Perseverance Harbour, Campbell Island
Today we went on another magnificent 8-kilometre walk, exploring the country around Perseverance Harbour on Campbell Island. Two things impressed me – the sheer physical beauty and stunning architecture of this place, and the fascinating story of the relationship of the island’s animals with human beings – or more accurately men, since, with the exception of the mysterious (and probably apocryphal) ‘lady of the heather’, who was said to be Bonnie Prince Charlie’s illegitimate daughter and to have lived here, the vast majority of human inhabitants in this place have been male.
Let’s begin with the setting. Perseverance Harbour is a long inlet which snakes into the very middle of the island. In appearance it is rather like Akaroa Harbour – smooth, round hills, brown with a border of green/gold dracophyllum. The hills look perfect for sheep. There are several prominent peaks, going up to about 500 metres, which must have been the edge of the original volcanic crater. From the head of the harbour there are large areas of smooth land, probably glacial in origin, which gently slope down in the south-east to a lake – ‘Six Feet Lake’ because that is both its depth and height above the sea. On the west, they equally gently rise up about 200 metres to a dramatic cliff face. The winds and storms of the furious fifties have carved the west into a series of striking pillars of rock, steep faces and occasional rocky beaches. There are several islands left standing after the erosion.
West coast of Campbell Island
All of this makes for beautiful vistas and wonderful, relatively easy walking. As you climb up from the harbour to the west coast you pass through a series of different zones – dracophyllum forest, then damp peaty bog, and as you get towards the tops the fields of brilliantly coloured megaherbs begin to appear. So with easy gradients, open views and constant botanical variation, the walking is superb. I had imagined Campbell Island as a bleak windswept place which had to be ‘endured’. On this day with almost no wind, and the sky increasingly blue, it was staggeringly beautiful. To be fair, the leader of the expedition admitted that conditions like this happened on no more than one in 40 days. Pure luck!
At almost every moment the walk was enriched by the birds or sea animals seen and encountered. This is where the second part of my story begins. Human beings did not treat the animals of Campbell Island well. The very first people here were explorers, and they were probably the ones who allowed ship rats to escape. Ground birds were an obvious prey. The next human arrivals were sealers. In Tucker Cove, just in from the harbour, we came across a stone monument marking the grave of a sealer who lost his life in their bloody pursuit. The wooden cross from his grave is now in Southland Museum. But if a few sealers lost their lives, that was nothing by comparison with the thousands of seals that were slaughtered. Then from the early 20th century other men began to look on the hills with the same thought that I had, and considered it ‘great sheep country’. At one stage there were over 8,000 sheep, which destroyed the indigenous vegetation, gravely affecting the food available for the few remaining native birds. Farmers brought cats who polished off the rest. By the 1950s Campbell Island had few native animals to greet a casual visitor.
But to give our species credit, we have made amends. The killing of marine mammals was made illegal. In three stages the sheep were cleared off parts of the island by fencing them in, and eventually, despite considerable opposition, the last of them were rounded up and taken to New Zealand in the early 1990s. In a sophisticated project costing over $2.8 million, the rats were systematically poisoned with helicopter drops and totally eliminated. The cats died out unassisted. Today the invaders have all gone.
A watching sea-lion
And the animals seem to have forgiven us; for they accept you and show off before you in a remarkable manner. The moment you step on to the main landing, you are greeted by a sea-lion, who looks at you, winks and utters a grunt of welcome. You will discover as you walk round that at times they may act gruff, and open their menacing jaws, but it is all in good fun – they are like playful Labradors.
Then there are the pipits, which quickly make your acquaintance and hop along in front of you, pleased with the company. When the Met Office people were here in the period before the office was abandoned in the 1990s, the Campbell Island pipit was such an endangered species that each sighting was recorded. Today their delicate movements and subtle fawn-coloured feathers are before your eyes repeatedly.
Campbell Island snipe
There is the Campbell Island snipe, another unique species. By mid-century they were considered extinct on the main island, and survived only on a precipitous offshore island, Jacquemart, which was free of rats. But the snipe managed to recolonise Campbell Island unaided once the rats had gone. We came across one, a gorgeous inquisitive bird, within half an hour of leaving shore. It was so welcoming and unflustered by our presence that it actually hopped between my legs – as one onlooker noted, it was the first time they had to use a macro lens to photograph a bird. Later on we met another offshore survivor, the Campbell Island teal. This was officially declared extinct, but in the early 1970s a colony was discovered on an even more isolated and steep island, Dent, off the west coast. This time help was on hand to assist them to re-establish themselves, and 50 birds were brought across to the main island. They too seemed totally comfortable with the humans in their territory.
As we wandered over the hills every so often a dark shadow would pass over us. Looking up, you would see yet another swooping albatross. At times you felt their aerial gymnastics were all for our benefit, and at one point a bird swooped within a metre or so of my head. But this was not all. Walking across the fields of megaherbs you would suddenly realise you were about to step onto the nest of a southern royal albatross. You would hurriedly retreat, but the encounter seemed of little concern to the bird. It would turn its head, perhaps make a percussive chattering sound, but really show no sign of anxiety. The albatross nests occurred about every 50–70 metres in these high fields, and from a distance all you could see were points of brilliant white as their heads popped up above the herbage. Later that afternoon we walked up a boardwalk to watch these amazing birds glide across the sky and land, feeding their chicks.
Southern royal albatross nesting amid the megaherbs
It would be a mistake of course to assume that all is love and kisses between man and animals on Campbell Island. On the west coast we looked down upon a lonely stretch of beach. In the early 1990s five people, including one woman, decided to interrupt their work at the weather station by going for a body surf at that lovely bay. But a great white shark living there was not so happy about the invasion, and attacked one of the surfers, biting off his arm. It was the woman who returned to the surf and dragged her friend to shore. He was flown to New Zealand and his life was saved. So one should not get too romantic about the harmony of humans and animals in this place today. But at least it is a very different situation from 50 years ago, and the animals seemed to me very grateful indeed for the measures that have been taken to give them back their beautiful homeland.