An abandoned weather station on Campbell Island.
An abandoned weather station on Campbell Island. Jim Eagles

Campbell Island: Lords of the skies

I WAS aware, as I panted up the steep narrow boardwalk to the top of Col Peak on Campbell Island, that this lonely cluster of rocks in the sub-Antarctic was albatross central, breeding ground for six species of the great ocean wanderer.

From time to time through the thick mist I could even see southern royal albatross sitting on their eggs amid the clumps of tussock and spectacular megaherbs.

But what I didn't know was that the island also gave humans the chance to fly like an albatross. As we approached the end of the boardwalk, built by the Department of Conservation to minimise the impact of visitors, the already powerful wind got even stronger, with gusts of over 100kph, sending several walkers in our small group staggering.

At the top, apparently on a cliff edge offering spectacular views of Northwest Bay, but today shrouded in impenetrable white mist, it reached a peak of fury. As we tried to pose for a photo one particularly vicious gust knocked the whole bunch of us off the boardwalk. The guides from the expedition ship Orion, which had brought us here, reckoned the wind must be at least 130kph.

No sooner had they said that than it actually got stronger. Even though I was laden down with camera gear and layers of clothing and bent double to present less of a target, I could scarcely retain my footing as I staggered off to a more sheltered area.

Several others were blown through the air. Most, including my wife, landed safely on the soft peaty terrain. But one woman was tossed so far she broke her glasses, hurt her ankles and cut her hand.

On second thought I suppose that wasn't really flying like an albatross, those most efficient aviators who soar effortlessly on their incredible wing spans, but more like flying like a brick. But at least it was a taste of flight.

It was also a taste of just how tough conditions can get on the sub-Antarctic islands - in this case 660km south of Bluff making it the southernmost piece of New Zealand territory - where gusts of above 96kph occur one day in three, there's an average of less than two hours sunshine a day and rain falls on 325 days a year.

But despite that, Campbell Island is rich in life. Somewhat to my surprise the plant life is luxuriant - fortunately for those who made crash landings - and birds are everywhere.

During our walk across the top of the island the mist was too thick to see anything, but mingled with the howling of the wind and snatches of song from the Orion's Irish captain, Mike Taylor, was a surprising amount of birdsong.

I think conditions were so bad that even the albatross weren't flying but later in the day, when the mist lifted and the wind eased slightly, the Orion took us out to the island's North Cape where thousands of albatross have their nests on the spectacular clifftops.

The most numerous are the Campbell Island albatross, with an estimated population of 70,000, which breed nowhere else. But there are also a few thousand southern royal, and small numbers of antipodean, light-mantled sooty, black-browed and grey-headed albatross.

Most people have probably seen the occasional albatross gliding above the ocean, but here were thousands upon thousands of them, soaring above our ship, diving down and skimming the surface of the waves, then rising effortless up again without doing anything as plebeian as flap their wings.

Often they came so close we could stare directly into their haughty yellow eyes and almost touch their wings, close enough to appreciate just how magnificent, and how enormous, they really are.

Just saying that the royal has a wingspan of 3.5m doesn't sound much. But it's about the same as Richie McCaw standing on Dan Carter's shoulders. Those wings are monstrous.

Of course lots of other birds also live on Campbell Island under the shadow of the albatross.

In the course of a Zodiac cruise around the wonderfully sheltered waters of Perseverance Harbour we saw an amazing array of wildlife.

There were several nesting pairs of those most elegant birds, Antarctic terns, one couple having a noisy feud with a visiting white-fronted tern.

We spied a small brown New Zealand pipit pecking away at the masses of small mussels on the rocks and a couple more in the bushes on the shoreline as well as a tomtit, a chaffinch, a redpoll and a silvereye. We even spotted a rare Campbell Island shag with its distinctive red and yellow face markings. And we got highly excited about seeing two lots of nesting black-backed gulls, each with a pair of fluffy chicks.

There were lots of those incredibly ugly giant petrels, some of them having a wash in the sea, and we managed to spot a lone chick, if anything even uglier than its parents, sitting in a nest in the scrub.

The chick is probably the reason we found ourselves being strafed by a particularly aggressive giant petrel which zoomed just overhead at least half-a-dozen times getting lower with each run until I started to fear for my beanie.

But the biggest cluster of petrels was round the carcass of a seal lying on the shore of a small rocky cove.

These are big birds and they all had their great dark wings spread to make themselves look bigger as they battled for space round this tasty meals. A few southern skua managed to sneak in for a snack but it was the petrels that dominated. It was like watching vultures gathered round a zebra carcass on the African veldt.

The reason the birdlife is so prolific is that farming ended here in 1931 and the island has been free of rats since 2001 as a result of the world's biggest eradication programme.

That has not only allowed the likes of the albatross to flourish, it has also made possible the survival of incredibly rare birds like the Campbell Island flightless brown teal, once thought to be extinct, and the Campbell Island sub-Antarctic snipe, only discovered in 1997.

With the aid of our naturalist guide Andy Marshall we scoured the shoreline hoping to spot one of these rarities but, unsurprisingly, didn't succeed.

But what we did find was something even rarer: the 106-year-old Norwegian spruce recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the loneliest tree in the world.

It sits at the head of a pleasant bay known as Camp Cove, amid the groundcover and windblown shrubs which otherwise comprise the island vegetation, and at the time of our visit was being guarded by a Hookers sea lion.

The tree was apparently planted at the behest of Governor-General Lord Ranfurly, who had called at Campbell Island in the course of a tour of the outposts of the Empire, and lamented the fact that it wasn't covered with useful trees.

Somehow the sapling survived, though it has notably failed to reproduce, so there it stands, the loneliest tree on the planet, famous but all alone.

This is a lonely place for humans, too, the island's meteorological station having closed in 1995. The only people who use the little cluster of huts at the head of Perserverance Harbour these days are occasional groups of researchers. It is the mighty albatross who rules down here.

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