Additional audio: Ryan Osland, The Australian
(king penguins, gulls and waves)
We’re about halfway between Tasmania and Antarctica.
Macquarie Island is a plush green mountain range rearing up from an often lumpy ocean in the middle of the Furious Fifties.
I suppose you could describe it as a bit like living in some sort of nature documentary, Attenborough style of event. In that there is just so much life packed in so close.
3.5 million seabirds and 80,000 elephant seals can’t be wrong.
It’s also home to a tiny community of around 14 scientists, tradies and rangers.
It is quite a surreal feeling to see that ship leave the shore. You look around at each other, and there'll be 14 of us, and you think this is us. This is it for the winter.
Visiting just once a year, the icebreaker Aurora Australis is a lifeline for food and supplies.
Refuelling just means life. If you don’t get the fuel there, you can't stay there pretty much. It provides everything, it provides power, the light, the heating, the whole lot, all comes from the fuel.
Resupply - a little word for a massive operation.
G’day, I’m Mark Horstman, from the Australian Antarctic Division. Come behind-the-scenes for our annual resupply of Macquarie Island, or Macca, as it’s fondly known… (helicopter sounds) …one of the world’s most remote places, at its busiest time of the year, and find out what keeps people coming back.
(ship noise, wind and waves)
It usually takes 3 days to get from Hobart to Macca on the Aurora Australis… (Ship noise, wind and waves) …but going full tilt to beat bad weather and huge swells, you can do it in 2. Running the resupply in 2019 - and radiating calm - is voyage leader Anthony Hull ('Hully').
Yes, a given day can be quite challenging. I think promoting a controlled calm exterior is important when you're in these leadership positions because that filters through the rest of the teams that you've got working, so that's a key attribute, I think, in any management team. But in saying that, some moments get quite hectic and you might have helicopters, you might have people on the water, you might have cargo moving on the water, so once again that safety element of everyone is key.
From the ship, Hully works with his counterpart on the island, outgoing station leader Ali Dean. (tussock in wind) For her, resupply is the last major duty before returning home.
I’ve been here for the past year, almost to the day, and I feel really lucky to have spent that time in such a wonderful, wild place.
In fact, Ali has been a winter station leader at most of the Australian Antarctic research stations.
(tussock in wind)
I’ve had an excellent team here this year. So, there was 14 of us over the winter. And, I can’t think of a problem that we had, other than the pipes freezing, at one stage. I love the station leader role because it’s all-encompassing. So, I get an overview of everything that’s going on station. I love that. From cleaning the toilets to our helicopter operations. It’s wide-ranging. When I first went down south, I was a geologist. So, I went in as a scientist. And, I could see how dynamic stations were and just how everything had to come together, to actually make things happen. And, that’s what I love about being the station leader. I make things happen.
(sound of walking with Kat Panjari)
Incoming station leader Kat Panjari is also no stranger to spending a winter on an Antarctic research station, but she is new to Macca.
My first impressions are just how embracing this island is. It instantly felt like home. It almost has a farm-like feel about it. There's tractors rolling by. There's agricultural-type buildings around the island. You can feel the layers of history on the island, and the scale of it; feels like a small village or a small town, and a community feel about it. So even though it's potentially a very hostile environment, in the middle of the Southern Ocean, it's green and it's a lovely place to live. So I instantly felt at home, which is quite different to being on the continental stations, which can be a little bit more hostile and a little bit more difficult to get used to. So that's been a really lovely surprise.
As the resupply swings into action, helicopters carry sling loads from ship to shore. (Chopper sounds) Amphibious vehicles called LARCS rumble up and down the rocky beach, ferrying cage pallets from the Aurora’s cargo hold.
(LARC sounds; walkie talkie in Green Store)
Some of the first cargo to come ashore is food, which has the new chef Kerryn Oates fully occupied.
We're currently in the green store at the moment, unpacking a year's supply of food. We've many hands, doing a chain gang.
Q: What does a year's supply of food look like?
A: A lot. We're probably looking at about maybe 12 cartons of tinned hams, 20 cartons of tinned tomatoes. We also have maybe 60 to 70 cartons of frozen meat. Just masses of amounts of food, because we don't want to run out through the year, so we probably have more than we need, but it'll all get utilised because people also eat more in the cold weather.
Q: When does the next lot of food arrive? How long do you have to plan for?
A: The next lot will arrive in about 12 months' time.
(chain gang sounds)
As the cage pallets are fork-lifted in, they’re unpacked by a small army of willing workers passing boxes hand-to-hand.
We're doing pretty good. The last two days, we've probably received about 80 per cent of our stores for the year. We've still got a little bit to go but yes, many hands make light work.
Q: It's all hands on deck when it comes in, isn't it?
A: It is, and it's fantastic, but that's what this is all about, the team and the community and everybody helping out when they can.
(chain gang sounds)
Lots of toilet paper and toothpaste to keep us going for the winter, so resupply at Macquarie Island is just that little bit more complicated because we are on an island, because we rely on ship to shore transport and because of the prevailing weather conditions, which just add an extra element of logistical manoeuvring.
(LARC driving up beach)
Remember those LARCs? Well, a Macca resupply is unique for using these ‘boats with wheels’, and the small group of people with the skills to drive them, called LARCies. James Doube is one of them.
I don’t know exactly how many resupplies of Macquarie I've been involved with, but it would be something in the 20s, and there’s others in the group with similar sort of numbers of these voyages. So yeah, it is a fairly happy get together of the group, and at least half of us would be the same in any voyage.
Q: What is it about a Macca resupply that makes LARCs essential?
A: The surf would be, in one word. So, Macquarie Island lies really in the middle of the furious 50s as they're termed, and Australia got a little bit short changed when it came to harbours on our islands. If you go well to the west, you get Kerguelen, which has got these magnificent sort of long gorge like fjords in to it. You go across to the other side to the east, and the Kiwis have got islands with magnificent harbours, and Macquarie Island’s stuck here in the middle, as basically a single strip that runs nearly north south, with no useful harbour at all. There’s no nice little super sheltered bay to bring a barge in to. So, we need a vehicle that can carry cargo through surf, and a LARC really is about the only thing that’s out there, that can do that.
Q: How much cargo have you carried this voyage?
A: Oh, it’s an endless source of debate between us and the helicopters, but of course we carried far more than the helicopters.
It ends up being 128 tonnes ashore and 86 tonnes back-loaded…but who’s counting?
(theme music; elephant seal sounds)
James is also trained as a biologist and a medic. What keeps him coming back though, in any role, is the nature.
The oceans around here are tremendously productive, it’s why all the seals and penguins and everything are down here. But they don’t really, well some of them do, but many of them don’t really like sitting on the ice, for the same reason that we don’t like sitting on the ice. That is that it's rather cold and unpleasant. So, everything that wants to be down here for the food, but doesn’t want to sit on the ice, has to pick these very small pieces of land, these last little specks of green, before you get down in to the land of white. They're all packed in together, and so it’s a pretty amazing variety of wildlife.
In addition, from a vegetation point of view, these are the last bits of green, and so things are right on the edge of struggling, to get enough light and keep themselves going through the winter. So it has pretty unique plants as well, and both the plants and the animals, don’t really have much in the way of terrestrial predators. Naturally there’s almost nothing here. So sure, if you lean over the top of a seal and say boo, it will get a fright, but as long as you give things a little bit of space, most things have got other things to worry about other than you, so you’re remarkably tolerated in their environment, which is really nice.
(elephant seal snoring)
That’s the relaxing sound of an elephant seal snoring. Kat Panjari is keen to meet the locals and explore.
(sound of walking with Kat Panjari)
The thing I'm most looking forward to is our ability to go down island and to walk across those peaks and onto that plateau, which I can barely see under some low cloud cover this morning, and to spending time in those field huts and supporting the rangers to protect this amazing nature reserve.
And that’s the thing – Macca is listed as World Heritage and strictly protected as a nature reserve by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service. But more than a century of visiting ships left a legacy of feral pests. Cats, rabbits, mice and rats overran the island and threatened wildlife – until 2014, when Macca became the first island in the world to successfully eradicate four invasive species.
Having seen the island for the past year, and then pictures of what it was in the past, before eradication, you can see the changes are remarkable.
Ali Dean, surrounded by tussock grass rippling in the wind.
I’m not very tall. I can now get swamped by tussock that was bare hillsides just a few years ago. And, I think everyone that comes back to Macquarie can see the benefit of the eradication programme immediately, without the thought of rats in the huts and the station, as well.
Keeping it that way is a remarkable duo of dog handler Sue Robinson from Biosecurity Tasmania, and a lively fox terrier cross called Nui.
Nui is an expert at detecting the faintest whiff of rodents… (Nui snuffling) so he’s very excited to see what my fluffy grey microphone cover has to offer.
Since Macquarie Island became rodent-free, which was around 2012-13, we’ve got to be incredibly strict on our biosecurity, to make sure that rats and mice don’t return to the island. Part of the whole process, of which there’s many stages, we have a trained rodent dog to check the cargo before it leaves, as it’s on the ship, and we check the ship and then we also check the station and then receive all the cargo, to ensure that no rodents come back to the island.
Q: So, resupply is the busiest time of year for you? You've got everything coming through your shed here and Nui’s running his nose over all of it?
A: Yeah, that’s correct.
Q: How many tonnes do you reckon? How many pallets? Are you keeping count in your head?
A: I'm not sure of the tonnage, but it’s around 150 items, like pallets and bundles and different things come in, yeah.
Q: Is there a trick to making Nui think that any pallet could be the next one?
A: Yes that’s right. You can't just have a dog working for no reward, and the way they're trained, it’s all reward-based. An actual rat or mouse is a reward for a rodent dog, they get very excited when they smell that, and maybe even get to chase it. But clearly that’s not going to happen here. So, during the process, every 10 or so pallets, I'll put a little vial of rodent scent, I'll get someone to hide that, and it’ll be hidden in a pallet. Then Nui will come along and he’ll go whoa, I got something, and so he goes in to his response, which is to dig, sometimes to bark. He’s rewarded with a fluffy toy, it’s on a rope, so it’s a tug toy, and it's a fluffy thing, and for him, it’s nearly as good as a rat. So that’s his reward, and he knows that if he finds his target scent, then he gets his favourite toy.
Sue first came to Macca in the 1990s to work on eradicating cats.
The seabirds just came back in droves, and that was one of the most amazing things to see, and essentially inspired me to work in the area of removing pests off islands. I've been involved in several other island projects since then. Part of that work is to ensure that the biosecurity is maintained once we have got rid of pests.
Beyond cargo, there’s another side to resupply.
Welcome to pure science fiction down at Macquarie Island.
Kat Panjari shows me into the warm well-lit fan-forced world of the hydroponics house.
Here we are at the warmest, greenest interior on the island.
Q: Is this your home away from home, do you think? Is it going to be?
A: Oh yeah. In the depths of winter, this is the place to be. It's green, it's warm and it's quiet. You can almost hear things growing. So it's a lovely little refuge to pop in each day and do some gardening.
Q: I'm guessing you're a keen gardener or are you just starting out?
A: No, I do have a bit of a green thumb, so it's lovely to be part of that down here. So let's open up the seedlings today. And the pak chois have grown overnight, which is wonderful. So here we have a tray of seedlings that we're trying to establish during resupply so that we can then plant those out for the winter. So we'll just give them a bit of a water. So we've got the tomatoes growing. We've got some cucumbers, some rocket, two types of lettuce - a cos. We've got some pak choi and then I've just planted some basil, some tiny tomatoes, some spring onions and some sage.
Q: Because your fresh supplies won't last forever, will they? How long before they'll run out?
A: Yeah, look, we'll have fresh fruit and veg - we can make it last for perhaps five or six months if stored correctly and if we're lucky, but then you do miss the crunch of a fresh bit of vegetable, so being able to grow crunchy lettuce or capsicum or spinach or rocket and just get those fresh flavours of the basil and the sage and the juiciness of a tomato. It means everything to the wellbeing of an expeditioner, particularly in the depths of winter when there's not a lot of light around to be able to have things that you've grown to hand over to the chef each day. It gives them something to kind of stimulate their design of the menu as well, so they try to keep it based around the fresh produce that we can provide them.
And the other thing, with the light and the warmth, you know, we have been known to drag in a deck chair and a good book and...
Q: And a potted palm.
A: ...and to sit amongst the foliage and just take a little bit of time out. Yeah, it's a lovely environment to be on station.
Nearby in the surgery, the station’s sole medic Dr Kate Kloza is busy unpacking and repacking.
Unlike a medical facility in Australia where you call the medical technician in and they come in and fix your - or do the service on your x-ray machine or your blood testing machine, we don't have that at all here. We have wonderful tradespeople that can do the basics but not that maintenance, so that has to get swapped out on the once-a-year resupply. We only have the resupply time to get that done so it's a fairly quick and - but important effort.
Q: After all the hurly-burly of a week or more of resupply, what's it like when everything's packed up and the ship's weighing anchor and heading for the horizon?
A: You can feel the whole station take a big sigh of relief. People start to feel, I think, a sense of ownership of the community. We start to bond even more tightly than we already have as we find ways to work and live together, and what our community standards are going to be.
What’s a bit different this time is that Macca is the first research station to have a wintering community of 7 women and 7 men.
I'm super excited about it. This is the first time I've had an even split of gender. Normally - well, I shouldn't say normally. Previously, my winters, I've been in a significant minority, including having done a winter as the only woman. The change in dynamics, I think we're a much more natural community having that even balance. I'm really quite excited to see the differences in how we come together as a community.
Back on the ship, the final act of resupply is nearing its end.
One-and-a-half kilometres of fuel hose is being rolled back up after successfully refilling the station’s giant diesel fuel tanks. Brad Collins has been supervising operations like this one for more than a decade.
This year we waited three days I think for the weather window to turn up, and then we drag the hose from the ship, back to shore, set the hose up on shore, do the connections up, put anchor points in place at different points, north, south, to hold it in the right orientation and stops it drifting about. Connect it up to the ship and then go through the checklist and start the pumps.
Q: So, it’s a real dance, it involves a lot of people doesn’t it?
A: Oh yeah, there’s lots and lots of people involved in refuelling here at Macquarie, or any other station. Off the top of my head, I think it’s about 30 people here, involved in refuelling.
Q: How did you go this year? What was the volume pumped and how much was lost?
A: None was lost, which is really good, and we pumped 100 litres short of 240,000, so it’s 239,900 litres we pumped to shore.
And while we’re on numbers, the 16 day resupply also supported 11 science and construction projects, including the early stages of planning the station rebuild.
(people in the mess hall)
Ironically, as the person in charge of the resupply, Hully was one of the few to not actually land on the island this time.
Yes, it would have been nice to visit station, but that's a busy place during resupply, so the opportunities to do something on station wouldn't have been as I experienced in the past. So, in some ways, I was very happy just to be sitting here and doing the role on the ship.
Q: Is that what keeps you coming back, that satisfaction of making things work?
A: It's a good question, the motivation. I think if I could answer it just sitting round in the mess now and hearing the amount of noise that's there and the happiness and the conversation to me says that all the projects that were here on this voyage have met their objectives. So I think there's a sense of achievement for that to happen because everyone's come and achieved what they wanted to do, so I think that's a real reward.
It's time to go. The Aurora Australis starts to quiver as the engines rise in tempo and the ship pulls away from the island.
(expeditioners talking on deck)
From a hilltop, we see orange smoke drifting from some old flares, as the winterers remaining on Macca bid us a traditional flare-well.
(reactions to flares)
It’s a bitter-sweet moment for Ali Dean and her team as they stand on the ship’s deck gazing back at their home for the last year.
Q: It’s at the end of a hectic resupply, is it a quiet sense of mission accomplished, or woo hoo?
A: It's a bit of woohoo and a bit of relief there too, because it's a very tense time, resupply. Just getting it all done and getting it all done safely.
Q: What is it about the small communities in the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic that keeps you coming back?
A: It is the can-do. It is the sort of just - the surprise at what a small group can accomplish if they put their minds to it. Just a huge skillset that you have.
Q: Will you be back, do you think?
A: Who knows? I never think about whether I'll be back but I always leave something to do when I - I never try and do everything in one trip. I think you've just got to enjoy what you do and think, "Maybe I'll be back." I'd love to. It's a fantastic place.