Journey to the Auckland Islands
“One hand for the ship, one hand for yourself… or two hands for the ship. That’s even better,” the voice boomed through the walls.
God, is that you? I thought, and then remembered I’m an atheist.
I guess I’ll put my faith in the ship instead, which used to be a Russian research vessel, crashing through Antarctic ice and circling Arctic islands for years. On the scale of things, this 12-day trip down to the Subantarctics would be simple, easy, uneventful, right?
The view through my porthole switched between the turbulent ocean of the roaring forties to the grey, endless sky. Any unsecured items were now rolling around on the floor. I had never considered that filling up my water bottle or taking a shower would be such vomit-inducing tasks.
“How are you feeling?” asked a sympathetic fellow voyager, for the umpteenth time.
“I’ll tell you what, there is no way in hell I am getting in one of those fucking life boats. If this ship starts sinking, I will stay here and I will die and I’m fine with that.”
The Auckland Islands are an uninhabited New Zealand Subantarctic group. Once upon a time, some sorry souls tried to settle here. Hardwicke would be the British Empire’s shortest lived colony, only lasting a little over two years. But, despite the residents requesting evacuation over a century and a half ago, visitors have been making their way back ever since.
On the morning of Christmas day last year, we arrived at Enderby Island, a tiny island on the northern edge of the archipelago. Solid ground beneath my feet was the perfect remedy for the nausea I’d felt since we’d left New Zealand two days earlier. Well, solid ground and the sea lions.
We’d landed at Sandy bay, one of the main hangouts for the endangered New Zealand sea lion. There were literally hundreds of these majestic sand blorps spread out over the beach, displaying all the components necessary for a successful soap opera—heartbreak, abuse, birth, death, sex, gossip and flings.
Juvenile males were scattered around the outside of the sea lion city, hoping for the chance to sneak past the dominant bulls. The tiny, wrinkled pups were huddled together, clumsily getting out of the way when two males clashed (sometimes not quite fast enough). The beachmasters were constantly on edge, waiting to defend their small patch of sand. There were females giving birth and others attempting to flee the harem and those that charged the strange two-legged intruders.
It was these sea lions that attracted the first Europeans to the Auckland Islands, back in the early 1800s when sealing was still a lucrative business. Once the sealers had moved on, whalers took their place as they pursued the Southern rights across the Southern hemisphere, but both industries were short-lived.
We scrambled up to a windswept plateau and spotted the glowing white heads of nesting albatross sticking out from the vegetation. Then came the encounter with an ungainly giant petrel chick. It’s pale yellow bill was comically large and its shiny black feathers were covered in patches of grey fluffy down. But, although it appeared harmless, this bird-shaped wizard actually had a secret superpower, one I had no intention of witnessing.
“Please, don’t vomit on me,” I begged as I gave its nest a wide berth and stumbled onwards, happily sacrificing my dignity, lunch and roommate in the process. We managed to escape being blasted into oblivion by projectile troll vomit and continued around the coast. There were yellow eyed penguins making their way back from the ocean, curious Auckland Island shags that were just as interested in us as we were in them, and swooping falcons, determined to protect their nest.
But there were also more confronting encounters—a sea lion graveyard, with bones and skulls that crunched beneath our feet, and an abandoned nest with a circle of white feathers. Nature dominates these islands, both in its wander and brutality.
The next day, we visited the remains of Hardwicke. The forest had claimed back most of the settlement, leaving me to wonder what it could have been like, with houses lining the shoreline instead of trees, and people instead of sea lions. In those moments, I felt strangely grateful for the ruthless journey—it had kept these islands almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. Unlike so many other places, they’d been left to the mercy of nature rather than people.
We did have a run in with one of the permanent residents. A juvenile sea lion wasn’t overly impressed by all the humans that had suddenly appeared on his private beach. He booped my backpack with surprising force. Twice.
“Thank you,” I whispered, vowing to never clean it.
Our relationship with these places has completely changed. At first, we came here to conquer and tame the landscape, but now, we’re drawn here because of our absence, because of the failed settlement and failed industries, because here, we can only ever be visitors.
It was a quick stop at the Auckland Islands, but that’s how it should be. We soon boarded the ship bound for Macquarie Island. Amidst the rolling 10m swells I lay horizontally… this time for 40 hours. Talk about mad cabin fever.
Photos by the author