Macquarie Island: A long way from everywhere

By Jim Eagles

Snares crested penguins leap ashore on The Snares, a group of islands protected from human intrusion. Photo / Jim Eagles
Snares crested penguins leap ashore on The Snares, a group of islands protected from human intrusion. Photo / Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles is granted rare access to the lonely but lovely Sub Antarctic islands

Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart ... When Rudyard Kipling wrote that line in 1891 he was, of course, referring to Auckland. But today his words would apply much more aptly to the Sub Antarctic islands which run southwards from New Zealand to the frozen continent of Antarctica.

Few people go to these isolated outposts - Macquarie Island is today the only one with a permanent human population - and access to all is strictly limited. But this summer I was able to visit several islands on the expedition ship Orion to experience both their loneliness and their loveliness.

First the loneliness. Each is hundreds of kilometres from anywhere else. All are covered almost permanently with clouds and rain and lashed by the ferocious winds which perpetually circle Antarctica.

Campbell Island is home to a 106-year-old Norway spruce, which is recognised in the Guinness Book of Records as the loneliest tree in the world. And in the days of the British Empire, Campbell Island was also celebrated as the piece of land furthest from the imperial capital of London.

Unfortunately isolation didn't save the islands from exploitation. Sealers, whalers and penguin boilers decimated the wildlife. Farmers endeavoured to transform the landscape.

Settlers brought rats and mice. Sailors introduced pigs and rabbits. But the farming ventures collapsed. The settlements failed. The animal oil industries self-destructed. The introduced pests on the New Zealand-controlled islands were eradicated. And the islands became lovely again. New Zealand seals and fur seals once more sleep on the rocky shorelines.

Some of the world's rarest and quirkiest penguins, many with distinctive yellow crests, are growing in numbers. Rare birds like the unique local snipes and teals, tomtits and shags are making a comeback. Sea birds breed here in vast numbers. From most of the islands great dark clouds of sooty shearwater - aka titi or mutton bird - leave each morning and return at night.

Many species of those magificent ocean wanderers, the albatross, come to the islands to raise their chicks. And, perhaps the biggest surprise, in summer the vegetation is magnificent.

There are great fields of yellow bulbinella flowers, blooms of pink gentiana and purple myosotis, and forests of red rata blossoms and white tree daisies. This is all framed, in a sense, by the thick beds of bull kelp which line the coasts.

But, while the Sub Antarctic islands have much in common, each is distinctive. On the Snares, a cluster of islands only 200km south of Bluff, a place so pristine that we weren't allowed to land but had to explore by zodiac, the quirky Snares penguins with with their distinctive yellow crests dominate the shorelines.

At the Auckland Islands, sea lions rule the roost, the big male beachmasters in a constant state of aggression to protect their harems of sleek females.

Macquarie, the southernmost at 1200km south of Bluff, is different in being run by Australia and, unfortunately, is still overrun with rats and rabbits (though an eradication programme is due to start this winter).

But it also stands out for the massive elephant seals sleeping in heaps on the beaches and for its huge rookeries of penguins. Campbell Island is one of the most important albatross sites in the world, with six different species coming here to raise their eggs, but it's rich with other wildlife too.

Where else could you watch the world's rarest penguin swim past the world's second rarest duck, land on a beach beside the world's rarest sea lion, then head inland past giant flowers found nowhere else. Exquisite, apart ...

Jim Eagles visited the Sub Antarctic islands with Orion Expedition Cruises.

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