found and named by the settlers, and the Maori before them.
Where many trampers have died trapped by days of foul weather blown in from the Southern Ocean, for the flier the danger is about being trapped by minutes—the minutes it takes to fly from clear weather into bad, where mountain walls vanish behind a curtain of cloud, where irreversible split-second decisions must be made to find a way out. The tiny planes flit like butterflies between raw knuckles of rock that punch into the sky. Fancy footwork.
We fly low along the length of the Milford fiord toward open sea. On our left, Mitre Peak rises 1692 metres sheer from a deep green sea, a pall of cloud hanging heavily about its shoulders. To our right the Stirling falls tip 146 metres from a hanging valley direct into the fiord, the wind keeping a cloud of spray hovering at the head. Milford is the only one of 14 fiords accessible by road.
Stirling is a permanent waterfall, but there are literally hundreds of others that come to life only when it rains—dribbling, roaring, tumbling hundreds of metres down faces of rock, draping them with fine-spun threads of silver. These waterfalls appear to empty directly from the cloud, but higher still, in the murk of the cloud itself, bright against the darkening bulk of the mountains, are further silver spouts. No Dore woodcut is more extravagant.
We reach open sea and track north along the coast through a narrow corridor of visibility that lies between the stormclouds at sea level and the fog that hides the sea cliffs, whose vegetation is cropped short by wind. Bull kelp anchored to rock in great tangles twists in the surf.
I notice the pilot is continually looking over his shoulder. Later Steve tells me that conditions up ahead had become so marginal that he was checking to make sure the cloud wasn’t moving in to hide an escape return route.
This is the way Donald Sutherland used to come in his tiny rowing boat Sandfly to visit the families up at Martins Bay. Sutherland, who fought with Gariabaldi’s Redshirts, settled at Milford in 1878 with the vision of turning the fiord into a tourist resort.
He was not made welcome at the McKenzies’. Alice’s journal explains why: “His manner seemed deliberately rough and uncouth. When visiting he would sit some yards from the open fireplace where Mother did her cooking on camp ovens and iron pots. Sitting and smoking, he would suddenly spit into the fire. How he did it, I do not know, but he would always avoid the cooking utensils.
“Mother would speak to him sharply, but he would take no notice. We, who were smaller, rather admired and envied his skill. After he had gone we would try to imitate him, but were quickly stopped. He would stay with us for a meal, and then go off in his boat, and on account of his manners—or I should say lack of them—he was not pressed to stay longer.”
That night at Martins Bay I cleared two dead rats from my but before falling asleep. These were kiore, descendants of the original rat Maori voyagers brought as a portable food supply 800 years ago. Fiordland is the last place they survive in any number on the mainland. They’re clean animals—as clean as the undergrowth they usually live in, the berries and seeds they eat and, unfortunately, the birds’ eggs they steal.
The Norwegian rats introduced by the sealers are less benign. Andreas Reischek, an Austrian ornithologist, wrote of his encounter with them in 1887, when their population levels peaked: “They gnawed at our boots, though we had them with us in the tent; they came behind us and nibbled at the bones placed for the dogs; but they amused me most by disturbing Mr Rimmer my companion; he sleeps so soundly that even when I fired my gun at the rats in the but he did not hear it; but on the mountains they took a fancy to his hair, and he was wakened three times in the one night by their biting it away.
“I fed them on poisoned plaster of Paris and oatmeal, trapped and shot them; but as fast as I got rid of one lot, another came. They made such a noise in the but I could scarcely sleep. They ran over us in bed, knocked articles down from the shelves. They dug up and carried away potatoes planted in the garden.”
Now, on Breaksea Island, well to the south, conservation workers have finally rid one habitat of the menace that has seen bird and insect life drastically reduced. They call themselves rat-busters, but the work has been far from easy.
Nick Torr led the effort on the 170-hectare island that rises 300 craggy metres. “Anybody can kill 90 per cent of anything, but this is the biggest island in the world that rats have been cleared from. It took us 18 months of track-cutting to establish 750 bait-stations. We baited every one of those stations every day for 22 days; we dangled from ropes, we used helicopters for the peaks. And then we had to monitor the island for two years. It was a massive job.”
Now that the island is rat-free, it’s ready to receive a saddleback population transferred from small islands south-west of Stewart Island. With only 200 individuals left, these birds need a larger area if they are to flourish.
If Breaksea was free of rats, it seemed to me that they’d all been shifted to Martins Bay. After a night of interminable scufflings in the ceiling above my head, I woke with relief to a day clear and blue that revealed a lake close behind the bay, with a back-drop of snow-covered mountains. Lower down, a rainforest jungle of creepers, mosses, orchids and flesh-tearing barbed vine choked the lake shore.
When the wind is still and the weather clear, these surroundings are held in mirror-perfect focus by the lake, but the chocolate-box reflection is regularly upset by the cut of triangular dorsal fins.
The fresh water of the lake drains by river to a tidal lagoon, protected by dunes of sand, a west-coast grey. It’s up this waterway that the dolphins come to feed on fat brown trout.
There’s only one person living at Martins Bay now—on the block of land where the Webb children died. For ten years Neil Drysdale and his Weimaraner dog Penny have been fishing the river, hunting deer and guiding trampers who stay in one of Neil’s huts made from corrugated iron sheeting. Penny points deer for Neil, but she also stands watch on the lake.
The dog has developed an interest in fish, diving in to seize trout when they’re hooked, and plunging among shoals of whitebait that Neil nets for his main income. Penny snaps at these tiny transparent fish as another dog might chomp at flies. But, according to Neil, it’s the dolphins that get Penny maddest of all.
“You might get 40 dolphins in there, and as soon as she starts barking I’ll know they’ve come. She starts swimming out to them, and they’ll swerve over to have a closer look—you know, playing all round her. She doesn’t see it that way, doesn’t see it’s a game. She wants them out of her lake!”
The first attempt to permanently settle the Fiordland coast was made at this very pocket of land between mountain and surf some 120 years ago. The settlers were sold sight unseen a selection of urban, suburban and rural sections that promised a town replete with every civic amenity. Jamestown, on paper at least, lacked for nothing.
The nearest real townshipQueenstown—lay inland behind 60km of mountain range and jungle valley . . . but there was going to be a road. Heavy surf kept ships away . . . but the lagoon entrance was going to be dredged. The promises added up to Jamestown becoming one of the South Island’s busiest ports. This was a time when every road cut in New Zealand was expected to open up access to gold, coal or the more durable wealth of pasture.
But these factory-hands, office workers, shopkeepers—industrial refugees with dreams—found no township, only a wilderness where huts they made themselves from fern logs were the first shelter from the seven metres of annual rainfall.
The road never came; the lagoon entrance remained easily navigable only for dolphin. These people, who had no idea how to live from the land—or the sea—clung on in terrible isolation. Mothers were reduced to feeding their children a jelly made from boiled seaweed. The mountains, rivers and sea were always ready to claim life.
One who drowned in the surf was Carl Wolff, a deserter from the German army, who had escaped first to Norway, then to New Zealand, which became his home. He died in 1887, aged 25. (Later, during World War One, the Martins Bay area became a refuge for a handful of conscientious objectors on the run from conscription—”conchies,” as they were called.)
In 1955, David Gunn,the last surviving link with the early people, drowned on a trek into Martins Bay when his horse stumbled while fording a river. David had bought the McKenzies’ then vacant rural section in 1926 to run cattle, but he lived away from the bay.
Now, the promised road has come closer, but from the road-end it’s still a stiff four-day tramp into the bay.
Along this road David Gunn’s son Murray has stayed on by himself to run a hikers’ camp, whose roadman’s huts were abandoned along with the road.
Gunn’s Camp is the closest thing to a town in these parts, complete with a hand-pump for petrol. Murray, like his father before him, welcomes in the stranger with a cuppa and some well-practised sparring humour that lets nobody off the hook.
I make the mistake of asking for gas. Murray looks me dead in the eye and flatly denies he has any. “I don’t sell gas, haven’t got any gas.”
As I struggle to read the answer, he elaborates. “I haven’t got any gas. Got petrol though. Might sell you some petrol. Can’t stand Americanisms.” I decide I don’t want gas after all, but might consider buying some benzine—if he has any. I pass the test.
Murray’s most constant companion is 35-year-old Jane, a packhorse which noses up to the visitor, subjecting the pockets to a brisk but beguiling search for tidbits. On one flank is daubed the word “HORSE”—on the other, the word “COW.”
“I painted ‘horse’ so that these weekend hunters wouldn’t shoot her for a deer. Cow? Well, that’s for the milk . . . Best thing I ever did. All the attention she gets is what’s keeping her alive.”
On one visit about dusk I find Murray in the kitchen of his hut. The Tilly lamp is hissing, and his feet are in the oven. He’s reading. The wireless crackles. Outside, his valley is white with frost and snow. The but is lined with books. “I like it here . . . there’s plenty of time to be intelligent in.”
On the roadside, Murray has hand-painted a sign still demanding the completion of the road that was first surveyed in 1884. Murray is serious about not letting the politicians break a promise a century old. He says he owes it to the early settlers of Martins Bay.
Back at the bay, there is not a single sign that Jamestown ever existed. The rude wooden houses have rotted into the earth. The rose bushes have long succumbed to the weight of rainforest. On the lagoon the mournful incessant cry of the optimistically-named paradise duck is some kind of reminder of the dreams that died here, hemmed in by mountains and the boom of surf.
It’s here that I meet a Belgian couple, Marleen Pieters and Jan Vondoren, who’ve been two solid weeks in the bush. They’ve come for the wilderness, for the solitude. They’re not entirely happy to meet a writer on assignment, laden with camera gear.
Marleen explains for me. “In two weeks we’ve been in the snow, the bushes and now here on the beach. And we’ve been completely alone, alone in the bush-that must be a dream for anybody. You are the first person we meet.”
I ask if winter is making it difficult. After a faintly hostile pause, Jan replies. “Sure, in many places there is no track in winter. But the safety organistion here is very good. They give every walker independence to go, with the right warnings. In wintertime it is best. It’s like spring in Europe . . .”
I leave them to their lunch and set out along the coast to a distant colony of fur seals. On the beach the surf is lathering a clean white snowfall of froth. I kick my way through it like a child.
After some hours the foreshore becomes a jumble of huge boulders, and I engross myself in leaping from one to the other—turning balletic tricks of footwork with such concentration that I almost use a seal’s back as a spring-board. The herd runs off a short distance, the leathery grip of their flippers giving them surprising speed. I watch anxiously for any sign of a bull. I encounter only the gentle regard of liquid eyes.
In a rock pool I find a Fiordland crested penguin so weak that it doesn’t try to swim away. I attempt a rescue, but my ineffectual efforts distress the bird too much. I wonder how far the bird has swum. Close in to the rocks a lobster boat from Milford is retrieving its pots. It sprints in behind a breaker, snatches the pot and throttles out at full power before the next run of surf.
On my return journey a flock of tiny fantail birds keeps me company, dancing from branch to branch. Above their lemon-yellow breasts, angry little white eyebrows stand out against black head-feathers. They fan their white tails with impatient flicks.
I stop, and soon they venture close. Around my head they hover like hummingbirds, their beady boysenberry eyes peering anxiously into mine. I feel the brush of their tiny wings on my neck, a puff of air from their wingbeat in my ear. They’re feeding off the sandflies that swarm so thickly in Fiordland you can’t help but breathe them in. The fantails hunt so intently I expect them to start tweezering the sandflies from my very nostrils.
Andreas Reischek wrote of the sandfly: “I was so pestered with sandflies that I was frequently compelled to run away from them and bathe my eyes.” Captain Cook explored the coast in 1773. He wrote: “… they cause an intolerable itching that it’s not possible to refrain from scratching [that] at last ends in ulcers like the small pox.” The Maori smeared mud and fat on their skin to keep them off. The early settlers preferred canvas hoods.
Even the heavily-feathered kea cannot escape the flies, which gather at gaps in the bird’s armour: the nostrils and eyes. The kea, fearless of humans, is troublesome in its own right, and will cheekily investigate any equipment left unguarded, tearing it to pieces. I watched one bird attempt to rip the rubber from my car’s windscreen. It paused only to scratch the sandflies away.
On my last night at Martins Bay I take a bottle of whisky across to Neil’s hut. Jim Stark, a senior conservation worker, is staying a day or two. I’m due to leave for the Milford track the following day, but I learn about the other Fiordland tracks—the Route-burn, Kepler, Dusky and Hollyford, which are at least as spectacular. The Kepler, named after the astronomer, is the newest, designed to take pressure off the Milford, which 10,000 walk every year—divided roughly equally between freedom trampers who carry their own gear, and guided parties.
I learn that on these other tracks matters can get a little tense in summer as those in search of wilderness jam into the huts. It’s not unusual for a 40-bunk but to house a hundred—all quietly elbowing each other for access to gas-cookers, beds, toilets, seats, water, air . . .
The romance of the Milford Track—where numbers can be controlled—began in earnest following a feature in the London Spectator in 1908 entitled “The Finest Walk in the World.” The story, by New Zealand poet Blanche Baughan, was packed with the clamorous descriptive prose of the time—inventive metaphor piled upon stretched simile—but was originally entitled “A Notable Walk.”
Baughan later expanded the story into a book. In the foreword she explains that a London editor, who’d never been to the track but knew a good headline when he dreamed it up, bestowed the honour. This piece of editor’s hyperbole has been echoed uncritically ever since. Baughan herself says only: “For my part, although I have not taken all the walks in the world . . . I should think our Track must be among the finest.” It is enough to say that there are a variety of Fiordland trails, some with better claim to the distinction.
But the Milford Track—and the Spectator editor—did help settle the future of Fiordland as principally a tourist destination. Tourism, an itinerant industry in its own way, is in accord with Fiordland’s history as a place only for the visitor. At the turn of the century a coastal town at Preservation Inlet did briefly flourish around the workings of a gold mine, but it, too, disappeared with Jamestown finality.
In the nomad fashion of the early sealers and Maori, crayfishermen still work the shoreline, as do paua divers, but none lives there—save for the bloke at Blanket Bay. I stopped in there on the MV Renown as it steamed south to relieve the the rat-busters of Breaksea.
Blanket Bay itself is a dead ringer for the images of lakeside Canadian Rockies perfection that every second IGA grocer’s calendar used to feature. Remember how the waterfalls smoothly slipped into mirror calm waters, overhung by majestic stands of forest, and, high above, the snowy peaks. Always somewhere a stag.
Well, that’s where Ewen Dickson has lived part-time for most of the past four years—in a snug little but that’s built on a jetty-like platform in the middle of a horseshoe bay. The platform, part of which is a heli-pad, is built alongside a tiny islet.
Ewen buys live cray for the Japanese market from the fishermen who work from Doubtful Sound—for the pure gold price of $41 a kilogram. The jetty is a jumble of containers, freezers and live-cray trays through which water is pumped. To keep all this going, generators clatter and bang 24 hours a day, but for Ewen, who was a little on the deaf side before he got here, his little island is a tranquil heaven.
“Sure, if a westerly roll comes in with a big tide I get wet feet . . but I like the solitude. People ask what I don’t like about this place, and there’s nothing I don’t like.”
Every couple of days Ewen gets a visitor from the mainland 100 metres across the bay. “All you see is a little head and a wee bow wave and you know he’s coming. Boy, when he gets here he really goes to market! Wants everything! He likes crayfish, eggs, toast—I make him toast and honey, he likes that. You’ve got to watch though . .. he’ll pinch anything that’s shiny. That’s what wekas are like. And then he’s off and I won’t see him for a couple more days.”
The Renown casts off and we slide down the fiord toward open sea, cutting through the mirror steel-grey calm. A school of dolphins take a free ride on the bow-wave. A heavy glowering cloud is snagged on the peaks at the fiord mouth. The calm turns to a jostling slop as we round the headland into the full force of 30-knot seas.
We track along virtually unbroken sheer cliff with waterfalls tumbling thousands of feet into a swell that’s rolled all the way from Antarctica. Most coasts are about settlement, a softening of the landscape where lies the familiar: roads, fences, Tip Top dairies, sheep—whatever. Watching on as the Fiordland coast rolls by, it is clear none of the familiar exists.
In behind these cliffs are still steeper mountains that block any kind of overland passage. This is one part of New Zealand where the imagination can travel a decent distance before it hits civilisation. This is Fiordland as Cook saw it.
In darkness, the Renown stands off Breaksea while we head ashore by dinghy. We motor past the slippery shining shapes of a colony of seals, protected on their headland by surf and seaweed. Weighed down with a pack, I jump from the bow into freezing water that sucks and foams about the unseen boulders of the beach.
One of the conservation workers, with a torch strapped to his head, leads me back along the beach and up to a clutch of DOC people sheltering in a but that’s tucked safely behind a tight belt of flax. The team in residence has spent the week building an aviary ready for the saddlebacks.
But tonight they’re surveying the local flax weevil population. In 1986, when rat-clearance began, they couldn’t find a single one. With the predator rats gone, a breeding population was shifted to the island. After several hours crashing about in the darkness—foraging through the flax—the hunters return with a couple of specimens.
Lying in my bunk, I think of this esoteric flax weevil safari and these people’s dedication to restoring the balance of pre-European life here on this wildly remote island.
But fishermen and the occasional conservation worker fossicking for weevils aside, it is tourism that dominates Fiordland—it is Fiordland’s oldest existing industry.
Jack Murrell’s Manapouri Lodge has been in business continuously since 1899. The timber was hauled by bullock, the piles were made of kowhai dragged from the river. In his life Jack has seen the Te Anau/ Manapouri area swell to a population of 4500, almost all connected with tourism in some way.
“There was virtually nobody living in the district for 40 miles around—the gravel road came up to the house, turned around and went back again. In those days we had two kinds of guest: the Kiwi tramper who’d arrive by bike or old car—the gear and food heavier than they were .. fearfully hardy people, coming 50 miles on hideous roads. Or then we had the very wealthy—the kind who’d done the grand tour of Europe when it was a grand tour. We had one come with his own coach and coachmen . . .
“Then came the package-tour phase, where they tried to see it all in an insanely short time, which meant unbearable hours on a bus . . . that type’s well and truly shot its bolt. Our guests these days are not lying back saying pass me a unique holiday—they’re active people earning a holiday, an adventure, and this is what tourism in the district is returning to.”
Back-packing is the growth area. I speak to a room-full of backpackers in one of the many new hostels that offer dormitory beds for $14 a night. A Swiss biker, Walter Bachmann, explains the attraction: “If you stay in the hotel you meet the business people talking about the falling shares. I can hear that in Switzerland. I think everybody is here for the wilderness. In Europe there are so many villages in the countryside. Here, there is more nature. But if people start to make too much fun in that nature, with the bungi-jumping all over the country . . . I think we can have too much of that.”
An Israeli, Carmel Gormi, adds: “I think this must be the thing for New Zealand, better than your sheep. We spend more than your sheep. And tourists do more stupid things than the sheep. No sheep would bungijump!”
One of the few non-wilderness tourist attractions in Fiordland is hydro-power generation, whose grandness of scale is quite extraordinary. Essentially, most of the north-east catchment of Fiordland is funnelled through one set of turbines in a power house tunnelled 200 metres deep beneath Lake Manapouri. This water is discharged at the rate of 22 million litres a minute through a subterranean exhaust pipe that runs 10 kilometres under a mountain range into a fiord that rivals Milford.
It takes two kilometres of tunnel descending in a large loop to reach the power house beneath the lake. Making the journey by tour bus is like travelling through the intestines of some huge engine—the maze of connections, races, lifts, shafts, surge chambers, scores of individual tunnels only becoming apparent when you see an expanded model. The whole construction resembles the lair of a cartoon-character mad professor. Two people throw the switches.
Disappearing beneath the lake in a tour bus is a time to offer a silent prayer of thanks to the thousands who fought Electricity Department plans to build a high dam here—one which would have wiped out Manapouri and a large chunk of Te Anau.
At martins bay the whisky is flowing, and Neil tells me he’s glad the Jamestown road never came through. He doesn’t want it ever to happen, doesn’t want the crowds of Milford, where 100 buses come each day in summer to disgorge an identikit melange of day-trippers. But the isolation still has its hardships.
He tells of the visiting whitebaiter who collapsed in the midst of a storm with a heart attack, and how he carted the woman, in her seventies, by wheelbarrow to the airstrip to wait for the plane he’d radioed. Tells how she died in his arms while the plane was hunting for a way through the mountains.
The conversation turns to danger. Jim Stark warns that the Mackinnon Pass—which divides the Milford Track—is treacherous at this time of year. He tells me a Dutch tramper just the month before went off the path and slipped to his death. He suggests a little-used route that will miss the avalanche danger but still get me close to the pass. “You be careful. This time of year you’ll be on your own.”
My first pause on the track is at the seventh-highest waterfall in the world. Named after Donald Sutherland, who discovered them, they drop 580 metres. At their base, vivid against the deep green moss that carpets the cliff-face, is a perfect rainbow. Playing on this surface, too, is the ever-changing shadow of the water that drops in lazy folds.
These falls were climbed three times by William Quill—the second time because no-one could believe the first claim, the scepticism easy to understand. The third climb was for the same reason that killed him: derring-do, bravado, pushing the limits—the adventurer’s Achilles heel. Nobody knew Fiordland better than Quill, but in a careless moment he, like the Dutch hiker, pushed his luck too far, and died falling from a bluff.
I picnic at a grassy clearing by the falls. Soon comes a whoosh of wings, and a barrel-chested wood pigeon,iridescent emerald save for a white apron, lands heavily on some shrub to clumsily graze the berries at my elbow.
It is late afternoon before I reach the climb to 1073m Mackinnon Pass. The track away from the main trail isn’t easy to follow through the heavy snowfall. I walk among a thicket of giant fuchsia trees, whose peach-pink bark hangs from the branches in loose braids. Where the snow has frozen I must place my boots with care. Hundreds of metres below, rapids roar in a moss-lined gorge. Quintin Mackinnon drowned in 1892, just four years after discovering the pass.
At one point a fallen beech tree bridges a stream that tumbles from the top of the sheer cliff sides. With only a few tufts of frosted moss left free by a covering of snow, the trunk doesn’t seem safe to cross, but there is a strand of wire for a hand-hold.
Despite the rush of water there is stillness.
In this valley, carved by a glacier whose last remnant is poised above me, the light is starting to fade, but the lip of the valley itself and the mountain peaks beyond are pink in the setting sun.
I spy the first avalanche path, a swathe of bare rock stripped of moss, and below it, a stand of trees flattened by wind-blast. It is time to turn back. I have a gas stove, a survival bag and plenty of food, but the thought of being lost here is not a pleasant one. There are three hours yet to the shelter of a bush hut.
I rest to chew a strap of dried beef and take a drink from a stream. I drop my face into the water and suck great gulps. Each stream has a distinct taste. In the pools lower in the valley there is the flavour of leaves and rotting vegetation, but here there is the bubbling clarity of a faster running current, fed by a catchment of just snow and rock.
It is with relief that I rejoin the main well-defined Milford Track. Further down the path I flush a pair of endangered blue duck from their trackside cover. They waddle on in front of me, like herded geese, softly peeping. Their smoky grey-blue bodies merge with the gathering darkness.
By torchlight I find the turn-off to my shelter, a bush but as cold as a tomb, alive with the rustle of rats. On a but verandah paved with sparkling ice begins the splitting by axe of sodden beech logs to get at the drier insides, which painstakingly I must pare and shave before any fire can take hold.
Guided walkers in summer would have spent their time communing with a profusion of alpine flowers, and would have had hot meals waiting for them in shower-equipped lodges. But they would also have had to commune with each other. I enjoy the bite of the cold and the steam of my breath in the night. Using paper and the stub of a candle it’s not long before my boy-scout wigwam of shavings crackles into life.
When a fire starts to give heat in a bush but there are special smells. Leathery smells of boots steaming; warm woollen smells of bush shirts drying, the earthy smells of moss and bark of the firewood stacked against the stove, the resinous tang where the wood grain has been exposed, the carbon of candle wicks.
In the candlelight two pots—one of coffee, the other of spicy stew—steam on the stove top. There is the sweet fug of woodsmoke and cooking. Outside is the river sliding by clear and moonlit.
I’m bone-tired, but the night is so special I don’t wish to waste it. Earlier in the day I’d bent some wire to make a fish-hook, filing the point sharp on a chunk of rock. Warm with a bellyful of stew, it is time to try for eel or a trout. Fetching water for my meal, I’d noticed a wrack of huge trees jammed against the riverbank, forming a pond.
I set several candles in the pebbles of the beach, hoping their light might lure breakfast. For ground-bait I rinse my stewpot and spread the oil saved from a sardine tin. I have not the slightest expectation that my pseudo bushcraft will work, but I float my line toward the roots anyway, and, in the moonlight, settle back to enjoy the aesthetics, thankful I do not depend on a catch.
Save for the slow spin of a satellite overhead among the dusting of stars—and the cache of freeze-dried stew back at the hut—the scene is as old as life itself.
From the opposite river bank comes the disembodied gurgling cough of a possum. I swing my torch until the beam picks up two ruby-red eyes which shine back briefly before disappearing into the night.
Presently I sight some coiling movement among the submerged limbs of my tree dam, but what‑ever it is, it chooses not to chance the bait. Given the dry morsel I have on my hook, I don’t blame the creature for its discrimination.
In the morning I find that the drowned trees had probably come from what Fiordlanders call a tree avalanche. Because Fiordland was so thoroughly gouged by glaciers, there is virtually no topsoil on the steeper valley sides. Even fully-grown forest has only the precarious hold of a woven skin of roots that stretch over rock. This net has a weak grip, and if one section tears free it can peel the forest from the cliff-faces in great strips. The fall of just one tree can trigger a tree avalanche.
Where a tree avalanche has fallen, moss gardens appear—yellow, grape‑purple, peach, orange, deep green cushions of colour running with water or dripping with spears of ice. The washed-out colour and shape of these gardens bear an uncanny resemblance to the cushion-like corals of a South Pacific atoll.
The mosses, together with stunted bonzai beech trees, colonise the rock-face in a process that can take 200 years before the full forest is restored.Despite the lack of soil, growth is sustained by the huge and constant rainfall. This gives a sort of hydroponic forest stitched to vertical raw rock by a fragile skin of roots.
The rainfall throws a three-metredeep layer of fresh water into the fiords, transforming their surface, at least, into lakes. This means that the mosses and trees, suffering no salt burn, can dip into the water surface.
The layer of fresh water, rich in organic forest matter, also shields the lower salt water from sunlight. In this darkened water are all kinds of deep-water fish and plant life which, uniquely, can be studied at snorkel depth. (See “Going under,” page 94)
My last day is a punishing hike of 13km, which those on the guided walk may break by taking a boat along Lake Ada, named by Sutherland for an old girlfriend. A seal has taken up residence in this lake, but I don’t sight it.
Much of this part of the valley sees no sun in winter, but where the sun does strike there is an explosion of colour. Turn such a corner in the track and you walk from the severity of a winter’s alpine forest into sun-revealed jungle as dense and crowded as any in the world, where sphagnum moss trailing from the armpits of trees is lit like gold; where the canopy of leaves becomes a mosaic of transparent greens. In the bed of a stream, tangled with creepers and overhung by fern, the white sand is shot with glinting mica.
I wait for my launch at Sandfly Point, which lies at the head of Milford Sound. The skipper is clearly relieved. He tells me a search party was ready to come for me, if, this time, I didn’t show up. I learn my pick-up arrangements had become scrambled, and the launch has called twice at previous times, the skipper walking an hour into the bush.
As we chug steadily across the mirror fiord I think of the Dutchman who died back in the hills. In the but diary I had found a message from him Reading it, I could understand his excitement at this wilderness; excitement that drove him to push his luck. Quill, who also came here from the other side of the world, would have understood too.
The entry read: “I’m glad that I decided to do the Milford Track. It’s off season now, and most huts are closed. It really gives you a kick to do a track like this on your own.
“Except for the sandflies and the rain pouring from heaven’s sky, it’s great. I had last night a terrible night . . . it was too late to reach this but . . . the whole night possums were knocking things over, walking over my sleeping bag. But I enjoy it so much that I step into the pouring rain of the waterfalls for a wash. I like New Zealand very much. They have a lot of real beautiful tracks. Milford Track is fantastic.” Erik Schutten, Emmebod, Holland.
Park rangers sent the last entry home to his parents. Below Erik’s comments was an entry from another tramper, thanking him for leaving shavings of wood set in the stove, ready for a fire.
Back at the Milford hotel carpark, I find my rental car. I turn the key and sweep at speed up the road that in 1954 connected Milford with the 20th century, and completed Sutherland’s vision. I pass through a 1.2 km tunnel that took 20 years to hew by hand through a mountain. I drive past the avalanche warning signs and down the valley that eventually leads from Fiordland. There is still the pink light of dusk showing on the peaks. I stop to take a long last look at the territory that defeated so many. The pursuit of a dream to the end. The fire of their determination.