Voyage to the Islands of Desolation

The Arch of Kerguelen     Jean-Paul Kauffmann

Translated from the French by Patricia Clancy
xi+206 pp Four Walls and Eight Windows New York/London 2000
reviewed by David P. Stern 1 June 2004



    This travelogue takes the reader to a most desolate and distant place, Kerguelen Island in the southern Indian Ocean. Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen in 1772 discovered for France this large, rocky subarctic island, with its extensive grasslands but no trees, with birds and sea mammals but no human life. Kerguelen named it Desolation Island, but in the published account of the last voyage of Captain Cook, who briefly stopped there, Kerguelen's name was attached and it stuck.

    Today the only settlement is Port aux Francais, a large research center maintained by the French government. Earlier attempts to settle on Kerguelen Island failed (though hope remains the current salmon hatchery will prove viable): twice whalers established a station here, and Frenchmen have tried to support themselves here by raising sheep. The main problem is not so much the cold sub-antarctic weather, tempered by the surrounding ocean, as the huge distance from any settled land, and even more, the constant, powerful, unrelenting wind. Blowing in from the huge expanse of the southern ocean, unhampered by any land, the wind is a constant presence.

    Kauffmann's account is laced with emotion and with French overtones, lending it an out-of-the-ordinary flavor. While wanderings across the island and describing his encounters--with a French fisherman escaping a troubled home life, with French paratroopers on a training mission, with scientists and with the "disker" who heads the small community--he also roams through the history of the island and its many personalities. Kerguelen himself emerges as a strange, tragic figure. Praised for his discovery, he was sent back to further explore this new French possession. But things went wrong on that second voyage: it was poorly prepared, poorly carried out, Kerguelen himself never stepped ashore and instead aroused resentment by bringing women aboard. Upon his return he was arrested, tried (probably unfairly) and sentenced to six years in jail.

    Many followed him, and not a few died here. It is easy to die on Kerguelen--get lost in the howling winds and in the sudden fogs and snows, or die mysteriously (of scurvy?) as a German researcher did in 1902. Graves are scattered across the island, crosses and memorials whose names are illegible, blasted by the wind and the weather. The Germans landed here in late 1940, armed and ready to capture Kerguelen by force, to serve as base for their raider ships. No one met them, but their ship hit a rock and needed repairs before venturing out again, to fight and be sunk. Later an Australian warship mined the harbor to prevent any return of the enemy.

    Today satellites are tracked from Port aux Francais, a base for scientific expeditions and projects. But most of the rest of the island still belongs to raw nature, with scattered evidence of past visitors and settlers--remains of cabins, whalers' cauldrons, a beached ship, also feral imported species that damage the local ecology--rabbits, cats (which hunt rabbits), sheep and reindeer. By and large, the windblown volcanic land is still empty, and the original name "Desolation Island" remains as appropriate as ever.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 1 June 2004