Chapter 25: Life on Macquarie Island
Chapter 25: Life on Macquarie Island
By GF Ainsworth
Left on an island in mid–ocean!
It suggests the romances of youthful days – Crusoe, Sindbad and all their glorious company. Still, when this narrative is completed, imagination will be seen to have played a small part. In fact, it is a plain tale of our experiences, descriptive of a place where we spent nearly two years and of the work accomplished during our stay.
The island was discovered in 1810 by Captain Hasselborough of the ship Perseverance, which had been dispatched by Campbell and Sons, of Sydney, under his command to look for islands inhabited by fur seals. Macquarie Islands, named by Hasselborough after the Governor of New South Wales, were found to be swarming with these valuable animals, and for two years after their discovery was made known, many vessels visited the place, landing gangs of men to procure skins and returning at frequent intervals to carry the proceeds of their labours to the markets of the world.
The slaughter of the seals was so great that the animals were almost exterminated within a few years. One ship is known to have left Macquarie Island with a cargo of 35,000 skins during the first year of operations. High prices were obtained for them in London and China, and many American, British and Sydney firms were engaged in the enterprise.
The value of a skin is determined by the condition of the fur, which is often damaged by the animals fighting amongst themselves. Furthermore, at a certain season of the year, the seals moult, and if taken within a certain time of this natural process, the skin is almost valueless. These facts were ignored by the sealers, who killed without discrimination.
Again, both male and female, old and young were ruthlessly slaughtered, with the obvious result – the extermination of the species. If supervision had been exercised and restrictions imposed, there is no doubt that the island would still have been used by the fur seal as a breeding ground. During our stay none were seen, but Mr Bauer, who acts as sealing herdsman and who had visited the island in that capacity each summer for eleven years, stated that he had seen odd ones at infrequent intervals.
Associated as the island has been since the year 1812 with sealing and oil ventures, it follows that a history has been gradually developed; somewhat traditional, though many occurrences to which we shall refer are well authenticated.
It might be supposed from the foregoing, that a good deal is known about the place, but such is not the case, except in a general sense. Several scientific men from New Zealand, recognising the importance of the island as a link between Australasia and Antarctica, visited it at different times within the past twenty years, only remaining long enough to make a cursory examination of the eastern side. They had to depend on the courtesy of the sealing ships’ captains for a passage, and the stormy conditions which are ever prevalent made their stay too brief for any exhaustive work.
A Russian Antarctic expedition, under Bellingshausen’s command, called there in 1821 and stayed for two days, collecting a few bird and animal specimens. They referred to the island as being ‘half–cooled down’, in a short but interesting account of their visit, and remarked upon the large number of sea elephants lying on the shores.
In 1840 the ship Peacock, one of the exploring vessels of the American Expedition under Wilkes, landed several men after much difficulty on the southwest of the island, but they remained only a few hours, returning to their ship after securing some specimens of birds. Expressing astonishment at the ‘myriad of birds’, they remarked, ‘Macquarie Islands offer no inducement for a visit, and as far as our examination showed, have no suitable place for landing with a boat’.
The next call of an Antarctic expedition was made by Captain Scott in the Discovery in November 1901. He, with several naturalists, landed on the eastern side to collect specimens, but remained only a few hours. He refers to the penguins, kelp weed and tussock grass; certainly three characteristic features.
Captain Davis, during his search for charted subantarctic islands, when connected with Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition, called there in the Nimrod in 1909. He landed a party of men who secured several sea elephants and some penguins.
It will thus be seen that very little had been done which was scientifically important or generally interesting. Sealers came and went as a matter of business, and probably the arduous nature of their work and the rugged topography of the island combined to prevent the more curious from exploring far afield.
Captain Scott was desirous of establishing a base on Macquarie Island in 1910, but circumstances compelled him to abandon the idea. And so it came that we five men of Dr Mawson’s Expedition were landed on December 22, 1911, with a programme of work outlined by our leader. H Hamilton was biologist, LR Blake surveyor and geologist, CA Sandell and AJ Sawyer were wireless operators, the former being also a mechanic, and I was appointed meteorologist and leader of the party.
We stood on the beach in the dusk, watching the boat’s party struggle back to the Aurora, which lay at anchor one and a half miles from the northwest shore. Having received a soaking landing in the surf and being tired out with the exertions of the day, we started back to our temporary shelter. We had not gone very far when a mysterious sound, followed by a shaking of the earth, made us glance at each other and exclaim, ‘An earthquake’! The occurrence gave rise to a discussion which carried us to bed.
Seeing that we were to spend a long time on the island, the question of building a hut was the first consideration. Through the kindness of Mr Bauer, who had just left the island in the SS Toroa, we were able to live for the time being in the sealers’ hut.
It was urgent to get the wireless station into working order as soon as possible. The masts and operating hut had been erected during the stay of the Aurora, but there yet remained the building of the engine hut and the installation of the machinery and instruments, as well as the construction and erection of the aerial. Accordingly we proceeded with the living hut and the job on Wireless Hill at the same time, working on the hill most of the day and at the hut in the evening.
Wireless Hill rose to three hundred and fifty feet in height, and formed part of a peninsula running in a northeasterly direction from the main island. It had been chosen by Mr Hannam of the Adélie Land party because of its open northerly aspect, and because wireless waves would probably have a good ‘set off’, southward to the Main Base in Antarctica.
Just a few yards from the base of the hill on its southwestern side was a huge rock, upon the easterly side of which we decided to build our dwelling. The timbers for the hut had been cut and fitted in Hobart, so all that remained for us was to put them together.
After working at high pressure until December 30, we were able to establish ourselves in a home. The doorway faced to the east, and the rock protected the small place from the strong westerly weather which is invariable in these latitudes. The dimensions were twenty feet by thirteen feet, the front wall being nine feet six inches high, sloping to seven feet six inches at the back. All the timbers were of oregon and deal, and particular attention was paid to bracing and strengthening the building, which rested on piles just clear of the sandy surface. The inside was lined and ceiled, and the roof of galvanised iron was set flush with the front wall, fascia boards along the front and sides being designed to keep the fine snow from blowing under the corrugations and lodging on the ceiling. ‘George V Villa’ was fixed upon as the name, but the hut was never at any time referred to as the villa, and in future will always be known as the Shack.
Twelve live sheep had been landed, and these had been driven on to Wireless Hill so as to be accessible. We decided to kill one for Christmas, so on December 24 Sandell and I, leaving the others at work on the Shack, started out.
The hillsides are deeply ravined and the slopes covered with a dense growth of tussock, which renders progress uncertain and laborious. Our experience was a foretaste of many to come. We found the sheep huddled together in a deep gully on the eastern side, and drove them round to the front of the hill, where one was caught, killed and dressed.
Christmas Day dawned fine and sunny, and we decided to make some attempt at a dinner. Blake produced a plum pudding, and this, together with roast mutton and several kinds of vegetables, washed down with a little claret, constituted our first Christmas dinner.
The sealing schooner, Clyde, had been wrecked without loss of life on November 14, 1911, on the east coast, and was now lying on the beach nearly half a mile away. A two–hundred gallon tank had been saved from the wreck and we managed on Christmas morning, after two hours of carrying and trundling, to place it at the end of the Shack. This was a valuable find, ensuring in the future a constant, convenient supply of rain water. Further, we made use of the timber of the wreck for building, and the broken pieces strewn about were stored up as firewood.
On the 26th we all went to the wireless station, and, as Sandell had the aerial made, we pulled it into position. In the afternoon I unpacked all my instruments and started them off so as to make sure that all were working correctly. I did not intend to record any observations till January 1, 1912, and therefore did not erect the meteorological screen until the 28th.
On moving into our abode domestic arrangements were made. With regard to cooking, each man took duty for a week, during which he was able to write up his work and to wash and mend clothes. To Hamilton and Sandell, who had had previous experience, frequent appeals were made as to methods of cooking various dishes, but by degrees each one asserted his independence. There were several cookery books for reference and each week saw the appearance of some new pudding, in each instance prefaced by the boast: ‘This is going to be the best pudding ever turned out on the island’! The promise was not always made good.
We had a good deal of difficulty at first in making bread and several batches were very ‘heavy’ failures. This difficulty, however, was soon overcome and, after the first few months, the cooking standard was high and well maintained. Our stove was very small and only two loaves of bread could be cooked at once. It frequently happened, therefore, that the others, which would go on rising in the tins, overflowed; a matter which could only be set right by experience.
On New Year’s Day, 1912, we carried timber in relays from the wreck to the top of Wireless Hill, so that the building of the engine hut could be started. The next few days were occupied in getting food stuffs, medicines, stationery, clothing and other necessaries over to the Shack from the landing place on the beach. Blake and Hamilton unpacked their instruments and appliances, fitting up a small laboratory and photographic darkroom in one corner of the hut.
Some kind Hobart friend had sent four fowls to me on the day of sailing, requesting me to take them to Macquarie island. They were housed in one of the meteorological screens, but on the third day from Hobart a heavy sea broke on board, upset the temporary fowl house and crushed the rooster’s head. The three hens were landed safely and appeared to be thoroughly reconciled to their strange surroundings, though the presence of so many large birds soaring about overhead had a terrifying effect on them for several days. They did not appear to pick up much food amongst the grass, but scratched away industriously all the same. I must say that they were very friendly and gave the place quite a homely aspect. One of them was christened ‘Ma’ on account of her maternal and somewhat fussy disposition.
On the first Sunday in the new year all except myself went along the coast towards West Point. The party reported immense numbers of sea elephants, especially young ones. They also saw many wekas and three ducks, shooting nine of the former for the kitchen.
The wekas or Maori hens are small, flightless birds, averaging when full grown about two and three–quarter pounds. They were introduced twenty–five years ago by Mr Elder, of New Zealand, a former lessee of the island, and multiplied so fast that they are now very numerous. They live among the tussocks, and subsist for the most part upon the larvae of the kelp fly, small fish and other marine life which they catch under the stones along the rocky shores at low tide. They are exceedingly inquisitive and pugnacious and may easily be caught by hand.
Usually, when disturbed, they will pop under a rock, and on being seized immediately commence to squeak. This is sufficient to bring every weka within a quarter of a mile hurrying to the spot, and, in a few minutes, heads may be seen poking out of the grass in every direction. The man holding the bird then crouches down, preferably just on the border of the tussock, holding the protesting bird in one hand. Soon there will be a rustle, then a rush, and another furious weka will attack the decoy. The newcomer is grabbed and, if the birds are plentiful, five or six of them may be taken in one spot.
Their call is peculiarly plaintive and wild and may be heard night and day. Though we saw and caught innumerable young ones of all sizes, we were never able to find the nests of these Maori hens.
A depot of stores had been laid by the Aurora at Caroline Cove, twenty miles from the Shack at the south end of the island, and it was deemed advisable to lay several more intermediate food depots along the east coast.
The sealers had a motor launch which they kindly placed at our disposal, and a supply of stores was put on board for transport. At 8 am, January 9, Sandell, Blake, Sawyer and Hamilton started out accompanied by two sealers who offered to point out the positions of several old huts along the coast. These huts had been built by sealing gangs many years ago and were in a sad state of disrepair.
The first call was made at Sandy Bay, about five miles from the Shack. Stores were landed and placed in the hut, and the party proceeded to Lusitania Bay, eleven miles farther on, where they stayed for the night. At this place (named after an old sealing craft, the Lusitania) there were two huts, one being a work hut and the other a living hut. They had not been used for sixteen years and, as a result, were found to be much dilapidated. In the locality is a large King penguin rookery, the only one on the island, and two dozen eggs were obtained on this visit, some fresh and some otherwise.
As the next morning was squally, it was decided that the stores should be deposited in the hut at the south end; a distance of five miles across country. Through bog and tussock it took the party four hours to accomplish this journey. The hut was found in the same condition as the others and a rather miserable night was spent. A short distance from this spot is situated the largest penguin rookery on the island. On returning to the launch, the six men had a quick run of three hours back to the north end.
During the absence of the party I had been busy erecting a stand for the anemobiagraph. Ordinarily, such an instrument is kept in a house, the upper section only being exposed through the roof. The Shack was in a position too sheltered for my purpose, so I built a place for the anemobiagraph behind a low rock well out on the isthmus.
Sandell and Sawyer reported on the 16th that the wireless station was ready for testing. Therefore, on the following day, the three of us erected a small set on the farthest point of the peninsula – North Head. The set had been made in order to test the large station. Sawyer then returned to the operating hut and received signals sent from North Head by Sandell, who in return received Sawyer’s signals, thus showing that so far everything was satisfactory. It was thought, after the tests, that the ‘earth’ was not by any means good and Sawyer erected a counterpoise, which, however, failed to give anything like the ‘earth’ results. More ‘earths’ (connections by wire with the ground) were now put in from day to day, and on the 27th Sawyer noted an improvement. Successful tests were again made on the 30th. The wireless men now expected communication with Australia.
Blake and Hamilton were soon making inroads, each on his own particular sphere of work. On the 17th a baseline was laid down on the plateau, and Blake was able to commence his survey of the island. He had already made some geological investigations in the vicinity of North Head and West Point, as well as for a short distance along the east coast. Hamilton had visited nearly all the penguin rookeries in the vicinity, and already had several fine specimens. Marine collecting occupied part of his time and plant life promised to provide an interesting field.
From the intermediate position that Macquarie Island occupies relative to Australasia and the Antarctic continent, it was highly important that its biology should be fully determined. Investigation of the marine and terrestrial fauna and flora shows several facts indicating the part this island has played in the supposed connexion of the great land masses of the southern hemispheres. It is an established fact that the flora of New Zealand has strong subantarctic and South American affinities and the problem is to account for this distribution. Many forms of plant and animal life are circumaustral, being found in all suitable subantarctic situations. To account for this fact two theories have been advanced, namely, the Relict theory (Dahl, Schenck and others) and the Antarctic theory.
The first theory supposes that the inhabitants of the subantarctic islands are the remnants of groups of animals developed in some northern land mass, and driven south by more highly developed forms. Again, that these subantarctic islands have always been separated from continents, and that the distribution of life on the former must have proceeded over wide stretches of sea.
The Antarctic theory accounts for the distribution and similarity of subantarctic fauna and flora by establishing a connexion between the subantarctic islands and the Antarctic continent. At the same period, the Antarctic continent was assumed to be connected by land with South America, South Africa and Australia, and the similar life forms now found in these continents were driven northward by a subsequent colder period. This theory is strengthened by several facts, chief of which are, (1) the existence of an Antarctic continent, and (2) the comparatively shallow waters between it, South Africa, Australia and South America.
Whichever theory is adopted, it is evident that our scientific opportunities were unique.
On the 28th, Sandell, Sawyer and I decided to climb on to the main ridge or plateau of the island. We had already discovered that the easiest way to get on to the hills was to follow up one of the many ravines or gullies which run down to the sea. This necessitates walking in water most of the way, but one soon gets accustomed to wet feet on Macquarie Island.
The slopes rise in a series of terraces which are generally soggy and covered with tussock (pleurophyllum) and with scattered cushions of Azorella. The summit of the ridge is a barren waste, over which loose rocks are scattered in every direction, while a wavy effect due to the action of wind is plainly visible over the surface of the ground. The steep, descending sides are very soft and sodden, supporting a scanty growth of vegetation, including the small burr known as the ‘biddy–bid’.
Hundreds of tarns and lakes are visible along the plateau–like ridge which extends throughout the length of the island. Several of the lakes are half a mile long and very deep. The tarns are, for the most part, shallow with hard stony bottoms. The water is beautifully fresh and apparently contains no life.
Skua gulls were plentiful and washed themselves, with a great flapping of wings, in the shallow waters at the edge of the lakes. They paid particular attention to our dog Mac, swooping down and attempting to strike her with their wings. A yelp at intervals came from Mac if they were successful, though the former, if she were quick enough, would spring at the bird and retaliate by getting a mouthful of feathers.
We eventually came out on to a point about seven hundred feet high, overlooking the west coast, and it could be seen that the space between the base of the hills and the ocean was occupied by a plain which sloped very gradually to the beach. Here and there across its surface were huge mounds of earth and rock and, occasionally, a small lakelet fringed with a dense growth of tussock and Maori cabbage.
A descent was made to explore the place. A fairly large volume of water flowed rapidly downward by several deep gullies and, coming to the terrace, cut narrow, sinuous channels which were soon lost to view in the tussocks. Examination of the watercourses revealed that this tract was simply a raised beach covered with sodden peat and carrying a rather coarse vegetation. The ground was decidedly springy and shook to our tread; moreover, one sank down over the ankles at each step. Occasionally a more insecure area was encountered, where one of us would go down to the thighs in the boggy ground.
As the shore approached we came to thick tussock and Maori cabbage, and the travelling became much rougher. A group of earthy mounds and rock was sighted some distance away and we decided to reach them and have our lunch. A nearer view showed us a large opening in one of these prominences and we scrambled up to examine it.
Inside there was a small cave, high in front but sloping sharply towards the back for a distance of thirty–five feet. The roof and walls were blackened by smoke, and spikes and nails driven into crevices were evidences that the place had once been occupied. Eagle Cave it is called and its story was afterwards related to us.
Between thirty and forty years ago the schooner Eagle, in attempting to make the island, had been caught in a gale and wrecked on the rock–bound western coast. As far as can be learned, there were nine men and a woman on board, all of whom were saved. They lived in this cave for almost two years, subsisting upon what they could catch. Decayed tussock grass, a foot in depth, now covers the floor, showing that some attempt had been made to improve the comfort of the place, while bones lying strewn about in all directions indicate that gulls, penguins and cormorants must have supplied a good deal of their food. It is presumed that some of them made a journey to North Head periodically to look out for relief, as a well defined track to that point is still visible in places.
The tale, however, has its tragic side, for the woman died on the very day when the rescuing ship called at the island. She was buried on the isthmus, not far from our Shack. One would think that death was rather a relief from such an existence as this unfortunate woman must have endured, but, at the same time, it seems hard that she did not live to participate in the joy of deliverance.
We ate our lunch and had a smoke, after which we decided to walk homewards along ‘Feather Bed’ terrace. A few minutes after leaving the cave, Sawyer and Sandell caught three young ducks, which they carried back, intending to rear them, but they died several days later. A weary tramp brought us, thoroughly tired, to the Shack, where Hamilton had an excellent meal awaiting us.
The weather during January was rather trying. Precipitation in the form of either rain, hail, sleet or snow occurred on twenty–six days, sometimes all forms being experienced on the same day. As a result, the supply of water was well maintained; in fact, the amount caught exceeded the consumption and we finished the month with the tank almost full. Gales were experienced on eight days, the maximum wind force being forty–two miles an hour. The sky was mostly heavily clouded or absolutely overcast and on many days the sun was not seen. Fog hung about the hills almost continuously, and driving mist accompanied the northerly winds.
January 24 was a glorious day, calm and sunny, with a maximum temperature of 51.3°F. The habit of former days induced Sandell and myself to have a dip in the surf, but as the temperature of the water was about 42°F, we stayed in as many seconds. The mean temperature for the month was 44.9°F; the minimum being 35.5°F.
My first view of the island when the Aurora arrived in December 1911 left rather an agreeable impression. The day of our approach was marked by fine calm weather and the dark green tussock–clad hillsides were rather attractive. On the other hand, one was immediately struck with the entire absence of trees, the steep precipices, cliffs and the exceedingly rugged nature of the coastline.
Closer scrutiny shows that the tussock grass radiates closely from a semi–decayed mass of leaf sheaths, with the blades of grass shooting upwards and outwards as high as three or four feet. Scattered through it are patches of Stilbocarpa polaris, locally known as Maori cabbage. It is of a more vivid green than the tussock and is edible, though somewhat stringy and insipid. Our sheep ate it readily, even nibbling the roots after the plant had been cropped down.
There were several Victoria penguin colonies round about the rocky faces of the hills in the vicinity of the Shack, and their hubbub and cackling uproar were something to remember. The rearing of the young appeared to be rather a busy process. The young ones look like bundles of down and seem to grow at a remarkable rate, while the attempt of the parent to shelter the usual two chicks is a very ludicrous thing to watch.
The material for the nest made by these birds seems to depend almost entirely on its immediate surroundings. The rookery is established on a broken rocky face close to the water’s edge and the nests are made under rocks, in niches and passages, as well as amongst the tussock growing on the rocks. Those under the rocks are constructed of small stones and a few blades of grass, while those in the passages and fissures are usually depressions in soft mud. Amongst the tussock a hole is first made in the soft earth and then neatly lined with blades of grass.
The birds lay two or three eggs of a white or greenish–white colour, but I have never seen three chicks hatched. The eggs are edible, and we used many dozens of them during our stay.
The period of incubation is about five weeks, and male and female take turns at sitting. A young one is fed by placing its beak within that of the parent bird where the food – mainly crustaceans – is taken as it regurgitates from the stomach of the latter.
Although the smallest species on the island, the Victoria penguins are the most spiteful, and a scramble through the rookery invites many pecks and much disturbance. They have a black head and back, white breast and yellow crest, the feathers of which spread out laterally. During the moulting season they sit in the rookery or perched on surrounding rocks, living apparently on their fat, which is found to have disappeared when at last they take to the sea. They come and go with remarkable regularity, being first seen about the middle of October, and leaving during the first week of May. The same rookeries are occupied year after year, and the departure of the birds adds to the general desolation during the winter months.
Their destination on leaving the land is still a mystery. Although they are never seen, it is conjectured that they spend the winter at sea. Their natural enemy in the waters round Macquarie Island is the sea leopard, and the stomachs of all specimens of this animal taken by us during the penguin season contained feathers.
The presence of numerous bones just at the rear of the Shack pointed to the fact that here must have been at one time the site of a King penguin rookery. As many of our potatoes and onions were sprouting in the bags, I determined to dig a portion of this area and plant the most progressive of these vegetables. The sandy soil did not appear to contain much nutriment, but I thought that something might be gained by giving it a trial.
On the night of February 2, Sawyer reported that he had heard the Wellington wireless operator calling Suva station, but, as no further signals were heard from anywhere, he was inclined to the idea that it was the experience of a ‘freak night’. In explanation of this term, I may say that it is used in reference to nights on which the atmospheric conditions are abnormally favourable for wireless work.
The news was particularly encouraging, and for the next few days we were on the tip–toe of expectation.
In the early morning of the 5th a howling gale sprang up and, increasing in force as the day wore on, rendered work impossible. A tremendous sea worked up, and the ocean for a distance of a mile from shore was simply a seething boil of foam. Huge waves dashed on shore, running yards beyond the usual marks, and threatening to sweep across the isthmus. Masses of tangled kelp, torn from the outlying rocks, washed backwards and forwards in the surf or were carried high up among the tussocks. The configuration of the shingly beach changed while one looked at it. The tops of the waves could be seen flying over Anchor Rock, seventy feet high, and spray was blowing right across the isthmus.
On the advice of the sealers we had shifted our stores farther back from the beach and it was just as well we did so, as the waves reached to within a few feet of the nearest box. Meanwhile I began to wonder how our benzine and lubricating oil were faring. Both had been stacked in cases among the tussock and rocks, well back from the waters of Aerial Cove on the western side of Wireless Hill.
Accordingly, Hamilton, Sandell and I went round in that direction the following morning, while Sawyer made his way up to the wireless station to see if there were any damages there. We worked along round the cliff front through a cave rejoicing in the name of ‘Catch Me’, from the fact that the waves rushed into it, frequently catching and thoroughly wetting any unfortunate taken off his guard. A massive rock, evidently broken from the roof, lay right across its centre, while on either side of the obstruction were masses of greasy decaying kelp. We were caught and floundered about in the kelp while the water surged around us. Arriving at the Cove, we found that several cases were missing. One was discovered buried in kelp, and a little later we came upon a tin battered almost out of recognition. The loss was not serious, but the precaution was taken to shift the oil still farther back.
While we were engaged on this task, Sawyer appeared on the front of the hill above and signalled to us that the aerial had been blown down. The three inch rope keeping the aerial taut had broken off close to the bridle and torn the halyard with it. It meant that some one would have to climb the mast to pass a rope through the block, and the wind was at this time too strong for anything to be done.
On February 7, Blake and Hamilton, who had been making preparations for several days past, set out for Sandy Bay, intending to do some work in that locality. Their blankets, sleeping bag, instruments and other gear made rather heavy swags, but they shouldered them in true Murrumbidgee style and tramped away.
Sandell, Sawyer and I went up Wireless Hill to fix the aerial. Sandell, the lightest of the three, was being hoisted up the first section of the mast with some one–and–a–half inch rope when the hauling line gave way. Fortunately, he had a strap securing him to the mast, otherwise his fall would have been from twenty feet. This was the only rope we had, so we had to think of some other means of reaching the top. After a short discussion, I suggested that decking spikes should be secured from the wreck of the Clyde and driven into the mast at intervals. The idea was followed with great success, and Sandell was able to run the halyard through the block at the top (ninety feet). The aerial was then hauled into position, the stay wires were tightened, an extra ‘dead man’ was put in and the station was once more ready for work.
Hamilton returned from Sandy Bay on the 11th laden with botanical trophies and four specimens of a small land bird which we had never before seen. He and Blake, who remained behind, had fixed up the hut there so that it afforded decent shelter.
On the night of the 13th what we had long expected happened. Wireless communication was established for the first time, with a ship – SS Ulimaroa. Sandell and Sawyer were complimented on their success.
On the following night communication was held with Sydney, SS Westralia, SS Ulimaroa and HMS Drake; the latter very courteously sending us time signals. We heard that a wireless station had just been established in Melbourne, and that the Hobart station would be working in about one month. It was with the latter station that we expected to do most of our business. There was great joy in the camp now that this stage of practical efficiency was reached and because we were no longer isolated from the world.
Blake came back from Sandy Bay on the 16th with news that he had almost finished the survey of that section. Foggy or misty weather gave him a good deal of trouble in getting sights with the theodolite, and it became part of his future programme to devote the ‘impossible’ days to plotting data, writing up field notes, and making geological collections.
The afternoon of the 17th was fine, and I went along the beach towards West Point and found it very rough travelling. Hundreds of sea elephants, mostly of the season’s young, lay about in the tussock or amongst the rocks. The young, silver–grey in colour, looked very sleek and fat. The adults consorted in groups of from eight to ten, packed closely and fast asleep. They seemed to fairly luxuriate in a soft, swampy place and were packed like sardines in some of the wallows.
Large numbers of skua gulls, creating a dreadful din, drew my attention to a spot amongst the rocks, and, on nearing it, I found them squabbling around the carcase of a xiphoid whale, about sixteen feet long, which had been cast up apparently only a few hours before.
The skuas, as they are commonly called, are large brown birds which resort to the island in great numbers for the purpose of breeding. They stay longer than any other migrant, being absent only three months during the depth of winter. Returning early in August, they do not start nesting until the beginning of October. The nests, nicely made of grass and plant leaves, are generally built on the terraces and slopes amongst the hills. The ideal site, however, is a pleurophyllum flat adjoining a penguin rookery. Two or three eggs of a brown or greenish–brown colour with darker spots or blotches are laid about the end of October, and, from this time till the chicks are reared, the parent exhibits much annoyance at the presence of any person in the vicinity. They utter shrill cries and swoop down continuously in an attempt to strike the invader with their wings. Several of our party received black eyes as a result of attacks by skuas.
The young grow rather quickly, and not much time elapses before they leave the nest to stagger round and hide amongst the vegetation. The parents fly down and disgorge food, which is immediately devoured by the young ones. The skuas are bare–faced robbers and most rapacious, harassing the penguins in particular. They steal the eggs and young of the latter and devour a great number of prions – small birds which live in holes in the ground. The skuas are web footed, but are very rarely seen in the water.
Towards the end of the month, Blake spent two days at Sandy Bay and then returned to work up his results.
Hamilton, in order to get into close touch with another species of penguin, stayed several days at ‘The Nuggets’, two and a half miles down the eastern coast. A creek flows into the sea at this point, and many Royal penguin rookeries are established along its course.
Meanwhile, many improvements had been effected in the interior of the Shack. Shelves lined the walls wherever it was convenient to have them, and many perishable foodstuffs had been brought inside. Comfort, after all, is but a relative matter, and, as far as we were concerned, it was sufficient.
Our clothing was all that could be desired, with the exception, perhaps, of the boots. In the equipment were included one pair of sea boots, one pair of raw hide knee boots and two pairs of rawhide hunting boots. The latter were not heavy enough, and soon showed the effect of travelling from a waterlogged surface to one of rock and vice versa. In fact, our boots were very rarely dry on Macquarie Island.
An event of some moment occurred on the 28th. The fowls, in order to justify our confidence in them and as a return for our constant care, commenced to lay and, strange to say, all began to lay at the same time. Ma, who was greatly concerned during the turn of affairs, suffered from prolonged attacks of cackling.
During the opening days of March, Blake and Hamilton were engaged in field work down the island. They went as far as ‘The Brothers’, a rocky promontory about two miles south of Sandy Bay. Wekas were so plentiful that they lived almost entirely on them. Blake, on returning to the Shack, had a badly blistered heel which kept him indoors for a few days. Hamilton, who had secured a goodly number of specimens, had to attend immediately to their preservation.
There were many rats on the island and we frequently heard them scuttling about on the ceiling of the Shack and slithering down between the lining and the wall. Hitherto they had contented themselves by doing this, but on the night of the 7th several of them flopped one after another into the hut, awakening the inmates. On getting out to investigate I found a hole through the lining, about seven feet from the floor, and two or three were rustling about on the shelves. After much shifting of boxes and searching behind tins, the intruders were killed.
On March 10 our station held communication with Suva at a distance of two thousand four hundred miles; a remarkable performance for a one–and–a–half kilowatt wireless set.
Hamilton and I set out for West Point and Eagle Cave on the 11th with the object of examining the flora of the locality and, incidentally, to shoot ducks which frequent the pools on the ‘Feather Bed’ terrace. The weather was dull and misty and the walk very uncomfortable. We made our way across this treacherous tract, often sinking knee–deep. As we neared the first pool a duck rose and immediately paid the penalty. Although we saw at least two hundred, only one was shot, owing to the fact that there is no cover about and the ducks are too easily scared.
Close to Eagle Cave Hamilton gathered some plant specimens and, after lunching, we set off home. Light, steady rain set in about 3 pm and wet us thoroughly. We travelled back along the coast, finding it fearfully rough but not so tiring as walking on the terrace.
Heavy snow fell during the night of the 11th. Among other things we learnt by wireless that Amundsen had returned to Hobart with the news that he had reached the South Pole.
Blake had just recovered from his blistered heel when he had the misfortune to meet with a slight accident. He and Hamilton were engaged cutting a track through the tussock from the Shack to the beach, when the spade wielded by Hamilton struck Blake’s foot, cutting through the boot and inflicting a wound on the great toe. It was treated antiseptically and bound up; Blake being laid up for a few days.
Cooking was still on the up grade. Everybody, as his turn arrived, embarked on something new. Blake turned out a magnificent meat pudding during his week, and Sawyer manufactured a salmon kedgeree. Sandell’s treacle pudding and Hamilton’s soda rolls and date pudding were all equally good, while I fairly surpassed myself with a roly-poly and some pancakes.
Hitherto, Sawyer and Sandell had been coming down to the Shack each night after finishing the wireless work, but on account of the bad weather they determined to sleep up there and, with that end in view, each built a bunk for himself; Sawyer, in the operating hut, had ample room for the improvement, but Sandell had more difficulty in the engine hut, finding it necessary to add a small structure to the original one.
Good wireless work was now being done, and almost every ship trading to eastern Australian ports gave us a ‘call up’. Much difficulty was experienced with the mast’s stays, which frequently required tightening on account of the ‘dead men’ working loose in the yielding peaty soil. There were seven stays required for each mast, and Sandell spent much time in attending to them.
Hamilton had found, some weeks previously, several nests of the sooty albatross along the cliff front on the eastern side of Wireless Hill, and on the 21st he visited them for the purpose of photographing the young in the nest. They were still in the downy stage, and vomited vigorously on being approached.
These birds build their nests on ledges along the face of a steep cliff and always betray the whereabouts of their nesting place by wheeling and soaring around the vicinity. When sitting, the bird utters piercing calls for its mate and is thereby easily located. They make a nest of grass, generally at the root of a tussock growing on the cliff front, and when the building is in progress the two birds sit side by side entwining their necks, rubbing beaks and at intervals uttering their harsh cries. One can approach and catch them quite easily, either at this time or when sitting. The female lays one large white egg, which has a peculiar and rather disagreeable odour. They have beautiful slaty or bluish-gray plumage with a dark soot-black head, while encircling the eye is a white ring which stands out conspicuously from the dark feathers surrounding it. Like most other sea birds they have the rather revolting habit of vomiting quantities of partly digested food and fluid when an attempt is made to get close to them. In this respect old and young are alike. Their food is procured at sea, and consists of the small forms of marine life.
Sandell and Hamilton went round to Aerial Cove on the 25th to collect shells and to search for the missing lubricating oil. When coming home, after a successful day, they discovered a cave quite close to ‘Catch Me’. A lantern was secured from the Shack and they went back to examine it. It penetrated for a considerable distance and opened out on the hill side about eighty feet above sea level. Many rocks hung down from overhead, and altogether it appeared a very unsafe place. Blake went along later and collected specimens from its floor.
We built a kind of annex to the Shack out of the cases of provisions; each case being numbered and a list being drawn out setting forth the contents of the case. This list was nailed on to the wall inside, and besides being convenient for procuring the provisions, gave the cook, in a coup–d’oeil, exact information and afforded him a glorious scope.
With regard to the coal supply, our allowance at Macquarie Island had been reduced by one–half, on account of the large amount of wreckage lying on the beach. The weekly cook limited himself to three briquettes, and these he supplemented with sea elephant blubber and wood, which he gathered and cut up for use.
Each man commenced his cooking week on Saturday morning, and continued until the following Friday night, when, after having cleared up, washed the towels and cleaned the stove, he retired. The incoming cook, who for half an hour had been prowling about keenly observant of ‘overlooked’ dirty ‘things’ and betraying every sign of impatience to make a start, proceeded at once to set a batch of bread, sufficient for one week, which was baked early on Saturday morning. Five loaves had to be baked, and as only two could be dealt with at a time, the chance of producing at least one doughy loaf was reasonably high until every one became a master baker.
For a time we had been rather hard put to it in the matter of having baths, but the disability had been overcome by means of sawing a cask in two; an expedient which answered very well. The bath was also used as a wash tub, each man taking charge as his cooking week came round. The clothes were dried inside the Shack along a number of strings arranged at the back of the stove. Darning and mending took a little time, and our experiences in this direction were such as to demonstrate the wisdom of putting in ‘a stitch in time’.
In going over to the meteorological screen one morning I saw a giant petrel flapping about in the tussock, gorged to such an extent that it could not rise. I killed the loathsome bird with the rib bone of a sea elephant, and Hamilton made a fine specimen of it later on.
These birds, properly called giant petrels, are usually known as ‘nellies’ or ‘stinkers’; the latter title being thoroughly justified on account of the disagreeable smell which comes from them. As may be inferred from the name, they are the largest of all the petrels, and measure about seven feet from tip to tip when on the wing. The colour ranges through various shades from almost pure white to a dark greyish–brown; some even appearing almost black. Very large and ungainly when on the ground, they become most graceful when in the air, and soar about without the slightest effort even on the stormiest days. I have seen them flying into a forty mile wind with absolute ease, never moving a wing, but occasionally adjusting their balance. They are gross scavengers, and eat apparently for the sake of eating. A carcase on the rocks or beach attracts them in large numbers, and very soon they can be seen pulling and tearing at it until thoroughly gorged, when they waddle away into the water and sit there wholly unable to rise till digestion takes place. If disturbed, they immediately disgorge and fly off. They nest on the ground and lay one large white egg. When sitting, they are reluctant to leave the nest and will squat there, vomiting evil–smelling, partly digested food and fluid at any intruder. The young, even in the downy stage, have the same habit.
When mating they go on with a queer kind of performance, which consists of running around each other on the shore with wings outspread as if displaying their charms, finally flying off or waddling into the water.
The persistently windy weather during March had an effect on everything exposed to its force. Sandell discovered on the 29th that the rope holding the wireless aerial had cut through, leaving only one strand, which now bore all the strain. It was just a matter of days before it would part, and, with a view to preventing a repetition of February’s happening, we went up to lower the aerial, but the frayed portion of the rope would not pass through the block, so we had to leave it as it was and wait for the inevitable.
Exceptionally low tides at the end of the month gave Hamilton a fine opportunity of collecting marine specimens, and he secured amongst many other things some striking anemones. Some difficulty was experienced in preserving them, as they lost colour and shrivelled up. But a special line of treatment was attended by fairly successful results. They were put in shallow dishes into which seawater was poured. Very soon they attached themselves to the bottom and began to expand, finally opening out to the fullest extent. With a view to narcotising them while in this condition, menthol was applied to the water but did not seem to have much effect. Chloral hydrate was found to give the best results. It killed them all, but, before dying, they elongated and detached themselves from the bottom of the dish; after which they were taken out and placed in formalin for preservation.
Blake had very little opportunity of doing much survey work during the month, as he was hampered by a sore foot and the weather was wretched. He therefore spent most of his time plotting data, making geological investigations and collecting and naming specimens.
He and Hamilton had so far confined their attention to the northern half of the island, and had resolved to complete the study of this area before tackling the southern half.
The weather throughout the month was rather severe, and only two days were really appreciated. Precipitation occurred on twenty–five days, but the worst feature was the continuity of strong winds, which however did not reach gale–force on more than three occasions. Much snow and hail fell, the former accompanying winds with a southerly component, while with the northwesters came the depressing mist or misty rain which is such a characteristic of the place. Temperatures, as might have been expected, were beginning to go down, and we experienced several very cold days. The average temperature for March was 41.8°, while the highest was 46.9° and the lowest 35.3°F on the 24th.
At 10 pm on April 1 the rope supporting the aerial parted. Sawyer and Sandell were on duty at the time, but of course suspended operations immediately. As before, the halyard also carried away and Sandell henceforth resolved to shackle one end of the aerial to the mast, using a short length of chain instead of the rope. The wreck of the Clyde was once more our standby, providing a suitable length of chain and four shackles. After completing this job, they had very little subsequent trouble with the aerial.
Hamilton and Sawyer caught several three pound fish on April 2, and Sandell served them in good style. They were good eating, but, unfortunately, were very much worm–infested. These parasitical worms are about an inch and a half long and taper to a point at each end. They penetrate right through the flesh and are plainly noticeable after the fish is cooked. One has to dodge the worms as the meal proceeds: either that or persuade oneself that they do not matter.
The flowing contours of the land in the vicinity of ‘The Nuggets’ suggested glacial action to Blake, and on the 4th, while making geological investigations in that locality, he lit upon a well–defined basal moraine. Needless to say he was very interested in the discovery, and brought home a number of polished, striated boulders as convincing evidence of his theory.
It was rather disappointing to find that the vegetables we had planted were making little progress. They would shoot up at first very strongly, like the ‘seed which fell on stony ground’, but, as soon as a gale arose, the tops turned black and shortly afterwards withered away. It was apparently an effect of the salt spray which, in rough weather, used to blow across the isthmus. Hamilton planted some willows and other cuttings, which shared the same fate.
The winter had now arrived in real earnest, and the months which followed were punctuated by a succession of gales, while we came to recognise that it was an exceptional day when the hills were not shrouded in mist. The only thing to do was to brace oneself up for the ordeal and to put a good foot forward.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.