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Islands of Despair

Five — Chambres Inlet

page 45

Five
Chambres Inlet

It was our intention to make our next camp in either Haskell Bay or Chambres Inlet. The latter would be more suitable from the point of view of locality, but after studying it through binoculars on my previous trip down the coast I was doubtful as to whether it would provide practicable access to the high country. The valley sides appeared to be unduly steep, and seemed to consist largely of vertical cliff faces.

In the meantime, the weather was most indifferent, the odd good day being sandwiched between long periods of wet, windy and foggy weather, and I was hoping for a reasonable spell of continuous fair weather before we left. This optimism caused considerable amusement among the old hands on the ship who had had previous experience on the islands. They assured me that the weather was astonishingly good, and that the only change I could reasonably expect would be one for the worse. I was never quite sure whether these remarks were made seriously, so I remained optimistic, and decided to carry on with survey work on the small islands round Port Ross in the hopes of better weather coming along. I also went to the extent of plotting a graph of barometer readings, and recorded the actual weather against the graph, but soon found that this got me nowhere.

During this period I revisited Deas Head, and found a sea-elephant there. It was injured and was being considerably page 46tormented by the skuas, so I was not surprised when it left again soon after I had landed. The Ranui crew went to Lindley Point and reported that there was another one there. The following day I visited Ewing Island, and after completing my triangulation observations I sat down on some rocks to eat my lunch. There was quite a number of sea-lions lying side by side in the tussock nearby, and I was interested to note that they seemed to get along together very amiably when there were no sea-bears about. All the same it was only necessary for a new arrival to approach within a certain distance for a riot to break out, and this would continue until the interloper made off. The old shaggy bulls commanded a great deal of respect, and if two of the younger ones started quarrelling it required only one word from an old bull to restore peace. They kept me interested for quite a long time before Les and George arrived from the other side of the island, Les being particularly lucid about the unreasonably tangled nature of the scrub.

The weather was still much the same. It was at last beginning to become impressed upon me that I could not reasonably expect any improvement. I therefore decided that on the first good day we would leave for our field-camp. Graham Turbott, the naturalist who was also meteorological observer at Ranui Cove, immediately went to Crozier Point and captured three adult shags. These he banded and put in a crate with the instructions that one was to be released at Waterfall Inlet and the other two at Carnley Harbour. He was anxious to discover whether the birds would come home, or if they would merely take the easy way out and join forces with other shags near where they were released. The experiment had interesting possibilities, as we lightheartedly visualized the inauguration of a shag-mail service between our field-camps and Crozier Point. Unfortunately for the birds, they had to remain in captivity for three days before they were eventually released. Graham tried to interest them in a helping of canned salmon, but they treated it with disdain.

On Friday, 10th March, we got away. We ran into Haskell page 47Bay, and this confirmed my view that it was much too close to Port Ross to meet our requirements, so we went on to Chambres Inlet. On entering this inlet we found that it was rather better than it had appeared from out at sea, and that it had two heads, each leading into a typical glacial valley, and separated by a knife-edged ridge. We decided to camp in the northern arm, where there was a very large stream of beautifully clear water. The ship was able to come in very close to the steep shingle beach, and in little more than half an hour we had everything ashore.

We built the camp just sufficiently far back from the beach to ensure plenty of shelter, and in a handy position for obtaining fresh water. On this occasion we had brought a large tent for use as a mess-room. As soon as this was erected all our stores and other equipment was deposited in it. Then each man was free to select a site and erect his sleeping-tent. The sun was shining at the time, and I found a pleasant sunny spot where I pitched my tent and stowed away my bedding. Then a couple of men were left to organize things in the mess-tent while George and I spent the remainder of the day cutting a rough track, parallel to the valley stream, towards a point where we thought we could climb the valley sides. On this occasion I had brought a fourth man with me, so that we could work in two groups of two men. We were still unfamiliar with the country, and I felt that in view of the possibility of injury or other mishap it would be undesirable to have men working alone.

I was awakened at 1 a.m. by a strange scratching sound on my tent, and thinking it would be a mouse I thumped the canvas a few times. The noise persisted, so I crawled out of my sleeping-bag to investigate. On shining my torch along the tent-fly I found that the intruder was a whale-bird, which was making a rather pathetic attempt to climb up the tent. I chased him away, and he then tried climbing someone else's tent, and I resumed my sleep. There were a few seals around, but no sign of any penguins.

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When entering the inlet in the ship we had noticed a very large land-slip on the southern side of the valley. It seemed likely that this slip would provide a good means of access to the ridge on that side, as it commenced well up the hill and extended right to the floor of the valley. We had therefore decided to cut our way to the foot of the slip, which was about three-quarters of a mile from the camp, and all hands were employed on the job in the morning. When we reached the slip we divided into two parties. Two men climbed the slip to clear a route from it to the open country on top of the ridge, while George and I started cutting a track up the northern side of the valley.

At first the job was easy, just a matter of clearing the undergrowth from the rata forest and cutting off an occasional big branch that obstructed the track. These southern ratas are big trees, but with a prostrate habit of growth, and in most places the sprawling boughs can easily be climbed over without the necessity for much cutting. As we got higher we entered a zone of scrub, consisting largely of Coprosma foetidissima and Suttonia divaricata. This belt of scrub is virtually impenetrable on account of the dense growth of interlacing boughs, and cutting through it is a laborious and unpleasant task. The coprosma has a rather objectionable smell, but we were already well inured to smells, as. the deep mud under the scrub is always very foul. As we approached the ridge the scrub became more patchy and a large amount of Dracophyllum longifolium was encountered. The open areas among the patches of scrub were covered with a tussock grass growing to an average height of about four feet, and as we got on to the windswept ridge the scrub disappeared entirely and we were in a tussock meadow. However, we found that wherever a little shelter was available the dense tangled scrub reappeared. The tussock grass grows on peaty trunks, and in crossing the meadow we had perforce to wend our way between these trunks. Frequently we came across holes in the peat, which were usually filled with stagnant water. Sometimes these holes were concealed by overhanging page 49foliage, and they then provided first-class entertainment for persons not directly concerned.

Our policy of cutting tracks up to the tussock country from every camp site was well repaid. Although it meant a hard day's work or more at each camp, once the job was done we had relatively quick and easy access through the forest and scrub. The tracks, unfortunately, deteriorated rapidly with use and soon became veritable bogs.

George and I had got nearly to the open country when we called work off for the day, and we were back at the camp by seven-fifteen. Our companions were already back, and reported that their journey was unsuccessful. After reaching the top of the slip they had encountered vertical rock faces, and they had found no way to get round the obstacle.

Next morning I woke at 4.30 a.m. to hear steady rain falling, so I pushed down the button of the alarm clock gratefully. It was still raining when I woke again at 9 a.m., so work was out of the question. Actually I was not sorry, as I had rheumatism fairly badly in my knee, and also my tent required attention. Upon arriving home the previous evening I had found that the blowflies had had a real field-day. They had blown everything from my leather field-bag to my oilskin trousers. These blowflies are disgusting brutes. The first ray of sunshine and they appear in hordes and will lay their eggs on anything at all, even including billies and slasher blades. But wool is their real joy. Leave a blanket or a pair of socks in an accessible place and you will return to find a crust of eggs an inch or more deep, with blowflies completely embedded in the mess. It is fiendishly difficult to get the eggs out of woollen articles. I was interested to find that none of the other men had had any trouble, and I soon saw that I had made a mistake in pitching my tent in a sunny place. At the first opportunity I shifted it to the darkest corner I could find.

In the afternoon the rain stopped and I strolled down to the beach, but found that the sand-flies were terrible. I was just about to leave when I saw a full-grown boar just across the page 50creek, casually rooting amongst the ferns. I sneaked back to the camp for my Webley revolver, but when I returned he had gone. During our stay on the islands we saw a good number of pigs, and quite a few of them finished up in our cooking-pots. They are descended from those liberated by Captain Bristow, and have spread to every part of the main island. In the summer months they appear to live chiefly by digging for roots in the high country, but during the winter they are driven by the weather to the lower levels, where they seem to subsist largely on kelp. It was impossible to estimate their numbers, but we formed the impression that they were not particularly numerous.

Rain fell again next day, and we were confined to camp. However, I spent a bit of time collecting moths and spiders for Graham, and one of the other men caught a tiny mountain trout which I duly preserved in spirits. Bellbirds and tuis were around us in considerable numbers, and we also had a brief visit from a handsome green and red parakeet.

When the weather improved enough for us to resume our work George and I carried on with our track in alternate sunshine and rain, and were soon in the open tussock country. I sighted a large boar rooting just ahead of us, and George crept up on him and hurled his slasher. The pig looked round in astonishment, then trotted off quite unconcerned, but a bit resentful. The rain was now very steady and low cloud was swirling round us, but as we were both completely wet through we decided we might as well carry on. We were making for a hill about two miles down the ridge, and although we made good progress at first we found we had to cross a small gully full of thick matted scrub. Soaked to the skin, neither of us derived much amusement out of fighting our way through this obstacle, but we eventually reached our objective, which was a very high semicircular wall of rock. On getting our trig signal erected we were rewarded by a temporary lifting of the cloud, giving us a fine view of Chambres Inlet and the eastern coast. The trip home was hard and unpleasant, and we had page 51some little difficult in crossing the big stream, as it had risen considerably with the heavy rain during the day. We reached camp at 7.45 p.m. to find an enormous meal awaiting us. The others had returnedat 3 p.m. after another unsuccessful attempt to scale the cliff face.

The next day was wet again, but after lunch George and I climbed Mt. Eden and erected a beacon. We found that the conspicuous knob at the top was quite a sizeable affair, being about fifty feet high. We also visited another slightly higher hill which we had noticed was almost always shrouded with clouds, even on the finest of days. This one we named Cloudy Peak. On our return journey we came on some young pigs feeding in a clear patch in the tussock, and I managed to shoot two of them with my revolver. They subsequently added up to a very tasty addition to our rations.

In the meantime the others reported having at last found a means of access from the top of the slip, but that it was rather difficult and would not stand up to much usage. They had also erected markers above the cliffs so that the route could be located by anyone wishing to descend from the ridge.

We had another disturbed night with a sea-bear calling to her pup for long enough, and then the wretched whale-bird came back. However, the morning gave promise of a clear day, so one party commenced topographical work, while I set off with the fourth man to erect beacons to the west and south. We climbed up the north side and skirted round the flanks of the hills till we reached the head of the valley, where we erected a signal on what we knew as Bivouac Hill. An over-hanging rock ledge at this point had been used as a bivouac on a previous occasion. Visibility was very good, and I got my first sight of Disappointment Island, the offying island on which the Dundonald was wrecked. We could also see right down the forbidding western cliffs to Bristow Point sixteen miles away. It was against this line of cliffs that the General Grant was wrecked. Up to the north-west the cliffs extended towards the Column Rocks, but on this stretch of coastline page 52we could see one or two small breaks where there might be tiny beaches. This part of the western coastline claimed the Invercauld as its victim.

From Bivouac Hill we pushed south to a higher barren peak which we subsequently named Stony Peak. The walking conditions were now excellent, as we were above the level of the tussock, and the only growth was mosses and lichens. It was very exhilarating to be able to travel at a reasonable pace instead of struggling through scrub and tussock growing in boggy ground. After leaving Stony Peak we went about a mile further to the south to another high knob, and then we struck across tussock country to the ridge south of Chambres Inlet. We soon located the markers indicating the cliff route, and successfully negotiated this obstacle course, although I could see that it would be a difficult route if one was carrying instruments. We had to scramble from one rock ledge to another, walk under small waterfalls, and in one place where the rock ledges disappeared we had to climb over the branches of trees till another ledge became available, even though it was only two or three inches wide.

It was late when we got back to camp, to find George already there. At 8.15 p.m. there was still no sign of Les, who had been later than George in leaving the hills. It was getting very dark, and we were beginning to feel a bit concerned about him when we heard shouting in the distance. On investigating with lanterns we found that the unfortunate Les had got off the track in the darkness, and was unable to find it again. When we got him back to the camp we saw that he had a huge hole torn in the knee of his trousers and his wrist-watch was wrecked. He was, however, remarkably fluent in his opinion of the local country. He wasn't hungry, he said, although he subsequently despatched an enormous meal, but he wanted lots of tea, and in the course of the next half hour he consumed four pint mugs of scalding tea. If we hadn't heard him calling he would probably have had a night in the bush only a quarter of a mile from the camp.

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11. Perched rock near Musgrave Inlet

11. Perched rock near Musgrave Inlet

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12. (Top) Musgrave Inlet and Lake Hinemoa

12. (Top) Musgrave Inlet and Lake Hinemoa

13. (Bottom) Rock-hopper penguins

13. (Bottom) Rock-hopper penguins

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I felt rather sorry for Les, as it seemed to me that life in our bush camps was a little hard on him. He had been included in the survey party on account of his previous experience at Campbell Island, but he found that the Auckland Islands were a much tougher proposition. He was a short, rather stocky man, with a very genial disposition, and I never once saw him really ruffled. In fact he was an ideal type for a base-camp in these isolated islands. He was somewhat older than anyone else in the survey party, and I know that he found our work very arduous, although he would never admit it, and was always ready to do his share. And so, every time we left to camp in the bush, I felt that taking Les away from the comfort of the base-camp was rather like ejecting the family cat from its favourite chair in front of the fire.

Les was admired and respected by us all, and it was with great sorrow that I learned of his death in an aircraft accident a few years after his return to New Zealand.

The day after the episode of Les getting lost we climbed the cliff route to resume the erection of trig signals to the south. By noon we had reached the point where we had stopped work the previous day and we made a brief halt for lunch. We had to make it brief as we were wet and cold, and we would have stiffened up too much if we had stopped for more than a few minutes. The country here consists only of wind-swept rocky hills and immense gorges, sometimes with spectacular water-falls. As the afternoon advanced we were troubled a good deal by cloud, and it was not long before we had to abandon work and return to camp.

Having now completed the erection of trig signals in the vicinity of the inlet I was ready to commence the angular observations. My first trip was to a trig about three miles from the camp. It will give some idea of the difficult nature of the country when I mention that it took me and my companion two and three-quarter hours of very hard work before we reached the trig. This despite the fact that we had cut a track through all the thick scrub and bush. Admittedly we both had a page 54fairly heavy and rather awkward load, but just the same the country is most unreasonable. The worst bit was the last quarter mile, which took us more than half an hour. The trig was on a wall of rock about 50 feet high and 5 feet wide, and with a stiff southerly breeze blowing and our clothes wet through we were rather cold by the time I had finished. Observations at each trig usually required about an hour, but when rain or snow squalls and low cloud were troublesome I was often three or four hours getting work completed at a single station.

The next few days we were confined to camp while a furious gale raged. We considered ourselves fortunate in being camped in bush heavy enough to afford reasonable protection from the wind. We could hear particularly violent gusts screaming down the valley, growing louder and louder until they passed over our tents with a roar and disappeared out to sea in a whirl of spray.

Chambres Inlet might be taken as a text-book example of a glacial valley, and I believe it is the best of the many good specimens to be found in the Auckland Islands. The floor of the valley is quite flat, and the stream flowing down it does really meander most of the way. The valley sides are of the classic U-shape and are very steep near the top—in this case being vertical on the south side and actually overhanging in some places. I would say that the breadth at the top of the U would be about a half to three-quarters of a mile, and the height of the U would average about 1000-1100 feet.

Thursday, 23rd March, saw the finish of the gale, but it was succeeded by a steady downpour which rapidly converted our clear stream into a raging torrent of discoloured water. We were beginning to look for the Ranui, as our rations were running rather low. It had been difficult to estimate our probable requirements, and we had erred on the wrong side. I decided that if the ship did not arrive within two days it would be necessary for two of us to travel overland to Ranui Cove. The distance was about six miles, and we thought the journey page 55could be done in six or seven hours. Actually we still had a fair supply of some items. In an effort to use these we produced some rather unique dishes. For instance our midday meal would consist of soup and a sort of salad made by mixing salmon, cheese, butter and jam in equal quantities.

Today I saw the last of my whale-bird. I was down on the beach when I saw him skimming down the stream. A skua saw him at the same moment and the whale-bird just disappeared in a flurry of feathers. I did feel a little sorry for him, although he had done nothing to endear himself to me, and I am sure he was entirely devoid of intelligence.

The morning brought no improvement in the weather, but at noon the Ranui arrived. The captain came ashore, and I explained to him that I would like to get in another day or two of good weather before leaving. He agreed to stay in the inlet, provided the wind did not trouble him. We all went aboard the ship in the afternoon, and as the wind started to freshen the captain decided to shift to the south arm of the inlet where there was a little more shelter. We returned to camp just before dark, and had a rather wet trip as both sea and wind were against us.

The wind blew furiously during the night, and the next morning was bitterly cold with fierce hailstorms. I was a bit concerned as to whether the Ranui would have been able to hold on in the teeth of the gale, and I decided to walk round the rocks to the south arm to investigate. I did not get far when I saw the lifeboat coming in, shipping sheets of icy water as she headed into the wind. The crew said their anchorage was quite secure provided the wind did not shift.

Next day was fairly clear except when squalls passed over, so we set out for Mt. Eden. The wind was still quite strong and bitterly cold, and when I placed the tripod over the trig a gust of wind picked it up and dropped it again a few feet away. Fortunately the theodolite had not been mounted on it. This indicated the futility of trying to work in the meantime, so we sought shelter behind some rocks. Occasional snowstorms passed page 56over, and after waiting some time we had to abandon any-further idea of work. We left the theodolite in a secure position and returned to camp.

The following morning, Monday, 27th March, found the weather worse than ever, so in view of the food situation I decided to return to Ranui Cove. The ship came as close in as she could, but found the wind was too strong and had to seek shelter behind a point. The lifeboat then came in for us, and as we were leaving the camp standing we were able to get out to the ship in one boatload. On reaching base-camp we all revelled in the luxury of hot baths and clean dry clothes.