Archive for the 'The natural world' Category

Of animals and men – subantarctic expedition 5

Perserverance Harbour, Campbell Island

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

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

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

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

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.

Naturalist’s paradise – subantarctic expedition 4

Ross lily and Anisome latifolia on Enderby Island

Ross lily and Anisome latifolia on Enderby Island

If yesterday was for us history geeks, today was without doubt a day for the naturalists, although whether the botanists or zoologists or ornithologists came out on top was a close-run thing.  The setting was a visit to Enderby Island, the northernmost island of the Auckland group.  With the rabbits that once ran there eliminated, Enderby is now an environment free of introduced predators.   So it is a haven of nature at its most prolific.

Enderby Island castaway depot

Enderby Island castaway depot

Not that history is entirely absent.  On the north coast of the island I found a small plaque to the 15 men who had died when the Derry Castle ran aground on the reef; and on the south coast where we landed there is one of the original finger posts put up in the late 1860s to direct castaways to the castaway depots. Perhaps it was not ‘original’, because the fingers pointed in diametrically the opposite direction from the castaway depot which also survives on the island. It is a small triangular hut, rather like a large dog kennel. But the contents which it once contained – supplies of food, axes, fishing supplies, and thick woollen suits – have long disappeared into either museums or the stomachs of previous visitors.

But history is very much in second place on Enderby, which must be one of the richest natural environments on earth.  We landed at 8.45 a.m. on yet another warm, still, dry day and walked for about 8 kilometres around the island, before returning at about 2 p.m.  During those five hours or so there was hardly a moment when I was not staring at some natural curiosity that I had never seen before.  So these are some of the things which I saw:

Sea-lion harems on Enderby

Sea-lion harems on Enderby

On the beach where we landed was a huge colony of sea-lions.  At the centre of the beach the sand was thick with fawn-coloured female sea-lions (lionesses? – no, perhaps we should say cows). Around them flopped recently born calves, and every so often in the centre of his harem was a huge black bull.  Occasionally the bulls would growl and bare their fangs at the SAMs (sub-adult males), who hung round the outside of the group jealous that all the women were taken. On one occasion while I was watching this scene of sex and violence (as our group leader described it), a young SAM actually advanced right up to the lens of my camera – the first time I have ever wanted to use a macro lens to photograph an animal!

Along the boardwalk that led from the south to the north coast of the island we soon encountered our first megaherbs. There were Ross lilies (Bulbinella rossi) with their brilliant yellow flowers, at their peak of flowering. There were Anistome latifolia, a member of the carrot family with large leathery leaves and huge purple pompom-type flowers.  They reminded me of six or seven scoops of raspberry ice-cream on separate cones rising above the foliage.

When we got to the coast there were some strikingly beautiful flowers at the other end of the size range, tiny, exquisite gentians which hugged the ground in round clumps.  They ranged in colour from pure whites to deep pinks.

Enderby island gentians

Enderby Island gentians

As we walked along the spectacular cliffs, which were washed by roaring seas making fan-like patterns of the kelp, there was a fly-by of birds enjoying the uplift from the meeting of land and sea – gliding sooty albatrosses and Auckland Island shags, which were also seen roosting in crevices on the cliff edges.

On the rocks near Derry Castle Reef we saw, or eventually managed to see because their camouflage was so superb, a large flock of dotterels pecking for food.
On a small creek just inland we came across four beautiful Auckland Island teal, looking sleek and smooth in their deep brown suits.

As we entered tussock on the east coast we began to find another megaherb, Stilbocarba polaris, with huge rhubarb-like leaves and yellow flowers.  This was known as Macquarie Island cabbage because it was frequently eaten by sealers or castaways on these islands.

Yellow-eyed penguins on patrol - in threes

Yellow-eyed penguins on patrol – in threes ...

and in twos!

... and in twos!

Along the way you were likely to encounter the occasional female sea-lion hiding in the tussock, and almost as often yellow-eyed penguins either brooding on their nests or standing proud and erect on the path like uniformed constables on duty.

At the south-east corner of the island I came across a flock of four kākāriki, their brilliant green feathers topped off by a scarlet head. They were tame and accepting, quite ready to stay in position for a bumbling photographer not more than 3 metres away.

Rātā forest and Macquarie cabbage (Stilbocarpa lyallii)

Finally we must mention the large brown skuas, which usually sat in pairs along the path.  They were quite oblivious to us visitors and quietly surveyed the scene confident in their role as top bird.
We stopped for lunch at a place which was for me the most remarkable site of all.  It was a thick rātā forest, which was in full scarlet bloom.  As you entered into the forest, the gnarled flaking branches of the rātā filled the upper half of one’s vision, but the floor consisted of verdant Stilbocarba plants with their golden flowers and huge leaves, while every so often in striking contrast were shrubs of Dracophyllum with their erect spiky leaves.  Below was a brilliant green moss.  It was truly an unusual sight, Tolkienesque in the extreme.  Endless photographs were taken while another flock of kākāriki played around.

I am sure that a botanist or ornithologist or zoologist, not to mention an entomologist (the correct term for an ‘insectologist’), would have seen many other forms of life of unusual interest along this magnificent walk. As a mere historian, I must simply say that never in my life have I had such a rich experience of the bounty of nature. It was strange how within a few hours one accepted as normal the sea-lion approaching you to within a metre, or the birds landing on a neighbouring branch, or fields of wild flowers in dramatic colours and disproportionate size. But strangeness is what this place is all about. It was a total privilege to walk on Enderby Island today; and it will not soon be forgotten.

Just watch out for fog on the camera lens!

Just watch out for fog on the camera lens!

Three strange stories – subantarctic expedition 3

Erebus Cove

Erebus Cove

Today, Christmas Day, I expected to be a day of botanising for unusual plants on Enderby Island – but instead it turned out to be a day of history, and three very unusual human stories.  The wind was still blowing from the east and this made landing on Enderby Island, at the north end of the Auckland Islands, impossible.  So instead we put on our gumboots, and got into Zodiacs to visit three fascinating places.

The first was on the south-west side of Port Ross – Sarah’s Bosom as it was known to sealers and explorers starved of female company.  We landed at Erebus Cove, the site of the only major settlement on the subantarctic islands. The dream for a settlement there really began when an American sealer, Benjamin Morrell, visited in 1829. He wrote that the area would ‘form a delightful retreat to a few amiable families who wish for “a dear little isle of their own”‘.  The dream was reinforced by the British explorer James Clark Ross, when he landed in 1840. Ross considered the place an ideal base for a whale fishery. Such comments caught the ears of Charles Enderby, head of the British whaling company Enderby and Sons, who wished to regain control of the world’s whale oil market. So the idea was born that a township, Hardwicke, could be founded at Port Ross, which would become a thriving agricultural settlement and a base for the whaling industry. Some 200 settlers arrived in December 1849 to fulfil Charles Enderby’s dream. He came as the resident governor.

All that's left of Hardwicke township – a broken bottle

All that remains of Hardwicke township – a broken bottle

Well, it did not work out. The peaty soil proved to be acid and unsuitable for growing crops. The whales had already been hunted and no more than 2,000 barrels of oil were collected. The crews were often drunk, and the settlers quickly became mutinous, depressed by the awful climate. After two and a half years the settlement was abandoned, although Charles Enderby had to be forcibly carried out.

Isabel Younger's grave at Erebus cove made from a millstone

Isabel Younger's grave at Erebus Cove, made from a millstone

As we landed at Erebus Cove, it was hard not to share the dreams of Morrell, Ross and Enderby. The sun was shining, the temperature balmy, and the rātā which lined the coast was blooming brilliantly red. But realities soon confronted us. Upon landing we followed a boardwalk up to the settlement’s cemetery. Most of the gravestones were reconstructions, but one was not. It was the grave of Isabel Younger, the infant daughter of Thomas Younger. Isabel died in November 1850, aged just under three months. Her gravestone was made from a grindstone brought out from England by settlers hoping to use it to grind the abundant wheat that everyone anticipated. No such luck, so a gravestone it became. I had brought my Te Ara map of the settlement, so my mate Angus and I headed into the twisted trunks of the rātā forest in search of the township’s remains. It was hard going; little is left because the bankrupt company decided to take down all the buildings when the settlers left and sell the materials in Sydney. But we did find some evidence that poor tormented souls had once inhabited the place – some piles of broken bricks, some pieces of slate, one pitch black beer bottle. Little more, but enough to remind us of broken dreams and dashed hopes for a good life in the far south.

Then it was back on the ship to head to Rānui Cove, north-east of Port Ross. This time the Zodiacs dropped us at the site of the coast-watcher hut no. 1. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the German cargo ship Erlangen had just left Port Chalmers to head to Sydney to pick up coal for the return home. The Germans instantly realised that the Australians would not permit them to refuel. So where could they obtain fuel? Their ingenious answer was to sail south to Carnley Harbour in the Auckland Islands. There they anchored for about five weeks, attacked the rātā forest and provided themselves with enough fuel to reach neutral South America. This incident awoke a realisation among New Zealand military authorities that the subantarctic islands could potentially harbour alien ships. So it was decided to set up coast-watching stations there – two in the Auckland Islands, at Port Ross and Carnley Harbour, and one on Campbell Island. They dropped off prefabricated huts originally made for the Pacific and sent a succession of men there to keep watch. They included a number of distinguished scientists such as Charles Fleming and Robert Falla.

Coast-watcher hut no. 1 is the only such station which survives with much intact. Even so it was pretty decrepit, and unless something is done it will not long survive the winter storms and rains. But if the visit began with a sense of sadness and decay, it soon picked up when we climbed the track up to the lookout used by the coast-watchers. The view over Port Ross was magnificent and the little two-person lookout was superb – not only for the stunning view, but also for what was left – candles, empty bottles of beer and even some old illustrated newspapers dated 1938. They must have been old news even in 1939, but would have helped while away long hours up there in the cold.

We then sailed south along the east coast of the Auckland Islands to Carnley Harbour, where we visited the site of a third strange historical story. This was the location of the wreck of the Grafton. The ship was driven ashore on a voyage from Sydney in 1864, one of about 11 ships wrecked on the islands as ships followed the great circle route south to capture the winds. Here is a great map of them all. The five Grafton crew landed and were able to use bits of the wreck to build themselves a hut. They learned to survive by killing sea-lions for food. Eventually they constructed a boat from hand-made nails and bits of wood from their ship. Three of them set sail, and after five days on that fierce stretch of water they made it to Port Adventure on Stewart Island/Rakiura. Their journey was one of the great survival voyages of history, almost equal to Shackleton’s far more famous feat. We landed at the place where they lived, and found remains of the hull of the Grafton and the stone foundations of their hut.

The day had turned out magnificent – still, with blue skies. The leader of our party, who had been on over 100 trips to Carnley Harbour, had never seen it so beautiful. It appears that we might have had the best Christmas weather in the whole of New Zealand! So it was hard to imagine just what a feat of endurance against raging storms and winds the Grafton survivors had to put up with. One would have sworn that this was paradise on a Northland beach.

The remains of the Grafton

The remains of the Grafton

So still and lovely was the weather that we were then taken for a tiki tour around the inner reaches of Carnley Harbour. The scenery was stunning, the water dead calm, and it was hard to imagine that despite this beauty, and hills that looked perfect for running stock, there was not a soul living in the whole of the island. One could easily imagine why Sir James Clark Ross and others believed the Auckland Islands a perfect paradise. But on 340 days a year this is very far from the case – and as our stories suggest, humans do not survive here for long without pain and torment. By my estimate, apart from a group of Chatham Island Māori who spent about eight years in the islands in the 1840s and 1850s, no one has ever lived there for more than five years. It is not really a place for people, but on this special Christmas Day we met a few of those who did try to survive in this place. Tomorrow no doubt the botanists and biologists would resume their dominant role, but for today I enjoyed history having its day in the sun.

Christmas evening at Carnley Harbour

Christmas evening at Carnley Harbour

Southern aristocrats – subantarctic expedition 2

Sooty shearwaters in front of The Snares

Sooty shearwaters in front of the Snares

We awoke this morning after a restless night, to an uncomfortable roll and the sight of large grey rolling waves topped with swirling white-caps. It was quickly decided that getting into an exposed Zodiac dinghy and ferrying us to the cliffs of the Snares was too dangerous. So we cruised up and down at a safe distance in the ship looking at the pale-leafed Olearia lyallii which covers them, and then headed on south towards the Auckland Islands. All day we pitched, and when you moved along the corridors grabbing any handle in sight it felt as if you were a pinball. Many retired to their cabins worse for the weather; and those of us who made it to lunch were a select but slightly chastened band.

So what in this day of rolling and creaking, and occasional forays out onto the windswept deck flooded with water, was there to talk about? Well, it must be the birds, the stars of these wild southern latitudes.

As we cruised beside the Snares you could see huge flocks of birds which would gather in clumps on the waves and then suddenly all rise and move to a new position. They must have been sooty shearwaters, the tītī (muttonbirds) which were such a delicacy for Māori. It is said that on the Snares there are 3–5 million tītī, more than all the seabirds of the United Kingdom. There are no predators on the island, only two introduced plant species, and people cannot land, so the birds can breed to their hearts’ content. Shearwater burrows are thick amid the leatherwood – or so the books say!

As we sailed on into the rough seas our eyes were captured by the elegant swooping of huge southern royal albatrosses. They seemed to be attracted by the ship – just why was not clear to me, because they did not dive to pick up scraps or to catch fish thrown to the surface by the movement of ship through water. They simply circulated around with their mesmerising glides and swoops – not a movement in the wings. It was like watching really proficient skateboarders at a complex bowl. One had the feeling that they had come just to entertain – we were an audience so they wanted to perform.

There were other birds – giant petrels (my mate called them GPs, which I had always thought had a different meaning), which often gathered in twos or threes in the water before being rudely forced into flight by the advance of the ship’s bow. And there were mottled brown-and-white cape pigeons, which are not actually pigeons at all but another kind of petrel. They went at speed but only by dint of frantic flapping of the wings. Their expenditure of energy only made more mysterious and impressive the lack of energy expended by the albatrosses, which simply glided with the movement of wind and air.

It was a long, difficult day on board, with too much crashing into walls and too much greyness in the skies, but it was made memorable for me by the swooping albatrosses – truly the aristocrats of the southern oceans.

Heading south – subantarctic expedition 1

On 23 December I set off for the subantarctic islands.  Very quickly we moved out of internet or cellphone range – but I decided to write a daily blog.  So today I post the first of these blogs; and I will post one for each of the next seven days, covering the whole voyage.  You will just have to imagine it is 23 December!

About to leave Bluff

About to leave Bluff

What a crazy idea – just when the body cries out for lying on a beach in the sun, I choose to head due south into the furious fifties, down to the subantarctic islands, where the wind is normally 60 kilometres per hour, where it rains 27 days a month, and where the sun is not often seen. But I had to do it. Ever since I read about those poor souls castaway on the Auckland Islands, and saw photos of the megaherbs with their magnificent blooms of yellows and purples, I had wanted to visit. And then I took the general editor’s privilege to write the Te Ara entry on the subantarctics – what a nerve to agree to write about the place without actually going there. But this only whetted the appetite further.

This was the year. My darling wife was off to the United Kingdom for Christmas to be present at the birth of a grandchild, and since she suffers sickness just by thinking about going to sea, it was the perfect opportunity. And then my generous brother-in-law agreed to share a cabin. Added to which, Christmas is the perfect time to see the megaherbs in full bloom – so rough seas and walks across boggy islands it would be. I was excited.

At 4 p.m. on 23 December, 50 of us clambered aboard the Russian ship, were shown our comfortable cabins, given lifeboat drill and warned about holding on to the rail at all times. The adventure had begun.

Russian sailor at work

Russian sailor at work

We sailed out from Bluff, past the Tīwai Point aluminium smelter, and across Foveaux Strait. It reminded me instantly of that other rough piece of water further north, Cook Strait. To the left was Ruapuke Island, home of the great Ngāi Tahu chief Tūhawaiki. He lorded it over the straits from his island home, just as Te Rauparaha lorded it over Cook Strait from Kapiti, his island home, in the 1820s. Well, in 1836 Te Rauparaha decided that one strait was not sufficient. He sent Te Pūoho south to capture the Ngāi Tahu land. Ruapuke was the ultimate goal. Tūhawaiki and his men met Te Pūoho at Tuturau (near Mataura) and defeated him. There is a monument there, put up for the centenary in 1936, which reads, ‘The last fight between North and South island Maoris in which the Southerners were victorious took place in this locality’. One might have thought it was an inter-island footie match. Far more than that was at stake of course, and the result was that Ngāi Tahu retained control of most of the South Island.

But one understands why Tūhawaiki and Te Rauparaha wanted to control those tempestuous pieces of water. Both offered access to significant land – Foveaux Strait to Murihiku, the southern part of the South Island, and also to Rakiura (Stewart Island); Cook Strait to Te Whanganui a Tara (Wellington) and Te Tau Ihu (the north of the South Island). Both were hugely important transport routes, and both offered access to very significant resources. In Foveaux’s case the real treasures were the Tītī Islands, which provided Māori with tītī (muttonbirds), one of the great trading goods of pre-European New Zealand.

As we passed Ruapuke on our left, we looked west to Bluff Hill and the south coast of Southland and southwards to the Tītī Islands. Rising high behind was Rakiura itself.

The pilot leaves

The pilot leaves

Within half an hour the cry rang out – ‘whales at four o’clock’; and I was reminded immediately that this area was not only a centre of Māori history – but of the beginnings of Pākehā settlement too. The very first Europeans to live for any length of time in Aotearoa were sealers who came south in the first decade of the 19th century. They slaughtered seals in their thousands to provide hats for fashionable European ladies and to power Europe’s street lamps. Soon after, men began to settle here to hunt the southern right whales, which migrated north each year past the coasts of New Zealand. Tough men who endured fierce winters, rough waters, and bloodthirsty pursuits.

So as we headed off into these southern waters, I was reminded of human history, a history shaped by the amazingly rich wildlife of the area. One can’t help thinking that perhaps it is the wildlife, not the people, who really own the place. We shall see.