It's All in a Name

Posted by Roy Sinclair in Travel Tips & Advice
Thursday, 15 March 2007
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The naming of the Mackay Falls is one of those appealing human stories from colonial New Zealand. I likely picked it up from one of those long ago Radio New Zealand programmes Open Country presented by Jim Henderson.

John Mackay was a Scottish gold prospector working in Fiordland’s Big Bay when he was invited by Donald Sutherland to explore the Arthur Valley running from Milford Sound inland towards what is now known as Mackinnon Pass – and the route of the Milford Track.

Donald had been enjoying the life of a hermit, building himself a small slab hut at Milford Sound and living from his fishing and hunting. His days were filled with exploring and prospecting. But he had an inkling mineral wealth – gold, even diamonds – could be found in the Fiordland mountains.  

In the spring of 1880, Sutherland and Mackay set off. They had to force their way through tangled rain forest. Beyond lake Ada they were already well into unexplored territory. Their efforts were eventually rewarded, not with minerals, but by a strikingly-beautiful waterfall pouring from a rock cleft and down a staircase of huge tumbling boulders.

To determine whose name would be bestowed on the waterfall, the two men tossed a coin. Mackay won the toss and looking at his disappointed companion said, "Well Donald, the next waterfall will be yours."

They continued on, climbing steeply and careful not to get swept away in the torrent they were tirelessly following upstream. Becoming dispirited with their rough journey, they were about to give up and retrace their steps when they forced their way up one last rise. Ahead, beyond a spur, they saw the most magnificent waterfall cascading from a stupendous height. It was surely one of the world’s greatest waterfalls.

Mackay turned to his friend and said, ``Well Donald, we don’t have to toss a coin for this one. It’s yours.’’ The 580-metre Sutherland Falls are the highest in New Zealand and eleventh highest in the world. The date of their discovery by Sutherland and Mackay was November 10, 1880.

These days the two waterfalls are highlights of the Milford Track billed as ‘The finest walk in the world.’ Found in a forested grotto, Mackay’s falls are a delight to photograph. But all my shots of Sutherland’s falls, descending in three long leaps to the foot of Mackinnon Pass, appear as if they have been taken inside the shower. On the two occasions I have ventured up to them it has been heavy rain.


Exploring names given to New Zealand’s features can be fascinating. Maori names are mostly poetic and tell a story. Te Puna o Waiwhetu, the name given to the Christchurch Art Gallery is a good example. It means ‘wellspring of water reflecting the stars’. And it is pleasing to see Maori names combined with traditional European names. ‘Aoraki Mount Cook’ has a nice ring to it. And ‘Mount Taranaki’ certainly sounds more appealing than the former crass `Mount Egmont’.

European names are frequently to-the-point and, one might assume, were never meant to stick. Often, they tell a lot about the people who migrated to colonial New Zealand. The South Island, and especially South Westland, is a good place to find them. Most are, sadly, too insignificant to be marked even on a detailed map. There’s a Dog Kennel Creek, Thirsty Culvert, Friendship Creek, Bullock Creek, and a curious Gunboat Creek. I have enjoyed discovering them while bicycle touring. My all-time favourite, south of Fox Glacier, is Windbag Creek.

Other notable names are from Scottish pioneers who comprised 30 per cent of the folk migrating to Otago and Southland. Thus, we have the ‘Routeburn’ and ‘Rob Roy’.

The latter is the name of a glacier in the Mount Aspiring National Park and getting to it offers one of the best day walks in New Zealand, starting from Raspberry Flat at the end of the Matukituki Valley road – about 50 km from Wanaka township.

Rob Roy Glacier hangs over a vertical wall of black rock. It is awesome, if not exactly beautiful. I would say nature was not working at her artistic best in creating the Rob Roy. Rather, she was intent on grabbing attention with a spectacle of unrepentant harsh grandeur.  

The scene truly emulates the flamboyant character of ‘Rob Roy’, the eighteenth-century Scottish hero and outlaw, Robert Roy Macgregor, brought to life in Sir Walter Scott’s 1817 Rob Roy novel.

Not so long ago I was bicycle travelling across the Scottish highlands, and indeed the same desolate moors that inspired Scott’s story. On a gloomy day the moors led to the infamous Glencoe. Here, too, the mountains offered a similar harsh and decidedly threatening grandeur.

Names can sometimes be deceiving. Some thought to be Maori are actually European concoctions. And many thought to be Scottish can inspire a smile.

Take, for example, the naming of many features in Central Otago. Many end in ‘burn’ suggesting a Scottish ancestry. In reality they were often the mischievous intent of J.T. Thomson, chief surveyor of the Otago Province. He had been given the task of naming principal Central Otago features prior to settlement by squatters and gold seekers.

This he did, bestowing names reflecting the sheer wildness of the landscapes: The Remarkables, Raggedy Range, Rough Ridge, Rock and Pillar, and others. Some were indeed from the Scottish border, Chatto Creek and Lauder, and even a Scottish saint – St Bathans.

Reaching the Maniototo, Thomson decided to use Maori names. But when his names were presented to the stuffy Provincial Council members in Dunedin they complained they were difficult to either pronounce or spell. The Maniototo list was returned to Thomson for amendment.

This he did, facetiously returning names he believed his peers might get their tongues around. They included Cowburn, Oxburn, Sowburn, Eweburn, Pigburn, Kyeburn, Wedderburn, Horseburn, and Hogburn. These ridiculous ‘animal burn’ names were accepted without question.

Many were subsequently changed. Some have stuck and are features on, or close to, the Otago Central Rail Trail offering a superb off-the-road cycling and walking path stretching from Clyde to Middlemarch.

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