Îles Kerguelen or the Kerguelen Archipelago are 3300 km southeast of Madagascar, so far south that they lie in the Antarctic Ocean not the Indian. They're governed as part of the Terres australes et antarctiques françaises, the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. The main island Grande Terre is one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth, populated year-round by a crew of 25 to 125 scientists.
The Kerguelen Plateau was a lost Madagascar, a tropical miniature continent that cooled then sank 20 million years ago. Two volcanic areas were active enough to keep their heads above water as archipelagos: Kerguelen, and Heard and McDonald Islands further south. The first sure sighting of the former was in 1772 by Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec, who claimed them for France. The main island of Kerguelen soon became a watering hole for whaling vessels, nine of which were wrecked here. The whalers called it Desolation Island and their blubber pots, graves and huts are found at several landing coves. In the late 19th century France reasserted its claim, no other nation sought it, and Kerguelen is now part of a territory called Les Terres australes et antarctiques françaises, TAAF for short, the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. This entity also includes Crozet, Saint-Paul and Amsterdam islands.
Grande Terre is by far the largest of the group, measuring 150 km east-west and 120 km north-south, an area about two-thirds the size of Corsica. The other 300 islands mostly lie close, separated by fjords that have flooded to become sea straits. Port-aux-Français is the only settlement, a research base with a population of about 25 in winter and 125 in summer.
The Kerguelen Islands are at 49°15′S 69°35′E - about as far south as Rouen is north, yet their climate is much colder. That's because the Kerguelen Plateau acts as a baffle to the very cold circumpolar current, diverting it north. Kerguelen is therefore south of the Convergence, the invisible but sharp boundary between the Antarctic and Indian Oceans. However it's not freezing, the Cook Glacier is shrinking, and the sea approach is open year-round. Daytime highs are about 10-12 °C Nov-April and 5°C May-Oct. The annual rainfall of 677 mm is evenly spread. The wind buffets you constantly, gusts of 200 kph have been recorded, and the supply ship heaves its way here through 15 m ocean waves.
The terrain is black basalt overlain by treeless tundra similar to Iceland. Kerguelen supports large colonies of penguins and other seabirds, and seals including elephant seals, but there are many introduced species. Rabbits, sheep and reindeer all churn up the tundra, rats prey on ground-nesting birds, and salmon have driven out any native river fish. The French staff therefore enjoy fresh meat and grow their own vegetables, but even they don't have a culinary use for the feral cats. There are no plans to eradicate the pests and remediate the habitat, and it may not be feasible. In spite of this the terrain is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though some politicians bellow that Kerguelen would be a great place to test nuclear weapons or to imprison jihadists, perhaps at the same time.
The official language is of course French. These are bright multilingual people with some English, but you're going to be in a Francophone environment on a trip lasting a month, so you'll be an isolated étranger if you don't have any French.
"Taafien" is the patois of the staff, laden with acronyms and abbreviations. "Taaf" refers to the territory of Terres australes et antarctiques françaises. "Ker" means Kerguelen, and you might hear "alfred" for king penguin, "blo" for rabbit (bête à longues oreilles, while "lapins" are those who study them), and "Marduf" for the supply ship. "Paf" is Port-aux-Français, "pafiens" are its inhabitants, "Ti'Ker" its main building, and "Central Park" is the elephant seal haul-out area within the settlement.
This requires careful planning, as the islands are not easy to get to.
There is no air service, and only a small landing pier at Port-aux-Français. This is visited four times a year by the support ship Marion Dufresne, which has berths for 8-12 tourists, for around €9000 per person. The ship sails from Réunion (which has flights from Paris) and takes about 28 days, half of them crossing a wild rough ocean. Research and support personnel always have priority for berths and you could be bumped off the trip at short notice if some urgent situation arose. The itinerary is from Réunion to Crozet Islands, Kerguelen, Île Saint-Paul occasionally (strictly protected and a hazardous landing, so tourists are not permitted ashore there) then Île Amsterdam and back to Réunion. At Kerguelen the bay is too shallow for the boat to dock, so visitors come ashore by helicopter while heavy stuff is toted in barges.
Tourist berths were suspended because of Covid and in 2023 these have not yet resumed.
Small cruise ships very occasionally call at Kerguelen - check the itineraries of those visiting Heard Island and McDonald Islands. Antarctic cruises almost never come this way, as it's so far off their usual routes.
Walk, there is no public transport. The only vehicles are for base personnel, and they seldom venture beyond the local area, to avoid cutting up the fragile terrain. In taafien, to venture off base is manip, and those who do so are manipeurs.
- 1 Port-aux-Français is the landing point and only settlement. It's by Morbihan Bay, the best shelter to be had in these windy islands. "Route 66" is the 4 km road to the laboratory and satellite tracking station, though neither Harley-Davidsons nor the Joad family jalopy are to be seen on it.
- 2 Église Notre-Dame-du-Vent 200 m west of the landing pier is the most southerly place of worship of France, built 1957-61 in concrete. The virgin statue within is Introun Varia an Avel, "Our Maria of the Wind" in Breton, while the statue outside is "Virgin of the Sealers", carved from the wood of a shipwreck.
- 3 Baie de l'Observatoire (Observatory Bay) is 2 km west of the port. It was a geomagnetic observatory, and astronomical for the 1874 Transit of Venus, the closest to the port of several such observatories. Transits come in pairs eight years apart, when Venus appears as a black dot crossing the sun over several hours; there's a 121.5 year gap to the next pair then a 105.5 year gap to the following pair, a 243 year cycle. Precise timings allow one to calculate distances within the solar system. Kerguelen was centrally placed for the 1874 event and several expeditions came, but poor weather and problems with instruments meant they left little the wiser. The camp remnants here are from a 1902/03 expedition led by von Drygalski.
- 4 Pointe Molloy 10 km west of Port-aux-Français was a temporary US station for the transit. The present building dug into the hillside was a seismology station from the 1950s to 1963; it's been refurbished as a refuge cabin. The beach has large colonies of rockhopper and gentoo penguins, sea lions and albatross.
- Satellite tracking is the job of the station 3 km east of the port. The chief target is GPS navigation satellites, as Europe is developing its own system independent of the US, and needs a network of ground stations to keep them in view. There aren't too many other places to build a station in the far southern oceans. This area has also been used for rocket launches, but these were weather probes to at most 500 km altitude before clattering back down on the island.
- 5 Péninsule Courbet is the 58 km east promontory of Grande Terre, where the settlement stands. The eastern part is low-lying with many ponds and bogs, and large king penguin colonies; the north coast has macaronis. The west is mountainous, rising to Mont Crozier at 979 m - this area's glaciers all melted in the 20th century. The peninsula was named in 1915 for Admiral Amédée Courbet (1827-1885), party to erase the name of Observations Halbinsel assigned by the German Transit expedition.
- 6 Cap Ratmanoff is the east point of Courbet Peninsula. Its long black beach is a king penguin rookery, often visited by tourist parties. John Nunn and three others were marooned here 1826 to 1829 after their second shipwreck, erecting "Hope Cottage" for shelter. They collected so many penguin eggs to eat that they had to build a cart for them all, the first wheeled transport in Kerguelen.
- 7 Lac Marville 5 km north of the cape is a freshwater lagoon of 6.5 km by 5 km, created when a glacial moraine closed off a sea inlet. It's populated by introduced salmon.
- 8 Anse Betsy (Betsy Cove) is a small beach on Courbet Peninsula once used by whalers, so there are remains of their pots, and of the geomagnetic and Transit observatory erected in 1874 by a German expedition led by von Schleinitz. In 1852 Captain Joseph J Fuller was marooned here for a year, the only survivor of the wreck of his ship Rosswell King.
- 9 Port Couvreux is an inlet of Hillsborough Bay on the north coast. It was used by whalers but the buildings date from its time as a sheep farm 1913-1931. It was too cold and with insufficient grazing, so the sheep perished and the enterprise folded. A metal roof has been placed over the farmstead to protect the historic structure, and the burial plot is kept maintained.
- 10 Île du Port 5 km off Port Couvreux is the fourth largest island of the archipelago, a triangle about 5 km on each side.
- 11 Port-Raymond is a research cabin at the head of a long fjord at the top of Morbihan Bay, which almost severs Courbet Peninsula from the rest of Grande Terre.
- 12 Lac d'Armor is a freshwater lake 3.7 km long. In the late 20th century there were attempts to establish fish farming here, which flopped. The shore is littered with curious phallic pebbles called "dicks of Armor". Analysis of the lake sediments suggests that nearby Diable volcano last erupted around 1100 AD.
- 13 Île aux Rennes is about 10 km by 3 km and also known as Île Australia. "Rennes" are reindeer or caribou, Rangifer tarandus.
- 14 Port-Jeanne-d'Arc is the substantial ruin of a whaling station. It began production in 1909, suspended operations during World War 1 then resumed until 1926, when overhunting of whales and seals plus the development of factory ships made it uneconomic. It acted for a time as a research station then in 1931 came an attempt to establish a fruit farm, by entrepreneurs who'd failed to spot the relevance of the perished sheep to the likely fate of apricots. The settlement has four buildings, partly restored.
- 15 Île Longue is about 17 km long by 2 km wide. Port-Bizet is a seismology cabin midway along its north shore, named for the Bizet mountain sheep reared here from 1950 to 2012. This hardy breed fared better than those at Port Couvreux (until they were eaten, that is) with 3500 at the herd's peak.
- 16 Port-Douzième (literally "Twelfth Port") is the site of "Le Castel", a research cabin of the 1950s. It's on the north shore of Ronarc'h Peninsula, looking across Morbihan Bay to "Paf", and with Mt Pouce (743 m) rearing up behind it. Barely a bootlace of land connects this peninsula to Jeanne-d'Arc Peninsula, which in turn hangs by a thread from Grande Terre.
- 17 Mont Ross is an extinct stratovolcano rising abruptly from the south coast. Part of the Gallieni Massif, it's the highest point of the archipelago, at 1850 m / 6070 ft, forming a double peak with Petit Ross at 1721 m. These peaks and connecting scarp were the rim of an ancient volcanic caldera. It was first climbed in 1973, the last French peak to be conquered - the glaciers and icy rockface are the difficulty. The first traverse of the scarp and double peaks was in 2006.
- Larose Bay is just west of Mont Ross, embellished by the sharp rock of Doigt de Sainte Anne. It's an important bird habitat with some 21,500 pairs of king penguins, 500 pairs of gentoos, 6000 pairs of macaronis and 4000 pairs of rockhoppers.
- Îles du Prince-de-Monaco is a group of 16 islets 5 km west of Larose Bay. Their tiny surface area and hilly terrain may remind you of the Principality of Monaco but nothing else will.
- 18 Port Curieuse is a rare patch of sheltered water on the wild west coast. It was named for the ship which visited here in 1913/14, and Curieuse is also the name of a modern oceanography launch working from Port-aux-Français. This coast is otherwise exposed and lacks landing points, so it's rarely visited.
- Île de l'Ouest is what shelters Port Curieuse. It's 11 km long by 5 km wide, and separated from Grande Terre by only a 50 m channel. It was used by sealers and whalers, who also called it Saddle Island for its profile, and here John Nunn and his companions suffered their first shipwreck in Nov 1825. They were rescued 15 days later, only to be wrecked here again in December. A year later, they patched up an abandoned boat and re-located to Cap Ratmanoff on Grande Terre, a less harsh abode for their next three years as castaways.
- La Montjoie is a camp by Baie Rocheuse further north up the coast.
- 19 Port-Christmas is on Baie de l'Oiseau near the north tip of Grande Terre, with a beach thronged by elephant seals and king penguins. It was named by Captain Cook, who landed here on Christmas Day 1797. It was the first landfall of ships approaching from the north, with its distinctive sea arch, which collapsed around 1910 leaving two great stumps. Whalers and sealers camped here, especially from Nantucket, and there was a geomagnetic station. The Nantucket link sparked the interest of novelists: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allen Poe ends abruptly in the polar regions, and Jules Verne's Le Sphinx des glaces takes up that story 11 years later.
- 20 Îles Nuageuses are a sub-archipelago of five islands and several islets, 15 km northwest of Grande Terre. Named for their cloud-wreathed cliffs, they have no introduced species so their vegetation is preserved. Great numbers of gentoos, rockhoppers and macaronis nest here.
- 21 Île Foch is the largest outlying island, extending 28 km by 12 km. It's separated from Grande Terre by the km-wide Tucker Strait, too far for rats to swim, and nobody has introduced any species. It's therefore the largest tract of pristine habitat in the archipelago, and is strictly protected - researchers seldom land, and tourists never. Its highest point is Pyramide Mexicaine at 687 m.
- Île Howe just north of Foch and Île Saint-Lanne Gramont just west are under similar protection, along with four other nearby islets and the northern sub-archipelago of Îles Leygues.
- Watching wildlife is why you came. And you won't have time for much else, as the ship needs to sail on in a day or two.
The currency is the euro (€). Nothing to buy here, there isn't a souvenir shop.
Tourists are fed on the ship, so expect the same-old same-old that you've consumed since Réunion. Meanwhile les pafiens ashore are eagerly opening the jars of cranberry sauce and other goodies that have just arrived on the ship, to garnish their reindeer steaks.
Water, but don't drink from the pools, they're full of unspeakable material. You'll want a hot drink as soon as you get inside from your sight-seeing.
Useful to know: "louzou" is taafien for red wine, and doesn't mean Greek anise-favoured liquor.
Tourists to Kerguelen normally sleep aboard the supply ship.
The main risks are on the sea voyage, with heaving slippery decks, stairwells to tumble down, and loose objects flying about. You need to be physically fit, and any medical condition to be very well controlled, even if you lose your tablets to sea-sickness. The age range for joining the ship is 18-75. Ashore, the main hazard is slips and trips on the rocky terrain, plus the cold weather.
As of 2023, there is no mobile phone network on the islands. The ship has satellite-based radio phones but they're not for casual conversations.
- Île Amsterdam 1400 km north is the usual next port-of-call of the supply ship. Then you come back to Réunion.
- Îles Éparses, the "Scattered Isles", are tiny places around Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. They too have a supply ship that tourists can join.