Caswell Sound

By Frank Barlow ZL2NB

Frank Barlow ZL2NB
Frank Barlow

Part 1: Sunday 9 January to 12 February

The 1949 New Zealand-American Expedition in Fiordland lasted for five months, from January to May.

The Expedition, for which temporary radio station Caswell Sound Radio ZLKC provided the communications, came about through the initiative of Colonel John K Howard, the American wartime Lend-Lease Administrator in New Zealand. He was interested in the Fiordland wapiti herd which had been presented to the New Zealand government by President Theodore Roosevelt on behalf of the United States government in 1905.

These animals, originally 18 in number, and now the only wild herd in the Southern Hemisphere, had been released in the George Sound area of Fiordland. The wapiti were totally protected until 1934, when their numbers had increased sufficiently to allow hunting by anyone issued with a permit to take a rifle into the Park. Colonel Howard, a Board Governor of the Harvard University School of Comparative Zoology, was anxious to promote a scheme for the study of wapiti in New Zealand and America: both herds existing in different habitats. He was able to obtain the services of Dr Olaus J Murie, Director of the American Wilderness Society, who had made an extensive study of the animals in America, and who came to New Zealand under a Fulbright research grant.

A reconnaissance trip into the main wapiti breeding ground in 1947 recommended that a full scale expedition be organised, involving all the government departments with an interest in the area. The Fiordland interior between George and Caswell Sound is isolated, uninhabited, and inhospitable, and the departments welcomed the opportunity to find out more about this part of the country.

A field party of ten men under “Buster” McKane from the New Zealand Forest Service was formed to set up camps, pack supplies, cut tracks and generally organise for the scientific parties. To this group was added a radio operator from Awarua Radio (myself) and a medical Sergeant, Max Farrell, from the Army Base at Fort Dorset in Wellington.

The MV Alert – ZMRS, a 72-foot, 42-ton ex-Fairmile harbour defence launch owned and skippered by Captain Alex Black of Dunedin, was chartered to run fortnightly supply trips into Caswell Sound, and later into George Sound. The initial sailing was from Bluff, but thereafter from Milford Sound, which was 60 sea miles (six hours sailing) from Milford Sound. Supplies were brought through the Homer Tunnel, and down the rough road to Milford on a 4-wheel-drive ex-army truck, to be loaded on to the Alert at the wharf.

I joined the expedition on Sunday, 9 January at Invercargill and travelled with other members to Te Anau in a Forest Service station-wagon. After breakfast there, we continued on to Milford Sound to join the launch Alert, which had sailed from Bluff two days earlier. The Alert, which had already unloaded stores at Caswell Sound, sailed at 2pm, reaching Caswell Sound at 8.30 pm. A cup of tea, a meal of crayfish, and into the sleeping bags in a US Marine tent. These two-man tents came in two sections: one section carried by each man, and when joined together at the top made a very serviceable pup tent. Stretchers and mattresses made for a comfortable night.

Monday morning saw one of the ZC1 sets uncrated and set up on the beach, with the end-fed half-wave aerial on 4280 kHz over the nearest convenient tree branch. Wire from the remote control cable reels was used, and although it was “springy” to handle, it made good, strong insulated aerials in bush country. Contact was made initially with Milford Sound Radio ZMV, and later with Awarua Radio ZLB, with schedules being arranged for 9am and 4.30 pm.

Supplies unloaded on Caswell Sound Beach, with MV Alert at anchor
Supplies unloaded on Caswell Sound Beach, with MV Alert at anchor

The working party was kept busy unpacking the mountain of stores on the beach and placing them in storage tents. Later they cut a track up the mile-long stretch of the Stillwater River bank to Lake Marchant and erected store tents there. Two 12-foot plywood pram dinghies were dismantled into sections at Caswell Beach, packed up to Lake Marchant and re-assembled there. These dinghies, fitted with small “Seagull” outboard motors, were used to transport supplies up the five miles of the Stillwater River to the yet-to-be-built base camp.

There was only one way to get supplies up to the staging point at Lake Marchant, and that was to carry it up on your back. For this purpose, “Trapper Nelson” packs were used. These packs had a strong wooden frame, and a detachable canvas bag, which when removed allowed a load to be strapped onto the frame.

The ZC1 set strapped on quite well, but the car batteries were awkward and being heavy and low down drove into your back when you stumbled. When the Base Camp was completed the “Delco” petrol generator was carried up, but I managed to avoid carrying this 80lb deadweight, and a big strong Forest Service packer obliged. Petrol was carried up in Army “Jerry-cans” and these strapped on to the pack frames quite well.

Erecting a radio aerial on the beach was a real problem. Heavy bush came right down to the water’s edge, and to get some clearance the set was moved as far as possible down the beach. This was alright until the tide started coming in, but the schedules were short, so you were not at the set for long.

Operating the ZC1 transceiver on Caswell Sound Beach
Operating the ZC1 Mk-2 transceiver on Caswell Sound Beach

The radio station was operated at Caswell Beach for four weeks, until the Base Camp was built. This tent town was established to accommodate 35 people, had a laboratory, cookhouse, radio and storage tents and electric lighting generated by a 12V lighting plant. For sleeping accommodation, two 12×8 standard canvas tents were erected with the openings facing each other, and covered the full length with tent flies to give a porch entrance and a waterproof tent.

When the Base Camp was near completion the Alert arrived bringing more men, supplies, another ZC1 set and three type-48 radio sets plus batteries. The Medical Sergeant, Max Farrell, also arrived and, being a keen ham, had brought with him an FS6 set and battery. On the way down he had used the ship’s radio gear to make a few “Marine Mobile” contacts on the 80 metre band.

The radio station was unique in that it was a temporary radio-telegraph office only, and did not have any other function. All the members of the Expedition were from government departments, so the cost of telegrams was debited to the department concerned. The departments involved were:

  • Department of Scientific and Industrial Research
  • Department of Internal Affairs
  • Dominion Museum
  • Canterbury Museum
  • New Zealand Forest Service
  • Marine Department
  • Lands and Survey Department
  • Prime Minister’s Office (Photographer)
  • Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corp
  • New Zealand Post Office

All the mail, in and out, was handled by the Alert. A few letters were received from philatelists enclosing stamped envelopes for franking, and these had to be returned with an explanation that there were no postal facilities, and regrettably there was no provision for date-stamping.

MV Alert in Bluff, loaded with supplies for the Fiordland Expedition
MV Alert in Bluff, loaded with supplies for the Fiordland Expedition

Early in February I moved up to the Base Camp and settled in there. The radio tent had a bench in it and with the sets on there it was a more comfortable and workable set up. Erecting aerials here was also a problem, and although there were plenty of trees around, there were no clear areas. A temporary aerial was run up a tree and this worked satisfactorily. The following day, with the assistance of the Forest Service and a dinghy, an aerial was strung across the river. This took time and effort but eventually it was secure.

The relays in the ZC1s were now causing trouble by dropping dots and sticking, so some time had to be spent on them, cleaning and adjusting the contacts. A broadcast receiver and battery came up from the depot on the beach, but it had been bumped about a bit and was not working. Investigation showed that the trimming condensers were out of alignment, and it burst into life once they were adjusted, with reception surprisingly good. The Delco generator was set up in a storage tent, securely bolted to a tree stump, with cabling run out to each tent to provide lighting.

The Base Camp was now established and the tents were being occupied. The cookhouse and mess tent was a long affair with a chimney made of split tree slabs in the side. Firewood was a problem as there was no dry wood, and fallen beech trees had to be split into lengths. They burned quite well as long as they were laid horizontally across the fireplace, which was a big one, designed to hold about six dixies in a row.

One innovative idea was a drying tent with a small stove at one end, with a long chimney running through the tent and out the other end. Around the chimney was built a wooden frame of light branches for wet clothes to hang on and dry. Another ingenious idea was the provision of lightweight US Army mountain stoves for each occupied tent. These were set up in the porch area between the two tents, with the chimney running through a fireproof flashing in the tent fly. The idea was good, but the lack of dry wood meant that they did not throw out much heat, and after the novelty effect wore off, they were little used. The Base Camp was on flat sandy ground about 15ft above the river level, thus necessitating the digging out of a ramp for bringing up supplies.

Small advance working camps were set up in different localities and most of these were equipped with Type 48 radio sets. These sets were not a good choice for the work they were required to do. The allotted frequency of 7580 kHz was too high for the close range distance in heavy bush, and with grid modulation instead of plate, there were losing out on audio power. Fortunately, some of the members had knowledge of Morse, and this was very helpful. A form of “yes/no” Morse replies had to be resorted to at times.

They were an awkward set to carry on top of a fully laden pack, as the deer shooters who generally seemed to be lumbered with these sets, found out. The batteries, which were torch type connected in series to make up the required voltage, were carried in a separate Bakelite case, which was a cumbersome load in itself. I carried one of these 48 sets up to Leslie Clearing, on a deer shooter’s idea of a track, and found it difficult.

The battery case, which was on top of my own pack, came up and hit me behind the head when jumping over a small creek. However, they had a very good Morse key, superior to the ZC1, and the set produced a pure crystal note on CW. The valves had “Loctal” bases, and although these seemed fragile the majority hung together for the five months of the expedition. The 48 sets were used at the various out-stations in the area working back to the Base Camp, and were given a number for identification such as ZLKC1, ZLKC2, etc.

The headquarters of Caswell Sound Radio ZLKC was a compact structure.
The headquarters of Caswell Sound Radio ZLKC was a compact structure.

February was a very wet month. It had been raining for 12 days on end, when on Saturday 12 February near-disaster struck in the form of a flood. The night time peace was shattered at 1.30 am with the whole camp being roused with the disturbing information that the river was rising and could come over the banks. It was pitch dark and raining heavily – just the night to be floundering around outside!

Everyone dressed quickly and packed their gear in readiness for moving. I started getting the radio set ready and put a crystal in for the emergency frequency (5965 kHz), on which Awarua Radio kept a continuous loudspeaker watch. ZLB answered our call at 3.15 am and were advised that the river was about to flood the camp, and that we would be moving to higher ground. We agreed to contact again at 7am.

Max Farrell and I started shifting the sets to safety by putting a rope over a low branch and hauling them part way up the tree trunk. The batteries were shifted out of the tent, and connected to a ZC1 which was suspended. Water was now running through the camp site but fortunately there was little force in it. The water rose to the Delco generator base, so we removed it with difficulty and placed it and other electrical equipment higher up a tree. We had cut steps with an axe up a tree trunk — others were doing the same — so we climbed up to our perches and waited for the dawn. It was wet and uncomfortable, not really cold, and above all, safe.

It took a long time for the dawn to break that morning, but when it got lighter the situation did not seem too bad. The water was no longer rising and the rain was easing. At 7am I climbed down and worked ZLB standing knee deep in water with the batteries underneath the surface. With the set hanging down, the Morse key was level with my head, and the rain running down was shorting the contacts. However, ZLB could follow the spluttering signal and got the message that we were all safe, and would contact them again at 9am.

The water receded slowly and in a few hours the camp site was clear, allowing a fire to be lit and a quick hot meal prepared. After that everyone worked steadily to clean up the mess and get things back to normal. I was grateful that Bob Miller and his survey party had secured my belongings which I had put in a pack and tied to a tent pole, but not quite above the water line.

Stillwater River
Stillwater River

The four men at Caswell Sound beach camp came up during the morning. They had seen tins and camp debris floating down the river and came up to see that we were alright. Everything was eventually sorted out, considerable radio traffic was handled, but finally a tired camp crew crawled into their sleeping bags and slept like babes.

The flood had rung alarm bells in the outside world, and for a while there was a discussion on the practicality of evacuating the expedition over a little used route via the Ethne Saddle into George Sound. Fortunately, this did not come to anything, as it would have been a difficult undertaking, and would have closed the expedition completely.

It was realized now, that the flat sandy area that the camp was on, was subject to periodic flooding, but that once the river came over the banks the water spread out and did not have much force or depth. In such a continuously wet area all vegetation is saturated and had little effect in controlling the run-off, so that rivers and lakes rise and fall with great rapidity. So much for hindsight!

The river came very close to breaking over the banks on several occasions, and on 9 April it did. The water came through the camp at 2am for three hours, but this time everyone was prepared. All the gear was packed up out of the way, everyone got up on the mess tables under shelter until the water dropped, and then climbed down and went back to bed. Not so lucky were two men coming up from Lake Marchant, whose outboard motor could not force its way upstream against the current, and had to spend a miserable night up a tree. They returned to Caswell Beach, but came up to the Base Camp that evening.

Part 2: Sunday 13 February to Monday 16 May 1949