Man of vision – subantarctic expedition 7

Rodney Russ and his Zodiac at Campbell island

Rodney Russ and his Zodiac at Campbell Island

Today we travelled across rolling grey seas from Campbell Island to Bluff. It is a long 36-hour journey. Most of us spent the day reading, eating, organising photos and going to lectures. Little blog-worthy in all that. So instead I went and had a chat with Rodney Russ, the energetic genius behind Heritage Expeditions. His is a fascinating and inspiring Kiwi story.

Rodney grew up in Nelson in a family of farmers who worked the land once owned by Sir David Monro, speaker of the House and father of Charles, who is credited with bringing rugby to New Zealand. As the eldest son, Rodney was expected to inherit the land, but, in his own words, he was ‘born under a wandering star’. So on leaving school, he tramped in the hills and worked in a shearing gang. In 1968 he became a trainee with the Wildlife Service. He found himself working on rare and endangered birds with some remarkable people – Brian Bell, Rod Morris and Don Merton.  He was one of Don Merton’s team which successfully transported the surviving black robins (of ‘Old Blue’ fame) from Little Māngere Island to Māngere in the Chathams. Rodney operated the Zodiacs. Later he discovered a population of kākāpō on Stewart Island/Rakiura.

Rodney’s discovery of the subantarctic islands came when he was still a trainee.  He was sent down to the Auckland Islands as ‘the boy’ to drive boats for a joint US/New Zealand/Australian expedition in the summer of 1972–73. He returned there in 1974 and the following year was in the party that removed sheep from the northern block of Campbell Island. While at Campbell he managed to get onto the precipitous Dent Island, where he rediscovered the flightless teal, which was extinct on the main island.

With unique experiences under his belt, now was the time for higher education – but not, as one might imagine, in ornithology or botany. Instead Rodney enrolled at Otago University and completed a double degree in theology and history. He speaks warmly of what he learnt from the distinguished historians Erik Olssen, Tom Brooking and Gordon Parsonson. During the university vacations he began to offer a holiday programme in South Island national parks. He discovered the joy of teaching people about their natural and historical heritage.

Now came the crucial decision. He realised that the Wildlife Service was shortly to be followed by DOC; he did not look forward to a life of writing reports in front of a computer and felt that the prevailing trends were too elitist and arrogant. Long-term conservation, he believed, grew out of community attitudes. The best protection for the environment in the end was to educate people about the natural and historical world. Participatory tourism was the idea – people could learn while having fun. So in 1985 Rodney set up Southern Heritage Tours. He offered guided trips around the Otago goldfields and winter cruises to Fiordland.

In 1989 came the first commercial tourist trip to the subantarctics. Rodney chartered the research vessel the Acheron and took eight or nine people south. It was a success, so the next year he took over a Tauranga boat, Pacific Ruby. It was normally used for Pacific tours, but the cyclone season offered an opportunity in the New Zealand summer. Now 18 people were taken along. It was not always very pleasant – the boat came to be known as ‘rolling Ruby’! But the venture showed a clear demand for educational tourism in the subantarctics.

Then in 1993 Rodney got a call about the possibility of chartering a Russian ship capable of taking 50 people, but he had to guarantee to hire it for 100 days. This meant that Antarctic trips would have to be added to the range of voyages. He immediately went to the bank to ask for $1 million in working capital. They laughed at him. But he found the money somehow, and Heritage Expeditions was formed.

In 2008 the programme was further expanded when Rodney decided to hire a Russian boat, now named the Spirit of Enderby, for the full 365 days a year in what is called a ‘bare boat charter’. Heritage Expeditions hires the whole crew – the team of Russian sailors, the magnificent chefs and the hugely knowledgeable team of scientists and lecturers. Each summer Rodney’s outfit offers six trips to the subantarctics and two to the Antarctic; and over the New Zealand winter they sail north to explore the Russian Far East waters – the Kuril and Commander Islands, where polar bears join the other forms of arctic sea life to give thrills and knowledge to the customers. He notes that as someone who does not drink vodka and refuses to offer back-handers, it is not always easy working with the Russian bureaucracy; but persistence has made it work.

Several aspects are hugely impressive about this visionary operation. One is that Rodney himself is totally hands-on. He still, as in the 1970s, gets into his dungarees and gumboots and operates the Zodiacs to drop people off at fascinating places. He gives the lectures on history. He is a born teacher. As for the back-office finances and logistics, he leaves those in the hands of a general manager in Christchurch. Secondly, Rodney has retained the conviction that tourism can, and should be, an educational experience. The lectures and in-the-field discussions were superb.

Nor does the vision stop there. Rodney is now building an 80-foot sail-assisted motor vessel to attract fee-paying passengers who wish to take part in research explorations. He is looking at hard-core birders, botanists and photographers, mostly Kiwis and Aussies.  He is planning documentary film trips. The idea that tourism and knowledge will in the end serve to strengthen the conservation of nature and history is an inspired vision.

Even for one who spent about four months reading and thinking about the subantarctics while writing the entry in Te Ara I have learnt heaps in the past seven days. It has been an unforgettable experience. To Rodney, your team of naturalists and your taciturn Russian crew, thank you heaps.

Farewell from Campbell Island

Farewell from Campbell Island

Postscript: I returned to Bluff on 30 December. There I discovered two things: 1. The whole time that Rodney had been lecturing to us, driving round in Zodiacs and planning our education and entertainment, he was also on the telephone constantly dealing with a crisis – his other ship was caught in the Antarctic ice. It was world news, but Rodney kept his calm demeanour.

2. As we  sailed into Bluff I looked up at the hills with roads carved into them and houses dotted everywhere. It brought into stark relief, after seeing the subantarctics in all their unspoilt glory, just what human beings do to the environment!

2 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by catherine phillips || January 7th, 2014

    Fabulous account of a very special experience – lovely to see pics of the plants in bloom and the rata elfin forest – such adaptations never fail to amaze – lucky bro!

  2. Comment made by Helen || January 14th, 2014

    Wonderful write up- thanks for sharing your experience and information here

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