This is a superb viewpoint and little frequented, save those in the know. Many Milford Sound workers use this as a chillout place at the end of a hard day on the boats.
The start of the track is signposted from behind the carpark in Milford Sound. Where the service buildings for the Milford Hotel end, there is a small signpost beside the graves of Donald and Elizabeth Sutherland.
Pass the graves of the Milford Sound Pioneers and ascend the steps to the lookout platform. There are fine views up the sound, framed by foliage. Although the metalled track continues past the platform, there is little to see.
The Hermit of Milford Sound
On a sunny summer’s day, Milford is the third busiest airport in New Zealand (in terms of take offs and landings). The incessant drone of small engines echoes off the towering granite walls and is only broken by the occasional rhythmical whirr of helicopter blades. The aircraft fly over flotillas of sea kayaks, cruise boats, and the occasional luxury liner. Over half a million people per year travel the Milford Road by bike, motorbike, car, camper, mini-van, bus and coach. At times you could be forgiven for thinking you were at the port of some Asian city, as swarms of camera-touting tourists scurry about the terminal, disembarking one mode of transport and embarking onto another. Welcome to Milford Sound. The most glorious transport terminal on Earth.
Not far from this scene, tucked between the generator shed and carpark is a neat circle of shrubs; some native, others with more showy exotic flowers. I’d be surprised if a single tourist each year stopped to have a look. Milford’s first and longest-standing permanent residents, Donald Sutherland and his wife Elizabeth, would have liked it this way. Removed from the bustle but still in their Kingdom.
“If ever I come to anchor, it will be here,” - Sutherland’s statement on his first visit to Milford as a sealer. It was unsurprising this prophecy eventuated, as he was a determined man, a man of high mana.
His free spirited nature manifested early in life. Aged 12 he ran away from his hometown of Wick at the very northern tip of Scotland, stowing away on Princes Consort bound for Leith. After a brief reconnoitre of Edinburgh’s sights, he was escorted home to a Victorian parental punishment and a few more years of adolescent prison. Net-making, rope spinning and fishing were not his destiny.
With a blind eye for officialdom, Sutherland lied about his age and enlisted in the Northern Counties Militia in the Highlands, proving himself a good shot. The amply girthed 16 year old was then sent to Italy to fight in Garibaldi’s Thousand, where he received high accolades. After a stint on the coastal traders circumnavigating the British Isles, the call of distant shores beckoned and he was off. Off to make his fortune on the Otago goldfields of New Zealand. From one Highland to another.
Like so many, he found no luck catapulting himself to instant riches, so joined the 3rd Waikato Militia. He later deserted, returning to sea as a sealer. It was this move which brought him, albeit briefly, to Milford for the first time. The die was cast, the magic infectious. This was to be his place.
More gold prospecting, fighting in the Maori Wars and directionless wanderings passed the time before he felt ready to return home. He arrived in Dunedin, bought a 20 ft open boat and with his dog Groatie for company, navigated through Foveaux Strait to Fiordland. He sailing into Milford Sound on the 1st December 1877, leaving the following note in a bottle tied to a tree near the mouth of the Arthur River.
‘Milford Sound Decr. 3-77
D. Sutherland left Dusky Sound Nov 4 in a boat by myself for north. Left Breaksea Sound on 23 Novr. Called in Coal River. To rough to land. Went to daggs 10 pm came on to blow gale at 10.30 from the West. heavy rain and heavy swell. I ran to the head of daggs. Left daggs on 26 Novr. Went up to the head of doubtful. Camped 1 night. Left Thompson on 1st Novr. At 10 am with fresh breeze. had a good run to Milford where arrived 8 pm same day. Camped here two weeks. I leave here for Jackson’s bay. call into Big bay 2 days. plenty of tucker but short of backy. From my camp in Thompson to head of Milford is 63 miles against a 1 mile current.
I don’t wish to sound my own trumpet to much, but his is a bully run for one man to make in open boat in 10 hours.
Donald Sutherland, Wick, Scotland.
Anno Domini 1877, Suaviter in Modo. Fortiter in re. D. Sutherland, captain mate and cook, 1 dog all of passengers, ditto livestock.’
Seemingly disdainful of grammatical correctness and one month out with his dates, Sutherland was obviously brimming with pride on his achievement. And with just cause. His Latin dictum however, was perfect in choice and execution. It translates: ‘Gentle in manner, vigorous in deed.’ A true epithet.
For Sutherland, Milford was his Paradise, El Dorado and Shangri-La all rolled into one. With Groatie, his faithful brown retriever, he set to work. Selecting the obvious building plot at the foot of Bowen Falls, with the now-famed views to Mitre Peak and the sound, he planned his City of Milford, to be the buzzing heart of his Kingdom. The untold mineral wealth of the surrounding mountains would finance the dream.
With great industry and the talents of a practical man, Sutherland constructed three timber slab, thatched roofed whare. The complex contained a forge, carpenter’s bench and tool collection. Each sported its own mail box. With his dogs, Sutherland collected bird skins, which he would preserve with arsenical soap and sell to tourists on the passing steamers. Observers noted he was a ‘thorough good bird skinner, very particular and withal very clean.’
Sutherland formed a mining syndicate with an old friend John McKay, and they set about exploring the hinterland, not only in search of mineral wealth, but in the hope of opening up an overland track to Lake Wakatipu. On presenting their case in person to the Lakes County Council in Queenstown, this convenient excuse for exploration helped persuade the bureaucrats into paying them £40 cash and a 6 months supply of food. Bingo.
They were off, heading up The Cleddau and Arthur Valleys. Sutherland left names such as Poseidon River, Joe River (after his dog) and Mount Balloon. Although the ulterior motive, minerals, remained concealed, they stumbled upon wealth of a different kind. On 10th November 1880, while travelling up the Arthur River they heard the rushing of a waterfall. Before clapping eyes on the spectacle they apparently tossed a coin to see who would receive the naming rights. McKay won.
Continuing further up the valley, the audible thunder of another cataract carried through the forest. This time it was Sutherland’s turn to leave a name. Imagine McKay’s dismay and Sutherland’s exultation when they witnessed the first view to the falls? Their minds must have been sent to the heavens, as they guessed it’s height. 4,000 feet was advanced to 5,000 and then 5,700 feet. It must be the highest waterfall in the world. They returned to leak the news.
Although the discovery of Sutherland Falls has ensured this great man has a fitting tribute to his life, at the time it would have been the catalyst for the eventual shattering of his solitude. His isolation was to remain intact for a few more years however, while the Government paid him to cut a track to the foot of his falls.
In one stretch he did not see another human face for two years. The visits of the coastal steamers were the only noises to punctuate the reverberation of the waterfalls, the dripping of rain from the foliage and the dulcet calls of the forest birds. Supply links were tentative. As Samuel Moreton, one of the few visitors Sutherland received, said in 1892 ‘On one occasion they [with McKay] were run out altogether, and had nothing but what their twenty-five fathom fishing line brought them for five weary weeks. Yes, nothing but fish and salt crossed those men’s lips until the Stella……called and relieved them by handing over a 50lb bag of flour.’
Solitude obviously started to play mind games. He told later visitors he believed a gargantuan amphibious creature inhabited the waterways, maybe a relative of ‘Nessie’, the famed monster of Loch Ness. The posidon had left footprints in the sand, so convincing Sutherland had attempted nightly ambushes. One sardonic Cockney tourist later told Sutherland there was a £500 cheque waiting for him at a solicitor’s office in London, the day this monster was caught.
Outside contact finally came in 1882 with the visit of artist Samuel Moreton and photographer W.P Hart. Their artistry disseminated visual representations of the wondrous falls to the wider public. A further token of contact with Sutherland survives from 1883. A line he scribbled on the bottom of a bill reads: ‘The butcher and steward of this ship is the meanest two scunkes that ever came to this Sound. Charged me SIX SHILLINGS for one bottel of gin.’
Sutherland made brief excursions from Milford in his small boat the Porpoise. He sailed down the coast, where he discovered Sutherland Sound, and up the coast to Martins Bay, where he visited the McKenzie family living on the spit at the mouth of the Hollyford River.
Alice McKenzie, writing her memoirs many years later, recalls his visits. ‘His manner seemed to be deliberately rough and uncouth…He would sit some yards away from the open fireplace where Mother did her cooking in 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 could always avoid the cooking utensils. Mother would be very annoyed and speak to him sharply, but he would take no notice. We, who were smaller, rather admired and envied his skill…He would stay with us for a meal and then go off in his boat, and on account of his manner – of I should say want of manners – he was not pressed to stay longer.’
In 1886, his bachelor ways were knocked into shape when he visited Dunedin, returning aboard the Hinemoa to Milford with a wife. Twice widowed Elizabeth McKenzie, was his match. Her gusto and dedication elevated Sutherland’s ventures from the whimsical play of a confirmed recluse to those of a responsible husband.
Elizabeth set about acquiring legal title to their land, which Sutherland had effectively been squatting. The ‘City’ was transformed with the construction of a commodious accommodation house, ringed by a large terrace and embellished with a well-tended garden.
The timing of Elizabeth’s arrival was fortuitous. With the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera and the destruction of the world-famed pink and white terraces, Milford Sound was now seen by the Government, as the jewel in New Zealand’s tourist crown. The obstacle to development however, rested with the lack of an overland route.
In 1888 Chief Surveyor, C.W. Adams turned up with a survey party to explore the Arthur Valley and finally measure accurately the height of Sutherland’s Falls. Concurrently, Quintin Mackinnon was entrusted with the task of exploring the valley systems at the head of Lake Te Anau. The two sides were finally linked with the discovery of Mackinnon Pass and the impenetrable mountain ramparts of Milford were unlocked. Adams conferred a more conservative height of 1,904 feet (580 metres) onto the falls. The way was now paved for the inevitable influx of visitors. A place like Milford could not remain the domain of one man forever.
The Milford residents now set about catering to the needs of the visitors - ‘Ashfeldters’ as Sutherland called them. City slickers, out of their comfort zone and on his patch. Unwanted but unavoidable necessities to his continuing life in Milford. Now loaded with a lifetime of stories, the tales of no ordinary man, Sutherland proved to be a convivial, if not brash host. His philosophies broke the mould of the day and were presented with all the sarcasm, cynicism and contempt of the mainstream society you would expect.
“Licence money! I pay licence money to no man! This is my land. I hoisted the first flag at the sounds, which has been carried away bit by bit by the ‘ashfeldters,’ and I tell you what it is. When the first European war breaks out, the Government and the banks of New Zealand will be glad to sent their bullion, their gold, and other valuables to Milford Sound with Sutherland as chief custodian….Give me command of a contingent of the permanent artillery, and I will defend the entrance against all the natives of the world.”
Dr Gordon MacDonald, visiting in 1905, penned the following Sutherland diatribe. “What’s the good of money? You worry and fret, and lie, and kill yourself to hoard a little gold, and when it’s all done and the captain shouts, ‘Strike sail, boys!’ and down you go to Davey Jones’s locker without more ado. No, no: I can live on the smell of the north wind, and a raupo hut is warm as a palace. If good times come I make the best of them; if bad time come I make the best of them; it’s no use worrying.”
His cantankerous streak often bubbled to the fore, when ferrying passengers from the end of the Milford Track at Sandfly Point, back to the accommodation house. Nelle Scanlan and her three female companions decided to ignore signs posted by Sutherland further up the track, warning walkers they would not be collected after 7 pm. Previous unfortunate walkers had been forced to spend a night in the rain at the sandfly ridden spot, so a crude hut had been erected as shelter. Cobwebs hung from the rafters and stale straw formed the bedding, already inhabited by vermin. Unappetised at the thought of a rough night, she decided to pick up the telephone and call Milford House. Her pleas were met with characteristic terse ripostes and it was not until another couple of fellow walkers persuaded Sutherland to show some chivalry that they eventually reached the hot tubs and hearty fare of the accommodation.
Sutherland never left Milford. After his death in October 1919, Elizabeth was unable to move him from his bed. It took 6 weeks for the Hinemoa to call, when Captain Ballance was able to finally move the body to a grave. Elizabeth sold the operation to Tourist Dept in 1922 for $2000. She also lived her life out at Milford and was buried next to her husband in 1924.
The chances are, had Donald Sutherland not come to rest at Milford Sound, some other unlikely character would have. The lure of the place is too strong. Tourists flock today, as they have for over a century, to the ends of the Earth for the experience of Milford Sound and Sutherland Falls. It’s appropriate the first man to settle in this most wondrous of places was someone of high endeavour, courage and humour.
Apart from the stories, his legacy is strong. Sutherland Falls are a fitting monument. To stand beneath this foaming thread of water is truly humbling. As the breath of the vertically plummeting torrent washes over you and your neck strains to gaze up the impossibly steep cliffs, the awe is palpable. Despite the preconceptions we now arm ourselves with, in an age of imagery, internet and intelligence, the feelings we experience cannot differ too wildly from those shared with Sutherland, and those early Fiordland travellers he and Elizabeth welcomed to their home.
South Island ▷ Fiordland ▷ Milford Sound - Fiordland National Park
Can you contribute? If you've experienced Milford Sound Lookout Track then please and write a review.
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍