CALL OF THE WILD

Voy­age from New Zealand to the Subantarc­tic Is­lands on board Po­nant’s L’Aus­tral

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“Après nous, les pen­guins.” It’s a throw­away line from Aus­tralian au­thor Thomas Ke­neally, jok­ing about our an­tipodean neigh­bour­hood. And it’s true — the folks on the next block are pen­guins.

It’s also a fit­ting thought as our good French ship L’Aus­tral leaves Dunedin’s Otago Har­bour, head­ing se­ri­ously south to­wards the Subantarc­tic Is­lands. A few days later, we’re bounc­ing around in her Zo­diac ten­ders, cruis­ing the wild coast of the Snares Is­lands.

The day is wreathed in mist and blessed by an air tem­per­a­ture of nine de­grees Cel­sius.

This amounts to a bril­liant ‘best day ever’ in the Snares, ac­cord­ing to our guide. Scan­ning the is­lands’ basalt crags and Mac­bethean fog, I muse aloud, “It must be re­ally beau­ti­ful here in mid­sum­mer.” The bird-watch­ing woman be­side me turns and briskly ed­its my ob­ser­va­tion: “This is mid-sum­mer.”

Back on board L’Aus­tral, and with cham­pagne flutes held high, we plunge deeper into ‘the Subs’. These re­mote South­ern Ocean groups in­clude the Snares, Auck­land, Camp­bell and Bounty is­lands — all New Zealand ter­ri­to­ries — along with Aus­tralia’s Mac­quarie Is­land. Col­lec­tively, they are re­mark­able havens for mil­lions of birds and sea mam­mals.

With World Her­itage list­ing, many of the is­land groups are so pris­tine that land­ing on them is pro­hib­ited, but from our rov­ing Zo­di­acs we wit­ness closeup their gothic coast­lines and teem­ing rook­eries. Driv­ing each boat is an ex­pert nat­u­ral­ist who knows ev­ery sub­species of pen­guin (rock­hop­per, king, royal, gen­too or yel­low-eyed), pin­niped (fur seal, sea lion and ele­phant seal) and pe­trel (storm, grey-backed and div­ing).

Ex­pe­di­tion in style

Lux­u­ri­ous L’Aus­tral, of the bou­tique Po­nant line, goes in style, with two ex­cel­lent restau­rants (and cui­sine and wines to match), bar, gym, the­atre, li­brary and spa. Throw in, too, a Rus­sian so­prano and Ukrainian pi­anist, plus a quiver of long-legged cabaret dancers. But should you need a casino and shopping mall, this prob­a­bly isn’t the cruise for you. Our cab­ins, most with bal­conies, are se­duc­tively per­fect for laz­ing in be­tween ex­cur­sions, din­ing, en­ter­tain­ment and brief­ings.

With some 160 English-speak­ing pas­sen­gers (pre­dom­i­nantly Aus­tralian) and 30 French-speak­ers on this cruise, as well as a multi­na­tional crew, all an­nounce­ments are bilin­gual. When­ever whales ap­pear, Cap­tain David Mar­i­on­neau alerts us that he is slow­ing the ship, al­low­ing us to rush to the rails to take pho­tos. Dur­ing lunch one day, a pod of or­cas ap­pears, keep­ing pace with the ship as we watch them through the restau­rant’s wa­ter-level pic­ture win­dows.

We’re now well into the ‘al­ba­tross lat­i­tudes’, the Fu­ri­ous Fifties, where the is­lands con­sti­tute an as­ton­ish­ing aquar­ium. The sea­son is (as I’ve been re­minded) mid-sum­mer so there’s no snow or ice, but the is­lands’ joys must still be earned. Our Zo­diac for­ays hap­pen un­der skies that can range from sunny to sullen, and quickly back again. The vistas are for­bid­ding and thrilling, of­ten si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Beach land­ings see us splash ashore where sea lions loll with their harems, or to hike amid red­flow­ered rata tree forests and fields of cu­ri­ous mega­herbs.

Reach­ing Mac­quarie, the largest is­land on our 16-day itin­er­ary, we strike it lucky. Zo­di­acs of­ten have dif­fi­culty beach­ing through “Macca’s” swell, but for two days we eas­ily make it ashore for ex­cur­sions among the scores of ele­phant seals that, ig­nor­ing us, lounge along the shore and dunes like in­do­lent teens.

“This lit­tle is­land is one of the won­der spots of the world,” said ex­plorer Sir Dou­glas Maw­son of the 34-kilo­me­tre­long Mac­quarie Is­land, which is of­fi­cially part of Tas­ma­nia. We drop into the Aus­tralian sci­en­tific base where the re­searchers wel­come us with Tim Tams, news up­dates and hot tea. Later, at Lusi­ta­nia Bay we see from the Zo­di­acs some 240,000 pairs of king pen­guins packed along a broad beach like a pen­guin glacier. They stand al­most mo­tion­less, shoul­der-to-shoul­der, look­ing out to sea for hours.

Eden re­trieved

Ar­riv­ing at the An­tipodes Is­lands, we might rea­son­ably claim to have reached the ends of the earth. These out­liers were named be­cause they are at the planet’s op­po­site ‘pole’ to Lon­don. They loom from the South­ern Ocean, some 900 kilo­me­tres south of New Zealand, with rocky flanks that were once floridly de­scribed as “cliffs of ver­ti­cal hor­ror”.

How­ever, the pin­nipeds, shags, ducks, terns, pri­ons and al­ba­trosses that thrive here and in the Subs’ other tiny ar­chi­pel­a­gos might see their world quite dif­fer­ently. There are al­most no hu­mans, and with the re­moval of the preda­tory cats, rats and pigs in­tro­duced by early mariners, these is­land Edens have now

been re­turned, al­most in­tact, to the crea­tures that evolved here.

It’s time for L’Aus­tral to head north again. As our last Zo­diac pushes off, there won’t be an­other hu­man foot­print on this beach for many months. Après

nous, les pen­guins, in­deed.

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0401 King pen­guins on Mac­quarie Is­land 02 L’Aus­tral an­chors in Camp­bell Is­land’s Per­se­ver­ance Har­bour 03 Pen­guins are one of the birds that call the Subantarc­tic Is­lands home 04 Vo­cal New Zealand sea lions on En­derby Is­land, nick­named the Two Tenors © John Borth­wick 05 Rock-hop­per pen­guins © Mick Fogg 06 Trekking on Camp­bell Is­land © John Borth­wick. Images 01–03 © Olivier Blaud. Images 01–03 & 05 cour­tesy Po­nant

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