That one time the “finest walk in the world” was a short-lived experiment in Australian-style convict labour.
THE MILFORD TRACK IS PROBABLY THE SHINIEST JEWEL IN NEW ZEALAND’S VERY BEJEWELLED TOURISM CROWN. FAMOUSLY CALLED THE “FINEST WALK IN THE WORLD” IN A 1902 ARTICLE BY THE ENGLISH-BORN POET AND ALPINIST BLANCHE BAUGHAN, IT’S WALKED BY 14,000 PEOPLE, AND INSTAGRAMMED ABOUT A BILLION TIMES, EVERY YEAR.
The Milford was also the subject of a short-lived experiment in something we usually just criticise Australians for: convict labour. Anyone who has walked the track will remember those blissful final few kilometres through to the Sandfly Point Shelter at the end. What many won’t know is that the soil beneath their boots was broken in by thieves. Slavery or rehabilitation? You decide!
It all started in 1886, with the obliteration of the Pink and White Terraces by the Tarawera eruption. Not only were the terraces a natural and cultural treasure, they were a popular stop-off for British and American travellers doing grand tours of the world. New Zealand needed a new ‘must-do’. In 1888, Quintin McKinnon, clad in knickerbockers and a feather billycock hat, became the first European to slash his way through the Fiordland bush from Te Anau and Milford. The new ‘must do’ had been found.
Enter Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hume, New Zealand’s Inspector General of Prisons. He liked the idea of using prisoners for public works, especially remotely located works where their labours might go unnoticed. And so, on December 14, 1890 he boarded the steamship Himemao with 45 prisoners and six guards in tow, and, not shy to names things after himself, founded Humeville Prison at Sandfly Point.
It wasn’t an entirely popular idea. An 1890 editorial in the Timaru Herald fretted that “long-sentenced prisoners are, as a matter of course, men who have committed heinous offences… at any moment a party of tourists would be liable to be murdered and stripped of their clothing and effects by desperados.”
The fretter wasn’t far off. The convicts lived in corrugated iron huts, which weren’t very comfortable, or secure. Two escaped in the first week, then spent three day walking ninety miles through a horrifying rain storm with nothing to eat. After they were caught, they said they would “never go through the same experience to gain liberty”. In 1892, convicts James McGuire and Henry Wilson made a run for it and went on a stealing spree. Quintin MacKinnon, yes that Quintin MacKinnon, accused them of stealing his clothes and his canvas boat, though the cops were dubious – the explorer was known to be careless with his things.
Things got worse as time went on, with prisoners and jailers alike suffering from the sandflies, loneliness and rain. Discipline was poor and by the time Minister of Labour (and future Prime Minister) Dick Seddon visited in 1892, the prisoners were, in one of the wettest places on earth, refusing to work on rainy days. After two years, only two kilometres of track was clear.
In August of 1892, the 40 remaining men boarded the Hinemoa, and Humeville was abandoned. The prisoners were replaced by contractors under the stewardship of Edwin Price – you can still see some of their names carved into the track wall near Lake Ada, but nothing remains of the convicts who started the work. Donald Sutherland left a note about the departure of “the 40 thieves” in his visitor’s book. “A good thing for the country that they have cleared out from this sound,” he wrote. “Have no wish to see them again.” No one ever did.