Monday, 12 September 2016

Kerguelen, the windy Island

The crossing between Cape Town (South Africa) and Perth (Australia) represents sailing more than 6,200 miles (10.000km) through the "Roaring Forties", an area of strong westerly winds located between 40ºS and 50ºS. In the Indian Ocean, these "Roaring Forties" do honor its nickname roaring stronger than anywhere. The crossing does not approaches any populated area or island except Kerguelen Archipelago which lies approximately halfway.

Kerguelen, also known as Desolation Islands, is an archipelago consisting of Grande Terre, an island twice the length of Mallorca, and more than 300 islets that surround it. The archipelago is formally an overseas territory of the French Republic, the TAAF, along with the islands of Crozet, Amsterdam, Saint Paul, the Sparse and Adelie Land in Antarctica. Logically, the prefect appointed from Paris, administers the territory from the remote tropical island of Reunion; is there a better place to administer remote near-Antarctica islands than from a Tropical touristic island? The island is home to about 50 people in winter and 100 in summer, all concentrated in Port-aux-Français.

The population is made up mainly by scientists and support staff, who normally spend six months on the island. The isolation usually lasts three months, which is the time it takes to return the Marion Dufresne, the ship carrying all the equipment, supplies and anything needed to be able to live in Kerguelen. In fact, all that can be found at the Kerguelen was transported by the Marion Dufresne or its predecessors. The merchant sails from Reunion Island each quarter with supplies and new residents of Port aux Français to replace those who have already finished their stay. The trip has many issues to be hectic; when navigating the "Roaring Forty" and you get near the "Fifty Furious" it is likely that the journey will be similar to what you have below:

I'm not a sea wolf at wall, quite the opposite, but I would be willing to bear this cross in order to set foot in Kerguelen. And it is not impossible: In every trip, there are some places reserved for tourists in the Marion Dufresne. If I am not mistaken there are 4 or 6 "seats", altough tickets can be cancelled if there is an emergency that requires the "seizure" of the cabins. However, it seems that the waiting list to visit as a tourist Port aux Français is, by now, 3 years! The stay lasts a few days, depending on whether the Marion Dufresne remains anchored in Port aux Français, or sails also to another point in the archipelago to provide them goods. During this stay, some of the "residents" of the island act as improvised guides so that visitors can learn how is life on the island and what activities do the Kerguelen "inhabitants".

Over the years, facilities have been added in Kerguelen. Maybe, you have watched the film "Haute cuisine", which tells the story of Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch. When Danièle resigns as French President's chef (in fact she was the real cook of François Mitterrand), she becomes the cook a French scientific base ..... Yes, so it was; during 6 months, the scientists living at Kerguelen enjoyed the creations of one of the best chefs in France. Worth or not worth the trip? In this video, while people from the 64th mission (2014) dances "Happy" by Pharrell Williams, you will be able to see the facilities of the Port-aux-Français base.

But not everything was "Happy" on the island. Since its discovery, the island served as a refuge for survivors of shipwrecks, whalers and some illuminated. Even during the nineteenth century, someone had the bright idea to leave a small colony of rabbits that could serve as food for any sailors forced to take refuge on the island. Of course, now the rabbits have colonized much of the island and are damaging native flora. In 1893, the French government gave rights to exploit the archipelago for 50 years to the Bossière brothers. They created the "Compagnie Generale des Iles Kerguelen" and tried to establish sheep farms and an produce oil from seal blubber. It was a complete failure. They also introduced in addition to existing rabbits, reindeers and sheeps. And again they get nothing more than another alteration of the islands ecosystem.

The ones that succesfully established on the island, but secretly, was a German Navy expedition during 1st World War. They wanted to control and monitor all allied ships sailing the southern Indian Ocean. Germans established a farm with a small detachment on the other side of the island, well away from Port aux Français. During a couple of years nobody noticed them. The conditions for those men, and the dogs that accompanied them, were a real harsh isolation. Only 30 years ago, the descendants of the dogs that brang the Germans were still living, totally wild, near the abandoned German farm.

Near this farm there is what could be one of the most spectacular places on the island: l'Arche des Kerguelen (The arch of Kerguelen), a rock formation shaped arc.

Around 1910, the top of the arch collapsed, and currently only two pillars remain standing.

For those interested in visiting the Kerguelen, and has required time and money, here's the link to the Marion Dufresne touristique offer. The small amount of € 8300 entitles you a shared cabin. But you will be able to visit Kerguelen (let's consider it the big metropolis), Crozet Island and Amsterdam Island; and maybe, if you are lucky and the weather allows it, you will can also visit Saint Paul Island.  

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