1915: Wireless operator describes life on Macquarie

Evening Post, 30 December 1915, p 8


After over two years spent in the solitude of Macquarie Island, Mr F.J. Henderson, wireless expert at the far south meteorological station, is in New Zealand, on his way back to Sydney. The station was established by the Mawson Antarctic expedition, and was taken over by the Commonwealth Government in 1912, for a term of three years. Mr Henderson went to the Island in November, 1913, in the Aurora, and returned by the Rachel Cohen, arriving at Bluff on 13th December of this year.

During the whole of the two years there were only three men on the island – Mr Henderson, Mr A.C. Tullock (meteorological officer), and Mr Ferguson (cook). There were visits at long intervals from steamers – the Rachel Cohen, in January, 1914, and December, 1915; the Endeavour, November, 1914; Aurora, December, 1915; and Grantala, January, 1915. Yet they were not completely out of touch with the world. The wireless enabled them to hear what was happening in the lands far over the sea. They were in communication with Wellington, Awarua, Awanui, and Chatham Islands, as well as passing steamers, and every night except Saturdays heard the war news that was being despatched to Samoa. Saturday was always a quiet day.


Mr Henderson today gave a Post reporter some account of his experiences. The wireless work, he said, began about an hour after sunset. The station was on a hill 340 ft high, and to reach it they bad to climb a precipitous slope, using a stout life-line. To avoid this journey – it was rather perilous in some weathers – Mr Henderson constructed another small station at Eastern Harbour with timber from the wrecked schooner Clyde.

They were unable to get in touch with the Shackleton expedition at McMurdo Sound. The distance was about 1500 miles, and there was also a large part of the Antarctic continent, with two high ranges of mountains, in the way. When the party heard that Shackleton would continue his expedition, although the war was on, they were surprised, but later they were told that the ship and her company had been offered to the Government, and it was by the King’s express wish that Sir Ernest Shackleton decided to proceed with his expedition.


Though cut off from the world and its turmoil for such a long time, the Macquarie Island men had the satisfaction of knowing that the work done in investigating Antarctic meteorology would be of value, not only to New Zealand and Australia, but to the world. Had the Commonwealth Government not decided, in view of financial considerations and the need for the meteorologist’s services in Melbourne, to close the station down for the time being, the records kept would, with the Shackleton observations, have provided a complete chain of the utmost value in the solution of weather problems.


Observations were made on the island every day except for a period of four days in January, 1915 when the four lonely inhabitants were out and around the beaches, searching for any sign of the missing Endeavour. Not a single spar or plank did they find. That was the tragedy of their stay. Mr Power, the meteorological officer, had left with the Endeavour, but Messrs Henderson and Ferguson had decided to remain for another year on the island.

One evening they had received from the crew of the trawler a joker’s Christmas box, a big block of ice in a bag. They saw the little vessel lying at anchor in the bay, and the next morning she had put out to sea. The next they heard, was the news that she had not arrived on time at Hobart. Later the Grantala, a hospital ship from Raboul, went in search, but found no trace of her. A very fierce storm raged three days after the Endeavour’s departure, and it is thought the light, small vessel foundered. Macquarie has seen more than one wreck, and Mr Henderson has interesting photographs of the remains of the Clyde and Gratitude, also a cave where eighteen men and one woman, survivors of the Eagle, lived for two years.


Mr Henderson did not find Macquarie Island a terrible place to live in. Its climatic conditions are severe, certainly. On one occasion a wind velocity of 76 miles an hour at sea level was recorded, and on the hill it must have been over 100 miles very often.

The aerial wires of the hill station were blown down five times in one month. For one month the average was 30 miles an hour, which puts Wellington in the shelter. Snow fell at times, but did not stay on the ground. There was plenty of misty rain, however, and during one period of 100 days there was not a day on which no rain fell.


Apart from the wireless and meteorological work, Mr Henderson found much to occupy his time. He brings back with him a unique collection of photographs of animal life. Macquarie is no desert island. Rabbits abound in millions, also wild duck and a species of wood hen, to say nothing of sea elephants, sea leopards, and penguins innumerable. The exiles were not forced to live on tinned food. Penguin eggs they found to be quite tasty. In two months they consumed 40 dozen. When the penguins’ eggs are taken, the birds sometimes behave in a peculiar manner. They will take a couple of black stones to their nest, and sit on them for a month, expecting them to hatch.

The male sea elephants are enormous, as much as 18ft in length. Mr Henderson has a tooth from one, not a tusk, and it is 6 1/2 inches in circumference and 7 inches long. The elephants come ashore in large numbers at the breeding season, about 200 in a rookery. There is generally only one bull in each family, for the male of the species fight desperately and to the death. The young develop very rapidly, and in a fortnight are strong enough to carry a man on their backs. Members of the party at times amused themselves with races with these strange steeds. Sea leopards are not gregarious, and remain on land for only a few days. Mr Henderson discovered that the skin of these animals, when cured in the sun, provided excellent material for making belts, bags, purses, and all kinds of novelties. With a pocket-knife and much patience he manufactured many such articles. The fur varies from silver-white in colour with black spots to black. The Rachel Cohen, which took the observers off Macquarie, landed a party of six men, who will work at the business of procuring penguin and sea elephant oil.

An endeavour has been made while the party has been on the island to acclimatise sheep, hens, and ducks. The sheep have fattened well, but the ewes have been unable to feed the lambs. It is thought, however, that a hardier class of sheep will do well, as tussock grass is very plentiful, and stock thrive on it. The ducks and fowls have been left in the care of the sealing party.

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