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At Home in the Antarctic

Deep in the Southern Ocean, windswept and craggy, lie the Sub Antarctic Islands. A grouping of tiny outcrops doing little to stop the howling gales and tempestuous seas which characterise this part of the globe, the islands are one of the least visited and most under-rated destinations in the world.

Inaccessible and isolated, the islands are a haven for plant, bird and wildlife. Away from the prying eye of man, myriad seabirds call these islands home, as do a variety of sea mammals and spectacular alpine plants.

The Sub Antarctic Islands comprise six islands or island groupings. They are in order of size Auckland, Macquarie, Campbell, Antipodes, Snares and Bounty islands. Macquarie is an Australian territory, while the remainder fall under New Zealand¹s jurisdiction.

Arriving at these jewels in the southern ocean crown takes perseverance. While the ocean can at times be as flat as a lake, in typical southern ocean fashion it can whip itself into a frenzy at will, making for a bumpy ride, even in a well stabilised vessel.

The journey is, however, well worth the time and effort. Entering the harbour at Campbell Island is an almost mystical experience, with translucent clouds filtering soft sunlight onto the high tops, and welcoming parties of seabirds and hooker¹s sea lions on hand.

The few small huts, remnants of earlier meteorological and conservation habitation on the island, sit in the shadows near the water¹s edge, underneath towering, rock-topped summits which rise hundreds of metres.

It is on this first Sub Antarctic landing that visitors experience their first taste of the islands¹ history. It is a rich tapestry, stemming from their early discovery by sealing gangs in the early 1800s. Exploited by these early visitors, the islands wreaked their revenge on subsequent generations, becoming the site of many wrecks during the sailing ship era.

Ships laden with wool, gold and other produce from Australia often headed south to catch the strong westerly winds which pushed them onwards to Cape Horn. Tragically, the isolated Sub Antarctic Islands often reared unexpectedly from the foggy horizon, often too late for the ships to avoid. The western reaches of the islands proved treacherous obstacles for such ships, which were soon dashed to pieces on the jagged rocks.

While many perished, the islands were also a safe haven to the few who managed to survive. They made their home on the islands while awaiting eventual rescue, and their trials and tribulations are well documented at Invercargill¹s Southland Museum, which devotes a significant area to the Sub Antarctic Islands.

The British keen to illustrate their dominance over the southern ocean established a sailing colony at Port Ross on the Auckland Islands. Hopeful immigrants travelled direct from England to the island, but their settlement was short-lived. Lack of whales, poor soils and bad weather proved simply to much, even for the hardy souls who made the difficult journey, and in two years the site was abandoned.

Settlement on Campbell Island, however, was far more successful. Sheep were farmed on the island for a number of years, until rising costs forced them to leave, and the island was abandoned in the 1930s.

Dotted around the islands are some of the most fascinating remnants of New Zealand¹s World War Two history. Tiny huts, tucked into bush-covered nooks, were once the preserve of the Coastwatchers, intrepid young men who spent their days monitoring the island harbours for signs of enemy craft.

Left alone on the islands with little to do but watch, these feisty few were expected to raise the alarm should warships or submarines take the southern route on the way to invade their homeland. Little has changed at these sites today. The bush has regrown, and some huts have fallen into disrepair, but the bravery and resolve of these men still lingers.

While early settlement proved difficult, the islands were quickly recognised as areas of environmental importance. Great Australian explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson, called for Macquarie Island to be set aside as a nature reserve, which brought to an end the killing of elephant seals and penguins. Mawson described Macquarie as ³one of the wonder spots of the world².

The legacy of this period of exploitation has been the modification of the habitats by some of the introduced animals. These are slowly being removed, and the islands returned to their natural state. All the Sub Antarctic Islands have been granted World Heritage status in recognition of their unique natural history, and they form a vital role in Southern Ocean ecology.

A gentle tramp across Campbell Island, or a circumnavigation by foot of the miniscule yet environmentally perfect Enderby Island (part of the Auckland Islands group) is an eye-opener for the uninitiated. For wilderness buffs and birdwatchers alike, it is manna from heaven.

As the only nesting ground for thousands of miles, the islands are a haven for seabirds, with millions arriving each summer along with sea mammals such as the hooker sea lion to breed.

It is estimated that Snares Island, one of the smallest, is home to more seabirds than the entire British Isles. Albatross, petrels, prions, shearwaters and penguins are among the species which breed on the islands. Many of these species are endemic, and cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. Without doubt, these islands provide the world¹s best marine wildlife and wilderness expedition.

The limited number of visitors allowed on the islands each year the New Zealand Government allows only 500 they are seen by only an exclusive few each year.

Christchurch-based Heritage Expeditions has been offering expeditions to these remote islands for 11 years, and has developed an international reputation for providing minimum impact tours with highly experienced, qualified guides.

Managing director Rodney Russ, a fierce advocate and protector of the islands, spent several years living and working in the islands with the New Zealand Wildlife Service. His vast store of knowledge about the terrain, plants and wildlife is seemingly inexhaustible. Rodney¹s team of guides share his passion for the islands, and they are more than happy to share their knowledge during a series of on-board lectures or conversations over a cup of coffee.

Travellers wishing to experience this remarkable, breathtaking and unique part of the world can take advantage of Heritage Expeditions¹ Sub Antarctic Special, offered on the Beyond the Roaring Forties Voyage which departs December 8 and returns December 22. Anyone booking this expedition before October 8 will receive a NZ$1000 credit towards airfares and pre-cruise accommodation. Prices start from NZ$8919pp plus landing taxes. For more information, visit the Heritage Expeditions website, [1] or call their office on 0800 262 8873 (within New Zealand) or 1800 143 585 (Australia).

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