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Islands of Despair

Twenty — The Islands Today

page 203

The Islands Today

The war-time occupation of the sub-Antarctic islands demonstrated their potential value to the world's meteorological service. They provide the only sites between New Zealand and Australia and the Antarctic Continent itself. Although it would undoubtedly be desirable to have as many weather stations as possible in the Southern Ocean, economic conditions naturally have a bearing on the matter, and it has been decided to occupy only two islands for this purpose. At Campbell Island the old coast-watching station has been developed into a permanent meteorological station under New Zealand control, while Australia maintains a similar station on Macquarie Island.

The station at Campbell Island was serviced as required by the Ranui until 1948, but in 1949 the Royal New Zealand Navy took over this duty, using Loch class frigates.

Although Campbell Island is primarily a weather station, the duties of the personnel have been expanded to include ionosphere work and Aurora observations. When weather conditions are satisfactory Campbell Island is particularly well suited for the latter work. Apparently the weather has not improved much since my visit to those latitudes, as in 1950 Campbell Island reported only 10 hours' sunshine in 3 months.

In 1951 an attempt was made to pick up a sick man by flying-boat. A Catalina of the Royal New Zealand Air Force flew down, but although the island was seen on the radar page 204screen the harbour was completely blotted out by rain squalls and low cloud. The aircraft returned to New Zealand and on the following day made a second attempt. This time the weather was clearer, but the turbulence over the island made it impossible for the flying-boat to alight. In fact one member of the crew suffered two broken ribs while the aircraft was over the island, and an anchor in the bow smashed a wooden catwalk and very nearly penetrated the hull. Following this abortive effort the Navy came to the rescue, and brought the sick man home.

The mutton supply is still being maintained, and in a census carried out in 1949, 986 sheep were counted. It was estimated that the total number would be around 1500. A supply of garden soil has also been taken to the island, and careful tending enables the men to produce a precious supply of fresh vegetables. Another innovation has been the introduction of poultry, which produce quite a satisfactory supply of fresh eggs. Their food is heavily dosed with vitamin extracts to compensate for the lack of sunshine and fresh green food.

In 1952 the servicing of the station was taken over by chartered vessels, the first being the 410-ton freighter Holmburn. The Holmburn's visit was noteworthy in that on this occasion a Post Office was opened on the island, providing a radio-telephone link with the civilized world.

The Macquarie Island weather station is a post-war development, and is normally serviced by sea from Australia. It has, however, been found possible to make emergency trips to the island by aircraft. In August 1948 an amphibious Catalina successfully alighted on the sea to land an engineer required as a replacement for a man who had been drowned. The topography of Macquarie Island would not induce the violent turbulence that is experienced at Campbell Island and also at the Auckland Islands.

The Macquarie Island station is larger than that at Campbell Island, and numbers about nine men. The camp is reported to be comfortable, well heated and well provisioned.

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An attempt has been made to grow vegetables at the camp, and although some plants grow well for a start, the foliage soon succumbs to the blast of salt-laden winds. At this station also the men are encouraged to take an interest in the wild life existing on the island. A census in 1949 revealed that there were 48,000 sea-elephants on its shores, while the penguins were countless.

On occasion the Macquarie Island station has been serviced from New Zealand. In 1949 the frigate Tutira made the round trip to Campbell Island and Macquarie Island with stores and mail. By coincidence she arrived in calm weather, so had no difficulty in landing stores except for that induced by the prolific kelp beds. Again in 1954 the 527-ton coaster Holmlea made a special trip from New Zealand to relieve a sick man on Macquarie Island. She also had an uneventful trip, but her four-hour stay at the island was rendered unpleasant by a heavy easterly swell and cold wet weather.

The Auckland Islands have not seen any of this post-war activity. Apparently they are surplus to requirements from a meteorological point of view, and there would be no other useful object to be achieved by maintaining a station on them. They were visited by the Holmlea in 1954 on her return from Macquarie Island, the cemetery at Erebus Cove was tidied up and the nameboards on the graves repainted. But apart from this they have been untouched, and are left in the undisputed possession of the wild life which is their true inheritance.

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