Maori people arrived in New Zealand from the Pacific Islands around 1,000 years ago. They travelled to Milford Sound overland – along the same route that the Milford Track follows today – in order to gain access to the greenstone rich region of Anita Bay. The Maori named the fiord ‘Piopiotahi’ meaning, ‘Place of the Singing Thrush’ – a bird which is now extinct.
On 11th March 1770, Lieutenant James Cook sailed the Endeavour close to a large open bay in the southwest corner of New Zealand. He wrote: “The face of the country bears a very rugged aspect being full of high craggy hills, on the summits of which are several patches of snow”. Joseph Banks, the botanist, was keen to land and take specimens, but a strong wind and heavy squalls forced Cook to keep well out at sea.
In 1792, New Zealand’s first sealing gang was dropped off in Dusky Sound to begin the slaughter of southern fur seals. By the 1820’s the seals were all but exterminated.
One of the early sealers was Welshman, John Grono. It was Grono who named Milford Sound after Milford Haven, near where he was born in Wales.
However, the first European to settle in Milford Sound was Donald Sutherland, who sailed alone into the fiord on 1st December 1877. While searching for gold, Sutherland discovered a waterfall cascading down a sheer face of rock in three giant leaps. Naming it the Sutherland Falls, he estimated it was “between 3,000 and 4,000 feet high”. These falls can be viewed from the Milford Track or on a scenic flight, and they have since been accurately measured at 580 metres (1,904 feet).
In 1888, C W Adams, chief surveyor of Otago, commissioned Donald Sutherland to cut a track from Milford Sound to the Sutherland Falls. The track, which became half of the famous Milford Track, was completed by Sutherland and his three assistants in six months. At the same time, Quintin Mackinnon was commissioned to cut a track up the Clinton Valley from the head of Lake Te Anau. Reaching the head of the valley he crossed the Mackinnon Pass on 16th October 1888 and then picked up Sutherland’s track.
1892, Sutherland and his wife Elizabeth, had built a 12-roomed house and proceeded to provide trampers with a warm welcome for the next 30 years.