Sub-Antarctic: A graveyard of vessels

By Paul Charman

The harsh Auckland Islands claimed many a ship and their crews, finds Paul Charman.

At Sandy Bay on Enderby Island, passenger Yuin Khai learns that a Hooker's sea lion can move faster than you think. Photo / Paul Charman
At Sandy Bay on Enderby Island, passenger Yuin Khai learns that a Hooker's sea lion can move faster than you think. Photo / Paul Charman

Ageing thrill-seekers packed out my summer voyage to the sub-Antarctic. Perhaps such expeditions maintain the street cred without over-taxing the body. Whatever the reason, many of my shipmates had pushed an interest in adventure way past middle age.

Korean War veteran Ray Christensen, 84, had been the third climber to reach the Lockheed Electra crash site on Mt Ruapehu in 1948; Graeme Henderson, 72, had hung up his swimming fins after decades of scuba diving and a 60ish theatre nurse, Heather Richardson, spends holidays overseas as a Fred Hollows volunteer. We had young people on board, but my survey of the bar one night revealed an average age of 58.

Seven days on the Spirit of Enderby, a 1700-tonne Russian icebreaker, took us to Campbell and Auckland islands and the barren Snares.

Promoted as "an expedition" rather than "a cruise", your GP had to confirm you'd be agile enough to step from a heaving Zodiac and up a ship's gangway.

But beyond some lumpy nights in the Southern Ocean we faced few physical challenges.

The Spirit of Enderby's sister ship, Akademik Shokalskiy, was stuck fast in Ross Sea ice floes while we swanned about in the Southern Ocean.

But you can have fine adventures without going as far south as the ice.

There's a relatively short summer season for nature tourism voyages to the sub-Antarctic, as the Department of Conservation keeps a lid on visitor numbers - usually under 1000 a year - to reduce environmental effects.

Passengers must take their chances with the weather, but all we saw was sunshine. Aside from the 36-hour voyage from Bluff to Campbell Island we had unusually calm weather. In this we were lucky - on his previous voyage to Campbell Island expedition leader Nathan Russ said passengers had to trudge through mist, rain and sleet.

By contrast, the Campbell Island we landed on was awash with the yellows and purples of mega-herbs, seasonal blooms that transform the place from a tussock wilderness to a multicoloured garden.

Enderby Island, in the Auckland group, also had these strange blooms, plus the reds of rata blossom.

It lived up to its reputation as the Riviera of the sub-Antarctic. We even saw about 30 Hooker's sea lion pups born during a visit to Enderby's Sandy Bay. A giant albatross nested beside our boardwalk and rare birds danced just out of reach. I found so much good fortune a bit hard to take.

Knowing the history of these islands, where castaways had been forgotten for months or years, I felt embarrassed eating three-course meals and having my laundry washed for me.

Hardships in the Auckland Islands had been my interest since coming across the astonishing account of the Grafton shipwreck in 1863.

Led by the Hillary and Tenzing of the sub-Antarctic, Captain Thomas Musgrave and first mate Francois Raynal, the survivors hunted seals for 20 months, rebuilt an old dinghy and made an epic voyage to Stewart Island.

Their remarkable adventures were said to have inspired Jules Verne to write science fiction.

We visited Tagua Bay to see the coastwatcher huts, close to where the Grafton was wrecked.

That night in the bar it turned out that some of my shipmates had links to Auckland Islands shipwrecks and to the World War II coastwatcher era.

Retired physiotherapist Bill Unwin had treated Albert Roberts, who as a young cabin boy survived the 1907 wreck of the Dundonald.

Meeting Albert, plus seeing in Canterbury Museum a coracle he and his shipmates had built, was the reason Bill went on the expedition.

Marine mammal expert Martin Cawthorn had - among many other sub-Antarctic adventures - dived in search of the General Grant, a three-masted barque laden with at least 80kg of gold, which in 1866 was wrecked inside a huge sea cave.

Martin didn't find the gold but his party discovered another wreck on the west coast of Auckland Island, plus an enormous previously uncharted sea cave.

This was large enough to house a basilica, with an opening in its ceiling to the land above.

"A single beam of light shone down on to a seal sitting on a rock."

Retired Wellington postie Malcolm Yockney had delivered mail to Charles Fleming, one of New Zealand's pre-eminent scientists.

Malcolm, an actor who loves reading Shakespeare, got to stand in the same tumbledown coastwatchers' hut where Sir Charles read his copy of the complete works.

On our final night the anchors were winched up, swells sent glasses flying across the tables, portholes darkened and the throbbing engines began pushing us back to Bluff.

Ray recalled his platoon getting lost in mountains near Seoul, with the result that Chinese and North Korean troops chased them for three weeks.

Boy, did we tell some yarns that night.

CHECKLIST

The Spirit of Enderby is an icebreaker, built in Finland in 1984 for polar and oceanographic research.

- NZ Herald

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