The Forgotten Islands of The sub-Antarctic

The Forgotten Islands of The sub-Antarctic

March 5, 2018

It’s the 23rd of December. We are waiting at the Kelvin Hotel for the expedition guides to transfer us to the ship, excitement mounts. People gather in the lobby and it becomes obvious we are all there for the trip to the sub-Antarctic. Groups begin to form and conversations start, each revealing a little of why they chose to come on such a unique trip. I am here with my two adult children aged 21 and 18. Along with two scholarship winners they are the youngest group on board. Most of the occupants are aged 55-65. There is an eclectic mix of adventurous older ladies, outdoorsy types and couples seeking a bit of excitement.

So, this is day 1.

We have a triple cabin, most are doubles and all of us remark on how effective the storage is. We fit easily into our cabin. Our room has 3 bunk beds, 3 wardrobes, drawers, a desk,bench seat, basin and porthole. 

At 4pm we sail.

Everyone is on deck and the pilot boat becomes the most photographed thing on the planet as excitement mounts and we all turn into paparazzi. Heading out into open water we can hardly believe the announcement telling us the bridge is open to all and we are welcome up there any time. It proves to be a favourite spot for many throughout the expedition, myself included.

The views are spectacular from there and there are plenty of people around to help identify the birds you see from the windows.If you are prone to queasiness the windows facing forward from the bridge are a good place to settle the tum. We are all tired after a day of anticipation, a couple of drinks at the bar and a wonderful dinner. We all drift off to our beds and are rocked to sleep.

Day 2.

Breakfast – more cereal and tea being consumed than bacon and eggs. Many have found their sea legs already, but some will need the full 24 hours. The weather is quite rough so the stop at the Snares is abandoned.  Still, there’s the bridge and library and 46 other passengers to get to know. The ocean is quite animated and dramatic, which I love and there are seabirds hang-gliding everywhere like a well- choreographed theatrical performance and always the eyes are out for whales, and we have glimpsed one already!

I attend my first lecture with the on board botanist– not at all like school, it is fascinating and well worth the effort. I can hardly wait to see these plants in the flesh.

Mollygull

Day 3

Xmas day!

Breakfast is consumed in great quantities before and we attend the briefing for the landings for today. We managed 3 landings on the Auckland Islands today due to astonishingly clear weather. We are anchored in Port Ross and take the zodiacs first into Erebus Cove where we wander through the Rataforests. The Rata were milled by a ship in the war days for emergency fuel and have now coppiced creating an eerie forest of twisted branches offset by the almost fluorescent green of the mosses underneath. There is a small graveyard here where some of the settlers are buried, but nothing remains of the settlement itself. It is clear the settlers had a hell of a time. The landscape is beautiful but unforgiving.

Next landing is in Ranui Cove and we walked up to the lookout, about an hour all up. Magnificent 360degree views and the clearest most perfect day for viewing. There is no wind, the sky is blue and the sun is shining, a rare day indeed in this part of the world. Back in the zodiacs and to the ship for lunch, which is well received after the exercise. We sail now to Carnley Harbour. The entrance is between Cape Farr and Gilroy Head. You sail in between two mountains coming into a harbour which is essentially the volcano crater.

Unbelievably good weather and calm seas. We are all on deck now, cups of tea and cameras, jackets off and the sun on our backs, watching sea lions and penguins swimming around the ship as we pass by the islands of the crater sea. We are in for a treat.

We make a landing where we see the remains of a small boat, the remnants of a ship wreck and hear tales of shipwrecks and survivors, and then, just because it’s Christmas and the weather is so extraordinary, Rodney surprises us and takes the entire expedition out for a zodiac cruise around all the bays and down to Figure 8 island to see the seal breeding ground and flocks of seabirds. We wend our way along the coast and take in the sheer beauty of the place before motoring back to the ship at full steam.

Christmas Dinner – well the chefs have outdone themselves. Tomato soup followed by ham on the bone, turkey, lamb, beef, venison, prawns, salmon, shellfish, don’t normally do dessert, but they had everything so I had to try some! And then, to bed. What a massive day. We are all tired and well fed. We sleep like babies. 

Day 4.

When we wake up we are at Enderby Island. Breakfast at 6.30, briefing at 7.15 and we are all on the island by 8.30. There is a choice of walking 8kms around the island or 2kms across the island and we opt for the shorter one.Initially we were going to do the longer one, but the sea lions are hauling out and the albatrosses are nesting. We spend an hour watching the Light-mantled sooty Albatrosses, some sitting on their nests and the others swooping the cliffs and bringing food to their mates, and at least two hours watching the sea lions, some with their pups, some birthing, some mating, the young males who can’t get a look in, and the molly hawks pecking at the afterbirth and the ones that didn’t make it.

The beauty of Enderby is hard to describe and quite other-worldly. It has an abundance of textures and colours and plants and birds you don’t get anywhere else. The megaherbs are phenomenal. Definitely not shy, they are big and bold, an incredible big splash of colour and texture across the landscape. Beneath them are the shy birds, we were lucky enough to see the Enderby Snipe, a very shy, flightless bird that resembles a quail with a long beak. The Pipits are cute and inquisitive and always bobbing just out of reach. We saw a couple of yellow-eyed penguins making the trek from sea to land, a falcon swooped past too and of course the albatrosses. We saw white southern albatrosses nesting in the megaherbs – massive birds, and bright white, they stand out easily, clearly not concerned about camouflage and of course we spent plenty of time trying to catch the sooty albatrosses on film as they swept along the cliffs to their precarious nests. A long day today, and a picnic lunch on Enderby. Back to the ship for a game of scrabble, a cup of tea and maybe a nap before dinner.

Day 5.

Oooh, a sleep in, up at 7.15, breakfast and then briefing at 8.15. If we thought yesterday was a big day, then we hadn’t figured on today! Campbell Island will prove to be our favourite. Animals and birds we spot today are the Pipit, Campbell Island Snipe, Teal, Albatrosses, Elephant Seal and Sea lions. In fact the nesting albatrosses are so prolific that we have to leave the track several times to circumnavigate them and we came across the friendliest ever Snipe! Totally fearless, it walks right into our midst even walking over our boots and hands. We have chosen to do the big walk starting at 9.30 and ending around 5pm. It is yet another unexpectedly gorgeous day – we have been phenomenally lucky. I can’t recommend the walk enough. It is a long day and a lot of walking, a few achy bodies at the finish but the flora and fauna and animals that you see on this hike make it more than worth the effort. If you are physically fit, at any age, then you will cope with the hike. The first two and a half hours is up. Morning tea is on the side of a mountain, out come the picnic lunches and we take in the view and take off our jackets. We are reminded to save plenty for lunch and afternoon tea as it is a long day. An hour later, still going up, but a gentle incline, we reach the megaherb gardens. We have seen them on Enderby, but nothing prepares you for the garden of Eden that opens out ahead of you here. We wandered through the stunning plants and found ourselves on the edge of a cliff overlooking mountainous islands and an azure sea, gulls gliding and dipping, the sun at full brilliance. I can honestly say this was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. There were albatrosses and molly gulls with chicks, all fluffy and helpless and huge and little Pipits dancing about us, flitting around our feet, and of course the amazing plants. We were quite a while before we moved off. More walking up the hill but slowly now taking it all in before resting on a rocky outcrop to take in the vista which is all around us now. We can see the cliff face further around that we will head across. I may have been wrong earlier, the gardens here drip off the cliff, there are rocky outcrops and the flowers and plants are thick and lush – this is the most beautiful place on earth.

We are encouraged to move on and do so reluctantly. The landscape changes as you walk. It is amazing to see such distinct areas and we move now into tall grasses. At home these grow only a few inches high, but here they are over 2 metres. We form a human chain and wind our way through and down. It gets muddier and denser and then suddenly we are on a rocky beach.

The smell hits you first, so you know there are sea lions before you can see them and there he is all proud and arrogant and smelly, taking ownership of a large rock on the beach. We park up at the other end for our lunch. Mr. Sea lion decides to assert his dominance over us and lumbers up to roar at us. We ignore him as we have been taught and he eyes us with contempt before lumbering back to his rock. After lunch we explore the beach and there is a small pod of adolescent male elephant seals. They blow angrily through their nostrils at us, which is a most disgusting sight and hilarious too. They are like a cross between a dog and a slug and these are about 3 metres long. As we leave the beach we cross a rocky plateau with sheer rock faces, plants hanging over the top and also growing in the cracks of the plateau. The effect is as though we are in a cobblestoned walled garden in the south of France or perhaps northern Italy. I could well imagine a nice bottle of Chianti and some grapes and cheeses at that point, but there are another 3 ½ hours of walking yet, so that might just have to wait. Having walked down to sea level, the only way is up again and we wind our way up the hill and away from the beach. The landscape changes again. Soon we are winding our way through scrub, much like tea tree, and again we form a human chain. When we pop out the top of the scrub we are surprised at how far we have come. We are in a field of grasses full of nesting albatrosses and we meander upwards through the grasses to a platform that says “take photo from here” so we oblige and then sit for a while to look at the same islands from earlier but a completely different aspect. We make our way around the hill and find ourselves walking across another hill with rocky cliff faces above. From there the young albatrosses launch themselves and glide in an impressive courtship display, each male trying to outdo the last to impress the females. We are heading towards our pick up point now and about half an hour along we come to a stand of boulders and caves and the rare sub Antarctic buttercup before heading 30 minutes downward and onto the beach and the sight of the world’s loneliest tree.

Back to the ship. A well-earned round of beverages. After dinner, we sleep.

Day 6

We are still at Campbell Island. The really keen ones (about 6) got up a t5am to climb Mt Honey, however with the weather closing in we felt there may not be much to see when climbing into the mist so opted for the boardwalk through the megaherbs and up to the look out. The weather is closing in and the hike doesn’t compare to the highlight of yesterday as we are all tired, but we are pleased of the walk and soaking it all in knowing that soon we go from here. Our path is blocked by a yellow-eyed penguin, in no hurry to move and we enjoy several minutes in his company before carefully making our way past. We have a day and a half on board the ship coming now, a few more photos, a last look at a sea lion and we take the zodiacs back to the ship with a heavy heart for we are leaving this magnificent place. We set sail at noon. Some lunch and time to write in my journal and we start going through our photos, reminiscing already.

The third option for the day was a zodiac cruise and after hearing the stories over dinner, I was sorry to have missed it! One of the ladies was intent on a skinnydip, so they took the zodiacs into a cove to allow her to do so. She discreetly slipped into the waters in the buff while the others turned away and was thoroughly enjoying her nude swim when suddenly a sea lion took exception to her presence, launched himself into the water and took off after her. All modesty cast aside, you can only imagine the laughter as a naked middle-aged woman comes tearing out of the water and sprints up the beach with a sea lion hot on her heals.

Day 7. At Sea

We are all seasoned sailors now so most are coping with the ocean. The magnificent meals still come out at regular intervals and there is a lot of packing and swapping of email addresses going on. We all welcome a slow day and although looking forward to going home I am sad to leave.

I am glad of my photographs or I might barely believe what I have seen the last several days.

 

By 

Stephanie Mitchell

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