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Islands of Despair

Fifteen — Disappointment Island and the Dundonald

page 143

Disappointment Island and the Dundonald

TheRanui was now approaching the Sugarloaf Rocks, and the weather was beginning to look unpleasant. The wind had freshened a little, and the cloud base had dropped to about 400 feet. Rain followed, with extremely poor visibility—in fact we could see nothing at all. Speed was reduced to dead slow, and it looked as though our pleasure trip was over. I, for one, was glad that we were a reasonable distance off that line of towering cliffs. Graham could see his chances of landing on Disappointment Island reduced almost to vanishing point, and I don't think anyone could have looked more dejected.

But our luck was still with us. After about an hour we could see signs of an improvement in the weather. It was soon clear enough for Captain Worth to ring for full speed again, and by the time we had the Sugarloaf Rocks abeam conditions were almost perfect. The fog was still hanging low overhead, and there was no certainty that there would not be more bad weather. Under these circumstances the captain did not consider it advisable to make more than a brief stop at Disappointment Island, and when we reached Castaways Bay the boat was quickly launched and a landing party sent ashore. I remained aboard the Ranui and sailed round the island, taking photographs and making sketches, as I had previously abandoned any idea of camping on the island.

Disappointment Island reaches a maximum altitude of 1035 feet, and is extremely rugged and deeply fissured. Every page 144slope is dotted with thousands of mollymawks sitting on their raised nests, so that the hillsides are just like a pincushion of white specks in a background of tussock. The rocks off-shore are carved into fantastic shapes by the action of the sea. As we sailed along the south coast a whale blew very close to us.

A short run to the Sugarloaf Rocks followed. These rocks rise to 255 feet above sea level, and are completely barren except for some patches of stunted tussock and bulbinella. The Sugarloaf Rocks provided sheltered water for the overnight stop of the castaways of the General Grant, who were on their way to Disappointment Island.

On returning to Castaways Bay we found that Graham and George had captured a brace of mollymawks, a rock-hopper penguin and a cape-hen, while Les had concentrated on geological specimens. None of them seemed to be very enthusiastic about the island, although they would naturally have liked to have been able to spend a little more time there.

It seems most likely that it was on the western coast of Disappointment Island that the Dundonald was wrecked. She was a steel four-masted barque of 2205 tons, commanded by Captain Thorburn, and had left Sydney on 17th February 1907 with a cargo of 30,000 bags of wheat. For two days before the time of the wreck she had no sight of the sun, and her position by dead reckoning led her master to believe that she would pass the Auckland Islands about midnight on 7th March. At about 8 p.m. on that day the wind increased to gale force, and the ship was under short canvas in a big sea when the mate sighted land ahead. She struck forward, then swung round on her keel, until her stern was close to the rocks, which were about 50 feet higher than the masts.

It was impossible to get the lifeboats over the side, but Captain Thorburn thought the ship might lie as she was until daybreak, so he ordered all hands forward to avoid the possibility of casualties through falling masts and spars. However, the vessel commenced to settle rapidly and heavy seas broke over her. Some of the men climbed into the rigging, but others, page 145including the captain, were washed overboard or trapped below. Daybreak came to reveal eleven men clinging to the foretopmast rigging, while three others had managed to get ashore by scrambling on to the cliffs from the jigger mast. A line was heaved to them and made fast to the cliffs, and the eleven men got ashore by this means. It was then discovered that two more men were stranded on a rock ledge, and they were rescued by lowering a rope from the cliff top. This brought the number of survivors to sixteen, which meant that twelve men had been lost. Many of the survivors had stripped off most of their clothing in readiness for swimming, so they were in no condition to meet the wintry weather of Disappointment Island.

The mate believed that they were wrecked on the main island of the group, and after the men had salvaged some sail-cloth and rope they commenced a search for the provision depot. It was, of course, not long before they reached the summit of the island, and they could then see the main island about five miles away. The only food offering was mollymawks, which were eaten raw, but the main concern was lack of water. Eventually a good stream was found on the eastern coast of the island, and the party moved there, except for the mate, who was a man of sixty-two and had become partially paralysed by exposure. A supply of food and water was taken to him daily, and since some matches had been found the food was now cooked. On the twelfth day the mate died, and he was buried in the peat.

The men did not care much for seal flesh, and greatly preferred the mollymawks, but as these birds were almost at the stage when they would be big enough to fly it began to look as though the food supply would be flying away. They decided to try to smoke some birds, and built a smokehouse of tussock. About thirty birds were hung in it, and a smouldering fire started. Unfortunately, the fat dripping from the birds fell into the fire and ignited the rope yarn holding the birds, so that the whole apparatus collapsed. The men were page 146living in huts made of tussock, and dressed mainly in sailcloth and seal-skins.

After living on Disappointment Island for four months the men found the food situation was becoming desperate, and a serious attempt was made to construct a boat. The frame was made from branches lashed together. Due to the scarcity of any sizeable scrub on the island, it was a very frail craft. The framework was covered with sailcloth and the boat was ready for launching. A trial cruise proved successful, and it was now necessary to await suitable weather for the trip to the mainland.

July 31st proved to be the big day, and a party of three set out on the perilous voyage. It was agreed that if the men found the provision depot they would light two fires, but to the keen watchers on Disappointment Island there was no sign of any such signal. After a day or two had passed they concluded that the tiny coracle must have foundered, and they decided to build another. One was soon completed, but was rejected as unseaworthy, and a bigger and better one was then built with capacity for four men.

On the ninth day after the three men had left a single fire was seen on the main island, and the men were mystified by this until they sighted the boat returning. Everyone crowded round the voyagers to hear their tale. They reported that they had had great trouble in finding a suitable landing place, and then when they started to climb the cliffs they encountered misty weather, so that it was not until the third day that they were able to explore the country. They had taken only two birds each with them, as they expected to find plenty of food on the main island. Unfortunately, they could find none at all, and on the fourth day they returned to the landing place half starved. Thereupon they concluded that there was no depot on the main island, and they decided to return to Disappointment Island as soon as the weather permitted.

The other castaways were not yet disheartened, and they resolved to make a further attempt to reach the depot. On page 14722nd August, while they were still awaiting suitable weather, a ship was sighted about two hours before dusk, and a great fire was lit. During the night the flames leapt so high into the air that it seemed certain the ship could not fail to see this beacon. Nevertheless, in the morning she had disappeared, and the castaways decided that she must have been reluctant to approach through concern for her own safety. A new idea now occurred to the men, and they commenced catching albatrosses that were feeding their chicks, and sewing strips of cloth round their necks bearing messages. Since the birds always returned to their nests without the messages it was concluded that they must have found some way of tearing them off.

The grass huts proved to be somewhat of a fire hazard, as the men were now living largely on seal meat, and the blubber caused frequent fires. One hut was destroyed by fire, and the three occupants were lucky to escape with only their whiskers burnt, these being rather greasy and consequently highly inflammable.

It was two months since the first boat had returned before the sea was calm enough for the next crossing. A slab of peaty turf was cut and lined with stones, and a fire placed in it. This was loaded on the boat with a supply of fuel, while sufficient seal meat was carried to last for two days. No sooner had the four men left than wind and sea began to rise, but it was impossible for them to turn back. They made the journey safely, but the boat was capsized in the surf at the landing place, and the fire and most of the meat was lost. The boat was completely wrecked, but the canvas from it was salvaged. The men also had some matches, but these had got wet in the surf, and although they tried to dry them in the sunshine next day they were unsuccessful in getting a fire started. The crossing was made on 6th October, and on the 10th the men reached the head of Laurie Harbour, where they found a finger post indicating the location of the provision depot. Here they were delighted to find a store, a sleeping hut, and a page 148boatshed complete with boat. This last item was especially welcome, for they had expected to have to build another boat themselves. It was dark when they arrived and they were unable to find the matches, but they did locate the biscuit supply.

Next morning the four men lit a fire and had the luxury of clean clothes, after being seven months without ever removing the tattered apparel they were wearing. On 12th October they set sail for Disappointment Island, but found the sea too rough to permit a passage between the northern islands, and were consequently forced to return to the depot. The following day conditions were better, and they succeeded in reaching Disappointment Island. Their companions did not recognize them in their new clothes, especially as they had already given them up for lost when no signal fires had been seen. A tin of biscuits brought in the boat was eagerly received.

The next day seven men were ferried across to the landing place and given instructions as to the route to the depot. The boat then returned to Disappointment Island to pick up the remainder of the men, who were taken to the depot by sea. Once there the men settled down to a more comfortable life, even though the fifteen men had to share the twelve suits of clothing in the depot. A further change of diet was available, also, as they discovered the cattle on Enderby Island.

A message left by the Hinemoa led the castaways to believe that she would be calling again shortly, and in the meantime the men rebuilt the flagstaff which had fallen down, and made a large flag bearing the word "welcome" in readiness for the rescue ship. They also built a wooden jetty for convenience when using the boat, and to provide a mooring for it. A further task they resolved to do was to bring the body of the mate, Jabez Peters, from Disappointment Island, and to bury him in the cemetery near the depot. Unfortunately, the weather was too boisterous for the trip, and the job had not been done when on 15th November the Hinemoa arrived.

Since the ship had a large scientific party on board, some page break
32. (Top) Disappointment Island

32. (Top) Disappointment Island

33. (Bottom) Castaways Bay—Disappointment Island

33. (Bottom) Castaways Bay—Disappointment Island

page break
34. The author beside a provision-depot signboard, Musgrave Inlet

34. The author beside a provision-depot signboard, Musgrave Inlet

page 149of whom were to be taken to other sub-Antarctic islands, the castaways could not be relieved immediately, but the captain gave them stores and promised to return shortly. It was on 26th November that the Hinemoa returned, and at 5.30 a.m. on the 27th she left for Disappointment Island. Four of the castaways took a special box and disinterred the mate's body, having an arduous trip over the rough country with their burden. The body is reported to have been perfectly preserved in the peaty ground. Captain Bollons had a coffin constructed for the body, and upon regaining Erebus Cove he read the burial service in the presence of the castaways and the ship's personnel. The shipwrecked men were reported to be deeply gratified by the knowledge that Mr. Peters had been decently buried in a proper cemetery.

It appears that Disappointment Island had previously been thought an impossible place for shipwrecked men to get ashore, and so no boat had been left there. This matter was subsequently attended to, and a boatshed was built in Castaways Bay. It is still there, although the boat is in a condition similar to the other boats on the islands, and is no longer serviceable.

During the visit of the Hinemoa to Disappointment Island the crew were most interested to inspect the Dundonald settlement. They found that they had to crawl on hands and knees to enter the huts, and although it was dark inside they were quite warm and comfortable. They were constructed in hollows made in the peat, over which a light frame of veronica branches was placed, and the frame covered with sods and thatched with tussock. Each hut had its own fire. Inside they found bone needles, mats made from bird-skins, and seal-skin shoes. The castaways also used mollymawk skins for soap and towel—rubbing their faces with the greasy side and then drying with the feathers. The Hinemoa crew were especially amazed at the frail construction of the first coracle, which was still in the bay, and was brought to New Zealand, where it has found a resting place in the museum at Christchurch.

page 150

After our brief call at Disappointment Island we sailed at 4.45 for Port Ross, and we were soon approaching the western cliffs near the north-west cape. It is in the vicinity of this cape that the cliffs reach their maximum height of 1600 feet. We were unable to decide definitely at what point the Dundonald crew had landed on the main island. Although there is a small beach near the cape I myself consider it more likely that a landing place was found just north of a distinctive pierced rock. This spot is due east of Disappointment Island, and would give steep but practicable access to the main ridge of the large island. The castaways would be more likely to find their way to Erebus Cove from this point than from the north-west cape, and it would also be more favourably placed for reaching from Disappointment Island in the primitive boat that they used.

The fog had now lifted to its normal height of about 800 feet, and we had a splendid view of the Column Rocks, which are an unmistakable landmark at the north-west cape. Once round the cape we were in more familiar waters, and we had an uneventful run to Port Ross, arriving at 7.30 p.m. Enderby Island and the gentler slopes of the Hooker Hills looked almost civilized territory after the gaunt, cliff-bound coastline we had been watching all day.