Raoul Island Tales by Gordon Cooper
Finally, more than 50 years after the events, I have compiled some of my Raoul Island memories and added a few pictures. The stories are essentially factual, but perhaps highlight the more memorable occasions, rather than being a diary styled record.
The tales are not in chronological order, but written as I recalled the happenings. They were originally published to a limited group of readers through the amateur radio VHF Packet communications system.
The photos are from two sources. The older monochrome pictures were taken during my stay in the Kermadecs and processed in a fairly basic darkroom at the Raoul Met. station. Some these prints are now showing stains and watermarks from the incomplete washing that I gave them fifty-two years ago. The colour pictures date from 2005 when Berwyn Davies (Beau in 1953) took the opportunity to revisit the Kermadecs with a conservation tour. I am very grateful for the use of his digital camera photos.
Tauranga New Zealand
25 January 2006.
1 A Change of Diet
Early in 1953, the Raoul Island population was made up of three weather observers and a support crew. The crew included a pair of carpenters who were engaged in the construction of new farm buildings and the renovation of the Raoul living quarters.
Initially I filled the dual role of radio technician/weather observer. Following an accident to the Team Leader, one that necessitated his export to N.Z. for hospital treatment, I found myself appointed Leader but still looking after the electrical and radio equipment. I maintained the diesel fuel injection systems for a while to, the mechanic had a severe outbreak of diesel dermatitis.
This multiple activity was not unusual, we all shared tasks at times. For example, Colin the cook could exercise by digging postholes on the farm while one of the carpenters cooked our dinner. Weatherman John learned how to make dough and bake the daily bread. Carpenter Dave, was the recognised butter maker. Cows were often milked by the early weather shift. The aim was to have a back up person for all essential work.
We were very well served for fresh food. Unlike our colleagues on Campbell Island far away south from Invercargill, who lived mainly from tins and preserves, we had a small farm and a normally well stocked kitchen garden. Appeasing the appetites of nine physically active young men was never a problem in terms of quantity, but now and again we all looked for a change in diet. I can recall one month when after bad weather and a hiccup in the garden planting programme, the only fresh vegetables available were carrots and parsnips. Our cook served them up in various disguises, but I for one longed for some genuine greens.
Fresh meat was on the menu each day. Sheep thrived in the sub-tropical climate, provided that we kept the blowies at bay. Hogget, lamb, mutton, call it what you will, was plentiful. Our small dairy herd kept us in milk and butter. There was usually a jug of cream on the dining table. One or two bobby calves were kept for beef each year and we had pork, poultry and the results of our fishing expeditions to give some variation. However, sheep meat was the staple. One carcass would provide two legs and two forequarters, enough for four midday meals, with the chops for breakfast or tea and the left overs culminating in the inevitable shepherd's pie. Main meal was always at noon, a time that linked in with the weather staff's roster, and the need to have the wood burning stove hot for the morning bread making.
Every four or five days, in the late afternoon when the blowy activity had subsided a little, Charlie our farm manager would select a sheep from the mob and dress a carcase. This would be hung overnight in the fly proof tank stand. Next morning it was quartered, then placed into the 'fridge. This was a regular ritual, with someone else to do the evening milking, or occasionally undertaking the slaughter to give Charlie a break.
This ritual was performed in the old cowshed. Our new shed was half a mile down the main (and only) road where carpenter David, our self appointed butter maker, would be finishing the evening milking, separating the cream then perhaps cranking the old wooden churn. I should comment that we did not have a freezer large enough for long term storage of food. Meat could be held for a few days only.
The pattern would vary when we had pork. This was a two or three man job. Firstly we would set up the scalding trough, a couple of forty gallon fuel drums welded together, then raid the household wood heap for firewood. Half fill the trough with water, light the fire and keep it stoked until all was ready for the kill.
However, we had many more sheep than pigs, so pork was a relative luxury. Perhaps twice a year, we had a real change of diet, beef! This was a major event which needed a little planning. The meat refrigerator had to be completely empty, and even then it was too small for a whole carcass. If possible, the previous kill would have been a pig, so that beef & pork sausages could be made. This carry over meant that the remaining pieces of cold pig had to be kept in the dairy fridge for at least one day, which in turn required that the dairy fridge's usual resident can of cream was made into butter which required less space.
I missed the first beef kill during my stint on Raoul. It was a nice clear day, so I spent the late afternoon peering through a theodolite tracking a weather balloon to measure wind speed and direction in the upper air. Charlie had plenty of assistance. Both carpenters, the mechanic, the gardener/handyman and the off-duty weatherman were in attendance. Not to forget the two dogs who, with previous experience of our limited refrigeration, were expecting a bonus. They were not disappointed.
A few months later we planned to have beef again. The animal concerned was a very large gingery bullock, a descendant of one "Percy", an equally large Shorthorn bull who, during the previous year had upset the weather team by barging through the fence into their instrument enclosure so that he could scratch his back on the white painted thermometer screen.
We grazed the dry stock and dairy cows together. At milking time any non-milkers who found their way into the small yard were promptly pushed back out the gate, or on through one of the two walk-through bails. Not this ginger bullock though. He would come quietly towards the yard with the others, but as soon as the open gate became too close, he would sheer off and sprint to the furthest corner of the paddock. The same thing would happen if we tried to cut him out from the herd, he would beat a hasty retreat and walk right over the dog or anybody else in his way. So we had a problem, how best to corner him for slaughter?
Eventually, we managed to coax the bullock, in company with two or three dry cows, up into the yard at the old cowshed. Here a Kermadec Island pohutukawa tree gave support to a make-shift gallows and there was a good supply of water. There were three of us perform the deed. Charlie, the expert, with Bernie and myself to assist. The animal was to be despatched with a rie shot, so while the cattle stood quietly, Charlie turned away to pick up the point 303.
It all seemed too easy and our early worries perhaps groundless, until Bernie on his own volition decided that it was time to get the extras out of the act. He opened the gate and gently ushered the cows out from the yard. Charlie and I had our backs to this deed, as did the ginger bullock. I think he was still wondering what he was doing there - until he suddenly realised that there he was, alone in a small enclosed space with a couple of humans and much worse, the five barred wooden gate through which his bovine friends had just departed was very nearly shut.
The next few seconds passed almost too quickly for me to remember, let alone describe. I know that "Ginger" lowered his head, pivoted through 270 degrees, perhaps more. Charlie beat a hasty retreat into the old dairy shed, I vaulted the railing into the adjacent bull paddock. Bernie was just latching the gate, from the outside thank goodness, when several hundred kilos of high speed beef lifted the gate from its hinges, charged through the opening, attened Bernie under the gate in the process, shook the encumbrance of its horns and vanished over a small ridge towards the weather station radio masts.
It took us about 30 seconds to lift the gate, to decide that Bernie had suffered nothing worse that a few bruises, then to collapse into relieved laughter. We heard the tractor coming at full throttle up the rise from Bell's Ravine. Aboard was a shaken looking David, butter churn balanced on his knees. "What happened ?" he shouted, "Did you miss with the rifle ? That #@%$& bullock came straight through the fence at the top of the gully, just missed landing on me, he's gone down the hill."
"No, no Dave it's okay" replied Charlie, "Take Bernie with you, he'll explain, and go tell the Cook that he'll have use that leg of pork for midday tomorrow."
As Bernie climbed gingerly up on to the tractor, Charlie whistled up the dog. "Come on Pat, let's go find a nice quiet hogget for Friday dinner."
It was about another 6 months before beef from that particular beast reached the table. He was even bigger by then - but that's another story.
2 A Load of Tripe
Readers of a previous Raoul Island tale may recall the vague promise of further information about the demise of a bullock. Many months had passed since the day when Ginger decided that he preferred green pastures to our dinner table. Carpenter Bernie, who had suffered the most on an earlier "beef for dinner" attempt, had returned to New Zealand on the annual servicing ship. We had a new cook, another diesel mechanic who relieved me of the fuel injection responsibilities, and by the courtesy of a passing R.N.Z. Navy vessel, another weather man. He was Alistaire from New Zealand's deep south.
Not long after his arrival, Al' had enquired about the availability of tripe. Culinary expert Jim would willingly cook this delicacy, if and when it was made available. Charlie, Dave and I conferred. None of us was particularly interested, but if Jim could cook tripe properly, then we would eat it. But nothing could be done in a hurry. Tripe would have to wait until next beef kill.
In fact it had to wait a little longer. Ginger was still grazing contentedly, growing larger every day but we had an extra bobby calf to deal with first. This animal provided veal, another welcome change on the menu, but no tripe.
There was now a new slaughter house. Some inspired effort from Dave and Charlie had resulted in a purpose built structure on the edge of Bell's Ravine, some distance away from most work areas, but closer to the farm. Concrete floor, proper drainage and a good water supply - once handyman Beau had located the main line leading to the farm water troughs, and tapped a branch pipe into it. In some respects the old cowshed had been more convenient, but Head Oce had decreed that the farm should be moved westwards, away from the living quarters. The new building fulfilled its purpose, sheep and pigs were processed without a hitch. Now, it was beef time again!
The massive bullock was still mingling with the small dairy herd. There was little or no chance of walking him quietly up to the new killing pen so we decided to try and separate him from the group and perform the first part of the deed out in the paddock. Charlie, the best marksman, would use the point 303 rie. We would recruit enough manpower to load Ginger on to the konaki. The plan worked well. Soon we had a very large carcass suspended from the pulley block. Dave, Beau and I helped Charlie to strip the pelt, then stood back while he removed the enormous internal organs.
Al had been an interested spectator. "How about my tripe?" he asked.
"You can come and get it in a minute or so." Charlie finished work on the carcass, handed the knife to Al, and directed him to the right spot.
"Just about there, cut around and it's all yours." While Al slowly approached his task, we four perched on the fence rail and watched. Al was determined to succeed. Soon, he was firmly clutching a large slab of bovine internals. It looked purple and slimy to me. If this was tripe in its native state, I was not really interested.
"Ye'll have to gie' it a really good scrub." said Charlie lapsing into his native Banffshire dialect. Al headed back to the camp with his trophy.
Nigh on dark, we had cleaned up, hung Ginger's remains under the tank stand away from the ies and headed in for tea. Here were Al and Jim in conference over an oddly coloured piece of Ginger's anatomy on the kitchen table. "No Al, it doesn't look right, I can't serve that up, good tripe should be white." Al reluctantly agreed.
That piece of unbleached tripe went out in the scraps bucket to be boiled up for the pigs. I have never considered eating tripe since that day.
3 The Great Tobacco Famine of 1953
As we approach the year 2000 AD, the risks to good health resultant upon the smoking of tobacco have been well publicised. I am not going to enter into any arguments on the merits or otherwise of the tobacco habit. Suffice to say that forty-five years ago, smoking was socially acceptable. Of the five young men sailing from Auckland to Raoul Island in April 1953, four were regular smokers. I was one of them. In my kit were two well worn straight stem pipes along with packets of cut plug. In addition I had a few ounces of "Greys" and papers for rolling cigarettes. Of the other three addicts, one smoked tailormades, two rolled their own.
During the three days it took for the old M.V. Holmburn to reach Raoul from Auckland, we had ample time for discussion. It soon became clear that there had been considerable variation in the briefings we had each received since our recruitment. I had been told to take all personal needs except bed linen and soap. It had been stressed that there was no shop or canteen on the island. Clothing, toothpaste, razor blades, and tobacco should be taken by each member of the team - enough to last until the next supply ship, six to eight months hence.
However, others of our group were under the impression that they could stock up from the Raoul "shop" and had thus brought minimum supplies. It was quite obvious that some were going to run out of essentials before very long. Clothes might not be a problem and there was no need to shave. toothpaste could be eked out perhaps, but no tobacco? This would be a major disaster!
Our first three days after arrival were taken up with unloading stores and familiarisation. We worked from about 5 am until midnight until finally, the Holmburn disappeared into the dusk and we could attempt to settle in. Five of the 1952 team were staying on, they all smoked. Told of a possible tobacco shortage they sympathised ,but offered little in the way of constructive advice. "We all seem to smoke more up here." was one comment.
Breakfast time on the first day after changeover. Cows had been milked, the 6 am weather report passed to Wellington by radio. We sat around the table listening to the world news from Radio Australia while demolishing eggs, baked beans, and a pile of toast. Suddenly the radio went dead. The serving hatch from the kitchen popped open. Colin's broad Derbyshire accent announced that "The generator's stopped." Mechanic Ron, and I ran out to the diesel shed, expecting something annoying but simple, such as a fuel blockage. But no, this was more serious, the three cylinder Lister, our No 4 generating set, appeared to be seized. We could not budge the crankhandle.
So, we started up No 1, the old two banger National diesel normally used at night, restored power and went back to finish breakfast. A future shortage of smokes was the last thing on our minds this morning. Broken crankshaft, that was the problem. Why? We didn't know at first, but when Ron had finished stripping down the motor, it seemed that the main crankshaft bearings had been incorrectly fitted. The punch marks on the bearing housings did not match those in the crankcase. Intermediate bearings in the wrong places, shaft out of line? Fatigue failure perhaps? Who ever had committed this crime was long gone and could not be taken to task.
Ron and I spent a day or so restoring the No 3 Lister to service. The diesel was in very good order but alternator slip-rings, exciter commutator and the voltage regulator all needed attention. I doubted if this generator had been used much since installation at Raoul. Members of the 1952 team said that it generated radio noise. Ron was worried about its bearings too, wanted to order more from N.Z.
A case of "once bitten" perhaps. I could not see the need for them myself. Unless we stripped the No 3 machine down and checked diameters with a micrometer, how would we know what size bearings to order? Ron persisted and eventually convinced Brian our Team Leader to ask for a set of main bearings on the next RNZAF mail-drop. Head Office noted the request.
A couple of months passed. Tobacco stocks were getting very low. I had almost knocked off. We were all rationing and sharing our smokes - except for the cook who had ordered wisely. The generators were running well. Any thoughts of spare bearings were overwhelmed by the impending famine.
A suggestion came by radio from Wellington, relayed from Ralph Hayes on Campbell Island. He had been talking to a group of Aussies on MacQuarie Island weather station in the Southern Ocean. "They say you can get quite a good smoke from fuschia bark." Fuschia bark? We wondered what the plants looked like?
More advice from Wellington Radio "Have you tried sun-dried tea leaves?" The Raoul Islanders' plight became a standing joke around the southern weather stations.
The kitchen serving hatch popped open again. Said Colin, "I remember some of you throwing your butts into the dining room fireplace." Sure enough, behind the fire screen was a collection of half smoked fags, many of them beyond redemption. However, with careful clipping of ends and re-rolling in new papers, we recovered enough for a few very dry smokes.
One of these was placed on display on the mantelpiece. David made a small glass fronted case. "A Memory of the Good Days" Two days later at breakfast time, outrage! Someone had crept into the dining room during the night, prised open the display, and smoked the last cigarette.
Another suggestion from Colin the cook, this time after dinner, an hour when we were bemoaning our desperate situation. "I threw some old tobacco out down the tip last week," he said. "A couple of packets of Grey's that had gone a bit mouldy." There was a rush for the door. Out to the store shed, light up a couple of kerosene pressure lamps, grab shovels and off down Bell's Ravine to the household rubbish dump. Half an hour of digging, nothing found. Back to question Colin on the exact location. He was a bit vague.
Time for serious measures. The staccato bark of the Caterpillar D7's starter motor disturbed the night. Soon, the elderly bulldozer was rattling its way along the road, a carpenter with a Tilley lamp perched on the blade to guide the way. We dozed and dug for another hour or more. Nothing found, more misery.
Apart from minor relief provided by a few tins of tailor mades donated by a passing Navy ship, most of us were now smoke free. The cook still had enough for his own needs but smoked them in his own hut, away from our scrutiny and critical comment.
A suggestion was made to Wellington that the Air Force might like to fly a navigation exercise and give us a mail and smokes drop. Head Office refused this request. Then, Ron remembered the bearings. He was sure that No 3 diesel was vibrating more than usual. "If this one goes too we'll be in trouble!" We tried Wellington again.
"Please may we have a new crankshaft and extra bearings by air drop ? And if the Air Force has any spare space, could they bring us tobacco too?" Surprisingly, Head Office agreed to hurry up the bearings, but refused the crankshaft. They were worried about it being damaged in the drop.
The RNZAF Hastings trundled overhead, khaki canisters with braking parachutes plummeted down on to the farm paddock.
Another circuit, three parachutes more descended, but this time one canister tangled near the top of a Norfolk pine tree. Dave muttered, "I bet that's the one with my smokes in it." We had previously agreed that all canisters would be taken back to the house before opening so this one had to be recovered pronto. A toss up, who would climb the tree? Gordon. While the others watched, I slowly worked my way up about 70 feet. I don't enjoy climbing Norfolk pines, the branches have a tendency to break off from the trunk. I could not reach the drop container on the first attempt, it was out near the end of a thin branch.
Back up again with an axe and a light rope. Tied the rope as far out as I dared, then cut the branch partway through so that a team on the ground could pull it down together with the canister of supplies. Now, back to the house to unpack mail, potatoes, bearings, new yeast for bread making, today's morning newspaper, and the essential weed. There was also a welcome pile of magazines from the Auckland Mailroom's "unable to deliver" pile.
Charlie opened a pack of tailormades and handed it around. We had a formal simultaneous lighting up, followed by a round of extended coughing. The famine was over, but why the heck did we ever start smoking again??
Postscript. A new Lister crankshaft came on the next visit of the Holmburn in December 1953 and was soon fitted to No 4 generator unit. However the "urgently" needed bearings for the No 3 generator were still on the shelf when our team left for home 12 months later.
4 Gone Up North for a While
This tale was first published in the October 1995 issue of the New Zealand Amateur Radio Journal "BREAK-IN".
With a ZL8 amateur radio callsign prefix, the Kermadec Islands are now reasonably rare DX, but 40 years ago they were considered to be part of the North Auckland land district and classified as ZL1, not at all worthy of a DXpedition. I went North to Raoul Island early in 1953 as the station radio technician and part time weather observer. I had been ZL1AHC for a couple of years, but not very active as an amateur - too much travelling in my job. So, apart from getting a wad of new QSL cards I made no real plans to operate from Raoul. I certainly did not consider packing the bulky AR8/AT5 and taking it with me. I did take the remains of a 4 MHz ARC-5 transmitter which came in very useful as a VFO in later months.
On arrival I found that some thoughtful members of Civil Aviation's Head Offce, the late Fred Andrews ZL2IJ and Olly Martin ZL2OZ to name but two, had provided a few 80 metre crystals that fitted the island's RCA 4332 transmitters. There had been a few official eyebrows raised about this but their justification was that should an emergency occur outside regular radio schedule times, there would be a very good chance of finding somebody listening on the 80 metre amateur band. I was grateful for the thought.
The transmitters used a pair of 813s and even in the low power 'tune' mode were well over the 100 watt limit. Receivers, a couple of Hammarlund Super-Pros, built like brick chicken houses and very stable. Down the paddock was an aerial farm with 70 foot masts, supporting amongst other things a hefty dipole cut for about 3.4 megs complete with a parasitic reflector, beamed on to New Zealand. The feeders were 600 ohm open line and I fitted a matching stub for 3580. My first contact was into the Bay of Plenty to an amateur whose call escapes me now. He wished to know just where I was living in Whakatane, probably very close to him as my signal had pinned his S-meter! Perhaps I should have remained in the tune up mode.