Antarctica: The Sub-Antarctic Islands of Australia and New Zealand

After a lifetime of travel I have finally worked out that there are several stages in an area's exposure to visitors. First come the explorers, and close on their heels are the backpackers. Next you get the rich and idle. Finally, the guide book writers descend. Afterwards you can expect the hotel builders and the mass tourists.

Today I received a copy of the new Lonely Planet guide to Antarctica. Have they no shame? Is the land of Scott, Mawson and Shackleton so firmly on the tourist track that it warrants a guide book?

The answer is clearly "yes". The first documented footstep on the Antarctic continent was 101 years ago and the first tourists arrived with Lars-Eric Lindblad in 1966. Now it's estimated that about 10,000 visitors a year come to the snowy south. It's still not a cheap destination however - in the sequence detailed above, the backpackers never came but rather that niche was occupied by subsidised scientists.

Most visitors to Antarctica come by ship from the bottom of South America. The lucky few sail south from Australia or New Zealand down into the Ross Sea. While the ice and wildlife of the continent enthral, many return to tell of the wonders of the sub-Antarctic islands: South Georgia and South Shetland near South America, New Zealand's Campbell and Auckland Islands and Australia's own Macquarie Island.

The articles that appear about Antarctica in magazines and newspapers invariably mention that there's no vegetation down there. To keep it simple, the green islands nearby are overlooked. In fact, these tiny havens of abundant life are highlights of any Antarctic cruise. So, to redress the balance, this photo-essay explores the glory of Australia's nearest southern neighbours. Macquarie Island is the southernmost point of Australia (slightly further south than the rarely-visited Heard Island off Perth). Douglas Mawson declared that it was "one of the wonder spots of the world" and used it as a relay station for the first radio transmission from Antarctica to Australia. It's halfway between here and there, a steep tiny island with a research station at its northern tip. Macca is home to four million penguins, a crowded tenement with inquisitive king penguins on the volcanic black sand beach of Sandy Bay and tufted royal penguins in the penthouses above. There's also a colony of gentoo penguins and rockhopper penguins inhabit a headland. This is the only place in the world where royal penguins breed. Stand still anywhere on Macca and you are likely to be surrounded by some type of penguin curious to know what you're doing. There's no permanent snow or ice here - but there's a near permanent strong westerly wind and it rain over 300 days a year. Despite that, it's one of the most loved places on the planet - a glimpse into a world where animals have no fear of man.

That's a bit surprising really. Macquarie Island was first sighted in 1810 but by 1830 all the seals had been killed and rendered for their fat. By 1870 even penguin numbers were running low as each held about 500 ml of oil. These days it's all administered by Tasmania's National parks division. Only 300 tourists can land here each year, there's a $100 landing fee and permission must be obtained in advance. Boardwalks have been constructed to minimise damage to the environment.

New Zealand charges $200 per person for those who wish to visit its subantarctic islands. There are five island groups but most visitors see only Enderby Island in the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island itself.

Enderby Island is home to a population of yellow-eyed penguins, perhaps the shyest - and certainly the rarest - of all 17 species of penguins. Landing at Sandy Bay, one sees the hut set up as a shelter for shipwrecked mariners in 1880. More conspicuous is the twisted dwarf forest of rata trees with its dense tortured limbs and bright red flowers. Further up the hill one finds the world's largest breeding colony of wandering albatross. Seen from the back of a ship an albatross appears not much bigger than a seagull. On the other hand, meeting one in tussock grass you realise they are somewhere between the size of a pelican and a sheep. Having one fly past is rather like being buzzed by a light plane. Campbell Island has been occupied since 1810 but the scientific station on Perseverance Harbour finally closed last year, replaced by automatic instruments. In most cases, the station and dock were just waypoints on the five km boardwalk up the Col-Lyall Saddle where royal albatross can be observed nesting all over the grassy hillside during summer.

As we left here, I knew this was going to be the last time I stood among albatross. The last nesting albatross I saw seemed to be picking at a dead, broken egg. As I sat watching her, I realised that the egg wasn't dead - the chick was just emerging and the mother was carefully lifting pieces of shell from it. I waited as the chick emerged and sought sanctuary and warmth under the mother. It was a very special moment.

On the other hand, throughout the subantarctic region one is likely to encounter southern elephant seals lazing on the beaches. The largest of all seals, a male can be five metres long and weigh up to 3.5 tonnes. Pups quadruple their weight in their first 22 days before they are weaned. Weight doesn't suit them: they are bad tempered and edgy and passing a group of elephant seals sounds like a symphony of bad plumbing, with smells to match. As we left the beach at Macquarie Island, a young elephant seal was trying to suckle from the pointed rear pontoon of our Zodiac.

As interest in the southern regions grows more charter vessels are sailing down through the Roaring Forties to these little explored islands. They are welcome resting points when sailing down to the Antarctic continent, too. Like everyone else who has seen them my advice must be: if you get the chance to visit any of them, do so.

For a new "Journeys to Polar Regions" brochure contact Greg Mortimer at Aurora Expeditions on (02) 9252-1033, fax (02) 9252 1373. He has trips to several subantarctic islands. Quark Expeditions operated more interesting voyages to polar regions than any other travel company. Its Australian representative is Adventure Associates, tel. (02) 9389-7466.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd