In 1890, Robert West Holmes (1856 - 1936) carried out exploratory work in connection with the road later to be constructed to Milford Sound, through the Homer Saddle.
His wife accompanied him on this arduous tour, and the Gertrude Saddle was named after her. There is also a Gertrude Valley that joins the Milford Route from the north half a kilometre before the eastern entrance to the Homer Tunnel.
The Homer Tunnel
In 1935 five men with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows began the creation of a 1,240 metre long tunnel through the Darran Mountain Range towards the Cleddau Valley.
The conditions were harsh for Depression-era relief workers.
Starting at the eastern end a small tunnel was driven into the granitic rock at a falling 1:10 gradient. Fractures in the rock allowed the ingress of thousands of gallons of snow meltwater and compressors and a powerhouse in the nearby river were eventually built to pump out 40,000 litres of water per hour.
Avalanches were a constant danger in the winter. In July 1936 26 year old tunneller, Percy Leigh Overton, was killed and several men injured when an avalanche engulfed the tunnel’s entrance.
A reinforced concrete shelter was put up over the tunnel mouth to provide protection but in 1937 two more fatalities were caused by an avalanche. This time it got the Public Works Department Engineer-in-Charge, Donald Hulse and the tunnel works overseer, Thomas W. Smith.
The force of the dry, soundless avalanches dropping from the snow fields 800m up was enormous and in 1945 the reinforced concrete approach was destroyed by yet another avalanche.
It was not until February 1940 that the so-called ‘hole-through’ was accomplished. The tunnel still required widening to 5.5m by 7m, a task that was not completed until 1953.
The tunnel is named after William Henry Homer (1838-1894). He and George Barber 'discovered' the Homer Saddle in 1889, and suggested the nearby road tunnel.
The tunnel and the Milford Road were gravel-surfaced until the 1980s (sources: IPENZ and Wikipedia).
In 2013 a complicated engineering project drilled and blasted out a 2,000 tonne rock pinnacle that stood over a thousand feet above the tunnel's western portal at the Moir's Mate Diamond Face.
The blast design ensured that the rock was blown into small fragments so that no massive boulders rained down over the temporary rockfall protection that had been built out from the tunnel portal (ACENZ 2014).
In April 2010 a violent weather front hit Southland causing extensive flooding. A massive – though not record-breaking – 300mm (12 inches) of rain fell in 24 hours near the Homer Tunnel on the Milford Road.
The Great Nude Tunnel Run is now an annual event through the Homer Tunnel. There are surprisingly few pictures of the event. As Rosco's Kayaks of Milford say,
'To travel through [the tunnel] fully clothed and in the comfort of a vehicle evokes enough horror – but running through it in the dark? Naked?'
But since 1988 100 or so hardy souls make the east-west traverse with only shoes and a torch. Roscos Kayaks have a fleeting photo.