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Islands of Despair

One — Arrival at the Islands

page 7

Arrival at the Islands

The survey party, together with relief parties for the coastwatching stations, travelled from Wellington, New Zealand, in the auxiliary ketches New Golden Hind and Ranui, but both vessels called at Dunedin to complete loading. I was on board the former vessel, and we finally left Port Chalmers at 8 a.m. on Christmas Day, 1943. Towards evening of the next day we were off Stewart Island, and as the weather was squally and both wind and sea were rising, Captain Webling decided to anchor in Port Pegasus to await better conditions. We were safely at anchor by 8 p.m. and there we remained until the following evening. This respite also provided an opportunity for catching a plentiful supply of fish to take with us.

As the weather showed signs of improvement, the captain decided to sail at 7.30 p.m. on the 27th. On reaching the open sea we found that the wind had gone down, although there was still a big southerly swell. The little vessel made good progress, however, and at 5.30 a.m. we had the Snares Islands on our beam, about a mile off. These islands are small and really amount to little more than a cluster of large rocks. A number of the local residents swam out to inspect us—these being crested penguins.

Conditions were very pleasant during the morning, with a smooth sea and warm sunshine, and the ship was making just over seven knots. Such conditions do not last long in these regions. The wind soon started to freshen from the west and an page 8occasional rain squall passed over us. Captain Webling expected to sight the Auckland Islands about 3 a.m., and his main concern was whether the weather would remain reasonably clear until then. Conditions deteriorated steadily during the night. When I came on deck about 4 a.m. the little ship was pitching and rolling in a rising sea and visibility was extremely poor. However, the captain told me that he had sighted land through a brief break in the murk a few minutes earlier. Fortunately he knew the coast quite well, and this brief glimpse was sufficient for him to identify the land as being part of Enderby Island, which is located at the north-eastern extremity of the Auckland Islands. The islands are very dangerous to approach in conditions of poor visibility, especially in sailing vessels with comparatively low-powered auxiliary engines, and such conditions are all too frequent in this locality. On some occasions visiting ships have had to remain at sea for days on end waiting for enough visibility to enable them to find their way into harbour. Extensive reefs situated off the north-eastern coast, and an isolated submerged rock known as Bristow Rock, which lies three miles north of Enderby Island, are sufficient to command the respect of seamen in any but the best of weather.

However, we were most fortunate, and within a short time we were anchored near the head of Port Ross, and were receiving visits from inquisitive sea-lions. The captain had decided that the weather was deteriorating too rapidly for him to anchor near the camp in Ranui Cove. He was proved right, for later in the day a furious gale was sweeping down the harbour. This gale subsequently increased to such an extent that the anchor started to drag, and we had to shift to another anchorage close inshore at Terror Cove.

Port Ross was originally named Sarah's Bosom by the discoverer of the islands, Captain Abraham Bristow, who visited the harbour in his ship Sarah and was favourably impressed with its potentialities as a sheltered refuge for refitting. The harbour was later visited in 1840 by Sir James Clark Ross with page 9his ships Erebus and Terror. He referred to the port as Rendezvous Harbour. Despite this the harbour is now generally known as Port Ross, although the earlier names are still occasionally encountered.

As already mentioned, the islands were discovered by Abraham Bristow, who was a captain employed by Samuel Enderby and Sons. This firm was engaged in the whaling industry, and Bristow was returning to England in the Ocean of 401 tons when he sighted the group. An extract from his log, dated 18th August 1806, reads as follows:

"Moderate and clear; at daylight saw land bearing west by compass, extending round as far as north-east by north, distant from the nearest point about nine leagues. The island, or islands, as being the first discoverer, I shall call 'Lord Auckland's' (my friend through my father) and is situated according to my observations at noon, in latitude 50° 48′ south, and longitude 166° 42′ east by a distance of sun and moon I had at half past ten a.m. The land is of moderate height, and from its appearance I have no doubt but it will afford a good harbour in the northern end, and I should suppose lies in about the latitude 50° 21′ south, and its greatest extent lies in a N.W. and S.E. direction. This place, I should suppose, abounds with seals, and sorry I am that the time and the lumbered state of my ship do not allow me to examine."

The following year Bristow returned to the islands in the Sarah, and on 20th October he anchored in what he called Sarah's Bosom. He thereupon took formal possession of the islands for the British Crown, and named some of the more prominent geographical features, including the very conspicuous peak known as Mt. Eden, and these were later published in the Oriental Navigator. He also liberated a number of pigs on the main island. It is of interest to note that on his return voyage the Sarah was captured by a privateer named the page 10Revenge, but was shortly afterwards recaptured by the Enterprise. It is also interesting to note that for the next quarter of a century the islands were usually known as "Bristow's Land" by the crews of sealing vessels, who were the only visitors.

The Auckland Islands cover a total area of 465 square miles, and consist of one large and five smaller islands, together with a large number of islets and detached rocks. The large island is 24½ miles long and has a width varying from three to 16 miles, while it has an area of 114,600 acres. To the south of this island, and separated from it by Carnley Harbour, is Adams Island, which has an area of 22,600 acres.

To return to the New Golden Hind: we were still lying at anchor in Terror Cove, while the wind appeared to increase in fury. Even on the next day it showed no signs of abating. The glacial valley at the head of the harbour acted as a great funnel and the wind fairly shrieked down it, whipping up sheets of spray and creating small whirlwinds which were locally known as "willi-waws". As the visibility was now much better we had a good view of our future surroundings. The harbour was ringed by steep hills, overlooked by Mt. Eden with its conspicuous rock knob. The lower slopes were densely covered with the southern rata, which was in bloom at the time and presented a spectacular sight. Above the rata forest there appeared to be open country which promised easy travelling conditions. Never was anything to prove more deceptive. Despite the fact that we were anchored in Terror Cove, and Erebus Cove was just beyond a small headland, it was not for some months that we had an opportunity to land at these historic spots.

The next morning, 31st December, the weather was much improved, and we left at 4.30 a.m. for Ranui Cove, where we anchored an hour later. This is not a safe anchorage except in favourable weather. The ship's lifeboat and two dinghies from the camp completed the unloading of stores by 11.30 a.m., and the ship then sailed for the camp at Carnley Harbour. We spent page 11the rest of the day carrying the stores from the landing-place to the camp buildings. This camp was located in heavy bush close to the water's edge, and was admirably sheltered.

The next few days were fully occupied in getting ourselves established and becoming acquainted with our new surroundings. When the weather permitted we undertook reconnaissance expeditions in the adjacent country, and erected trig stations where they would be required in the course of the survey operations.

It was on one of these occasions that I had my first encounter with sea-lions. This was midsummer and the hours of daylight extended from 2 a.m. till 11 p.m. After the evening meal on 2nd January I went by dinghy to Ewing Island. This island is completely covered with Olearia Lyallii, which is a fairly large tree of a prostrate habit, so that while there is dense foliage overhead the forest floor is fairly clear except for the sprawling tree-trunks. I was trying to find a suitable site for a trig station, and after crossing the centre of the island I followed the coast-line, where in due course I found a satisfactory position. Actually this was quite close to where the dinghy was beached, but on trying to make my way to the boat by following round the coast I found my progress was blocked by low cliffs, and I was forced to make a detour through the bush.

It was now quite dark in the olearia forest. I had not proceeded far when there was a loud woof, and an angry sea-lion lunged viciously at me from the gloom of the forest floor. I beat a hasty retreat, fervently hoping that I would not trip over a tree-trunk or some other hidden obstacle. Having perceived that the sea-lion showed no inclination to pursue me I then re-examined the cliffs, but was forced to conclude that there was no alternative to crossing through the forest. With considerable misgivings I re-entered, choosing a route well clear of my previous one. However, I soon discovered that there was more than one sea-lion camped in the forest, and I had many anxious moments before I reached the open beach. page 12When I returned to camp my tale was received with some amusement, but I must admit that I never overcame my dislike for travelling without a light after dusk. After all, those sea-lions did mean business, and I certainly would not have liked to step much closer to one of them. In daylight they are easily avoided, but even then it was by no means uncommon for a new man at the islands to pocket his pride and scale a handy tree when surprised by a sea-lion.

The next morning we had a visit from a sea-leopard, which had come ashore at the head of the cove only a few yards from the camp buildings. These creatures are not very often seen here, and in fact it was the only one I saw during my sojourn on the islands. I would say that this specimen would be about nine or ten feet long, and it was quite well marked with the characteristic spots. The array of teeth was suitably impressive. As the sea-leopard is very sluggish in its movements on land we were able to examine it at close quarters. After a short time it wriggled clumsily into the water and made off at a good speed. Much to our delight it practically collided with a sealion in the narrow channel, but neither of the parties appeared to be in an aggressive mood. After a quick pass at one another they went their respective ways.

On 4th January the Ranui appeared. She carried a deck-load of sheep to serve as a supply of fresh meat for us, and it had therefore been necessary for her to wait for reasonably good weather before leaving Stewart Island. The sheep were landed on Ocean Island, where there is a reasonable amount of natural forage which was to be supplemented when necessary by baled hay brought from New Zealand.

The following day the New Golden Hind returned from Carnley Harbour, and arrangements were made for her to sail for Dunedin in the afternoon. She left at 2 p.m. and landed some of us on Enderby Island as she passed. After a brief exploration of the island we returned to Ranui Cove by dinghy. This happened to be one of the very few real summer days we had, with very little wind and brilliant page 13sunshine. Next morning things were back to normal with heavy fog hanging low on the hills and the rain falling steadily.

The persistent rain and the peaty soil created something of a problem in maintaining serviceable paths in the vicinity of the camps. Gravel is scarce, as there are very few beaches, and in any case the peat would not provide a suitable foundation for a gravel path. The problem was fairly satisfactorily solved by laying "corduroy" paths consisting of short lengths of Dracophyllum longifolium laid side by side. The dracophyllum is a scrubby tree not unlike the common manuka of New Zealand. The main disadvantage of this type of path was that it became dangerously slippery once the bark had worn off.

A few days later George and I set out on our first cross-country trip, with the object of erecting trig stations on Meggs Hill and other suitable hills in the area between Ranui Cove and Haskell Bay. We left camp at 8.20 a.m. and soon found that we had a long day ahead of us. The country looked fairly easy, with open strips of tussock separated by lanes of rata forest and scrub. These lanes run more or less parallel to the direction of the prevailing westerly winds. Judging by the remains of large rata trees left in the tussock strips I concluded that the rata forest is retreating, and is unequal to the job of surviving in the face of the salt-laden westerly gales. We found the tussock country easy enough, although very wet, but our real difficulty was in forcing a passage through the strips of rata forest. These were quite wide and thickly interlaced with dense scrub, so that they posed quite a problem to us with our rather awkward loads of long poles, haversacks, and other equipment. We found that the scrub was particularly difficult in the sheltered confines of the many watercourses we had to cross. At all events it was nearly 3 p.m. when we reached Meggs Hill—a distance of about 2½ miles from the camp. However, we had now acquired a certain amount of technique, and had also located what we thought would prove a better route home, so we decided to push on and erect a further trig page 14on a hill near Kekeno Point. We left this trig at 5.30 p.m. and arrived home at 8.20 p.m.

The next fine day I went to Crozier Point to locate a trig which I also intended to use in astronomical observations for true bearings. There is a large rookery of Auckland Islands shags at this point, the nesting area being on a series of rock terraces which are inaccessible to the wild pigs—the hardy descendants of those liberated by Bristow in 1807.I am afraid I was not particularly impressed by the shags. I cannot regard them as beautiful birds.

The short trip to Crozier Point was of particular interest, as the track led past several bushes of New Zealand flax, which appeared rather incongruous in those surroundings. Actually this is a link with the past, as the flax was planted by Maoris in the early 1840s. Mr. George W. Printz of Riverton, New Zealand, visited what was then known as Bristow's Land in 1841 as ship's boy in a sealing vessel, and after killing a number of seals in the vicinity of Port Ross the ship proceeded to the southern part of the Group. Upon returning to Port Ross another ship was found at anchor, this vessel having brought about seventy Maoris from the Chatham Islands.

It appears that the Maoris were members of a tribe that was originally domiciled in the Cook Strait area, but which was suffering considerably in tribal warfare. As a result the tribe decided to move to the Chatham Islands, and it is believed that the trading brig Lord Rodney was seized and the captain, Harwood, compelled to convey the tribe to the islands. It is understood that about nine hundred Maoris were transported. Upon arrival they proceeded to subjugate the peace-loving Moriori who were already in occupation. The new arrivals soon found that conditions were not what they expected. In addition the islands could not support the increased population. Various disputes broke out and reached their climax when a French whaler arrived at Waitangi in 1839. The Maoris boarded the vessel and after a misunderstanding with the Frenchmen they killed some of the crew and then took possession page 15of the ship, which they burned. A French frigate L' Heroine, commanded by Captain Cecille, was on the New Zealand coast at the time, and hearing of the outrage she proceeded to the Chathams to chastize the Maoris. It appears that the natives had warning of the coming reprisals and, acting on the advice of one of their number who had previously visited the Auckland Islands, they sailed for those islands in the brig Hannah.

It is believed that most of the Maoris were unpleasantly surprised when they experienced the climatic conditions prevailing at the islands, and at least some of them wished to return to the Chathams. However, the commander of the brig had no desire to transport them back. He forestalled them by leaving at an unexpected time so that the Maoris, having no alternative but to make the best of things, proceeded to build a pa near Crozier Point. They apparently did not get much pleasure from life, and although they had brought a fair quantity of stores with them they suffered considerably through being unable to grow potatoes and other vegetables successfully in the peat. They also found, as did we, that although fish could be caught they were unfit for eating on account of the numbers of worms in the flesh. It is probable that these domestic problems were largely responsible for a series of disputes which followed and eventually led to a group of the Maoris leaving Crozier Point and establishing themselves on Enderby Island.

A number of the Maoris managed to leave the islands in the early 1850s by vessels which were visiting there, and the remaining forty-seven were evacuated in 1856. Their relatives at the Chatham Islands had heard of their unfortunate circumstances and chartered a brig to bring them back. During their stay at the Auckland Islands the Maoris became associated with the Enderby Settlement, a subject that will be discussed at a later stage.

Apart from the flax bushes already mentioned I did not see any sign of the remains of the pa, and there is nothing to indicate where the Enderby Island pa was located, although it page 16would almost certainly have been near the sandy beach facing Port Ross.

The evening of 16th January promised to be reasonably clear and not too windy, so I decided to start observations for latitude, longitude and azimuth. After comparing the chronometer with the time signals on the radio George and I repaired to Lookout Point. It was cruelly cold and rather windy, and I was glad when at 2 a.m. the clouds were thickening too much for further work. Both of us felt the need for a good tot of rum before crawling into bed.

On 19th January the New Golden Hind arrived from Dunedin with stores and the relief party for Campbell Island, but as weather conditions were unfavourable she anchored well up the harbour until the next day. The Ranui, which had been lying in Erebus Cove, also came round to the camp with her. Since the New Golden Hind had more passengers for Campbell Island than could conveniently be accommodated, Captain Webling inquired if it would be practicable for the Ranui to accompany him. As it was necessary for us to visit Campbell Island to carry out astronomical observations, and a certain amount of other survey work, I decided that we would make the trip at this stage, and agreed with Captain Worth that the Ranui would remain there until we had finished. Accordingly the survey party was embarked on the Ranui and both vessels sailed at 4 p.m. The New Golden Hind went to Carnley Harbour, while the Ranui anchored in Waterfall Inlet.

Waterfall Inlet is one of the more attractive of the many inlets on the eastern coast of the Auckland Islands. Like all the others it is heavily bush-clad on its lower slopes, and a beautiful waterfall cascades into the head of the inlet. A depot had been established there for the Ranui' s stores, and the next day the ship's crew attended to the victualling of the ship and filled the fresh-water tanks. A pipe-line had been laid from a point well up the main stream so that it would discharge direct into drums placed in the lifeboat. The full drums were then rowed out to the ship and lifted aboard by winch for discharge into the page 17tanks. In the afternoon George and I climbed the steep hillside south of the inlet and got our first view of Carnley Harbour, even though it was only a small part of the entrance that we could see. Upon returning to the ship I slipped into a hole on a sea-lion slide, and got myself liberally plastered with evilsmelling and tenacious mud. And then amongst the high tussocks alongside the water we saw our first sea-elephant. These are not plentiful on the Auckland Islands, and it was not until we reached Campbell Island that we saw them in any numbers.

Next morning we sailed for Carnley Harbour, which we entered in perfect weather. At 10.15 a.m. we were lying along-side the Mew Golden Hind in Tagua Bay. Some of the men from the camp on Musgrave Peninsula came out to see us and exchange local news, but in view of the excellent weather the two skippers were anxious to get away. They had hopes of reaching Campbell Island before the weather deteriorated. We left our anchorage at 11.30 a.m. and sailed into a calm sea with the New Golden Hind about three miles ahead of us. All sail was set, but with only a light breeze the canvas was of no use except to steady the little ship. Even in the smoothest of seas her movement was often uncomfortable. At nightfall we were still enjoying perfect weather, and in fact we had travelled thirty-five miles before the hills of the Auckland Islands were lost to view.