We all do it don’t we – chase across the country searching for missing relatives, getting the feel of a place which until recently we had never even heard of, soaking up the atmosphere of bygone generations and trying to tune in to the vibes of what would have been their daily lives. I’d done Whitby and Hull, Bourne, Aylsham and Brough, but never anywhere abroad.
For my 60th birthday I dreamed up a special adventure – a one-off certainly, a mad escape maybe, and put it to my long-suffering and patient husband that this is what I wanted to do to celebrate: I wanted to follow Dr. John Stanley Cumpston of Australia to Macquarie Island, a sub Antarctic Island administered by Tasmania, and then sail on to the Ross Sea in Antarctica.
John Stanley and I share a 3 x great grandfather William Cumpston born about 1769 in Hull. John Stanley Cumpston was born on 6th March 1909 in Perth, Australia, to John Howard Lidgett Cumpston and Gladys Maeva Walpole. His father held an important place in Australian medical history, as the first director-general of the Australian Department of Health. The children were exposed at an early age to both research and adventure by parents with a love of learning, who published widely and encouraged travel.
John Stanley became a graduate of the University of Melbourne in Arts and Law and a Doctor of Letters in Political Geography. He was an historian in the Department of External Affairs in Canberra and married Helen Dunbar. They had 2 sons and 2 daughters.
For the last 10 years I have been steadily collecting copies of the books written by John and his illustrious relatives. The book that set me off on this exciting trail though was 'Macquarie Island' – John’s definitive work in the field of Sub-Antarctic history which, to quote the publishers, ‘takes its place as a classic in the Antarctic story.’
In the introduction to his book John described how there was no available useful history of any of the Sub-Antarctic Islands. ‘Standing in splendid isolation in the stormy Southern Ocean these islands form a ring of tiny stepping stones between more temperate lands and the ice-covered slopes of the Antarctic Continent. They offer only a precarious foothold and little shelter to those who seek to tarry there.’ With those two sentences he had fired in me a passionate desire to see them for myself, to understand what had led him to want to write their history, and to feel their splendid isolation.
Published in Canberra in 1968, John’s book describes Macquarie Island, situated some thousand miles south of Tasmania. It was not discovered until 1810, and over the next 100 years the island’s great natural wealth was exploited by both the fur and the oil industries. The ‘Perseverance’ a Sydney sealing vessel discovered it, abounding in fur seals and sea elephants, and despite its bitter weather, it attracted ventures from Australia and New Zealand, at first seeking fur skins, and then valuable sea elephant oil. The oil industry lasted for over a hundred years. In 1890 the killing of penguins for oil began but in 1919 the Tasmanian Government called a halt following representations from a number of scientific organizations.
As a member of the Department since 1935, John had followed developments in the Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic Islands, and assisted the chief cartographer to prepare the first reliable map of the area, published in 1939. As an Intelligence Officer with the Allied Geographical Section, he compiled a number of topographical studies for use in operations planning. John served in the Army during World War II, enlisting at Paddington New South Wales on 17th October 1940 and he was discharged on 25th April 1945, reaching the final rank of Captain in Intelligence Corp L HQ.
In my copy of one of his books 'First Visitors to Bass Strait' (1973) John was shown as living at 42 Araba Street, Aranda, ACT. 2614. The fly leaf states 'since his retirement, as a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University he studied American whaling in Pacific and Australian waters. He is now editing the Roebuck Series devoted to Australian history, particularly local history.' John was obviously ahead of his time as in 1963 he wrote in the Royal Geographical Society about the ‘Probable Disintegration of Antarctica’. He died on 06 August 1986 and is buried in the Canberra Woden Cemetery.
Over the years I discovered that not only did he write about the Antarctic, he also had an Antarctic glacier and massif named after him. Now that was definitely a first in our family history – a fact that so impressed my 7 year old grandson Max that he wrote about it in his homework!
At 73°36′S 66°48′E the massif is a prominent, flat-topped rock outcrop, about 2,070 m high, 14.5 km long and 7-13 km wide, at the junction of the Lambert and Mellor Glaciers in MacRobertson Land. Discovered in November, 1956, from an ANARE aircraft, it was named for John who, with E. P. Bayliss, was responsible for the map of Antarctica published in 1939. Needless to say I bought the map and the book and from Wikipedia found a photograph of the glacier, but it quickly became obvious that I would be unable to visit this remote area as no company included it in their expeditions as it was too difficult to reach.
There are two major gateways to Antarctica, South America or New Zealand and Australia. The majority of visitors use the South American gateway and only a small number travel from New Zealand or Australia. The New Zealand/Australia gateway is often referred to as the ‘Historic Gateway’ because it was from here the great polar explorers like Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen and Mawson departed for Antarctica. It is also the more challenging of the two gateways. Distances are greater and access is limited to just three months of each year when the fast ice breaks out. The greater distances also mean longer expeditions, in the unbelievably rough Southern Ocean.
Only a couple of operators do this expedition and I chose Heritage Expeditions in New Zealand as they did both Macquarie and the Ross Sea on their visit to the Explorers’ Huts of Scott and Shackleton. They take 48 people, twice a year, and the waiting list was three years! Each trip was at sea for 31 days, and we were warned that these were not cruises, they were expeditions, and we should be prepared for harsh environments. We duly updated our wills and planned to leave our affairs in order. Our trip was confirmed for February 8th 2009, and we were to spend January holidaying in New Zealand before we boarded the “Spirit of Enderby” or “Professor Khromov”, as it was registered in Russia.
After a stunning month in New Zealand, we headed to Invercargill and Bluff Point, to find our Russian ship waiting – it looked extremely tiny and very battered. Passengers who had just completed the first trip of the year disembarked looking green with sea sickness, having had 7 days of pounding in the Southern Ocean. No turning back for us though - we were on our way.
As we sailed south of New Zealand we visited two Sub Antarctic Island, The Snares and Enderby, before starting the 2 day haul to Macquarie. Ray and I were fortunate to be members of the special group who didn’t get sea sick – but it was a very tiny group! We faced huge 30 and 40 feet swells, and discovered en route that the stabilizing fins had been damaged on the last journey back from the ice. Subsequently the anchor also broke, leaving us unable to secure the ship at night and with no stabilisers.
The excitement of visiting Macquarie Island was to be the highlight of our month at sea for me. Located at 54°30' S 158°57' E Macquarie Island is a sub Antarctic island in the Southern Ocean, approximately half way between Australia and Antarctica. It is a Tasmanian State Reserve managed by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service. Macquarie is Australia’s prized Sub Antarctic possession, small but impressive and a World Heritage Site. It supports one of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the southern hemisphere. Millions of penguins of four different species – King, Rockhopper, Gentoo and the endemic Royal breed here. Australia operates a research station at the northern end of the island from which a wide range of research is carried out. During 2008 I often logged on to the web cam on Macquarie Island. Although the team of researchers there aim to update the picture every 15 minutes, much of the time the weather conditions can prevent reasonable pictures being taken - the camera lens can be completely covered in water drops due to rain or low cloud or mist. The only activity I witnessed during that year was enormous elephant seals rolling over and thousands of penguins dashing about their business.
Although I had expected to enjoy the island, I had not bargained for the tremendous impact of the wildlife that we were to enjoy. We first took on board the two Tasmanian Park Rangers who were to accompany us on a tour of the station and nearby areas. The ship then headed over to Sandy Bay, where we landed to the high squawks and yells of King Penguins and the Skuas, vying with each other for supremacy. The King Penguin rookery at Sandy Bay is spectacular. A welcoming committee porpoised around our zodiacs as a quarter of a million King Penguins stood at attention on shore. We spent all day just sitting in the sand communing with them, avoiding the sparring Elephant Seals and laughing as the Skuas got beaten around the head by forceful adult King Penguins.
There can be few opportunities in life to just sit and stare, and be fully satiated with all the senses reeling – certainly the sounds of the birds was enchanting, the Elephant Seals growling at each other during their annual moult was hilarious, and the delightful antics of the smaller Royal penguins were both funny and quaint. We thought the Royals had a pretty poor PR, as everyone’s attention was drawn to the gorgeous Kings who wanted to search our ruck sacks, poke around in our pockets and generally ‘be one of the group’.
After a good dinner and an early night we went ashore again the following day, this time to visit the research station, based on the low lying isthmus at the eastern end of the island.