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Home : Visitor Guide : Fiordland History

Fiordland has a wealth of history covering nearly two centurys and a great variety of people, from the early navigators and explorers to whalers, sealers and surveyors.
Hardship and persistence in some of the remotest, most difficult country in the world characterise the tales of human exploration and settlement of Fiordland.

And as the noted naturalist and explorer Richard Henry observed, Fiordland was ’fine country for a waterproof explorer or prospector’, country ’utterly useless except for mountaineers’. Tongue-in-cheek remarks - undoubtedly but they convey something of the essential flavour of the region and the exaspera-tion it can induce.

The historian John Hall-Jones has written that in Fiordland can be found ’some of the earliest signs of man’s first contact with’ New Zealand. The country’s first European house seems to have been built in the area, and New Zealand’s ’first shipwreck and first ship-building’ took place in the remote fiords of the southwest.

Early Maoris began to explore Fiordland from about 800 years ago. They were inventive, adventurous and resilient, as all who venture off the well-trod way must be. Remnants of the major southern Maori tribe Ngatimamoe, fled into remote parts of the Fiordland in the late 18th century. They were pursued by Ngaitahu tribesmen from the north, and about 1780 two battles are said to have been fought in the far southwest at Preservation Inlet which the Maoris called Rakituma, ’the threatening sky’. About 5 years later legend has it that Pukutahi led another group of fleeing Ngatimamoe intending to take refuge and settle in the Murchison Mountains (’the land of the moho’ - takahe) between the south and middle fiords of Lake Te Anau. Te Hau, a Ngaitahu warrior, led a party which caught and slew some of the escapers in a fracas thought to have taken place across the lake from the hotel at Te Anau.

The survivors disappeared and entered lore as the poignant holders of the names ’lost tribe’ or ’wild natives’ of Fiordland. In 1851 Captain Stokes of the survey ship Acheron recorded that he and his crew ’came on the fresh foot-marks of some natives’ in Bligh Sound, most likely members of the ’lost tribe’ that Paddy Gilroy, skipper of the Amazon, had seen there in 1842. And Captain Cook had earlier made contact with Maoris when he put the Resolution in to Dusky Sound for repairs and to rest his crew from March to May of 1773.

Europeans approached Fiordland from the cold lumpen seas of the south and west, or from the south and east over a rolling and often rugged landscape. The great navigator and voyager, Cook, took Endeavour in close to Dusky and Doubtful sounds in March 1770 but the time of day, and the wind direction, forced him to sail prudently away. But he returned in 1773 and left us with a rich legacy of information and observation which fas-cinates to this day.

One of Cook’s midshipmen, George Vancouver, returned to Dusky in 1791. The following year a party of 12 sealers went ashore from the Britiania. Within about a year they’d collected 4,500 seal skins, and so began a period of intense slaughter (which decimated and threatened fur seals around New Zealand’s southern coasts with extinction) before the activity became uneconomic and the carnage ended early in the 19th century. The sealers knew the wild coastline as well, and likely better, than anyone, and in the early 1 800s there were sealing stations at Dusky, Dagg and Doubtful sounds.

In 1829 a substantial whaling station was built at Preservation Inlet but it too, due to indiscriminate killing of a kind that had quickly destroyed the sealing business, soon came to the eerie end that follows excesses caused by ignorance and greed. By 1838 the station at Preser-vation was deserted and the whales, those great and noble ’singers of the sea’, were given a temporary respite and reprieve.

From then until 1851 when Stokes sur-veyed the West Coast in the Acheron, there was a lull in the exploration and charting of the Fiordland coast. Stokes and his party pieced together the work of earlier arrivals, greatly added to the number of places and features named, and provided the basis for all subsequent maps.

Land explorers, surveyors, gold-seekers and runholders approached the region via the Waiau and the upper Mataura and Greenstone valleys from 1852 on.

C. J. Nairn and W. H. Stephen reached Lake Te Anau in January 1852- see the commemorative plaque at Bluegum Point. Sheep runs were taken up in the 1850s, David McKellar and George Gunn looked into the Eglinton and Hollyford valleys and beyond in 1861, and James McKerrow surveyed large areas of the southern half of the Park in 1862-63. In 1863 Patrick Caples was the first European to travel overland from Queenstown and down the Hollyford to Martins Bay where a short-lived settle-ment, promoted vigorously and with misplaced optimism by Otago’s superin-tendent James Macandrew, began in 1870. Jamestown a ’miserable’ place according to one of many disgruntled settlers - endured for about 5 years before most abandoned the place.

Explorers came and went but some stayed. One who remained was the legendary Donald Sutherland who arrived at Milford in an open boat in December 1877. As he said himself, 96km in ten hours was indeed ’a bully run’. The same year, 1877, William Docherty began his nearly 20 solitary years of prospecting in Dusky Sound.

Another notable Fiordland pioneer was the naturalist Richard Henry who lived in a hut on the south shore of Lake Te Anau from 1883 until he left in 1894 to become official caretaker on Resolution Island in Dusky Sound. Henry spent about 15 years on the island and for many years he attempted to establish there hundreds of flightless birds such as the endangered kakapo and kiwis. To his dismay he discovered that stoats and weasels were swimming to the island and undoing all his efforts. Sadly, he wrote in his diary that he was beaten: ’I feel I cannot stay here much longer.’ It was another instance of introduced animals hastening the descent towards oblivion of native species.

While Henry was making his heroic efforts in the southwest others were con-tinuing to explore the country further north. Quintin Mackinnon was given credit for discovering the pass on the Milford Track (he was drowned in Lake Te Anau in 1892), Te Anau township -then called Marakura - was surveyed in 1893, and the real thrust of road and track construction was then set to begin.

Gold-mining and prospecting also lured people to Fiordland last century. In 1886 there was a small rush to Martins Bay but pickings were slim and within a year all but a hopeful handful of miners had left. The area around Big Bay was worked over in the 1890s, and there was a thriving gold-mining town, Cromarty, at the head of Kisbee Bay in Preservation Inlet. Sawmills also operated there and at other places along the south coast, some of them persisting well into the early years of this century.

But the gold ran out, sawmilling slowed and then stopped, and the remote coasts of Fiordland seemed to have again with-drawn into a kind of primeval isolation and quiet - except for the birds, of course, the slow irresistible encroach-ment of the magnificent forests, the barking of seals, and the whistle and roar of wind and wild seas.

After 1945 the crayfishers began to arrive in increasing numbers from ports around the South Island, and in the 1950s and 1960s crayfishing boomed. It became a major export industry; small fortunes were made, vessels and lives were lost. Since then catches have declined but there is still a reasonable living to be made by the hardy people who engage in this hazardous occupation.

Hazardous, too, is the business of live deer recovery and commercial shooting from helicopters. Though not as lucra-tive as it was, this high-risk activity is still of major economic importance to Fiordland.

Farming in the Te Anau basin along the fringes of the Park has grown rapidly in recent years, especially since 1960 on land developed with direction and assis-tance from the government’s Lands and Survey Department. Cattle and sheep farming (black sheep are a feature on some properties), and deer farming too, are carried out with an intensity never envisaged before the depression of the 1930s.

But the most important commercial activity in the Fiordland area is tourism. People come from all round the globe to visit the region and experience its magnificent natural features. Tourism has grown steadily over the years, start-ing in earnest, perhaps, with the opening of the Milford Track in the 1890s and blossoming even more when the Homer Tunnel went through and was opened to traffic after World War II. Then with jet travel firmly established the future of the region as a tourist attraction was assured. Both commercial operators (of which Fiordland Travel Ltd is by far the largest) and the Eiordland National Park staff work together in an effort to pro-tect and preserve the qualities and natural features of the region for the en-joyment of future generations of people.

Each visitor explores Fiordland in his or her own way and contributes to the ongoing history of the region, parts of which have rarely - and sometimes never - felt the tentative and wondering press of a human foot. Curiosity endures, history goes on

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