Books about Auckland Islands shipwrecks remain popular, even amidst the vast pantheon of New Zealand adventure stories.

Though mostly out of print, you can still borrow such yarns from the library, tap into them online, or fight over the few remaining originals in secondhand stores.

Perhaps the most famous one - "Wrecked on a Reef, or Twenty Months on the Auckland Islands" - was turned into a series for National Radio a few years ago. This tells the story of the sole group of Auckland Islands castaways who self-rescued.

After the Grafton wrecked in Carnley Harbour in 1864, the resourceful skipper and mate built a boat and sailed it back to New Zealand. Their ingenuity had no end, for example, to make nails and bolts for the boat, they smelted iron in a furnace fanned by seal-skin bellows.


Such yarns provide perfect escapism for the modern readers, whose worst daily mishap might be dropping a mobile while running for the bus.

However, the nine known wrecks on the Auckland Islands (1864 to 1908) have had wide appeal, for a long time.

Even back to the winderjammer days, Auckland Islands wrecks made headlines across the British Empire.

For example, the gold-laden General Grant, which disappeared into a giant seacave on the western side of the islands in 1866. Only 15 of the 83 aboard survived the sinking, and diving expeditions have been trying to find the wreck ever since.

Towards the end of the 19th century, public fascination with these awful disasters had generated so many books and magazine articles, that it was decided something had to be done. Supply depots were set up across the Auckland Islands.

A book by Rev H. Escott-Inman, "The Castaways of Disappointment Island", describes the Dundonald wreck in romantic terms. Good luck trying to find a copy.

The idea was, if you can't actually stop the shipwrecks, at least bring some comfort to the hapless castaways.

Woollen suits, firearms, tinned meat, candles, tools and other treasures were stored in depots, marked by "finger posts" - some of which still stand. The stores were replenished every few years by passing ships.

Curse of the widow

The depots were protected by a curse, a warning aimed at superstitious seafarers of the day. It worked to some extent too, because the stores were seldom pilfered.

A plain notice attached to the supply depots said: "The curse of the widow and fatherless light upon the man that breaks open this box, whilst he has a ship at his back."

The crew of the Dundonald was undoubtedly saved by one of the depots.

This four-masted barque hit rocks and sank near Disappointment Island, eight km off the northwest side of the Auckland Islands, in 1907.

Only 15 of the 28 crew survived to be rescued seven months later by a scientific expedition.

The Dundonald's first mate, Jabez Peters, died of exposure on Disappointment Island.

They were stranded on the small island, eating seabirds and seals. Without timber on the island, they slept in sod huts and wore sealskins, sewn together by a bird-bone needle.
Using driftwood, they built small, dish-shaped boats called coracles.

On the third attempt crossing to the main island, they located a supply depot they'd searched for unsuccessfully on a previous trip.

A wonderful book by Rev H. Escott-Inman, called "The Castaways of Disappointment Island", tells the whole tale in vivid and romantic terms, but good luck trying to find a copy.