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Bowen River

19 May 2010

River mouth coordinates 44°39.925′ S, 167°55.400′ E  

The pool at the bottom of the second gorge in the Bowen River. Photo D Hegg

The Bowen River flows into Milford Sound from a hanging valley west of the Darran Mountains and south of Mount Grave. It ends in a spectacular 162m leap, the Bowen Falls. 

The waterfall was known to the Maori, who referred to it as Hine-Te-Awa, the girl of the river [1] or river maid [2]. Its first European record was by John Lort Stokes, who surveyed Milford Sound in 1851 and anchored his ship the HMS Acheron “abreast a second waterfall, 200 feet high, which seemed to burst from a large reservoir with an incessant roar, which was heard with additional solemnity during the stillness of the night” [3]. In 1871, Captain Stirling visited the fjord aboard HMS Clio. Among his passengers was the fifth Governor of New Zealand, Sir George Bowen. The waterfall was named Lady Bowen Falls after the Governor’s wife, Diamantina Bowen [4,6]. While the gazetted name is Bowen Falls, the original name Lady Bowen Falls is still in widespread use today. The river and the col at the head of the valley were subsequently named after the waterfall. 

A pipeline takes water from above the Bowen Falls to Freshwater Basin; it feeds both a small hydroelectric scheme and provides drinking water to Milford Sound. 

On the pipeline that supplies water to Milford Sound. Photo D Hegg


Little has been recorded about the early exploration of the Bowen River. Given the ease of access from Milford Sound, it is most likely that the valley would have been visited in the 1880s by Donald Sutherland, whose house was in Freshwater Basin in full sight of Bowen Falls [5]

The first recorded visit by climbers is the one by L. and M. Stewart, who walked into the lower valley in 1935 then completed the first ascent of Barren Peak [7]. It took them 11 hours to climb the west face to the summit; after an epic battle with the scrub on the steep side-walls of the valley they returned to Milford Sound the next day “with their clothing torn to ribbons”. On their return journey home they walked (jogged?) over Grave-Talbot Pass, which they crossed in heavy rain and fog in four and a half hours (or so they claim!). Clearly, they must have been exceptionally fit and quite at home on the Darran’s near vertical terrain. 

Christie and Clark reached the head of the valley in 1937 and unsuccessfully attempted to climb the bluffs to Bowen Col [2]. It should be noted that they were by no means tourists, Christie having completed a number of hair-raising alpine crossings, including Homer Saddle and the descent from Matukituki Saddle into the Waipara. 

R. Rodda, V.I.E. Whitehead, I.D. Auld and L.R.Kidd visited the head of the valley again in 1941, hoping to find a route up Mount Grave. They confirmed that there’s no way up Bowen Col, and although they made it onto the ledge system up high on the west face of Mt Grave, they also failed in their intention of forcing a route to the ridge dividing the Bowen from the Harrison. Rodda eventually climbed Bowen Col and Mt Grave from the Harrison in December 1946 [2]

Since then, the Bowen River seems to have received little attention by climbers, with the exception of an ascent of the 8km long south ridge of Mount Grave from Barren Peak in 1972 [8]

Route description – Milford Sound to the head of the valley

Bowen River map. 1 grid square = 1km. Click to enlarge

Rating: tramping, off track, moderate                        May 2010 

An unmarked track for maintenance to the pipeline leads from Milford Sound to the top of Bowen Falls. The track starts about 100m south of the “no entry” sign on the one-way road in Freshwater Basin, at CB08 980412. The track entrance is concealed, and a “Danger – blasting” sign lying on the ground is currently the only indication to the start of the trail. The track climbs to the north until it hits a creek (marked on the map) at CB08 980414, then follows the true left bank of the creek to the bottom of the bluffs. Here it crosses to the true right then sidles and climbs to the north again, with numerous fixed ropes to assist on steep slippery sections. The track eventually reaches the pipeline, which is followed to the Bowen River above Bowen Falls. 

Just before the point where the pipeline drops down a steep bank into the Bowen River, look out for some pink flagging on a shrub on the left (down valley) side. Enter the bush opposite this marker, and you’ll find a flagged trail that climbs over a slip, then descends to the Bowen River at the forks at CB08 982421. The route continues up the dry creek bed, past two tributaries shown on the map and up a section with large boulders to about CB08 985424. Here some pink or orange tape is found again, leading up the bank then back to the Bowen River above the gorge. This is where the marked route ends. 

It is straightforward to follow the river bed all the way to the head of the valley, crossing where necessary and wading much of the time. Two bouldery gorges can be bypassed in open, easy bush on terraces on the true left. The river flows underground above the 520m contour. 

Allow one day from Milford Sound to the head of the valley. Bowen Col is still unclimbed from the south [9], and indeed it does not look like an appealing prospect. 

At the head of the Bowen River. Bowen Col at centre image. Photo D Hegg

Looking down the Bowen River from the head of the valley. Photo D Hegg


[1] Reed, A.W. (1996) The Reed Dictionary of Māori Place Names, 3rd Edition. Published by Reed Books. 144 pages 

[2] Rodda, R: Grave. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XII, No. 34, 1947, pages 1-8. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[3] p9 in Hall-Jones, J. (2000) Milford Sound – an illustrated history of the sound, the track and the road. Published by Craig Printing Ltd, Invercargill, NZ. 148 pages  

[4] p17, same as above 

[5] p22, same as above 

[6] Hall-Jones, J. (2003) Fiordland Place-Names. 2nd edition. Published by Real Journeys, Te Anau, New Zealand. 88 pages.   

[7] Te Anau – Milford District. Barren Peak 1st ascent. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol VI, No. 22, 1935, pages 162-163. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[8] Powell, C.: The south ridge of Grave. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XXVI, 1973, pages 72-76. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[9] Jefferies, C. (Editor) 2006. The Darran Mountains – an alpine and rock climbing guide. Second Edition. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 312 pages 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Thomson permalink
    4 August 2010 10:39 am

    You guys have been busy on this site! Nice work.
    Would be great to see some shots that show off the view looking up from the head of the valley.

    • 10 August 2010 9:49 pm

      I have added the only pic I have. Not the greatest one I’m afraid – it was so damp when we were in there, the only thing I was able to photograph was the fog on the glass of my lens… If anyone has a better picture they’d like to display, let me know, I’d very gladly to replace it!

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