Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 23, 1890
This text is also available in PDF
(4 MB) Opens in new window
– 491 –

I. The Snares.

The steamer got away from the Bluff in the evening of the 8th January, 1890, sailing for the Snares. It matters very little which route is taken to these islands, which lie sixty-four miles south of Stewart Island, as the distance is almost exactly the same whether the vessel goes down the east or the west coast of that island. We chose the west coast, as it is clearer of rocks and islands, and the wind favoured that route. It turned out a slight mistake, as the wind veered a little, but the only result was a little more knocking about than we cared for. We arrived in the morning in a sheltered cove on the east side of the largest island, and found good anchorage in deep water. Long before we came to anchor we could smell the birds, which we soon saw crowding the rocks near

– 492 –

the water's edge, and as we left the ship in boats the braying noise of the crested penguins became incessant.

The sea was smooth, and as we pulled the boats in towards the shore we noticed that the water was of a deep ocean-blue right up to the rocks. The north and east sides of the islands are comparatively low, and the south and west sides high and steep, but even where we anchored there are several tolerably high cliffs, and in them are seen numerous deep caves. One only of them is known to have a convenient entrance, and into this Captain Fairchild steered his boat, the other boat following. The boats went 40 yards into the dark cave, which was high and broad, and continued deeper still, but the further part was very low. There was easy turning-room for boats, and the height was more than we could see with the available light.

I could not help thinking that the attraction which a cave has for most people is but a survival of our troglodytic ancestral habit—a notion which is confirmed by the liking of the more conservative sex for darkened rooms, and of children for “building houses” in dark recesses.

As we came out, flocks of sea-birds flew and swam around us, and we headed up a great herd of nellies (Ossifraga gigantea, giant petrel or breakbones), and chased them awhile. One of them, instead of being nearly black, was a pure-white albino—a case which, though rare, is not unique—and efforts were made by Mr. H. Travers, who was collecting birds, to secure this, but without success. Gulls, prions, petrels, and other sea-birds flew in great numbers about the shore, making the scene a very lively one.

At a steep rocky place clear of all growth the boat was pulled up to the shore, so that the schoolboys, of whom we had six among the passengers, might enjoy a little penguin-hunting. The penguins in the water hopped out of the way of the boat in the most graceful style. They spring from the water, turn with a curve in the air, and plunge in again in exactly the manner in which we see porpoises jumping alongside steamers on the coast. The similitude is exact; indeed, at a certain season I have seen in Cook Strait baby-porpoises, no bigger than penguins, jumping exactly like them, and in the Sounds I have mistaken penguins for young porpoises.

The boys were anxious to begin the business of the voyage by catching a supply of penguins. These showed no undue fear, but naturally tried to avoid capture. They rushed in hundreds up the steep rocky face on which they had established their rookery in front of the line of boys who clambered after them, and when a boy outflanked a penguin the boy generally got very red in the face as he seized the penguin by

– 493 –

the leg, and the penguin returned the seizure with interest. All sorts of ways of picking up penguins were tried with very limited success. Somehow the birds insisted on stretching their pliable necks and seizing the nearest part of the boy with their beaks. In the long-run the army of penguins, with many dignified protests, retreated in comparatively good order into the scrub at the top of the ladder-like rocky slope; but by manfully sticking to their point the boys had averaged about a penguin each, the prizes being carefully detached from the nether garments of the captors and slung into a coal-basket at the bottom of the boat. Had any boy individually turned his attention for a moment from his penguin he would have seen that the place to seize the bird was the neck, which had power to turn so many ways. The simplicity with which the captain seized his birds as by a handle and slung them like turnips into the coal-basket was a lesson, once learned, never forgotten

After this excitement we entered a small and wonderfully snug boat-harbour, so sheltered that even craft of larger size, yachts, and cutters could anchor and brave all weathers there. Here we found a good landing in a clear space close to two old sealers' huts. Immediately on landing the tracks of seals were found. Two fur-seals live here constantly, and are almost personally known to Captain Fairchild.

The tracks are broad and well-defined, and they run up a low hill covered with heavy tussock-grass, and curve and course in various directions about the base of the hill.

A few minutes later the boys who accompanied us disturbed a seal some way up the hill, and down it came to the sea. This was the only fur-seal we saw throughout the cruise. It sat on its haunches, looking at the strange visitors, and seemed inclined to take alarm. The captain went up to the animal and rubbed its neck with a long slender manuka stick, which seemed first to astonish, then to please it, for in a minute or two it moved its head backwards and forwards as if it really liked it. Finally, as it was in the way, it was told to go to sea, and moved thereto more pointedly by the shouts of the bystanders; in another instant the ungainly creature shot across the little bay a foot under water as gracefully and rapidly as a fish, so totally different is the style of its performance as a merman from that as a land animal.

From this bay we commenced a tour of the island, this one being the largest of the Snares, the group containing in all four or five islands of small size. This country is covered with somewhat open timber, excepting a margin along the cliffs. This margin is densely clothed with two kinds of grass, which are never mixed. The grass forms high tussocks, and it is a matter of choice whether you walk on top of these or

– 494 –

between them: if you choose the top you cannot always maintain your choice; if you choose the other route you have to drag your legs in the most wearisome way. The timber is mainly Olearia lyallii (a larger form than Olearia colensoi), a beautiful shrub or tree, here rising to the dignity of a minor forest-tree, with large, round, glossy leaves with flannelly backs, and bearing bunches of large but inconspicuous rayless flower-heads. When this grows a certain height it falls down with the weight of the leaves and the pressure of the wind, and takes root where it touches ground; then it grows upwards again; and after a while it falls again, tearing its oldest roots up and rooting itself a third time: thus the trunk is almost gifted with a power of locomotion. It grows three times as thick as a man's body. This tree is known in Stewart Island as the mutton-bird tree; and we soon found the reason, for the whole of the ground on the island is honeycombed with mutton-bird holes. The traveller constantly breaks the surface and drops into these tunnels, but the depth is not great. At every turn crested penguins (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus), single and in pairs and small flocks, are met in the bush and in the grass. They are literally everywhere, and their harsh note never ceases. The whole of the upper soil of the island is guano, matted with the fibrous roots of the Olearia, the dead wood of which adds a little to the soil. Besides the bray of the penguins, whenever you stop you hear the gentle mewing of the mutton-birds (Puffinus tristis) underground—young birds, I presume. It was the nesting season, but few eggs were obtained, as there was no time to dig. We saw very few of these birds on land, whence I concluded that the old birds were abroad feeding and would return at night.

We found a few interesting plants. Senecio mülleri, a handsome shrub, otherwise rare, is plentiful here; a Ligus-ticum is found on the cliffs, and near it the pretty forget-me-not (Myosotis capitata), while the sweet-scented Veronica elliptica, of the variety called odora by the earlier botanists, borders the shore at every point. On the whole, the plants are not a striking feature of this group so far as variety goes.

Perhaps the most striking plant on the island is Aralia lyallii, or an allied species, which here grows to an immense size, and seems to do equally well under the trees or in the open, the rich guano soil evidently suiting it. Its leaves are sometimes 28in. in diameter, possibly even more. They stand 4ft. high, on stout rhizomes, and form, with the whitish-green masses of flowers and waxy seeds which rise in huge bunches from the centre of the plant, a very attractive object. The plant seemed to me to differ in habit from that seen at Stewart