Sutherland Falls 'discovered'

10 November 1880

Sutherland Falls (Natural Sciences Image Library of New Zealand, Go13324Rbt)

Scottish backwoodsman Donald Sutherland was looking for a viable route between Milford Sound and Lake Wakatipu on 10 November 1880 when he glimpsed falling water in the distance through trees. He was the first European to see the falls which now bear his name.

Dropping 580 m from Lake Quill to the Arthur Valley in three great leaps, Sutherland Falls were for a time claimed by New Zealanders as the highest in the world. In fact Venezuela’s Angel Falls are 979 m high, with an uninterrupted drop of 807 m.

Born in Wick in the far north of Scotland in the early 1840s, the footloose Sutherland served in several armies and merchant navies before fetching up in Milford Sound with his dog in 1877. Unsuccessful as a prospector and unfulfilled as an explorer, he improved his fortunes in 1890 by marrying Elizabeth Samuels, a shrewd and resourceful widow. The couple built the Chalet at Milford Sound to accommodate the intrepid tourists who walked the newly opened Milford Track in increasing numbers each summer.

The Chalet outlasted its founders. When Donald died suddenly in 1919, his corpse lay unburied for five weeks until the next visit by a government steamer because it was too heavy for Elizabeth to move. Undeterred, she stayed on at Milford Sound, sold the Chalet to the government in 1922 for £1000 (equivalent to $94,000 in 2014), and died the following year. The Chalet was replaced by a new government hostel in 1928.