The Kerguelen archipelago is one of the most remote places on earth. It is widely thought to be the place to be in the event of a nuclear war, cut off from any other landmass in the depths of the Southern Indian Ocean. The islands can be found at approximately 49 degrees south by 69 east, and lie in the furious fifties, a band of extremely high winds that circles the lower reaches of the southern oceans. The weather is extremely unpleasant, rain and snow plaguing the islands for most of the year as well as high winds and seas. Vegetation is, unsurprisingly, pretty sparse, but the island is inhabited by over 31 species of bird, and despite sealers' best efforts to wipe them out, seals inhabit Kerguelens shores. It is even home to the unique Kerguelen Cabbage.

The islands were discovered in the 18th Century during a period of global expansion. There was a widely held belief that in order to balance the great expanse of land in the Northern Hemisphere, there must be another great continent to the south. With this in mind, King Louis XV sent out Yves de Kerguelen-Trémarec, a Breton captain, to discover this new land and claim it for France. (Australia had already been discovered by James Cook at this point, but people were having a hard time coming to terms with the amount of ocean out there.)

In 1772 Kerguelen arrived at the islands with two ships, but set off for home without landing, leaving that up to his other ship. He returned again in 1773, having boasted of the wealth of the islands to anyone who would listen, including the King, to discover the islands were desolate and uninhabitable except by the seals and birds that thrived in the harsh tundra environment. He decided once again not to land, but returned to France in disgrace.

In 1776 the islands were visited by James Cook, who, knowing of Kerguelen's earlier expedition, named them 'The Kerguelen Islands'. However, the largest island he named 'Desolation Island' as a warning of the islands barren nature to any sailor looking for landfall. He and his crew did discover the Kerguelen Cabbage, one of the odd island variants able to survive on Kerguelen.

In 1840, James Clark Ross stopped for several months at Kerguelen on his way to conquer the Antarctic continent, and carried out magnetic and astronomical observations. The archipelago received a flurry of ships during the early 1870's as the island was in the perfect position to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. An observatory was installed on Pointe Molloy and the data collected from it and other observations allowed astrophysicists to calculate the distance of the sun from the Earth. Another, less beneficial result of all this activity, was that the British scientific expedition allowed rabbits to inhabit the island. Without any predators, this new addition to the food chain wrought havoc with the ecology, decimating the lowland vegetation and changing the appearance of Kerguelen forever. (They were joined in the 19th Century by rats which had a similar effect on the bird population, and then again by cats which were introduced in the 20th century to control the rats! The islands ecology has been unable to combat these alien invaders.)

The island was colonised in 1877 by a British coal company, who hoped to exploit the natural resources. These, however, proved to be disappointingly poor and the mine was abandoned. The French returned in 1893 to reaffirm their claim to the isolated archipelago, but no other real effort was made to settle there, or explore any further. The island was used as a base for sealers and whalers from the time of James Cook, and these boats continued to make use of the island and its resources, even though the fur seal population had been hunted to extinction in 1817.

Raymond du Baty came to the island with his brother in 1909, searching for adventure on board the J.B Caldicot. They lived on board the boat and occasionally on the island, hunting for seals and boiling them up in the abandoned cauldrons of earlier expeditions. His extremely humourous and elegant account of this adventure can be read in '15,000 Miles in a Ketch', a book sadly now out of print.* He did not enjoy the harsh weather or the violent storms, but did return to the islands again in 1913-14, and published the first proper map of the archipelago upon his return to France.

In 1951 a meteorological station was erected on the island by the French Government and a geophysical station joined it in 1955. There is now a hospital, restaurant, library, sports centre, cinema and chapel at the site, and the desolate island is home to between 50-100 scientists every year.
Rather them than me!

* I got my copy by chance at a University book sale, so there are still some about.

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