Coincidently, another account of a similar journey taken in 1906, appeared in The Fruitful Years: a cavalcade of memories, the autobiography of New Zealand architect, William John McKeon, published in 1971. In Chapter Three of McKeon’s book, the then young traveller’s experience is described:

‘In 1906 my father decided that we should have a holiday in Australia, and it was arranged that my mother, my sister and myself should go over first and that he would follow later and bring us home. Needless to say, terrific excitement prevailed. To a ten-year-old boy, the prospect of a trip in a big ship was irresistible. I was already keen on reading, and sea stories were my favourites.

After an orgy of packing, tearful farewells to my father and old Bob, the dog, we eventually set sail in the old Wimmera, a small Huddart Parker ship, later to be lost with all hands [sic] during the war years. We left at sunset on a beautiful evening and I can well remember the delight I felt when I saw the open sea in Cook Strait, the blue rollers and white horses of a heavy swell. Alas! My young enthusiasm was soon damped. I had partaken of a couple of oranges on boarding the ship, and apparently oranges do not have the effect of warding off seasickness. I was horribly ill, and after hanging on to the rail until the worst was over, I staggered to the cabin and turned in, not caring whether I lived or died.

However, youth is a resilient animal and by the morning I was feeling quite fit again, and was soon on deck watching the green hills of Lyttelton slide by as the ship steamed up the harbour. We spend a day at Lyttelton and then sailed down the coast to Port Chalmers and Dunedin, our final call being Bluff, a bleak and open port at the extremity of the South Island.

It was customary in those days for several of the inter-colonial steamers to make a call at Milford Sound before proceeding across the Tasman to Hobart, and it was our good fortune to strike one of these trips. It was an experience I shall never forget. After leaving Bluff [Monday 5 March 1906], we sailed up the West Coast and arrived off the entrance to Milford Sound early in the morning. There was considerable low cloud and fog and some doubt was expressed as to whether we should go in or not. However, after we had sailed slowly up and down for an hour or so, the fog lifted and we steamed slowly through the narrow entrance.

It would take a more eloquent pen than mine to describe the breath-taking beauty of these southern fiords with their precipitous sides, bush-clad to the water line; of the incredible glassy smoothness of the deep green water and the thundering cataracts hurtling down the mountain sides to fan out in snowy foam on the surface. As we moved up the Sound, the passengers assembled on deck stood silent and awestruck. Quite suddenly the walls of vapour, high up on the mountain sides, seemed to thin out, and there, in all its glorious beauty, stood the snowy summit of Mitre Peak, over seven thousand feet above the level of the Sound. Its sharp pinnacle, gold where the sun caught it, and misty blue on the shadowed side, seemed to be suspended in air as it towered above the curtain of mist. An unforgettable sight.

One of the deck hands brought a rifle up on deck and fired it in the air. The sharp crack of its report was followed by thunderous echoes, deepening in sound and volume as they were hurled back and forth between the craggy walls until they died to a murmur like distant thunder. Then the ship’s gong was beaten, and finally the Captain gave three short blasts on the siren. The cacophony of sound which grew from this demonstration was incredible in its volume and variety.

Scarcely moving, the ship proceeded up the Sound, while all the time fresh beauties unfolded themselves. The sun had not yet broken through the mist, but there was considerably more light than when we had entered and the lovely greens of the dense foliage showed up in sharper contrast. A thunderous warning became apparent and as we rounded a blunt headland a wonderful sight was revealed. The might Bowen Falls (“a river flung down mountain side”) now showed up in all their majestic beauty—a vast column of water over a thousand feet from where it leaves the mountain-side until it plunges into the deep waters of the Sound. Its thunder echoes and re-echoes in this primaeval gorge and we stood spellbound as we watched.

Donald Sutherland. Detail from a magic lantern slide. Author's Collection.
Donald Sutherland.
Detail from a magic lantern slide. Author’s Collection.

Far up on the waters of the Sound, a tiny speck appeared. All glasses were levelled at it and speck resolved itself into a boat propelled by a solitary oarsman. As we were still moving slowly towards him it did not take long before he was alongside the lowered gangway, and as he tied his boat up and came aboard my memory recalls a broad-shouldered man clad in old faded trousers and shirt, a felt hat on his head. His hair and bushy beard were reddish and streaked with grey and his eyes clear and blue-grey.

Such was Donald Sutherland, Scottish hermit, who lived alone in the small accommodation house at the head of the Sound, accompanied only by his faithful friend, one “John O’ Groats”, a big Airedale who was even now jumping excitedly about in the moored boat. Sutherland married many years later and he and his wife continued to live in this primaeval fortress until his death in 1918. He rarely visited the outside world and spend the best part of his life in this magnificent but lonely area.

Supplies, books and papers were lowered into the boat, and after an interval Sutherland re-appeared, bade farewell to the Captain and climbed down the gangway to his boat and his canine companion. He rowed slowly away, watched by everyone on the ship who had crowded the port side to see him go.

The ship slowly circled round and headed down the Sound towards the open sea. The mist and clouds had come down again and much of the magnificence of the scenery was obscured. The suspended vapour lay in long swathes across the face of the wooded mountains, and soon a steady rain set in and drove us all off the decks to the shelter of our cabins or the dining saloon.

In the few hours we had been in the Sound, things had been happening outside. A southerly gale had sprung up and as soon as we emerged from the calm land-locked waters we plunged into the thick of it. I suppose I have sailed on more stormy seas in later years, but to my boyish imagination, this was a storm of storms. The little Wimmera had a very low freeboard and it seemed that instead of riding the seas, she went right through them. The thunder of the falling water on the deck over our heads and the pounding of the waves against the bow sounded like iron tanks being dashed together. The little vessel literally staggered, as some of the tempestuous waves hit her bows and poured over her decks, and we visualised a rather miserable time for the next few days. We were right. The whole ship was “battened down” and no passengers were allowed on deck. We existed miserably in our cabin and in the dining saloon where, even with the fiddles rigged on the tables and the tablecloths damped, it was impossible to keep a plate or a cup and saucer in position. Every thing felt damp to the touch, and in the confined space below decks the air grew foul and smelly. It was bitterly cold, and in those days there was nothing in the way of a heating system to warm the ship up. However, we endured and did not suffer again from seasickness, despite the storm.

Four days later, we steamed into the quiet water of the harbour of Hobart, and as we thankfully emerged on deck, we saw that our ship bore marks of her strenuous crossing. Her long yellow funnel was white with salt on the forward face, and brown aft, where the heat from the fires had scorched the paintwork. A broken lifeboat and some smashed deck fittings bore witness to the fact that she had been “taking it green” most of the way and we thanked our stars that the worst part of the voyage was over.

It is curious that the Tasman Sea, although only twelve hundred miles across between New Zealand and Australia, is one of the worst stretches of water in the world at times. No doubt this is brought about by the fact that it has its feet in the Antarctic and its head in the tropics. Sufficient to say that cyclonic storms develop with startling suddenness over this area, sometimes at the northerly, sometimes at the southerly end, more frequently in the middle on the trans-Tasman shipping route.

Hobart: Lovely, sleepy town, nestling at the foot of Mount Wellington, whose green slopes soared up to the peculiar fluted rocks near the summit, giving the appearance of the pipes of a gigantic organ. White stone houses and groves of deep green trees and the lovely Derwent River flowing out to the sea…

…On to Melbourne, across a sparkling Bass Strait, playful but not stormy, and to a glorious holiday in the city of my birth.’


McKeon, William J. The Fruitful Years: A Cavalcade of Memories. [Wellington, N.Z.]: [The Author], 1971.

© Ralph L. Sanderson 2004-2021