The furthest place on Earth

Oban certainly had the feel of a Scottish village. Elderly couples strolled along the seafront, wrapped up against the wind, while younger visitors with heavy boots and backpacks tramped out a route between the hiking trail and the inn. Local people stopped to have conversations with passers-by in the street. Small boats took fishermen out to sea, or took tourists out to watch the birds and seals on nearby islands. The narrow roads and spacious houses of the village were strung out along a rocky shoreline, splashed with chilly waves and smacked with kelp and bladder wrack. The rocks were interspersed with sandy coves and promontories of scrubby trees and yellow grasses, backed by a forested wilderness. On one side was the spill and wash of the ocean; on the other the skyline was underlain by a distant range of mountains. In such a setting it would have been easy to believe that I was already back in the Highlands.

In fact, I had never been so far from home.

I had come to this chilly corner of the Antipodes partly to make the most of a stopover in New Zealand on my way home for the Christmas holidays, and partly because after a year on Pentecost I wanted to ease myself gradually back into big Western civilisation. But there was another reason too.

Stewart Island

My decision to take a gap year in Vanuatu, back in 2001, was motivated at least partly by a desire to escape Gairloch, the bleak and sodden Highland village that my parents now called home. After two years of cold and rain, I had told myself, I was getting as far away from Gairloch as I possibly could.

Except that I wasn't - not quite. Vanuatu is a long way from Scotland, to be sure - over nine thousand miles - but that is only three-quarters as far around the globe as it is possible to get.

The furthest place in the world from Scotland is an empty square of the Southern Ocean, half way between New Zealand and Antarctica. The closest feature on a map is Campbell Island, a tiny fleck of land forming part of the scattered and storm-tossed Sub-Antarctic Islands. A century ago the Sub-Antarctic Islands were home to a few lonely and weather-hardened individuals who made their living by skinning seals and by boiling penguins down in giant vats to extract the oil. (This grisly source of biofuel has of course been superseded nowadays by fossil fuels, a welcome development for the penguins of the Sub-Antarctic Islands, but less welcome for their Antarctic cousins whose habitat will soon be melted by the resulting global warming.) Later on the islands were declared a nature reserve, and are now uninhabited.

Getting to Campbell Island would require a long and expensive boat journey, across one of world's the most notoriously rough stretches of ocean. It would also require a permit, which would only be granted if the New Zealand conservation authorities were satisfied that I wasn't going to annoy the fifteen thousand giant albatrosses that breed there. And frankly, once I arrived on the island there would be little to do except to wander around annoying the albatrosses. The Sub-Antarctic Islands, I conceded, were not a realistic travel destination.

The furthest inhabited island from Scotland is Stewart Island, which nestles at the foot of New Zealand's main South Island. Like the Sub-Antarctic Islands, Stewart Island is mainly a wilderness and a wildlife haven, but being larger and closer to the mainland it is easier to reach and boasts a thriving tourist industry. On the island's east coast, in the picturesquely convoluted Halfmoon Bay, there is also a small settlement, named (ironically) after a Scottish town. At 11,630 miles away (following the shortest possible curve around the Earth), Oban is probably further from Gairloch than any other village on Earth.

And yet it is a remarkably similar place. It is as if somebody had sliced the Earth in two with a mirror, so that one who tried to look at the far end would see only the reflection of the place where he was standing.

It is not merely the wild landscape that recalls the Scottish Highlands. In the village of Oban itself, reflections of Gairloch manifest themselves like mirages. There is the pier with its fishing boats and the nearby fish-processing factory. There is the mini supermarket in the centre of the village, a little concrete building whose three short aisles provide the villagers with their daily needs. There are the prominent and well-kept churches. There is the temporary-looking little hut selling fish and chip takeaways. There is the old-fashioned hotel that caters to genteel elderly tourists in the summer, and probably does a good business keeping the locals fuelled with alcohol on long winter nights. There are the boat owners offering wildlife cruises and fishing trips. There is the shop selling mountaineering gear to trekkers, and another selling odd local crafts. There is the tiny village museum, open two hours a day. There is the community library, and an empty-looking recreational ground. And there are the trendy little cafés and tea rooms (closed in winter) where lively young owners who don't sound local and lively young customers who don't look local coo together about what a beautiful spot they have found.

Above all, Oban has the feel of a genuine community - a phenomenon I took for granted back on Pentecost but is rare in modern Western countries. You don't have to watch and listen to the locals for long to realise that most people on the island seem to know each other. The friendly spirit extends to visitors, too, and it is hard to go into a shop or a café without being drawn into conversation.

Stewart Island, it seemed, was Gairloch Version 2: a new and improved edition, which retained the best features of the old one whilst correcting many of its defects. The bugs have been fixed: in place of Scottish midges, which are excruciating even when they don't bite and impossible to keep away unless you mummify yourself in clothes and netting, Stewart Island has sandflies, which are larger and easier to swat off. (The fact that I still had a bottle of tropical-strength insect repellent in my rucksack helped.) Instead of a lonely youth hostel on a peninsula two miles from the centre of the village (in a region with virtually no local buses), Oban has a bright-looking backpacker holiday camp right in the centre of the village. And Stewart Island is better connected to the rest of the country by public transport than Gairloch, in spite of the fact that Gairloch is not an island.

Those who come to experience the beauty of Stewart Island are provided for by well-kept walking trails, which are so well signposted I didn't even need the maps sold for a dollar in the smart local information centre. Off the coast marine life thrives in large no-take zones, in contrast to Gairloch, where trawlers trying to scrape a living out of overfished waters are still intent on doing to the seabed what their ancestors did to the once-forested hillsides centuries ago. None of the inlets on Stewart Island appeared to be polluted by the effluent from salmon farms, none of its valleys seemed to have been drowned by hydroelectric dams, and I was pretty sure that none of its offshore islets had ever been used to test biological weapons. The cod fillets sold by the fish and chip outlet were not only less endangered than the north Atlantic variety but tasted better too. Even the seagulls that descended, Hitchcock-style, when I sat down on the bench by the seaside and unwrapped the newspaper (real newspaper) from my fish and chips, were prettier than their Caledonian cousins.

Both the inhabitants of Gairloch and Oban are in a large part the descendants of Scots, a people justifiably proud of their traditions and achievements. Yet whilst the natives of Gairloch are those whom waves of emigration left behind, the people of southern New Zealand are derived from Scots who had the spirit and ambition to leave their grey homeland and continue their traditions and achievements in a new country. Both groups are warm and decent people, which is why I hope nobody will be offended when I say that I find the latter more interesting company.

Stewart Island

Yet in spite of all this, I had to admit that the main reason I lived Stewart Island was not because it was different to Gairloch, but because it was so much the same.

I recalled a speech that a former Head Boy had made to the students at Gairloch High School, several years ago.

"After leaving the Highlands, you can travel all over the world," he said. "You can visit beautiful places and you do wonderful things. And then you come home and realise that, actually, this is one of the most beautiful places of them all."

I remembered these words, but for a long time I dismissed them. Scots who thought that their country was one of the nicest in the world had not travelled far enough, I insisted. Yet several years and nearly a quarter of a million miles of travelling later, standing on the beach in Halfmoon Bay watching the sunset at the far end of the earth, I conceded for the first time that he may just have been right.


Of course, Stewart Island was not a completely identical copy of the West Highlands. The birdsong was different, for a start. There were sound effects in the bushes I had never heard before, such as the flapping of the enormous New Zealand pigeon, which takes off with as much grace and silence as a military helicopter, and the bellbird, whose ping-pong call resembles a novelty doorbell. The smell of the forest was different, too. On top of the smell of earth and damp timber that pervades northern woodlands, there was a sweeter scent, a honeyish blend of resin, eucalypt, and unknown flowers. I remembered this smell from parts of Australia, but have never encountered it in a European forest, or even a European garden. It is the perfume of the southern hemisphere.

There was something strange and exotic about the appearance of trees and flowers too. In fact, the local forest looked like a cross between an overgrown Scottish garden and a BBC reconstruction of the Jurassic era. There are good reasons for both resemblances. Many Scottish gardeners plant New Zealand shrubs, knowing that they will be at home in the local climate. (One of the highlights of Inverewe Gardens, near Gairloch, is a 'New Zealand Christmas tree', which responds to the inverted northern seasons by producing its red flowers in June.) It was the profusion of plants that would be exotic back in Scotland - and the rarity of classic Scottish plants, though some local houses were surrounded by familiar specimens - that gave Stewart Island the feel of a gigantic botanic garden.

As for the Jurassic connection, that was the last time New Zealand's plants and animals were in contact with those of the northern hemisphere. It was around that era the world's continents rifted apart into two great clusters: the continents of the northern hemisphere, and those of the south. The northern continents have remained intermittently connected ever since (as recently as a few thousand years ago, a cave man living at times of lowered sea levels could have walked from Scotland to Nova Scotia without getting wet) and developed the standard set of trees and animals which are now found throughout the cooler parts of North America, Europe and Asia. This flora and fauna is so homogenous that a biologist abducted by aliens and dumped, ET-style, in the middle of a northern forest, would find it hard to tell whether he had been left in Canada, Scandinavia or Siberia.

Down under, meanwhile, a completely different set of trees and animals was evolving. These once formed great, cool forests to rival those of the north - a prehistoric wildwood resounding to the cries of exotic creatures - but as the southern continents broke apart, their ancient forests dwindled. Africa and South America drifted back into the tropics and reconnected with their northern neighbours, losing much of their uniqueness. Australia settled in dry sub-tropical latitudes, where much of its forest became scrubland and desert (a process that wasn't helped by the arrival of humans with a penchant for lighting fires), although present-day Tasmania provides a glimpse of what the continent might once have been like. Antarctica clung to its forests for a long time, even as the continent drifted further and further over the South Pole, before a cold snap around 35 million years ago finally turned it into an ice cube. Which left New Zealand.

Had the Romans ever sailed to New Zealand, they would have found a prehistoric lost world. A landscape tossed and riven by volcanoes (one of which exploded so loudly that the Romans reportedly noticed the blast), and blanketed with primeval forests ruled by strange and exotic creatures. The dinosaurs had gone, of course, but in the absence of mammals their feathered descendants had thrived, and some of the monstrous birds that had evolved in New Zealand were dinosaurs in all but name. The ancient forests were home to flightless moas, the largest of which stood three metres (10 ft) tall and laid eggs the size of water jugs (something not lost on the first human arrivals, who badly needed water jugs). These were hunted by the fearsome-looking Haast's eagle, one of the largest, hookiest and clawiest birds of prey ever to take to the skies.

New Zealand pigeon

The fate that befell New Zealand between the time of the Romans and the present day was Jurassic Park in reverse. Instead of being trapped on an island with a bunch of monsters from a hundred million years in the past, the native plants and animals of New Zealand suffered an even worse fate: they were trapped on an island with a bunch of monsters from a hundred million years in the evolutionary future.

The first and worst of these monsters was a species named Homo sapiens. The earliest inhabitants of New Zealand were Polynesians, the ancestors of today's Maoris, who canoed down from tropical islands to the north-east. Back in their homelands they had grown yams and bananas, and tended chickens and pigs. However, the cold island on which they now found themselves was a hard place to grow tropical vegetables, and none of their chickens or pigs had survived the long canoe journey from Polynesia. The new arrivals got over the loss of their crops and livestock fairly quickly after discovering that their new home was home to meaty chickens taller than a person, which behaved as if they had never encountered guys with spears before. The moa's extinction became inevitable as soon as the first hungry Polynesian laid eyes on its metre-long drumsticks.

There was also plenty of food to be had from the sea, where plankton thriving on long hours of summer sunshine and nutrients stirred up by winter storms supported a rich marine food chain. At the top of this food chain were millions of large sea birds, and a sort of large, flippered pig that snoozed on rocks by the waterside just waiting to be clubbed to death. To Pacific islanders who were used to plucking measly crabs from the reef or trying to wrestle ocean fish into tossing canoes, it was an astonishing bounty.

When the giant chickens were gone and the flippered pigs became scarce, the Polynesians turned to smaller prey. They hooked for fish (the first white sailors to trade with the Maoris did a good business in metal fishhooks), and harvested the chicks of the unappetising-sounding muttonbird from its reeking hillside burrows. In desperate times they turned to the one edible animal that had survived the canoe journey from Polynesia: a tenacious critter known to the Maoris as the kiore, and to the rest of the world as Rattus exulans. However, the Polynesian rat is an even scrawnier creature than its European cousin, and cannot have provided more than a light snack. The rats in turn snacked on native birds and their eggs, snacking some of them to the brink of extinction.

Just when it seemed as if things couldn't get any worse for New Zealand's native creatures, a new wave of human settlers arrived, bringing with them a fresh bunch of monsters. One of these monsters was the Pussy Cat, whose impact on native birds needs no description. This monster remains the bane of New Zealand's park rangers today, and many a cat owner living near a nature reserve has received a distressing phone call informing them that Tibbles wandered too close to a nesting site and had an unfortunate accident involving a fast-moving slug of lead.

Another introduced monster was the Rabbit, a creature described by one of my old ecology lecturers as one of the most voracious predators that has ever lived. The Rabbit's prey were plants, and the local animals must have regarded it as a fairly harmless sort of monster, until the day they woke up and found their favourite shrubs and grasses nibbled bare. Realising that no native predator could control the Rabbit, humans responded by introducing two further monsters, the Stoat and the Ferret. Nobody at the time seems to have questioned why a stoat would bother chasing rabbits when there were so many slower and dumber native creatures around.

Even the forests themselves succumbed to the influence of the monsters. Trees were cleared, first by the Maoris and later at a faster rate by European settlers, to make way for open land.

In modern New Zealand, land use seems to follow a very simple principle. Give a New Zealander a patch of good flat land, and he will put sheep on it. Give him a patch of poor flat land, and he will water and tend it, then put sheep on it. Give him a patch of land that cannot be made suitable for sheep, and he will put pine trees on it instead. Give him a patch of land too craggy or remote to be worth putting either sheep or pine trees on, and he will declare it a national park.

Stewart Island was one of the lucky areas. Being offshore, it was spared from the worst of the monsters, and sheep farmers never took to the place. Today, 85% of the island is a national park.

Even the Maoris never settled in large numbers on Stewart Island - the cold environment didn't suit them - although they did visit the island to hunt moas and gather muttonbirds, whose oily carcasses were stored in special bags made from local kelp. It is remarkable that a group of people whose ancestors were tropical islanders managed to survive at all in a chilly spot so far from the equator.

The Maoris named the island Rakiura, the Land of the Shining Skies. Some believe this was a reference to the southern auroras that occasionally ripple the night sky. But there may also have been another reason for the name. After spending a year in the tropics, with their scarcely-varying routine of twelve hour days and twelve hour nights, I can appreciate how strange and wonderful those early Polynesians must have found the long days of the Stewart Island summer. Walking around at a time that should rightly have been long after dusk, enjoying the soft daylight of a sub-Antarctic evening, I remembered another thing I had missed about Scotland.



See also...

Escaping Narnia - how a Scottish village drove me to the other side of the world

Travels in the South Pacific

© Andrew Gray, 2007