How the Milford Track became 'the finest walk in the world'

by Redmer Yska / 04 February, 2018
Milford Sound, New Zealand. Photo/Getty Images

Milford Sound, New Zealand. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Milford Track finest walk in the world

An early hiker of the Milford Track wrote about the experience and earned it the title of “the finest walk in the world”.

In 1908, in long white skirt, stout boots and sandfly-veil hat, Blanche Baughan set off on a summer ramble, from the head of Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound.

This remarkable English-born poet, suffragette and alpinist was trekking the Milford Track, then an obscure 53km walkway through the wild, wet glory of Fiordland.

She would later write up her transformative, mind-boggling three-day wander into a sumptuous, almost overripe account. Entitled “The Finest Walk In the World” by an editor in London, it changed forever both Baughan and the famed Great Walk.

Baughan’s beginning was simplicity itself: “Deep in the south-west corner of New Zealand, far away from all familiar scenes of travel, lies the celebrated Milford Sound, an inlet of the sea surpassing in magnificence even the fjords of Norway. Of late years a track has been made overland to the Sound, and this track anyone possessing feet to walk with, eyes to see with, and the love of nature at her loneliest and fairest, could scarce do better than essay.”

Instead of the darkly poetic language she was known for – her first collection of verse had appeared in 1898 – she opted for a commonplace prose style, aimed at a popular, international reader. She also hinted at a high level of fitness.

Blanche Baughan.

“It is but some three and thirty miles in length – traversable, therefore, by the practised walker in one day, though very much more profitably allotted two or three: it can be negotiated at any time between the early summer and late autumn: a paternal Government has provided it with all necessary accommodation for travellers, and, from the variety, the beauty, and the scale of the scenes through which it passes, it must certainly be accounted one of the most glorious natural wonders of the world.”

She knew what she was talking about. In the isolated community of Chorlton on Banks Peninsula, where she’d lived since arriving in 1900, Baughan was steeped in botany and natural history.

“Before, behind, to the left and right, the forest comes unbroken – vista after vista, lofty hall past hall, of glorious, living green, pillared by the great brown limbs and boles of beech-like ‘birches’. Half-a-hand deep with velvety moss, embroidered with lichens, dripping with ferns and orchids, the immense branches zigzag mazily in and out of the leafy layers they support.”

Inevitably, her poetic skills tumbled out as she described the track’s delights: “The sun looks like a splintered star, up there between the tree-tops, and each ray falls like a splash of cool brightness through the green equable gloom – yonder, high up, striking into sudden glinting gold the bronze-velvet surface of a bough; a little lower, singling out against its background of dark mid-air foliage some shower of pendent silvery moss; lower yet, pelting as with the sparkle and dazzle of wet light the glossy, oleaginous leaves of the undergrowth, and falling, finally – to earth?”

Baughan was experimenting with a prose sketch style constructed for new kinds of landscape. Brown Bread from a Colonial Oven, the title of a volume of later sketches, sums up her innovative approach. In his groundbreaking new history of 20th-century New Zealand literature, John Newton calls Baughan one of the most appealing figures in our early writing, with “the kind of girls-can-do-anything glamour that attaches to the independent woman of the suffragist era”.

Mackay Falls on the Milford track, New Zealand. Photo/Getty Images

Mackay Falls on the Milford track, New Zealand. Photo/Getty Images

Good timing

Her timing was good. By 1908, expanding state railway networks were opening up what the Government was billing as “nature’s marvels” to local and overseas visitors. The hands-on Government of Richard Seddon was also paying attention to scenic beauty, passing laws to preserve it nationally and, in 1904, making the first move to reserve Fiordland as a national park.

Writer Maurice Shadbolt, in the Shell Guide to New Zealand (1968), would describe the region’s rich pre-European history: The Māori invaded great silences of fjord in search of tangiwai, a special pale variety of ‘tear-drop’ greenstone, and bestowed upon Milford the most lovely and resonant of names: piopiotahi or ‘a single thrush’.”

Tourism was also beginning to generate money for the public purse. In 1900, the Lands Department noted a small trickle of tourists was already spending each year the equivalent today of $19 million. The following year, the Seddon Administration launched the world’s first government tourist department, with a focus on thermal districts and scenic resorts and on improving visitor accommodation. Its mission statement was simple: “Pioneering the country for the pleasure-hunter.”

The new Department of Tourism and Health Resorts was quick to eye up the Milford Track: in the next few years, it bought the Te Anau hotel, nearby Glade House and a steamer to ply the waters of Lake Te Anau. Huts along the track were upgraded, some even staffed with cooks.

Female walkers on the track in the 1940s or 50s. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Female walkers on the track in the 1940s or 50s. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

The walk was created after surveyor-turned-explorer Quintin McKinnon became the first European to discover the pass between Te Anau and Milford. But there were no bridges or adequate huts and shelters. The track was a challenging undertaking, so prison labour was enlisted to work on it. In 1890, 45 inmates and six officers, carried by government steamer and based in barracks, cut the route along the Arthur River and on to Lake Ada. Seddon, then Labour Minister, popped by for an inspection.

By the time Baughan showed up, the walk was 20 years old. The track and its huts had been vastly improved. One regular user called the new government accommodation facilities “simply luxurious”.

And so, on Thursday, March 19, 1908, Baughan took the steamer Tawera to Glade Wharf, at the head of Lake Te Anau.

“The track,” she wrote, leads at once up a gradually ascending mountain-valley, filled with Bush – magnificent virgin Bush, composed mainly of tall ‘silver birches’, beeches really (Nothofagus menziesii), whose boughs resemble nothing so much as giant sprays of Titan maiden-hair.”

At Glade House, the old departmental hostel by the Clinton River (near the DoC Clinton hut and now privately owned), she put on her Edwardian walking clobber: “Here, the ruck-sack and walking boots must be donned; and – a word in your ear! – the boots of the wise will be heavy, but the ruck-sack light.”

She set off through pristine beech forest in good weather, never a certainty in a region known for rain on at least 200 days a year: There is not a speck of earth to be seen; the very track itself is inches thick with brown beechmast, with fallen leaves and twigs. No! it is upon cushions of many-hued mosses … that the bright shaft comes to rest; or upon surges, knee-deep, waist-deep, soaring, arching, exquisitely falling, of the marvellous New Zealand ferns.”

Quintin McKinnon. Photo/ATL

Bountiful birdlife

In contrast to the way it is today, the riverside forest walk along the Clinton Canyon was thronged and noisy with birds.

“As you walk up this enchanting forest-aisle, parroquets, in colour so like the foliage that they are hard to distinguish, herald you, we will hope inappropriately, with cries of ‘Per-etty bad! Per-etty bad!’

“The dainty little fantail – a kind of fly-catcher – comes, friendly and inquisitive, to flirt his pretty fan of brown-and-white, and tumble aerially for his dinner, full in the stranger’s face; and somewhere in the green deeps overhead you are sure to hear a tui fluting, or the rush of a kaka’s wings.

“You may even see the latter – he is a parrot, all dark-brown in the distance – walking warily, with toes turned in, along a branch; and you can scarcely fail somewhere to meet the long, inquisitorial, ruby-coloured eye of a weka (wood-hen), as she stalks among the fern in her suit of pheasant-brown, almost wingless, but perfectly self-possessed, because justly sure of her swift red legs. Moreover, few men come here, no dogs, and no guns; everything is fearless. In turn, there is nothing in the forest for man to fear – no snakes, not even a poisonous spider.”

Baughan spent her first night up at Pompolona Lodge (near DoC’s Mintaro hut, now private). The lodge, she wrote, is “so-called after a kind of fried scone, once memorably made there – a domestic touch that does not come amiss perhaps by the time we have arrived. Perched on a cliff above the river, and looking up the valley, which is now all precipices and peaks, its position at all events is abundantly romantic; and if the iron walls of it be not especially picturesque, what could be more so than the huge open hearth, with its low-set black oven, hanging pots and mighty logs of birch now glowing with flames …”

Unidentified men outside a bush hut, c 1890. Photo/ATL

Unidentified men outside a bush hut, c 1890. Photo/ATL

High on the saddle

Day two led her on a hard, zigzagging climb towards soaring, dramatic Mackinnon Pass, compelling views of Lake Mintaro and the Clinton Canyon spread out below. Here, at an altitude of 1154m, Baughan reached the highest point of the track.

“… from the saddle on a fine day, the prospect is unimaginably fine. Beneath, upon the one side lies the Clinton Valley up which you have come; on the other, that into which you will descend, the valley of the Arthur, its depth and sides blue with the grape-like bloom of distant forest, its shoulders tressed with the white of numberless cascades, its head sublime with snow, and doubly diademed, with the tumultuous masses of the mighty Jervois Glacier, and with the incomparable single peak of never-climbed Balloon, soaring in lonely, delicate magnificence aloft into the deep blue sky, or cleaving, spear-like, fleecy folds of mist, or frowning dark, and terrible with storm.

“Indeed, splendid though the view is in fine weather, it is a question whether fine weather is the best fortune that can befall the traveller upon the Pass. On a day of storm, when the fierce wind all but tears you from the track, when every crag hurls water, and the creeks, swollen with appalling suddenness into roaring, volleying white wastes of water, are difficult and dangerous to cross, the place is full of a bewildering glory.”

It was a long downward amble through alpine vegetation to the floor of the Arthur Valley. The walk to that night’s stop, Quintin Hut (now a private lodge near DoC’s Dumpling Hut), at the head of the valley, also took in Sutherland Falls. Baughan was deeply moved:

“The escaping current hurls itself straight down the sheer grey mountain wall, a long, slender, ever-recurring meteor of eager white, received, amid the spray-glittering forest, into an enchanted pool – never quite seen, always mysterious behind its veering veils, elusive, ineludible, of fugitive rainbows, and whirling, evanishing diamonds. There is no such Fall, it is said, and no such setting, anywhere else in the world. It is not hard to believe.”

On day three, she crossed the Arthur River, past the Mackay Falls, along wide tracks cut by prisoners, towards Lake Ada. Everywhere there are ferns – ferns like green ribbon, ferns like velvet plumes, like the brown neck of the weka, like a green swan’s wings, like saucers of thin green silk, like curled green mist. Everywhere there are mosses – heaping the earth, invading the ferns, disputing the Track, painting the hard rocks with delight, hanging in tangled tresses from the boughs, and climbing up the bark, half-way to Heaven.”

Her walk ended at Sandfly Point. Brushing away clouds of insects, she climbed on the boat to Milford, across the satin sheen and exquisite reflections, marred by the sudden extrusion above the surface of a black snag here and there, for in reality the lake is but a bit of the forest, submerged long since by some landslip that blocked up the valley”.

On March 21, she signed Donald Sutherland’s visitors’ book at the Chalet, his accommodation house overlooking the sound. By 1908, the so-called “Monarch of Milford” had been resident for 41 years, after a career as soldier, brigand and gold miner.

Sutherland’s hermit existence abruptly ended in 1887, when McKinnon discovered his breakthrough pass. The grumpy Scot (for whom Sutherland Falls are named) insisted he would have found the pass if he’d cared to look. He might have dismissed city folk like Baughan as “ashfelters”, but she was too overcome to care:

“The traveller has come out! For days he has been a witnesser of Nature’s secrets, a sharer of her hidden exultations. He has watched her wedding beauty to wonder; he has climbed with her and stood, conqueror yet comrade, upon her soaring heights; he has been made welcome to her shy recesses. Now here, after muffling forest and heights that stop the sky, she offers, as her final gift, space, freedom, the glory and rapture of the open Sea.”

Baughan sat down to write. She targeted the Spectator, an influential British weekly that had published her New Zealand poems. She posted 7500 words to London, topped with a modest heading, “A Notable Walk”.

Editor John Strachey (who’d never been near New Zealand) slashed the piece back to 1700 words, but he gave it an unforgettable headline: “The Finest Walk in the World”. The essay appeared in the issue of September 12, 1908, sandwiched between an article on the Boys’ Brigade and the letters to the editor.

The grumpy Scot Donald Sutherland on Lake Ada, 1889. Photo/ATL

The grumpy Scot Donald Sutherland on Lake Ada, 1889. Photo/ATL

Gift from the gods

In faraway New Zealand, the essay proved a sensation. In his 1971 history Milford Trails, Bill Anderson wrote that “this gift from the gods was naturally seized upon by the Tourism Department to make known to the world its commanding scenic attractions”.

Government officials persuaded publisher Whitcombe & Tombs to turn Baughan’s long-form essay into an attractive booklet, complete with professional photographs and map. There were multiple editions: the fourth revised version appeared as late as 1926, and more were to come.

Baughan, now something of a celebrity, was besieged with offers to produce further prose. She undertook – and wrote up – a host of great walks and alpine climbs, none quite equalling the original. The results were published in 1916 as the best-selling Studies in New Zealand Scenery and were later repackaged. Her essay inspired a hundred imitators, including the amusing Wettest Walk in the World, written in 1931, about a normal, pluvial day on the track: “For six miles we tramped along raging mountain torrents instead of footpaths … generally the water came nearly to our waists, and we held hands to steady ourselves in the precarious transit.”

Baughan then changed direction, returning to a version of the social work she’d done in the London slums in her twenties after graduating from university. An article in the Spectator about the work of the Howard League for Penal Reform inspired her to start our first local branch. She’d become an outspoken champion of prison reform at a time when the focus was on Dickensian-era punishment rather than rehabilitation of inmates, and she filled her days as an official visitor at the forbidding Christchurch Women’s Prison at Addington.

Author and playwright Carol Markwell, who is writing Baughan’s biography, notes that she had “her first contact with prison authorities around 1917 when she used her home to shelter a couple of young women absconders”. She also embraced Hindu philosophy at a time when it was largely unknown in the West, travelling to India and other countries to explore Vedanta teachings. She lived in Sumner, then Akaroa, where she opened her home to male and female ex-prisoners, writing a searing book, People in Prison, about her experiences. A constant thorn in the side of the authorities, she died in 1958.

But Baughan’s name will forever be joined to the track. The words “The Finest Walk in the World” are still prominent on DoC’s website. And she never forgot its wonders, making return visits in later life, and recorded being “amazed afresh by this notable walk”. She also advocated veils “for those who find the little sandfly too much of a torment”.

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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