Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Islands of Despair

Thirteen — Adams Island

page 120

Adams Island

On Monday, 18th September, the Ranui shifted us direct from Western Harbour to Adams Island. We had been thirteen days at Western Harbour, and were really due for hot baths and laundry facilities, but the weather seemed to be too good for a day or two to be wasted by going to our camp on Musgrave Peninsula.

We established our new camp in a small bay just across the western arm from Trinity Cove, and the Ranui found an excellent anchorage in the latter place. At the camp site we found a good shingle beach, good clear water, a good camp site, and lots of busy blowflies. The bell-birds and tomtits were ridiculously tame, as they had never seen so much as a cat in their lives, and had no cause to be afraid.

While working from Musgrave Peninsula we had already made one visit to Adams Island, travelling by dinghy to a cove just west of Grafton Point. In this sheltered and attractive bay we found the ruins of a hut, which in all probability is the one occupied by Fleming when he was leasing the islands. Adams Island is not so heavily covered with scrub as the main island is, and we managed to get up to the main ridge after about two hours of steady climbing. The monotony of the journey was relieved when we came across an albatross feeding its chick. The parent bird vomits the partially digested food, which is then transferred to the chick by the simple process of the insertion of one beak in the other. We were page 121able to watch the proceedings from a distance of about six feet. Adams Island is a well-established nesting ground for albatrosses, and is the only place on the Auckland Islands where they can be found in any great numbers.

After lunching briefly in the shelter of an outcrop of rock overlooking Fly Harbour, George and Les visited the Dome, while Graham and I went on to Mt. Dick. There was a good deal of snow, and it seemed to emphasize the rugged nature of the country. Mt. Dick, which is 2190 feet high, is only half a mountain, the other half having presumably been destroyed by an eruption. We approached the peak from the west, and on reaching the summit found ourselves looking down a vertical rock face several hundred feet high. The precipice rose from a glacial valley in which we could see a sizeable lake, which we subsequently named Lake Turbott.

The place where we were now camped was some distance west of the point where we had landed before, as I wished to concentrate on the western end of the island at this stage. The fine weather did not last long, and although we got our camp established in favourable weather the next morning we awoke to find rain falling again, and a fresh westerly blowing. In view of the extreme improbability of much improvement, I told Graham that if he wished he could make a scientific expedition to Lake Turbott for a couple of days, provided one of the other men was willing to accompany him. Graham was most enthusiastic, and as George agreed to go with him, they left immediately with a tent fly, sleeping bags and food.

Les and I settled down to the more humdrum task of clearing a track through the bush. Our labours created a certain amount of consternation amongst the bell-birds, who loudly protested at this violation of their domain. We also upset the routine of a number of penguins who were in the habit of spending the night in a swampy place about 600 feet up the hillside. As we were returning to camp we met some of these birds on their way up their well-beaten and rather greasy track. They have a definite system about this. One bird page 122appears to go ahead as a scout, and he is followed by others at intervals of about one hundred yards, while the main body of birds is a considerable distance back. Periodically the leading bird gives an "all clear" signal, which is relayed down the line, and everyone is happy. However, on this occasion, probably for the first time ever, the leading bird encountered trouble in the shape of Les and me, and he emitted a piercing scream of alarm, which was echoed down the line. He then turned about and beat an undignified retreat to his followers down below. No doubt the ensuing deliberations would be of a similar nature to the ones I had previously observed on Enderby Island.

Next day there was a high wind, but it showed signs of easing later in the day, so Les and I set out with a heavy load of equipment. When we reached the high ridge the wind had gone, although the visibility was rather poor on account of a hazy atmosphere. However, we made the trip to Mt. Dick, and I just managed to complete my observations before the wind shifted to the north-west and a blanket of cloud dropped on to the hills. We considered ourselves extraordinarily lucky. As we were on our way home we were joined by Graham and George, who had had a strenuous but profitable excursion to the lake, and were well supplied with scientific specimens.

When we reached camp I found my tent in a shocking mess. I had gone to considerable trouble to seal it up with fern fronds, but it seemed as though the only effect of this was to prevent the flies getting out after they had found the way in. The layers of eggs were so thick that dozens of flies were completely buried in the encrustation. Since it was after dark it was extremely difficult to get the flies out of the tent, and I finally achieved this by placing a hurricane lantern a few yards from the tent, and then beating the canvas to disturb the flies. Attracted by the light, they would fly towards it, and then of course the problem was to get the lantern back into the tent without bringing all the flies with it. At all events it was after midnight before I had the tent reasonably clean, and page 123even then I had several hours' work next day getting the eggs out of such things as packets of tobacco and the sleeves of my oilskin coat. I also shifted my tent to another place. I think that every member of the survey party found these loathsome insects the most objectionable feature of the islands.

Meanwhile the weather became very bad, and for four days we were confined to the camp. Although the fifth day was little better, Graham and I decided to visit the next bay. We kept to the boulder beach as much as possible, but had to scramble through the bush in some places. Graham was after specimens, and when I spotted a falcon perched on a tree and took a shot at it with my revolver I astonished myself when it fell to the ground, shot through the neck. We also found a tunnel in a rock wall, complete with glow-worms and a few of the flightless ducks which are fairly common in the harbour alongside Adams Island.

When we reached the bay we found a natural garden, chiefly filled with what is known as the Macquarie Island cabbage, Stilbocarpa polaris. These natural gardens are quite common on Adams Island, the outstanding example being Fairchild's garden, which is near the western end of the island. Fairchild's garden covers about 400 acres, and is full of magnificent herbs, some of which have very beautiful flowers, which seem rather incongruous on these bleak islands. The most striking is undoubtedly the incomparable Pleurophyllum speciosum with its broad corrugated leaves and its prolific spikes of aster-like flowers.

The next day was wet again. We were thoroughly fed up with the persistent bad weather, and our supply of food was running low, so at 8 a.m. I made a pre-arranged smoke signal to the Ranui, which was still at anchor in Trinity Cove. As there was no reply George and Les decided to go across in the boat, which we launched with some difficulty in the surf. They returned to report that the ship had engine trouble, and the port engine could not be started. The engineer had been working for four days on a replacement for the defective part page 124Later in the day the wind dropped completely, and the captain took the risk of coming over to our camp in the ship. He explained that the engine was now in working order, but he was unable to say whether the repair would prove entirely satisfactory, and he was therefore anxious to return to New Zealand as soon as possible. Actually the defective part was in the starting motor, and once the engine was running everything was all right. However, in these waters it was most essential that both engines should be ready for immediate use in an emergency.

These circumstances enforced an immediate change in my plans, and as it was quite likely that the ship would be away for some time I decided to dismantle the field-camp. I arranged for the ship to pick us up in the morning, and George and I climbed the hills to retrieve the instruments we had left there some days before. It was an unpleasant journey in low cloud and drizzle. Next day we had got all our camping equipment on the ship when the wind suddenly freshened to an uncomfortable degree, and we had a rather hazardous trip to the ship, which had already got under weigh. On arriving at Tagua Bay a gale was blowing, and we did not take anything ashore except our immediate requirements. Needless to say we all enjoyed much-needed hot baths that evening.

We made the trip to Port Ross on Thursday, 28th September. A westerly gale was blowing, and as we passed the entrance to each inlet a furious blast of wind would scream through the rigging and make the little vessel heel over, while the tide rip off Kekeno Point was very unpleasant.

At the camp we found unexpected news awaiting us. The Ranui was to proceed to Bluff to load aviation fuel for the use of a flying-boat which was going to make an aerial survey of the islands. I am afraid we were most sceptical of the feasibility of the project, as we knew the weather would be most difficult, and also I could not think of any place where a flyingboat could be anchored in reasonable security. I advised Wellington by radio of our doubts, and went to some trouble page 125to furnish facts in support of our views. However, this new scheme did not really matter much, as the Ranui had to go to New Zealand, anyway.

Conditions appeared to be favourable on 6th October, and the Ranui sailed at 11 a.m. for Bluff, but she was forced to return when she encountered bad weather from the north-west, with every indication of worse to follow. George and Les, who were making the trip as extra deck-hands, came ashore looking somewhat the worse for wear. Next day the wind increased to a full gale, but by Sunday, 8th October, it had gone round to the south-west and was becoming squally with occasional snow, so the ship sailed at 11.30 a.m. Since she was empty, we knew she would have a lively passage in the big seas we could see heaving beyond Enderby Island.

We had no further news of the ship until 20th October, when we were advised that she had left Bluff on the 18th on the return journey. She arrived on the 21st, with 2000 gallons of aviation spirit and some long-awaited mail. Two days later we sailed for Carnley Harbour to resume survey work and to discharge the fuel. The aerial survey was to be carried out by a Catalina flying-boat based at Bluff, and the fuel was for emergency purposes only, as it was not expected that the aircraft would alight at the islands. The aviation spirit was in 44-gallon drums and was to be unloaded in some convenient place in Carnley Harbour, while a mooring buoy was to be anchored in Camp Cove. The Ranui had been instructed to stand-by in Carnley Harbour until the flying was finished.

These arrangements suited us nicely, as they did not interfere in any way with our plans for continuing the survey. If the aerial survey were to prove unsuccessful, there would still not have been any interruption in the progress of the land survey.

As we approached Waterfall Inlet we were pleased to greet our "pilot". When the Ranui used to stay at Waterfall Inlet a red-billed gull attached itself to the ship as a pet, and was well fed for its trouble. Apparently this bird used to keep a page 126constant vigil during the absence of the ship, as on every occasion that the Ranui approached within a few miles of the inlet the gull would appear on deck and pilot her into harbour. If the ship happened to be going elsewhere the bird would remain aboard until the inlet was getting an uncomfortably long way off, and then it would reluctantly fly home.

Carnley Harbour was in a kindly mood when we entered the heads. It is by far the best harbour in the Auckland Islands, and I do not think that any harbour in New Zealand itself can compare with it. The imposing eastern entrance has a minimum width of six and a half cables and the harbour itself has an area of twenty-eight square miles. There are so many bays and coves that the internal coast-line of this harbour has a length of no less than sixty-seven miles. Its chief disability, of course, is the fact that it is so frequently swept by violent gales, and visibility is often poor on account of the "williwaws" which whirl spray off the surface to a height of a hundred feet or more.

The aviation spirit was unloaded into a tiny cove on Musgrave Peninsula. The drums were lowered into the water and towed ashore, where we rolled them to a safe position above high-water mark. The following day the moorings were anchored in Camp Cove.

We then settled down to continue topographical work and to observe angles at the trigs we had already established, also at a number of resected points. There was little of particular interest, as we had already traversed the ground on reconnaissance. But we soon found that anyone visiting the trig on Flagstaff was due for a warm reception from a pair of skuas that were nesting there. One would be trudging along with no particular worries when there would be a whirr of wings and a skua would complete a dive-bombing approach, only to soar into the air in readiness for another dive. Although we were frequently attacked in this way nobody was actually hurt by the birds. I am afraid I could never overcome a feeling of disgust at these skuas, as nothing seemed too filthy for them page 127to eat, and they were robbers of the first order. A momentarily unguarded egg in a shag rookery was gone in an instant if a skua happened to be about—and one always was. We had noticed that they were very partial to eggs, even rotten ones discarded by the cook. We also had occasional trouble through their eating the red calico we used on our trig signals.

Curiously enough, although these birds had so many unpleasant characteristics, they had a passion for external cleanliness. No other birds spent so much time washing themselves, but perhaps the need was not so great! We even found skuas bathing in rocky pools on the high bare peaks. I don't know what brought them to those altitudes where there would seem to be little chance of finding food, but they are very curious birds, and most likely they had seen us and thought we might be worth following.

There was one particularly bold skua frequenting our camp, and I suspected him of thieving the cats' food. One morning I found him handy to the cats' dish, so I threw a beef bone at him, one about seven inches long. It hit him on the legs, and to my astonishment he just turned round and swallowed it. At least he got it partially down, to a point where it bulged conspicuously on either side of his neck. He then casually flew off.

The skuas are considered to be somnolent during the day, and to pursue their prey chiefly at night. To investigate this theory Graham spent a night near the nest on Flagstaff. I don't know who slept the soundest, the skuas or Graham, but he was rather non-committal when asked next day about the success of his experiment.

We were still dogged by bad weather, but it was not nearly so exasperating when we were living in a reasonably comfortable camp. The ship was anchored in Tagua Bay, and every day some of her crew would be ashore. It was in this period that the craze for card games reached its peak, and the champion for each evening had possession of a pennant, and the sole use of the only chair with an upholstered seat.

page 128

In the early part of November we made several boat trips to Adams Island and one to Dromedary, while overland excursions were made to Mt. D'Urville, the Lion Rock and the head of Deep Inlet. The loose flat rocks near Mt. D'Urville still troubled me, and my feet were so much softened by continuous walking in wet boots that they were often bleeding when I arrived home.

About the middle of the month the Ranui went to Port Ross for fresh meat, and arrived back with the news that the flying-boat had been overhead twice, but on neither occasion was she able to do any work. The Port Ross meteorologist was sending weather reports at 3 a.m., 6 a.m. and hourly thereafter every day.

The second half of November was typically bad. I was anxious to get to Mt. Raynal, and as it would be a long trip we made several early starts on promising mornings, only to have to turn back when the cloud came down round the hill tops. However, on these trips we always had the interest of talking to the albatross chick who was in his nest half-way up to Wilkes Peak. He was getting to be a big bird and had lost most of his down, so no doubt he would soon be ready to seek his own food. He never got quite accustomed to seeing us, and he would still get panicky if we went too close to him. Like many other sea-birds he had a tendency to vomit his last meal over us in his agitation.

The nellies, or giant petrels, are particularly objectionable in this respect, as they will most deliberately eject a foulsmelling oily liquid over an intruder. This interesting habit has earned them the name of "stink pot". The nelly is a true scavenger, and any choice object such as a dead seal will attract them in large numbers. They have no ideas of delicacy in their eating habits, and usually gorge themselves until they are unable to fly. This difficulty is overcome by sitting around for a while, but if they should be disturbed during this period of rest they simply vomit enough of their meal to lighten them sufficiently to let them get into the air.

page 129

Albatrosses are unable to get into the air except in favourable conditions, and their nesting places are usually situated on eminences where they are able to take advantage of favourable air currents. On a calm day it is quite easy to catch an albatross, since it is unable to rise clear of the tussocks. The only point to remember is to grab it by the beak. The first flight of an albatross chick can easily be its last, as a small error of judgment can result in a crash and a possible broken wing.

Royal and wandering albatrosses always nested in the open tussock country, but the smaller sooty albatrosses invariably chose rock ledges, usually in entirely inaccessible places. There were several nesting on the rock faces of Cavern Peak, and while we were working there they gave us a wonderful exhibition of flying, flashing close by our heads with the air whistling through their wings. Often pairs of birds would fly in formation, and the precision of their flight was almost incredible. The sooties are smaller than the more familiar royals and wanderers, and are greyish-black in colour, with a circle of white feathers round the eye that gives them a quizzical appearance.

It was about this time that Graham learned that a falcon is a bird to be treated with respect. He had accompanied George on a boat trip up the north arm to take magnetic observations, and they called at Figure-of-Eight Island on the way home. Graham found a falcon's nest with three eggs, and while robbing it he was attacked by a parent bird which drew blood from his head.

It was not until 29th November that we reached Mt. Raynal. We had left very early, and after a hard four hours' march we were on the summit of this conspicuous flat-topped peak, at an elevation of 2114 feet. There was scarcely a breath of wind, and no cloud at all except for a very thin veil of cirrus at a great altitude. It was the best day I was ever to experience during my stay on the islands, and I was quite sure that the flying-boat would be working over the northern part of the page 130islands. I immediately commenced my triangulation observations, and later did some topographical work, as this peak commands a splendid view in every direction, especially into Norman Inlet, which is immediately below it. Then we had a quick meal and a drink of pure fresh water from a rocky pool, this being much more satisfying than the icicles we had been sucking at intervals on our way up.

Observations had not been finished for more than fifteen minutes when cloud began to form around the peak, so we had not had much time to spare. On the way home we made a detour behind the Giant's Tomb to do some topographical work near the head of Hanfield Inlet, and it was then that we heard the thunder of aircraft engines. The sound came from the direction of the western coast, and later we could hear it from Adams Island. Finally we saw the Catalina streaking up the eastern coast at a height of about 1000 feet, just below what was now a substantial layer of cloud. Speculation was rife that evening. Most of the men believed that the flying-boat had just arrived, but I rather optimistically considered that it had been working over the northern area until the clouds appeared, and then had flown down our way to let us know it had been on the job. I was wrong. The aircraft had reached the islands at the same time as the cloud had come down, and nothing had been achieved except for a few oblique photographs of the western coast which were quite valueless, except for pictorial purposes. When we were advised of this sorry state of affairs I think we were all convinced that the proposed aerial survey was just a glorious dream, as, of course, most of us had already anticipated. We had enjoyed six hours of cloudless weather and the meteorologists had let us down. Our suppositions were correct, and after waiting at Bluff for a further period the Catalina was recalled to her base and the aerial survey was abandoned.

We had no radio in the base-camp at Musgrave Peninsula, but on Friday, 8th December, a message was received on the ship's radio advising that she was to leave for New Zealand page 131about the middle of the month. We were at that time planning to camp in Tandy Inlet, but this trip to New Zealand necessitated a change in our plans, and I decided that we would be better to move to Port Ross. We had plenty of office work on hand to keep us occupied. I discussed the matter with the captain of the ship, and we agreed to leave for Port Ross next morning, and also that if the weather permitted we would travel up the western coast and call at Disappointment Island.