A Walk on Antipodes Island

By Alison Ballance

An expedition team is currently on the Antipodes Islands. It includes builders and scientists who will follow up on work done during the last expedition in August. Alison Ballance will be updating the blog from the Antipodes Islands.

Let’s go for a walk. We’re in the hut, which is in the northeast of the island, and we want to go to the Mother of All Penguin Colonies on the southwest coast. Antipodes Island is not a big island – just 2000 hectares – but there are no footpaths or formed tracks, or even marked routes. There are no trees and no forest here, and from a distance the island appears to be a benign sea of tussock and fern – but as we’ve discovered the reality is quite different.

Our journey begins with a simple stroll up the big slip behind the hut – that quickly takes us to about 80 metres above sea level, and introduces us to a key idea: we love slips!

Then we begin to head across the North Plains: the vegetation here is knee-high or shorter, a mixture of ferns, tussocks, a prostrate Coprosma and a few megaherbs. This is albatross country; the vegetation is short enough for wandering albatrosses to walk across, and it’s dotted with albatross nests, each home to a very large 8-month or so old chick, some of which still look very fluffy and others which have almost all their adult feathers.

There are large swamps marked on the North Plains but they are not very boggy, and the Carex vegetation had died back over winter and is only just resprouting, so it’s quite easy travel.

We’re aiming to cross the top of Mount Galloway, which at 366 metres is the highest point on the island. We can see another new slip coming down the flank of Mount Galloway, which we’d like to go up, but between us and the slip is a small gully filled with a dark green band of prickly shield fern or Polystichum.

When we get there the fern, which had looked quite smooth, turns out to be growing on tall pedestals and is head height in places. The pedestals are interspersed by deep channels, and as we try and push through we keep falling into deep holes or find our way blocked by a high barrier which we have to scramble over. The band of fern is not very wide but it takes quite a few minutes to force our way through.

Fortunately there is some more short vegetation on the other side so we make good time to the slip. The slip is still covered in peat at the bottom, but near the top it has eroded to some kind of bedrock and becomes quite steep. We’re doing well, until we hit a slippery band of mud near the top that has us sliding and nearly falling over. We eventually scramble to the side and are faced by tall clumps of Poa tussock that we have to force our way between, until as we get nearer the summit the vegetation becomes more wind-shorn and shorter.

On top of Mount Galloway we fight our way into a howling headwind that is bringing intermittent snow and hail showers: at times we just have to turn our backs and wait until the shower passes. It’s boggy up here but the vegetation is very stunted so it’s easy walking. Brian decides he’d like to do a vegetation plot on the summit and another just off the side – it’s the first time that the 10 by 10 metre square that he’s looking at is briefly covered by snow,  making it a little difficult to see the smaller plants!

Dropping down towards the Central Plateau the vegetation becomes knee high again, but it’s pretty easy to wind back and forth, finding the best way through. A good Antipodes Island lesson is that short cuts are always a bad idea, and that the long way round is usually the best way round.

We pass some big areas of megaherbs, making the most of spring to grow their large leaves, a colony of northern giant petrels, and some more albatross chicks. Three and half hours have passed since we left the hut and we’re almost at the ridge running down from Mount Waterhouse. Just over the other side we discover another steep sided slip, and decide to use it as a short cut down the hill. Which works fine until we hit the quagmire: Brian gets through, but when I try it’s half way to my knees, while poor old Denise sinks in over her knees and can hardly extricate herself. We tell Kathryn and Jo to climb out of the gully and brave the fern to the side instead.

We decide to camp on the slip, where it flattens out at the bottom of the hill. It’s taken us four hours from the hut, but we’ve still got several hours of walking ahead of us to reach the penguin colonies on the south coast. The route includes several gullies full of fern and tall tussock, but there is an old slip covered in white lichen which provides a highway down from the ridge above almost to the sea cliffs.

Then the fun really starts: tall tussock and fern that I’ve called ‘heinous shite.’ It is too tangled and locked together to be able to push through; somehow the tussock strands knit together like knotty long hair, and it’s impossible to either barge through or gently tease apart. One option is to teeter from one tall pedestalled tussock to another; as someone described to me, imagine a whole lot of shaving brushes standing on end. The handles are the pedestals, and the brushes are the living tussocks, and you’re trying to step from one brush to another. Invariably you end up falling off, plummeting into one of the many deep holes. Denise has tried crawling across the top, which can be quite effective for short distances (as long as you’re not carrying a pack) and she has also attempted rolling. She says this was the most fun but you have to be careful not to roll into a hole as it can take several minutes to work out how to get out.

It can take 5 minutes to move just 30 or so metres, and boy are we glad when we get to another slip or to a penguin colony where at least there are penguin tracks through the tussocks, as well as the open areas where the penguins are nesting.

But, despite all the cussing and sore knees, there are some sublime moments along the way that make it all worthwhile. The albatross chicks clacking their bills at us as we pass. The occasional petrel, holed up in a burrow under the peat ,that starts to chatter to us as we pass over its head. And the light-mantled sooty albatrosses, soaring along the sea cliffs. At the end of a long day counting more than 9000 penguin nests we pause at the top of the white slip on our way back to our muddy camp on the slip. A dozen or so sooties are riding the thermals, revelling in the wind and clearly just having a good time. We watch them for a few minutes, wish we had wings off our own, and then carry on our slow Antipodes walk.