Little wonder subantarctic islands uninhabited

01:15, Mar 02 2014

Steve Knowles knows what it's like to call New Zealand's subantarctic islands home and struggles to fathom how early settlers managed to survive there.

The HMNZS Wellington arrived at the Campbell Islands overnight with Conservation Minister Nick Smith, philanthropists Gareth and Sam Morgan and Conservation Department and Metservice staff on board.

The scientific expedition was earlier forced to seek shelter at Stewart Island after sailing through a storm dubbed "hell on earth" during an initial attempt to reach the islands.

While the sub-Antarctic islands are now recognised as UN world heritage sites and are nature reserves, they have a history of attempted but ultimately unsuccessful settlement, both by Maori and Europeans.

Knowles, a Metservice Networks Operations Manager, spent a year on the Campbell Islands as a 22-year-old meteorologist in 1990, and said the early settlers would have faced enormous challenges.

"It's no picnic down there, temperatures quite often get down to the low single figures, you can get snow any day of the year, the days when there's no wind is pretty seldom so wind chill is always a factor and just being able to get out of that and stay comfortable must've been a quite a struggle for those guys."


While he and his four colleagues had hot water, central heating and solid buildings to call home, the early settlers were forced to live in sod huts, he said.

Those promised a new start would have found living on the islands dismal.

"It's a constant struggle with morale, morale can be a big issue in a place like that, and it's really a matter of keeping yourself occupied, having an interest and keeping positive about things... Those guys would've done it pretty hard back in the early days," he said.

"And it's not a matter of going down to the hardware shop to get supplies, you've basically got to make it from scratch if you don't have it there or come up with another solution. It's tough times."

People also struggled with the isolation and boredom, he said, with new arrivals and any form of connection with the outside world deeply treasured.

"Just us having an air force aircraft fly over and chuck a newspaper out the window, I spent two hours searching through the bush one day searching for the newspaper because, one it was something to do, but also it was the news, something different."

Knowles said he took an active interest in the history while on the island and on his days off he worked with an historian following old fence lines built by the farmers and searching for a grave site which had been swallowed by scrub but which was not found till after he left.

The islands have a long history of human settlement though it was all ultimately unsuccessful.

Polynesian explorers are thought to have populated Enderby Island, part of the Auckland Islands, in the 13th or 14th centuries - around the time mainland New Zealand was first settled.

Sealing gangs were also dropped on the islands, beginning in the early 19th century, decimating the seal populations by about 1812.

Some were forgotten and forced to spend months fending for themselves before being rescued.

Maori and Moriori from the Chatham Islands arrived at Enderby Island in 1842 and were still there in 1849 when European settlers arrived.

Those settlers were led by Charles Enderby who claimed the island could be a major whaling and agricultural settlement.

Enderby and his followers established a settlement at Hardwicke which included homes, a church, government buildings - even having its own currency - though the settlers were miserable.

The settlement was a failure in spite of Enderby's lofty promises, with settlers struggling to eke out a living in the scrub and swampy lands.

The lack of sun made efforts at growing crops difficult while the whaling efforts were also a failure due to the whale populations having been hammered already.

According to the Teara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, William Mackworth, the commissioner for the settlement, recorded their troubles.

"On 17 July 1852 he noted that 'everyone in this place has been longing to leave from the time of his arrival and endeavouring by every opportunity to do so".

When he left he wrote his satisfaction was "beyond description".

The settlement was closed down in 1852 with the Maori and Moriori leaving four years later.

This marked the end of organised settlement though castaways, scientists and Coastwatchers during WWII were later to make the islands home.

There were several further futile attempts at farming.

The Metservice station is also no longer manned.

Fairfax Media