1946: Frank Barlow at Milford Sound Radio

By Frank Barlow

Frank Barlow ZL2NB
Frank Barlow

Milford Sound brings to mind Mitre Peak, the world-famous Milford Track and spectacular Fiordland scenery. Nowadays we also take it for granted that all communications are there for the using: telephone, road, bus, aircraft and launch services.

However, it wasn’t always like this and in 1946 there were no telephones, no all-weather road, no aircraft and only a solitary launch plying the Sound. The only communication was by a Morse-operated radio link between Milford Sound Radio ZMV and Awarua Radio and it is this period I would like to tell you about.

In February 1946, with life becoming more pleasant as wartime restrictions were being gradually removed, I was disconcerted to be informed that I was to be transferred from Awarua Radio to Milford Sound. Protestations were of no avail and the transfer advice stood.

Soon I was on my way by bus to Te Anau where I was met by the Public Works Foreman who took me in his truck on his weekly run through to Milford Sound. At this time the Homer tunnel had been pierced through but was in a rough condition and the only traffic permitted was the Public Works truck. The ten miles of road down to Milford Sound was also rough with some of the original bridges that had been built from standing beech timber in a precarious condition. The Postmaster at ZMV was extremely pleased to see me and, after a brief run through on the equipment, left happily on the returning truck to Te Anau and the wider world. I was on my own!

Milford Sound. Photo: ~boonie on Flickr
Milford Sound. Photo: ~boonie on Flickr

The Post Office was a corrugated iron structure approximately 10 ft by 8 ft, sited alongside the hotel office, and looking across the open verandah. The view from the only window was magnificent, looking directly down the Sound at Mitre Peak. Into this office was jammed everything required for the multitudinous function of a Post Office, plus all the radio equipment! There was little room for the operator, and even less for customers, who had to stand behind when the operator was working at the desk. The Morse key was a “floater” on a long lead that was put away in a drawer when the desk top was needed. The radio equipment will be detailed later, but there were all the standard Post Office equipment and forms to run a postal, banking and telegraph service.

The major business was handling telegrams and these were accounted for by placing stamps to the value of the telegram on the form and canceling with a metal date stamp. There was no telephone communication anywhere – only the Morse radio link – and the hotel ordered all their supplies by telegram from the nearest point, usually Lumsden or Invercargill. The hotel was run by the Government and all telegrams were paid for in Government stamps which the hotel requisitioned for themselves.

There was not a lot of Savings Bank business although most of the hotel staff and myself had Post Office Bank accounts for our pay – there was nothing to spend it on at Milford – the hotel was not licensed and there were no shops in the area. Occasionally a Money Order telegram was handled and also Postal Notes but generally there was only a limited amount of banking business.

Postal business was brisk at times with the pictorial stamps then on issue being quite popular, the favourite being the one of Mitre Peak date stamped with the Milford Sound date stamp. Mail was despatched weekly on the Public Works truck which also brought the incoming mail.

Another function of the Post Office, and a vital one, was the observing and forwarding of weather reports at 9am, noon and 8pm. A quick look at the map will show that Milford Sound juts out into the Tasman Sea much further than the rest of New Zealand.

Puysegur Point (ZMU) to the south juts out even further and these two stations give the first reports on weather conditions approaching from Australia.

Atmospheric pressure was recorded on a large gimbal-mounted barometer and, together with a weather report, was forwarded three times daily. The maximum/minimum temperatures and the rainfall recording were taken at 9am only. The highest rainfall while I was there was 15 inches but I believe the record was 18 inches. The rain comes down with incredible force on a heavy day and seems to bounce up from the pavement. A look at the geography will show why: the hotel is at sea level surrounded by 5000-7000 foot mountains and the clouds, picking up moisture on their unhindered approach across the Tasman Sea, are ripped apart when they strike the Fiordland coast. I was glad that the last operator had left me his gumboots and a long ex-Army storm cape.

Milford Sound Radio in March 1954
Radio operator Clyde Williams1 at Milford Sound Radio in March 1954, a few years after Frank’s stint there.

The radio equipment consisted of a Collier & Beale receiver with a Post Office transmitter mounted above it. Above that again was the aerial switching unit connected to the two aerials by transmission lines. The aerials were dipoles (strung between three 70 ft wooden masts. The working frequency was 4280 kcs and the emergency frequency was 5965 kcs. Vibrators powered the equipment and these were driven by three six-volt car batteries in parallel. Charging was from the hotel’s 110V DC supply through a converter. The diesel-driven generators were seldom on during the day so most of the battery charging was done at night.

Due to its geographical position among high mountains, thunderstorms were prevalent and the noise of the thunder rolling around the peaks was awesome. The lightning cracks in the headphones were paralysing and it was the understood procedure to break off the schedule, earth the aerial and get outside. Later, two lightning arrestors were sent over and after these were fitted to the transmission lines I felt much safer.


It was the tourist season when I arrived at Milford and, although the track had not yet been re-opened, parties were walking down from the Homer tunnel, staying a night or two and going back the same way. It was quite busy during the week but on Sunday, my day off, I was able to go down the Sound in the tourist launch Donald Sutherland and help out as a deckhand. It was a good trip, from l0am until 4pm, with a packed lunch provided by the hotel.

Tourists went ashore at Anita Bay near the entrance if conditions were right, had a look around the beach for greenstone and, occasionally, found some. The launch usually anchored in Harrison’s Cove inside the Sound and tourists could also have a look around there.

Now and again, when it was particularly calm, the launch ventured out into the open sea and rolled around there. The Donald Sutherland was not a good sea vessel as it had been designed with a shallow draft to allow it to go up the Arthur River outlet at Sandfly Point to collect trampers coming off the track. However, it was well-suited for the sheltered waters of the Sound and could carry 60 passengers in comfort.

Although there was radio equipment in the Post Office designed to work the launch there was no radio gear on the launch. An oversight perhaps, or just not considered necessary?

The tourist season ended at Easter and the hotel was closed to guests, with a small number of staff staying on for the winter. These were: the manager and his wife, the cook, two other general hands and myself in the Post Office.

The Public Works truck continued to come through weekly with supplies while the road was passable but snow and avalanches at the higher altitudes usually blocked it from May onwards. Before it closed a number of live sheep were brought in for food and turned loose during the winter months.

The Milford Track originally opened for the season in December 1942 but was closed after a few brief months due to the seriousness of the war situation. In 1946, with the war concluded, it was decided to re-open the track and a work party of six men came in to work on the track over the winter period. A similar party commenced at the Te Anau end and the massive job of clearing it began.

There was enormous damage to the track over the five years it had been closed and for a while it was in the balance whether the re¬opening could be justified on economic grounds. The Milford work party stayed at the hotel and went over to the start of the track in the launch daily until they could get the hut at Sandfly Point habitable; they then worked from there. Despite their best efforts, working throughout the winter in spartan conditions, the track was not re-opened until March 1, 1947 and then it was only in passable condition.

Winter isolation

The winter months without any guests in the hotel meant it was a quiet time for the Post Office but schedules had to be kept, weather reports forwarded and telegrams sent. I was studying through the Post Office Correspondence School and all the assignments had been sent prior to winter so I had these to get on with. The Country Library Service sent in a hamper of about 50 books and these were available to everyone. The dinghy at the wharf was always available and it was a pleasurable break rowing around the wharf area.

During the winter everyone ate in the kitchen which had a large coal-fired stove and was warm. The hot water boilers in one wing of the hotel were fired up twice a week on Tuesdays and Saturdays and these were our “bath nights”. For a few weeks in mid-winter the sun passed behind Mitre Peak, and this made everything dull and gloomy around midday.

Radio maintenance was generally done on Saturday with the batteries being checked and a general tidy-up of the office. The equipment was very reliable and there were no valve changes in the two years I was there. The transmitter had a 6V6 oscillator and an 807 final. The only faults that occurred were a broken lead in the keying circuit and a shorted-out blocking condenser. The station carried 100 per cent spares but the test equipment was minimal. There was a small petrol-driven generator for emergency use and this was given a run every month.

The working frequency of 4280 kcs was a reliable one for the 200 mile distance and it was no trouble working Awarua Radio. Jacksons Bay (ZLQ) was on the same wavelength but a different schedule time.

When taking check bearings at Awarua Radio I was surprised to find that Milford Sound was dead north of ZLB with a bearing of 000 degrees, just a couple of degrees away from Midway Island which had a bearing of 002. Reception on the broadcast band was not good but the hotel manager, who had a very good high aerial, was able to get some reception and passed around any interesting news items. Sydney Radio came in well at night and was generally listened to.

Heating in the Post Office was by a small “Hot Dog” stove with an allowance of half a ton of coal a year. However, the problem with the stove was that it was only a metre from where you sat and once it got really heated up you had to move outside. Still it was a comfort in the winter once you got the thing under control.

I took an 80-metre crystal in with me and could fit it into the station transmitter but there was little response to calls from ZL4JF. The band was generally dead, partly due to the poor location of ZMV, but more likely due to the low activity on the band at that time (1946/47).

The reporting of cloud ceilings and visibility was limited by the nature of the Sound. Good estimations of the cloud height could be made by the known altitude of the surrounding peaks and the range of visibility could be measured against the distance to known points such as Bowen Falls, Sinbad Gully, Stirling Falls, etc. Rain was never far away and for a six-week period in winter, rain was recorded every day – just enough some days to allow a recording – but it was still a very long period. It was a trying time for everyone and a few mindless arguments got underway, but generally it was tolerated.

At the end of this period when the rain ceased and the sun came out strongly, we saw the remarkable sight of the animals and birds coming down to the spit in front of the hotel and sunning themselves. We felt the same urge to worship the sun as the giver of life.

Packhorses were used on the track when it was opened briefly in 1942 and were now having an easy time grazing around the river flats of the Cleddau and Tutoka valleys. When the clearing of the track began it was realised that the horses would be needed to pack supplies up to the work party and it was decided that they should be shod. This was a major operation and the manager, who was a big heavy man with some experience in shoeing, sought the aid of everyone available. The horses were not at all co-operative and, after a day of wild excitement, three shoes were on the smallest horse, two on the second smallest, one on another and the other two unshod. In the interests of life and limb the shoeing was discontinued and the horses left in their semi-shoeless state.

In the early spring, once the danger of avalanches had passed, a survey was made by two men walking through to the Public Works Depot at Marion Camp at the junction of the Upper and Lower Hollyford valleys. They were able to bring back all the accumulated letter mall and a quantity of beef which was a real luxury after a diet of mutton, fish and tinned sausages for several months.

The next trip was made leading packhorses but a track had to be cleared for them through the avalanches, and saws, crowbars, shovels and axes were carried for this purpose. Once through the Homer Tunnel on the Hollyford side it was not so bad as the avalanche slopes were farther back from the road. At Marion Camp the supplies were strapped on to the horses and the return journey commenced. It was dark in the tunnel so hurricane lamps were used but the horses could see quite well and you had to be careful that they did not tread on your feet, until your eyes got used to the gloom.

On the Milford side the hotel truck had been left up the road as far as possible and, after the horses had been unloaded and turned loose to find their own way home, everyone climbed into the vehicle and returned to the hotel and a good meal.

Later in the spring the Public Works Department were able to move in and clear the roadway of debris. Sometime later the road was passable by truck and the hotel opened for the tourist season. The Milford Track was not yet cleared but they were working on the middle section. The packhorses had already been swum across the Sandfly Point towed behind a dinghy and were now packing supplies up to the work party.

Hotel guests walked down from the tunnel (ten miles) spent a couple of nights, usually had a launch trip down the Sound and then walked back up to the tunnel to be collected by bus on the other side. It was surprising that people paid money to do this but Milford Sound was newly accessible by road and there was a great post-war hunger to travel without restrictions.

VIP visitors

Sir Bernard Freyberg
Sir Bernard Freyberg

The Milford Track was officially re-opened on March 1, 1947 but, preceding the opening, Governor-General Bernard Freyberg indicated that he wanted to walk over it. This meant that the hotel was kept clear of guests for several days so that the Vice-Regal party could have its exclusive use.

From the time the party left Te Anau and lost communication with Wellington, it was an extremely busy time for ZMV. Many official telegrams were received and held until the addressees arrived with the senders being informed of this fact.

This produced an immediate reaction from the Prime Minister’s Office in Wellington who demanded that the telegrams be delivered. Awarua Radio knew the situation in that there was only one operator and that the station could not be left unmanned. There was no way of getting across the Sound to the Track without a launch and the Launchmaster Norman Berndtson was already on the track. The Prime Minister’s Office finally accepted this but I was told to contact ZLB every hour and not to close until the Prime Minister’s Office rang ZLB and gave a release.

The telegrams mounted up until there were about 70, some of them demanding immediate attention. When the Vice-Regal party arrived the Governor-General was completely unconcerned and said he had told Wellington that he would be out of touch for five days. However, he knew how to delegate and said: “I’ll take the personal ones; give the rest to him,” – “him” being the Aide-de-Camp, Michael Cole, who ended up with the bulk of the messages. He worked on those that evening and the following day it took a full morning to clear the replies.

The Vice-Regal party spent a few days at the hotel and cruised down the Sound one day. One night after dinner, the Governor-General decided he would like an evening cruise. He came over to the Post Office and said, “Sparks, we are going out on the launch; would you like to come?”

This was good enough for me, so I called up ZLB saying that I had been requested by the Governor-General to accompany him on a launch trip. They could hardly refuse permission and the hourly skeds were cancelled until the launch returned.

It was a beautiful calm evening and when the launch hove-to near a crayfish pot. I climbed into the dinghy to retrieve it. Bernard Freyberg climbed down after me and took the oars. He handled the dinghy well and was obviously enjoying himself. There were two good crayfish in the pot and these graced his table the next day.

It was just getting dusk and he decided to enjoy it to the full by rowing back to the wharf but unfortunately his wife intervened and countermanded his decision.

Around Easter, nearing the end of the Tourist Season when leave arrangements were being made, the hotel manager offered me a trip back over the Track guiding a couple who particularly wanted to return in the reverse direction. I was familiar with the track up to Quintin Hut and jumped at the chance. The weather was good and we enjoyed the tramp out and the hospitality of the staff at Quintin and Pompolona Huts.

I developed an interest in tramping and exploring the Milford area on Sunday, my day off. The original route into Milford over the Grave-Talbot Pass intrigued me, and followed the old fashioned track alongside the Cleddau River upstream to the road bridge. The track from there was overgrown but on the third attempt, I found my way up the Esperance Valley to the old hut built of pit-sawn timber at the foot of the pass. Looking up, the pass seemed incredibly steep, and it was hard to imagine tourist parties coming over this way.

Visiting ships

There were a number of vessels that called into the Sound with perhaps the most beautiful being the French cruise liner Franconia. She was pure white and made a majestic spectacle against the green backdrop of the Sound as she slowly cruised around, and headed out to sea. The Royal Navy cruiser HMS Black Prince called in briefly and was a grey menacing sight as she cruised around also and then departed.

The Royal Navy sloop HMS Alacrity called in also on her way from Sydney to Bluff and stopped for a few hours while some of her crew came ashore. She left behind a Royal New Zealand Navy officer, Bill Robjohns, who spent a few days at the hotel and then returned via the road to Bluff.

Another visitor was the Bluff fishing vessel Kekeno which called in after a sealing trip at the Cascades, north of Milford. The sealing season was opened in 1946 but has never been open since. The vessel had a full load of skins but some of her crew were a bit battered through climbing over rocks and were looking forward to getting back to their home port. The seal skins went on the market but did not sell well giving the crew a poor return for their hard and dangerous work.

The six-monthly caller was the MV Gael (I think) from Hokitika bringing coal for heating and cooking and diesel for the generators. This meant a few days dirty, heavy work bringing the fuel from the wharf where it was unloaded and up to the hotel in a half-ton Chevy truck.

In the winter the launch Donald Sutherland would go out to the Heads occasionally to catch fish from a cod bank, and this freshly caught blue cod, baked or grilled, was a real “gourmet delight”. Another interesting trip was out of the Sound down to Poison Bay, a little south of the entrance, and really only a bleak indentation of the coastline. The sea and weather drove right in here and on the steeply shelving beach there was a good quantity of fractured greenstone. I got half a sugar sack here which I gave away to Post Office customers when the season opened.

Near the end of winter 1947 I developed stomach problems and went right off my food so, as soon as the road was opened, a relief operator came in and I went out in a truck. The doctor diagnosed the problem as a “grumbling appendix” so I went into hospital and had the offending organ removed. When I was fit for work I resumed duty at Awarua Radio thus ending my interesting two years at Milford Sound Radio (ZMV).

Return to Milford

The 75th Jubilee Reunion of Awarua Radio provided the excuse to go over the Milford Track whilst down in Invercargill and my wife and I booked in with the Fiordland National Park trip. This runs independently of the Tourist Hotel Corporation and uses Park Board huts. It was a good, well-run trip and, apart from the new huts, the track on the Te Anau side was much the same as 45 years ago. The zig-zag track up the McKinnon Pass looked in original condition and the benched track seemed little affected by the elements.

On the pass itself, there was a fortress-like shelter hut replacing shelters that had succumbed to the violent storms over this area. The shelter was divided into two sections: one for the Tourist trampers and one for the Park Board trampers. It was a very welcome lunch stop. Although the track on the Milford side generally followed the same route it has been improved, with considerable lengths of raised board walks around Lake Ada. Originally, trampers were ferried down the length of this lake by a barge-like craft with an outboard motor although there was a longer horse track around the side. The board-walks improve the tramping considerably and merge unobtrusively into the surroundings.

The last section of the track was the longest and our party of 40 had to move along smartly to reach Sandfly Point and meet the launch pick-up time of 3pm. From the wharf at Milford we bypassed the hotel and trudged up the road to spend the night at the hostel at the side of the old Public Works Camp. What amazed me, after an absence of 45 years, was the large amount of activity.

There were several tourist launches running from the wharf and a number of buses parked nearby with tourists about everywhere. There was a busy airport on the Cleddau River flats and light aircraft were either parked or flying — the Sound had certainly lost its air of tranquility and isolation – and in a sense the launches, buses and aircraft seemed out of character. I’m glad to see that a Travel Company is introducing a ketch-rigged vessel into the Sound and will provide overnight accommodation on it. This will be a similar vessel to the early coastal traders and will fit more harmoniously into the surroundings.

The old Post Office shack has gone – burnt down many years back – and the three wooden 70-foot radio masts had been taken down although the stumps remained. A standard Post Office building was near the hotel and all postal, banking and communications business was handled there. The telephone network was accessed through a repeater on Balloon Park, a tooth-like mountain on the Milford side of McKinnon Pass and presumably serviced by helicopter. All the track huts were connected by radio-telephone and I imagine the repeater for the track sets would be up there too.

There were a number of small Morse radio-telegraph stations operating in New Zealand and the offshore islands before advanced communications technology overtook them and it would be interesting to hear of them whilst they are still in the memories of present day operators.

[Originally published in Break-In, November-December 1992]


1 Identification by Clyde Williams, Sept 2016

» 1952: Clyde Williams at Milford Sound Radio