No place for humans

By Marina Skinner  

A wind from Antarctica drives snow sideways at our faces. We keep our heads low and  concentrate on gripping the ropes strung along the rubber Zodiac’s edges

Good riddance to rats 

In 2001, the Department of Conservation launched an operation to rid Campbell Island of Norway rats,
which – along with other introduced pests – had wiped out all native land birds and most smaller seabirds on the main island. At the time, it was the
most ambitious rat-eradication project carried out in the world.
During one month that winter, helicopters spread 120 tonnes of Brodifacoum-laced cereal bait
over the island. After thorough checks in 2005, the island was declared rat-free. The island’s plants and animals are gradually recovering from the ravages of 200 years of
rats, cats, sheep, goats and cattle. The flightless Campbell Island teal – once the world’s rarest duck – was rediscovered on nearby rat-free Dent
Island in the mid-1970s. It has been returned to the
main Campbell Island and is doing well, along with
pipits and snipes, which also previously survived on
offshore islands without rats.

The little boat bounces across the choppy waters of Perseverance Harbour from our expedition ship into more sheltered Garden Cove, where a New Zealand sea lion
welcomes us to his gravelly beach.

A southerly change on Campbell Island – even in early summer – allows us to see the vivid colours of the flowering 
megaherbs in sharp contrast with a snowy backdrop.

We crunch through snow on the climb up 569-metre Mt Honey, the island’s highest point, until we are beaten back by the terrifying wind. The albatrosses huddle low in their nests scattered across the tussock.

A day earlier, Campbell Island showed us its sunny side when we landed at a small wharf, once used by the Met Service base at the end of the deep Perseverance Harbour. Most ship passengers climbed the boardwalk through dracophyllum and megaherbs to Col Lyall, an exposed ridge on the western edge of the island. Here, southern royal albatrosses glide in the air currents above and nest among the tussock – a nature photographer’s nirvana.

The rest of us headed west, following expedition leader Nathan Russ on a day-long circuit across the island to Northwest Bay and back. The route was not always obvious to us but no problem for Nathan, who virtually had Campbell Island as his childhood playground while travelling with his father, Heritage Expeditions founder Rodney Russ.

After a gentle climb to the blustery cliffs overlooking Northwest Bay and Dent Island, four kilometres away, we stopped to sit among the sunshine-yellow Bulbinella rossii and a few early-flowering lilac Anisotome latifolia, a heavyweight member of the carrot family.

The island’s spectacular megaherbs and other plants are still recovering from the cattle and sheep that once grazed there. High cliffs along this coast are the sea-eroded edge of an ancient volcano, and albatrosses and petrels somehow find crannies for nests in the sheer rock walls.

In the tussock above the limestone cliffs we passed close by nesting brown skuas – usually aggressive scavengers but displaying a softer side with their chicks. The skyline to the south is dominated by Mordor-like peaks, with magnificent rock clusters
threatening to tumble from their bizarre resting places.

We bush-bashed down a gully to a rocky beach, surprising a solitary and shy yellow-eyed penguin. Campbell Island is the main breeding ground for this species, one of the world’s rarest. After waiting respectfully for the penguin to move away, we got a few paces along the tiny beach before coming face to face with New
Zealand sea lions.

An older bull was content to let us pass along the shore but a mischievous teenage male saw the chance for some sparring. Nathan stood guard as the rest of us squeezed between the cliff boulders and a mouthful of teeth and fishy breath.

Following a trail past pipits and through 3-4 metre tall dracophyllum forest, we emerged at North West Hut, an old DOC refuge, and ate lunch in the sheltered pockets between tussock and fern clumps. On the gentle slope behind the hut, we sidestepped a number of lone sea lions, some of which had lumbered up to a kilometre from the coast.

Along the open hill face, tussocks, ferns and clumps of sphagnum moss and lichens drape the rocks. The new blooms of the purple-pink Pleurophyllum speciosum daisy and vivid blue Hebe benthamii were too precious to crush with our boots, though we took slightly less care with the prolific yellow Bulbinella rossii.

Six species of albatross breed on the island, with magnificent southern royal albatrosses the easiest to spot. Campbell Island is their main breeding ground, and we visited at the right time to see many birds sitting on nests among the tussock. We stopped for 40 minutes to observe a smooching couple obviously delighted to see each other. It seemed almost an invasion of privacy to photograph and video their courtship but they ignored us and our cameras.

Down the long arm of Perseverance Harbour, we could see our ship at anchor – a comforting sight after a day in a weather-battered landscape. A curious and very friendly sea lion greeted us at Camp Cove and watched us until our Zodiac arrived.

At the cove is a Sitka spruce, planted a century ago by Governor Ranfurly – the only true tree among the island’s shrubs that lie low to beat the wind. It’s dubbed the world’s loneliest tree, and it’s a reminder that interlopers, like us, really have no place in this far southern outpost.

Sealers, whalers, naturalists and farmers, World War II coastwatchers and meteorologists have all tried to make a home on Campbell Island. In the end, the brutal climate and isolation defeated them all. It’s no place for humans but for the plants and animals adapted to life here, it’s a perfect home. I hope they can fully reclaim their rightful place.

Marina Skinner travelled to Campbell Island thanks to
Heritage Expeditions.