By Clyde Williams, November 2016
When I arrived at Milford Sound in 1952 the hotel had been closed to guests since the 1949 fire. The Quintin Hut was also closed and there was no track maintenance work requirement.
In the mid 1940s the Southland Automobile Association had established a motor camp about a kilometre up the road, but that ceased operation when the hotel closed. The only people permanently living in the Sound were the hotel manager and his wife, a cook, a maid, a mechanic, a handy man plus of course the Postmaster.
From time to time there would be a visitor – almost always someone in an official capacity to do with the rebuilding of the hotel which was to commence in the coming Spring.
Occasionally, fishing vessels would tie up in the Sound to shelter from bad weather. These were vessels fishing for crayfish. I noticed that they all had fishing nets on the deck and this puzzled me as I thought you could only get crayfish from setting pots. This was not so. I learned that at certain times of the year crayfish leave their normal habitat and move along the sea bottom just like sheep on a hillside, in long lines along tracks. Thus the fishermen trawled for their catch.
In normal times, and once the winter snow set in, the tunnel work ceased as the tunnel was closed. There were no visitors other than the fisherfolk, until the melt and avalanche season ceased in mid September. Mail was limited to delivery/despatch per the MV Wairua (the vessel that provided the Bluff/Stewart Island service) which made two winter supply trips to the Sound and two lighthouses on the southwest coast.
In truth, the duties of the Postmaster could not be called onerous by any means. The three daily weather reports were required only six days a week, although I did record on Sundays the climate records – the 24 hour rainfall and the 9am temperature, dew point and barometer readings – but these were not required to be sent to the Weather Office on that day.
I generally kept the Post Office open when it was ‘sked’ time or I had other work to do, but at other times, everyone knew where I was. The odd telegram and a need for stamps or occasional Savings Bank work together with the weekly mail was about all I did.
I was also the Registrar of Birth Deaths and Marriages, the issuer of licences to have chickens and the issuer of Broadcast Receiving Station Licences, among other things. Sadly I had never the need to carry out any of those functions.
Cookie (Lloyd Douglas, my predecessor) told me that I had better get used to being called “Sparks” as this term had been used for all Postmasters, no matter what their christened name was. Once the construction of the new hotel commenced and there were 50+ contractor staff in the area everyone knew me but few would know my given name.
The Post Office itself was not the building that Frank Barlow knew. That had been replaced by a standard small Post Office building with one large space in front of the counter and the space behind the counter was the mail room, etc. A smaller room behind that space was the radio room; the room with myself at the key that is featured in Frank’s story.
I had a Collier & Beale 100W CW/RT transmitter for regular HF skeds and contacting fishing vessels, etc., and a standby battery operated CW-only 50 watt emergency HF transmitter. There was separate RT transmitter/receiving equipment for a public telephone service that had not yet been put into service (the equipment to my left in the photograph). I had an HRO receiver and a Hallicrafters receiver, both covering the MW and HF bands.
I also had the small coal stove type heater Frank mentioned in his article. When in use it would build up unlit gas in the firebox that would suddenly explode, blowing the stove lid off the top of the stove and giving the operator a hell of a fright.
Power was provided by two single-cylinder water-cooled Lister diesels, each driving a 5kW 230V generator. These were located in a separate engine shed some 50 metres away from the Post Office. I had two multiband dipole antennas at my disposal. There was also an “unofficial” ZC1 transceiver which I used to supply Queenstown-based Southern Scenic Airways, who flew over the area occasionally, with the local weather conditions.
The old hotel had been built in a sort of “H” layout, with guest accommodation in the left hand arm of the letter, the senior staff accommodation (which included the Postmaster) and the manager’s flat in the right hand arm. The dining room, office, behind them the kitchen and staff dining room, etc., were located above the cross bar, as it were.
The general staff accommodation was provided for the females in a separate building and the male staff in two-man huts at the rear of the site.
I found, as Cookie had warned me, that there was (on the management side) a perceived difference in status between the Manager, his wife and the Postmaster and the rest of the employees.
Let me introduce another occupant of the Sound. The Manager’s big black Labrador dog “Munga” was clearly part of the Management; at meal times the Manager and his wife sat at a table in the top corner of the main Dining Room, Munga and Sparks sat at a separate table, while the cook and the staff ate in the staff dining room. We were served our meals. I really think that, in truth, the staff were much happier with that arrangement.
While I ate with the management I mixed with the staff. The cook who was a Bridge fanatic spent weeks trying to teach me the rules of that game (which it seemed were understood, rather than written) and failing in this, finally lowered herself and came to enjoy a weekly Crib tournament between the two of us.
The diesel mechanic and I became firm friends, enjoying the odd beer or two – in moderation of course. I had established a deposit with a brewery in Invercargill before I arrived at Milford Sound and thus the odd FT (Free Telegram – one of the benefits of being a Post Office employee) saw regular supplies reaching me. More about this later.
The Manager, who had a Masters (Coastal) ticket and was also the launch master, needed no encouragement to separate from the other half of the management team and take the launch out to the mouth of the Sound for some fishing. We did this a lot and Blue Cod was frequently on the menu. (Tip – if you have not already tried cod’s liver lightly pan fried in butter, go for it – it’s gorgeous.)
Life was quiet and peaceful in those early months. When winter set in the cold took a bit of getting used to but we dressed for it when we were out, and there was always a roaring fire when inside.
How cold did it get?
One example: The two diesel engines running the generators were water cooled. The system was that rainfall caught by the engine house roofer gutters was stored in a roof level 300 gallon tank and fed by a single pipe to a Y-junction with a separate pipe to a 45 gallon drum for each engine with the water then continuously circulating through the appropriate engine “jacket”. The heated water gradually evaporated and each of the water drums had to be topped up. The Y junction was actually a lever operated hand pump with a single inlet and two switchable outlets. As part of the morning startup routine the drums were checked and, if necessary, water was hand-pumped to the required tank. One cold morning there was a need to top up. I switched to the appropriate tank, gave the metal wobble lever a good push and, with no effort on my part, it just snapped in two. The water in the feed pipe had frozen and the metal lever was made so brittle by the outside temperature that it snapped.
Towards the end of that first winter I had my 21st birthday and around the lounge fire the other six did me proud – we had a great night.
Come spring the solitary life changed, never to return. More about that later.
Clyde Williams was radio operator and postmaster at Milford Sound, 1952-1954.