Experiencing Sutherland Falls
Words/photo by Gerard Hindmarsh
Heavy overnight rain followed by sunny days makes for the perfect conditions to walk the Milford Track in Fiordland National Park. Recharged waterfalls thunder from majestic mountain ramparts. You keep feeling obliged to stop and arch your neck back to fully appreciate the grandeur of it all. After two nights spent at Clinton and Mintaro Huts, plus the McKinnon Pass under our belts, we arrive at Quintin Hut in time for a hurried bite. This is no time to loiter, for we know from a tantalising glimpse earlier that the Sutherland Falls are fully pumping. We head off up the 40 minute sidetrack to witness what was for a whole century acknowledged as the world’s very highest waterfall.
The Falls appears first as a sparkling glimpse through the trees. As we approach, a low rumble turns into a roar until at last we are confronted by its full height as it falls in three stages in leaps of 249.4m, 228.9m, and finally 103m into the huge pool at its base. A sign just over half a kilometre from the Falls informs us that we are now as close to them as they are high, yet we already feel they are about to engulf us with their presence. The last hundred metres up to the rim of the boulder-strewn pool at the waterfall’s base is like entering a domain of sheer power. It looks nothing like the genteel tourist photos I have seen of this place, in comparison the waterfall on my visit is probably surging with 10 times its normal flow. The penetrating mist is driven towards me by a lashing wind, my raincoat a pitiful defense against the relentless moisture. I attempt to take photos but the lens becomes opaque the moment I take off the cap. You cannot talk to your buddy, the noise at this spot is louder than a 747 taking off. I watch other hikers come and go, awestruck but unable to withstand more than a minute under this mantle of pounding energy. They shriek and run back down the track. I attempt a few close up photos before finally joining them.
You cannot leave here without wondering where the water originates from. Looking from underneath, it appears to originate in the very mountaintops. An energetic young surveyor on the Milford Track, William Quill, was the first to find out when he climbed the Sutherland Falls alone on Sunday, 9 March, 1890. Setting out up the eastern (or true right) side, he climbed past the first leap to find himself caught up in thick tangles of scrub on the increasingly vertical slope and had to spend hours painstakingly hauling his way up. At the second leap he rested on the grassy shelf and anticipated what lay ahead, a sheer vertical assent up the smooth granite rock to the top. He later wrote; “A steady hand and a strong nerve were all that kept me from slipping down the perpendicular rock to be dashed to pieces below.” The last three and a half hours of the climb inclined upwards as he worked his way around a precipice at the top before standing on the ‘highest waterfall in the world’. On a subsequent visit, Quill jumped across the narrow chasm of the 100m-long outlet and planted a flag on the other side. “The water rushes with through this chasm with great force and swiftness, making a terrible noise – and about ten yards from the end strikes a face of rock to make a pretty curved leap in the air to disappear over the edge of the cliff.” The reservoir lake at the top which he discovered would later be named Lake Quill after the young thrill seeker, who just one year later would loose his life in another exploratory foray to find a route over the Gertrude Saddle.
It is with humility that I contemplate his efforts, but as I retreat out of the spray zone, I begin to appreciate that I am soaked to the bone and that the best way to get my clothes dry is just keep wearing them in a welcome bout of sunshine. Back down the track, some hikers on their way up pass me on the rock staircase. “I hope this is worth it!” says one to the other. I don’t bother reassuring them. They will find out soon enough.