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Yesterdays in Maoriland

Chapter XIX The Home of the Wandering Albatross

page 269

Chapter XIX The Home of the Wandering Albatross

At last the time came for me to say 'good-bye' to those solitary wilds on the West Coast of the South Island where, amidst the grandest and most beautiful scenery, I had spent so many happy days. Truly, thought I, on leaving it, Nature has lavished favours on New Zealand, and I may well be excused for feeling sorry to go.

On the return trip to the Bluff, Captain Fairchild asked me if I would like to do the round of the distant islands towards the Antarctic. Naturally I accepted, and on January 19, 1888, the Stella left on her annual tour to provision the depots kept up for the succour of shipwrecked sailors. The Invercargill photographer, Dugald, and a few young people, were the only other passengers.

In Foveaux Strait we passed a number of romantic little islands, and in rounding one, Ruapuke, whole flights of mutton-birds rose up from the surface of the sea. A few nellies followed in our wake, eagerly devouring the waste food we threw overboard. Our first run was to Stewart Island, the south and west parts of which are covered with bush. Numbers of seal live in caves along the coast, and the east coast is sparsely settled by natives and farmers. We passed close by Fort William, steamed on page 270through Port Adventure, and anchored in Lord River.

Here two boats were lowered: the first, under the second mate, went fishing, while the other, under the skipper, pulled upstream. The scenery was varied and magnificent, and several enchanting bays and the thick bush vegetation on the slopes made this a most delightful trip. We saw a few Paradise duck and a number of grey and brown duck, all very shy, as well as a small species of weka, not yet described, with rust-red feathers, which was caught peeping out between the rocks. Numbers of shags were sitting on the trees overhanging the river digesting their last meal.

Several kaka parrots (Nestor montanus) circled round our boat, uttering shrill cries to warn their mates of our approach, while bell-birds and tuis welcomed us with their melodious whistles. We saw a quail-hawk (Hieracidea novæzelandiæ) dart down on a full-grown young tui that was not sufficiently on the alert, seize it in his talons, and bear it away to a neighbouring tree, where he had begun his meal before my gun got him.

When we got back to the steamer the other boat came alongside laden with fish. Some of the hapuka (Olegorus gigs) weighed over 80 lb., and the catch also included trumpeters and rock cod. While here I noticed the yellow-crowned penguin (Eudyptes antipodum), a rare species seldom seen by collectors. They played round our boat, and others were feeding their young among the rocks. On land their move-page 271ments are ungainly, half-hop, half-waddle, and a sailor of the Stella shot one, imagining it to be a wallaby! We also saw a sea-leopard fishing among, the kelp.

In stormy weather, and after much buffeting, we came to Wilson Bay; and on January 21, we tried to reach Snares Islands, but the worst of conditions made us turn hack to Pegasus Bay, where we anchored at Kelp Point. We made a second attempt the day after, and at dawn on the second day out we came to this little group, which lies some 62 miles south and 22 degrees west of Stewart Island.

We anchored in 56 fathoms of water half a mile from the east coast, where a boat was lowered, and we rowed to the least steep place we could find. The birds rose with deafening cries, or swam round us in swarms, wanting to know what it was all about. The island itself was layers deep in foul-smelling guano, and the little fresh-water creek was polluted with its nauseating flavour. The whole surface of the island was honeycombed with bird-holes.

Here a pair of goats were landed and the rescue hut replenished, while one member of the party sowed tree-seed and the photographer took some snaps. I followed the birds, and at once spotted three strangers — a black tomtit and a swamp-lark, which were bold and trustful; and a bell-bird, which was rare and shy.

Mr. Bethune, second engineer of the Stella, came with me, and we procured specimens of tomtit and swamp-lark, which I skinned and sent to the great ornithologist, Dr. Finsch, for examination. I supposed page 272them to be new species, for I had never before seen either kind, nor could I find any description of them.

The cliffs were covered with grey-headed and shy albatross (Diomedea chlororhynchus and cauta), young and old, with a sprinkling of other birds, while thousands of penguin stood like soldiers on the shore. It was amusing to see Captain Fairchild, who delighted in such sport, tumbling them into sacks, with the idea of presenting them to the Zoological Gardens. There was, however, an epidemic among them, and dead fowl lay strewn everywhere; indeed, at one place we came upon a regular graveyard, where thousands of decomposing bodies lay rotting, heap upon heap. The stench was enough to kill a cat.

I would willingly have spent a month on the island; but, the wind freshening, we heard the call sounding to get back to the ship. We heaved anchor and steamed round the group, closely scanning it for evidence of shipwrecked sailors. From here we steamed off to the Auckland Islands, our menagerie of captured, fowl crying a deafening good-bye to comrades ashore.

We had bad weather again, a gale from the west sweeping the deck with rain and hail. Because of the poison I used for preserving specimens, I was only allowed to do my taxidermy on deck, and experienced great difficulty in keeping my legs. I finally strapped myself up, but had to undergo a constant shower-bath, and every time the ship rolled, my instruments got properly mixed up.

The Aucklands lie some 150 miles south and 5 page 273degrees west of Snares Islands, and we reached them on January 24, anchoring in the sheltered harbour of Port Ross, on Enderby Island,1 close to a deserted whaling station. We found them rugged and mountainous, part granite and volcanic and part sedimentary. The vegetation was specially luxurious, the low-lying parts being overgrown with rata, ivy-tree (Panax simplex), and the so-called stink-wood, the stem of which, when cut, gives off such a bad odour.

Above, on the open plateaux, plants of a fair size grow, such as Pluerophyllum speceosum, hung with purple berries, and altogether beautiful. Besides I noticed two kinds of Ligusticum, pink and white, and the so-called golden lily (Anthericum rossi) grew in patches over a wide area. Still higher up on the tussock country was an abundance of blue, red, and white veronica.

Here we landed a load of timber for a boat-shed. A few large sea-lion, who had been disporting on the beach, waddled lazily away at our approach. The shed was soon built, and the sound of the hammer-blows roused life in the island. The sea-lions looked on in amazement, while innumerable rabbits hopped off in all directions, and wild dogs slunk around without daring to approach too near.

We found on Enderby Island one or two huts made of tussock grass, bound together with thongs of sea-lions' hide. These had been constructed by the survivors of the wreck of the Derry Castle. On top of a hill

1 Once an English colony, described by Lieut. Governor Enderby in 1850 as 'much better adapted for settlement than the northern islands of New Zealand.'—Ed.

page 274near by a lifebuoy hung on a long piece of wood, to serve as a distress signal. Before moving off to Erebus Cove, we left a boat in the shed, provisioned the depot, and landed a few sheep. At the Cove we found the boat in which the survivors from the Derry Castle had come across from Enderby Island.

At the head of the harbour, known as Sarah's Bosom, we found a blue-painted boat and two columns 4 feet high, with a cement block, which bore the inscription: 'German Expedition, 1874' — a reminder of the visit of German scientists to observe the transit of Venus.

Our next stop was Ross Island, where again quite a collection of sea-lions met us on the beach. The boat was lowered so that Dugald could take a photo of them, and they made an amusing picture as several of us went ashore and herded them into a group. They tried to escape at first, and when stopped by the sailors, they squatted on their haunches, waggled their heads, and let out growls of disapproval, gazing at one another as if to ask, 'What are we expected to do next?' Some of the males were of an imposing size, with fine manes, but the females were smaller and of lighter colouring.

After this little interlude we rounded North-West Cape and made south. The coast-line was of heroic relief. Abrupt rocks, with contours of animals and gigantic human beings, rose sheer out of the sea, the surf dashing wildly against them, while high up waterfalls wavered in the breeze like fountains, blown upwards in spray by the force of the wind.

The last wildly beautiful lonely island was called page 275Disappointment Island. It was here that, on May 14, 1866, the General Grant1 is said to have been driven aground into a cave, though I must say in passing we did not notice any cave large enough for any vessel to be driven into. It was a wild scene, however, the sea boiling and breaking over the rocks with tremendous force, sending the spray in all directions.

We now approached the South Cape of Adam's Island, hundreds of wandering albatross (Diomedia exulans) following in our wake. We put into the North Harbour, fixed up a sign-board, and proceeded on to Carnley Harbour, where we anchored for the night.

The next morning, January 26, I landed at 4 a.m., on the captain's assurance that I could spend the whole day ashore. It was a delightful morning, and the birds we're singing their best. Numbers of seal lay among the high grass, and when I nearly stumbled over them they growled and grumbled at being disturbed so early. Some even made off, but for the most part they remained sitting on their, haunches, too lazy to leave their lair, merely showing me their large canine teeth. The birds I noticed were the bell-bird, the blight-bird, the yellow-headed tit, the ground lark, the little parakeet, the banded dotterel, and the native snipe.

I had a dreadful scramble through dense low scrub,

1 The General Grant, 1200 tons burden, en route from Melbourne to London, was driven ashore in a crippled condition and plunged headlong into a cave 250 yards deep, disappearing entirely. Among her passengers were diggers, who had made their pile, returning to the Old Country. Fourteen men and one woman escaped, of whom ten were eventually rescued, one dying and eight being lost in a vain attempt to reach New Zealand.—Ed.

page 276but at last gained the hills above. My exertions caused me to suffer greatly, being far from well through over-work on the West Coast of the South Island. After climbing over hills for about 3 miles, I came to a slope where a colony of albatross had established a breeding-place. The birds were scattered about among the tussock and their white plumage could be easily distinguished from the vegetation at a great distance. I found their nests always placed on sloping ground, and always on the most exposed side of the hill, composed of earth and grass cemented together and built in the form of a cone.

In most cases I found the female on the nest, the male bird standing close to her, and occasionally feeding her. Sometimes the male relieved the female, but they never both leave the nest until the young one is able to defend itself against the skua gull (Lestris parasiticus). While taking the measurements of the first nest I came to, I laid down the egg beside me, when a skua darted at it and destroyed it. They were so bold that they frequently came close enough for me to hit them with a stick.

On my approaching an albatross's nest, the old bird seldom left it, but set up a croaking noise, clapping its mandibles together and biting at the intruder. After turning it off and taking away the egg, it returned and sat on the nest as before. The eggs were quite fresh, and made good eating when fried; and in nearly all the other groups we visited I found the albatross most plentiful.

The young take five years to become fully mature. Notwithstanding the ease and grace which travellers page 277admire as it sails over the ocean, on the land it is a most clumsy and helpless bird. Its walk is slow and waddling, like that of a duck, and it cannot take flight from a level piece of ground. So these birds have been gifted by Nature with the instinct of making their nests on the slopes of mountains, for by running downhill and labouring hard with their wings, they can at last acquire sufficient momentum to raise themselves in the air. Once there they exhibit their true power, and are seen to the best advantage. When there is little wind and the ocean is calm, albatross have great difficulty in rising from the water; but when there is a swell, they run along the water and rise with a wave.

On this occasion I watched these birds for hours, so absorbed that I never thought of the possibility of an earlier departure of the Stella. Suddenly I heard the ship's siren. Springing up, I cut off downwards by the nearest gully; but when I came in sight of her, the vessel had already got up steam and was blowing her fog-horn. It was two o'clock, and I endeavoured to hurry all I could, but the many holes and swamps and the dense scrub held me back, and presently I fell into a hole.

A loud barking growl warned me that I had nearly tumbled on top of a large sea-lion, which I had roused from sleep. Rather startled, we both gazed at one another for a second, before he sat up heavily and bared his teeth. I drew out my sheath-knife and, keeping my eye fixed on him, scrambled out backwards, and turning quickly, uttered a thankful farewell to our page 278brief acquaintance. At length I came upon a sealer's track which led down to the water, whence a waiting boat took me aboard. The captain had finished sooner than he had expected, which was why the Stella was ready to leave before the appointed time. This was unfortunate, for in my hurry not to be stranded like a Robinson Crusoe, I had lost part of my belongings, and broken nearly all my eggs.

We sailed past the striking cliffs of Monument Island, and anchored a short distance from where the Grafton, an Australian sealer, had been shipwrecked. A boat was sent ashore to examine the wreckage, which lay strewn along the coast.

Captain Fairchild told me that not far away was the best anchorage in the Aucklands. We explored the sounds of the east coast, some of which cut far into the centre of the island, and found the sooty albatross (Diomedia fulginosa) breeding among the rocks. I also saw six mergasses, two of which I shot.

On January 28, we reached Campbell Island, after a very rough passage. It lies 164 miles from the Aucklands, is very hilly, the faces of the hills being liberally dotted with precipices. Mount Honey, the highest peak, rises to 1866 feet, and the island is well watered, vegetation being coarse and luxuriant. Alpine vegetation, which in New Zealand begins at 2800 feet, here starts practically at sea-level, going up to a height of only 300 feet, when tussock and barren rock commences.

We anchored in Perseverance Inlet, and were page 279stormbound there. Even in this shelter we had to let out two anchors for safety, and although mid-summer, I noticed the highest hills were all clad with snow. Westerly squalls accompanied by hail frequently struck us, and it was so bitterly cold that to keep the cabins warm proved quite impossible.

Two parties went ashore, one to climb Mount Honey, and the other Mount Beeman (1200 feet). I went up the cliffs in search of the rare sooty albatross, several of which I saw circling about. They breed in the recesses of the rocks, and are very hard to get at, but I managed to get one or two. Not so common here as the wandering albatross, it is certainly the prettiest of the family.

The only land bird I came across was the blight-bird (Zosterops), which is common everywhere. When the Austrian frigate Saida was nearly 500 miles from Auckland, a swarm of these little birds came on board. A friend of mine, Flag-Lieutenant Ritter von Wolf, wrote to tell me they were seen sitting in the rigging, and that several were caught.

I was informed that both the tui and also a wingless duck inhabit the island, but could see no sign of either. Albatross I saw in plenty, and thousands of mollymawks were breeding, while crowds of nellies were swimming about with their full-grown young, which were of a beautiful dark slate colour.

Once as I approached one of these birds, he came up to me, opened his bill, and bespattered me with a jet of evil-smelling oily fluid. In spite of repeated bathing page 280it took a long time before the stench left my body, and I was obliged to throw away the clothes I had on. Cape pigeons were here in plenty, and great numbers of Magellan shags were fishing round about.

The depot at Fuller's Point was seen to, a few sheep and goats liberated, trees planted, and seeds sown. We then went round the island, examining every cove and sounding as we went along. At North-West Bay we noticed a remarkable rock, which at a distance looks like a full-rigged ship, but nearer at hand resembles a statue. Storms were of almost daily occurrence, and we rode one out in North-East Bay, but on the 31st we left Campbell Island and made for the Antipodes Group.

Our little steamer bobbed about like an empty barrel, and at meals we had to hold tight to the table, in spite of which many of us had nasty falls. At night the wind fell, and a fog spread over the sea's face, which kept the captain on the bridge all night through. Approaching the islands, he went very cautiously, and presently there loomed ahead abrupt basalt rocks full of arches and tunnels, through which the sea was madly tossing.

These islands are about 420 miles from Campbell Island, and consist of detached rocks and islets covering an area of 5 miles. The largest is 1300 feet high, and some of the cliffs rise 600 feet sheer out of the ocean. There is not much shelter for vessels of any size, anchorage being deep and landing dangerous, owing to the heavy swell.

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Thousands of penguin of three species sat glued to the rocks, till on our approach some flopped off into the water. I did not see a single seal, and Captain Fairchild told me he had not either, on any of his former visits. The weather was so bad that we kept steam up, and had to shift our quarters several times, and we lost one anchor before finally seeking shelter under the lee of a rock.

A few of us began fishing from the ship, and caught quantities of fish resembling blue-cod, but they had a greenish-yellow rim round the mouth. We fried some for dinner, but they were coarse, and tasted like raw mussels; and on examining some I found they were diseased, the flesh being infested with countless tiny parasites.

Some time after this a boat was lowered, and the remainder of the sheep and goats we had brought from Invercargill were released. Landing was difficult, as no sooner would a 9-foot wave lift us above a rock than we would sink back into the trough as quickly, and it took some careful negotiating to jump on to the slippery land.

At a height of 600 feet there was a large saddle between two mountains. Mount Galloway, the highest, is 1320 feet high, and the captain told me there was a fresh-water lake on the summit; but I had no time to go up and investigate. The vegetation is tussock mixed with cotton-plants, aniseed, veronica, and other plants, but there is no bush whatever, and the creeks are polluted with guano. Of birds, I noticed two kinds of parakeets, a ground lark, the snipe (Gallinago page 282aucklandica), albatross, and the white-headed petrel, whose eggs were nearly all hatched.

Evidence of the work of that destroyer, the skua, was everywhere in the shape of broken penguin eggshells. I noticed a half-grown penguin crawl out of its hiding-place between two boulders, when immediately two of these robbers swooped down and devoured it, one commencing at the neck and the other at its vitals. The ground lark and the two kinds of parakeet I found were entirely different from any I had seen either on the New Zealand mainland or on these outlying islands, both as regarding plumage and habits. The parakeets were larger and plumper than the New Zealand species, the bill being shorter and thicker and the plumage brighter, with a peculiar shimmer towards the tips. They live in burrows, and are very difficult to shoot, as they get up almost under your feet, fly a short distance, and then run among the tussock and hide in their holes. The larger species was originally discovered by Captain Fairchild some years before, when they were plentiful and tame; but now they are rare and wild. The other species I discovered is not mentioned in Buller's or Gould's books. I examined it very carefully — later also with Professors Thomas and Cheeseman — and as it seemed new to the fauna I took the liberty of naming it Platycercus hochstetteri, after Arthur von Hochstetter, the son of Ferdinand von Hochstetter, from whom I received many kindnesses, and who has too soon passed away.

The ground lark of the Antipodes also proved to page 283be a new species, smaller in size and different in plumage from the New Zealand bird, and this I named Anthus steindachneri, after the Director of the Vienna Imperial Museum.

The Antipodes had been visited many years before, for Mr. Bethune picked up a piece of totara board which bore the inscription: 'To the me(mory of W.) Foster, Chief Officer of the Sch(ooner) Prince of Denmark, who was unfortunately drown (ed) in the Boat Harbour, 14th day of December, in the … 1825.'

Before leaving, we took some penguin on board, and let loose those we had brought with us from the Snares. We then made the 110 miles to the Bounty Islands, a cluster of thirteen rocky islets where there was no depot. There was no vegetation, millions of birds being in possession, all breeding; the stench frightful and the noise deafening. They were packed together as I had never seen them before.

After a short stay, we made for Port Chalmers, the harbour of Dunedin, 360 miles away. The bitter weather never left us, and even as we entered the harbour the wind was freshening to hurricane force. Our trip was now at an end. It had been all too short for me.

Yet notwithstanding the interest felt in my pursuits and in the nine species of birds I had found that are not to be seen on the mainland, it was a sad sight to see so many vestiges of disastrous shipwrecks. None can say how many human beings have lost their lives in page 284those perilous places and perished in a watery grave. At that time most, sailing-vessels from Australia to Europe, or vice versa, passed near these islands; and the constant bad weather and dense mists render them dangerous localities indeed.