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THE SUBANTARCTIC

Macquarie Island - halfway to the Antarctic

Greetings, Earthlings. Anthropomorphic behaviour abounds amongst the massed penguins of Macquarie Island's vast rookeries, sometimes numbering hundreds of thousands of birds. Stepping ashore at Sandy Bay, an austerely beautiful beach on this rugged, subantarctic island, we become alien invaders, inspected and quizzed by curious creatures which waddle up to greet us when not preoccupied with their own courtship and nesting rituals. Amidst these thousands of webbed feet lie dozens of corpulent elephant seals, strewn about like sacks of wadding, stretching and yawning at intervals as they moult.

Macquarie lies halfway from Australia to the Antarctic continent, the only island on earth that has been formed by rocks forced up from the ocean's floor, and near-new in geological terms. Here at 54 degrees south latitude, a speck in the Southern Ocean, the nearest land lies more than 11,000 kilometres to the east or the west. This is not the dry, icy expanse of the Antarctic continent - officially, it is Tasmanian territory - but it is a remote and inhospitable outpost whose only human habitation is an Australian Antarctic Division research base. Access is usually possible only by joining an expedition cruise, often en route to Antarctic waters.

Islands of the Albatross - New Zealand's far-flung outposts

Equally rich in natural values, these islands also number amongst the world's wildest places yet lack the mystique of their inhospitable Australian neighbour. They deserve much wider understanding.

Enderby Island teems with albatross, assorted penguins, petrels, parakeets, gulls, shags and skuas, and its treeless meadows are ablaze with distinctive flowering plants, particularly the subantarctic megaherbs like Bulbinella, with its striking yellow flowers. These are the world's southernmost plants, evolution pushed to its limits in this punishing environment.

An easy walk on Campbell Island climbs away from Perseverance Harbour, following a wooden boardwalk across hillsides carpeted with tussocks, to reach a high saddle. Many southern royal albatross, snow white, spread across the windswept slopes, hunkered down on their nests to mind an egg whilst their partner is out foraging.

One evening we pass two distant naval frigates travelling in convoy. New Zealand's governor general, a cabinet minister and a gaggle of scientists are bound for Campbell Island to inaugurate a national bicentennial research program.

Not so fast, chaps. Next day, HMNZS Otago breaks down in "a remote subantarctic fiord" yes, that's Perseverance Harbour and the dignitaries must await transfer to the escort frigate. It's twenty seconds of fame for a lonely, austerely-beautiful corner of New Zealand's southernmost islands.

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