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.
I wrote the following article which was published in July 2009 in the Guild of One Name Studies Journal. This is the unabridged version with more photographs.
Double click on the photos below to enlarge them.
Our guides once more walked us around their patch, sharing lots of information and insights into daily life in a company of just 13 people all winter, rising to the high of 45 in mid-summer.
Not all the staff there are scientific researchers. One of our guides was the station carpenter, who told us that he’d applied for the position when he was tired of submitting estimates for building work in Australia. He was so excited by life at the station that he was hoping one day to repeat the exercise in the Antarctic itself!
Three million Royal Penguins breed on Macquarie Island, and other wildlife includes Fur Seals, four species of nesting albatross – Wandering, Black Browed, Grey Headed and Light-mantled Sooty as well as many other species of birds. At the end of a splendid morning we were taken back to the mess for hot scones and coffee, and for me a delightful surprise awaited – the latest hut for researchers to live in had been completed and named after J S Cumpston!
What a great surprise! It left me with very special memories for the rest of the trip. All the researchers knew of his work and books, and were amazed that one of his relatives should follow him to Macquarie.
After two splendid days we headed south to the ice. The sea was rough and dangerous and many of us became bumped and bruised as we tried to move around the ship. Increasingly the outer doors were locked to prevent disaster. Distressingly, on day 5, in awful stormy seas, one of our group was thrown in her cabin, hit her head, and died almost immediately. This put an understandable dampener on the rest of us, and we ensured that thereafter we were extra careful – even showering or dressing were at the extremes of our abilities in some of the rough seas.
When we finally reached the Antarctic seas, things became calmer, and there was huge excitement as we saw the first icebergs. Crawling over my 1939 Cumpston map I followed our progress round Cape Adair, into McMurdo Sound and through the Ross Sea to the 400 mile long Ross Ice Shelf. We sailed for 2 whole days under the smoking peak of Mr. Erebus. The ice was breathtaking, and our trips to the huts most memorable. Deep in history and preserved in time, they were a poignant reminder of those astounding expeditions. As some of the fortunate few who have ever visited the huts we felt very conscious of just how far we were from help had it been needed, and how desolate and challenging the weather was.
In each hut we signed the visitors’ book. I usually sign such books with my name and email address and the short ‘Seeking CUMPSTONs everywhere’ tagline. For our visit to the Antarctic I signed instead ‘Following Dr J. S. Cumpston’. On our return journey we managed to land at Cape Adair and visited Borchgrevink’s Hut for the Southern Cross Expedition (1898-1900), the oldest hut in the Antarctic. After signing the book, I had to laugh at my husband Ray who wrote ‘Following Glenys!’
We experienced minus 20 degrees plus wind-chill at the height of summer, and wearing 5 layers of clothing were relatively snug and warm. Compared with the lives of those original explorers we were pampered.
This was my ‘trip of a lifetime’ and it was not for the faint hearted. We were all bumped and bruised, and on the journey to and from the Antarctic got little sleep. We all felt vulnerable and at the mercy of the sea, and for many of us it was the first time in our lives that we had no control over the situation we were in. Our admiration for our Russian captain grew every day as we sailed through those majestic icebergs.
Was it worth it? Undoubtedly, yes! Having read all John’s books, I could have imagined the places about which he wrote, but could never have felt the connection I now have. Just as CUMPSTONs are ‘mine’, so now is Macquarie Island. As my grandsons grow older I shall want to pass on to them the love for this incredibly challenging area, excite them with the stories of what we saw, and of the people who discovered these amazing places.
I now know just why John Stanley Cumpston wrote so prolifically about the Antarctic…..it got under my skin and my genes responded!
This article gives another perspective of our trip
by Greg Roberts, an Australian reporter.