The Radio Saga on Two Small Islands South of New Zealand

Carl Walrond, ‘Stewart Island/Rakiura – New Zealand’s third main island’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

The South Pacific nation of New Zealand is made up of two major home islands, the North Island and the South Island, together with an estimated 600 outlier islands. South of the South Island, and on each side of the stormy Foveaux Strait, lie a dozen or more small islands, only one of which is inhabited.

In our program today, which comes to you under the title “The Radio Saga on Two Small Islands South of New Zealand”, we plan to visit two of these islands in Foveaux Strait for an interesting sequence of radio information and events. First, we visit Centre Island.

Centre Island

This island, Centre Island, is one mile long, half a mile wide, and it lies just 10 miles off the south coast of New Zealand’s South Island. It is a Nature Sanctuary, with a lighthouse and an airstrip; that’s about all.

A wooden lighthouse was erected on the island in 1878, and subsequently a communication cable was laid beneath the ocean with connection to the South Island at Colac Bay. However in 1917, the cable developed a technical fault, and the government decided that it would be cheaper to install a Morse Code wireless station at the lighthouse for communication with Awarua Radio VLB (ZLB) at the Bluff near Invercargill, rather than to renew the faulty cable.

In September 1939, warfare burst out in all its fury on continental Europe. England declared war against Germany, and New Zealand, as part of the then British Empire, followed suit.

Now it happened that two amateur radio operators living in Invercargill, identified as Hazlett and Sutton, continued using their amateur transmitters, albeit with Emergency Corps transmissions under the callsigns ZL4EF and ZL4GX. The government confiscated their transmission equipment which was then transferred for use by army personnel who were serving as Coastwatchers on Centre Island.

Centre Island light, date unknown. Courtesy Chris Underwood & Maritime Radio website

Thus the transmitter used by ZL4EF became RFP, and the transmittre used by ZL4GX became RFM.

It is understood that Amateur Radio Operator Hazlett, with the emergency callsign ZL4EF at 100 Melbourne Street in Invercargill, had previously operated his radio equipment under his own amateur callsign ZL4HF.

A few years after the end of the Pacific War in the middle of last century, a small communication transmitter was installed in the lighthouse on Centre Island under the callsign ZMC. A 1958 photograph taken in the wireless room shows what appears to be a simple transmitter/receiver set, and the ship style clock on the wall shows 6:00 clock. A handwritten log book of transmissions from ZMC in 1966 shows that they contacted ZLB on the south coast of the South Island regularly four times each day.

Stewart Island

The island called Stewart is the largest of the subsidiary islands of New Zealand, and at one stage back towards 200 years ago (1841-1853), it was actually governed as a separate province, the third province in the island archipelago.

This Stewart island, along with the two main islands of New Zealand, was populated by Maori settlers some 700 or 800 years ago.

Stewart Island, has a resident population these days of some 400 people, is roughly triangular in shape. It is 40 miles long and 20 miles wide and it lies across the southern side of Foveaux Strait, about 20 miles south of the South Island.

The only settlement on the island these days is Oban which is located on Half Moon Bay in the center on the northeast side of the island.

Aerial view of Oban, Stewart Island. Photo: Southland New Zealand website

Tourism is one of the main sources of income for the Stewart Islanders, though the China Virus has brought this financial flow to a mere trickle. Sometimes small tourist planes fly in from the South Island and land on a water hardened sandy beach on Stewart Island. There are occasions when the local islanders celebrate their island with a mock independence festival.

It is true that there are always whale strandings along the coastal waters of New Zealand and its many islands. It is stated that there have been more than 5,000 episodes of whale strandings in the South Pacific during the past 1½ centuries.

However, last year (2020) there was an epidemic of whale strandings on several islands of the South Pacific, including Stewart Island. On November 23, (2020), two whale pods, with a total of 145 Pilot Whales, were beached at the southern end of Mason Bay on the west coast of Stewart Island, all of which unfortunately died. Mason Bay is accessible only by boat or by plane, with no roadway into the area.

In 1931, a small communication station was opened at Oban-Half Moon Bay under the callsign ZLO for communication with ZLB Awarua. However that station was closed during the next year when a new underwater cable was installed for communication with the South Island. The ZLO callsign was subsequently applied to the Taupo communication station in the center of the North Island, near the RNZI transmitter site at Rangitaiki.

1980s newspaper promotion for Southland station 4ZA.
© Radio Heritage Foundation, Mark Nicholls Collection

Fourteen years later (1948), a small radiotelephone transmitter was installed at Port Pegasus for communication with the mainland areas of New Zealand. This transmitter, with the callsign ZLHS, operated on 2182 kHz, though it is no longer in service, and the entire settlement of Port Pegasus has since been abandoned.

An FM repeater station on 96.4 MHz carries a relay from Radio Southland in Invercargill and it was installed at the settlement of Oban in December 1994. In addition, many FM, TV and mediumwave stations in the South Island are readily audible throughout Stewart Island.

In a most unusual move, the New Zealand government has given approval for the experimental transmission of electricity through the air from the South Island to Stewart Island. This concept is reminiscent of the experiments of Nikola Tesla in Colorado in the United States back in 1890.

Tesla fed a huge high frequency current through a massive electrical coil, with the intent that magnetic inductance would produce a similar electrical response in another huge coil at a distance. In the South Island of New Zealand a small new company Emrod has conducted similar experiments with the transmission of a few watts of electricity over a distance of 130 feet. Funding for this experimental project has been provided by Powerco, the second largest generator of electricity in New Zealand.

Under the Emrod-Powerco setup, four components are required: Electrical power, transmitting antenna, intermediate line of site relay equipment, and a receiving antenna with a power converter. The transmitting antenna sends out a focused beam of converted electricity which is surrounded by a system of lasers. If a bird or any object interrupts the laser beam, the beam of converted electricity is instantaneously and temporarily switched off with therefore no harm to the unawares intruder.

In view of the success of the original simple experiments, a more extensive set of equipment is currently under installation in the South Island, and if those experiments are successful, another similar set of equipment will be installed to convert electricity on the South Island of New Zealand and send it wirelessly to Stewart Island, a distance of some 20 miles.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of June 13, 2021

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  1. 2021/09/07 Reports from New Zealand DXers indicate there a currently no active broadcasting stations on Stewart Island.

  2. David Kaio commented on the dxdialog email list:

    “In late 1994 a group of Stewart Island residents were keen to establish a station on the Island. In the early stages I was part of a small group from Southland Community Broadcasters involved in an informal joint venture to investigate the feasibility.

    A licence for 94.4 FM 0.1kW was issued in early 1995 covering a Stewart Island studio and transmitter located at business premises (the travel and/or information agency I think). The local studio was able to ‘break-in’ to the relay of Radio Southland 96.4 FM (as it is now known) as required.

    As I was working away from Invercargill for most of 1995 before eventually moving to Christchurch later that year, I didn’t have any further involvement and cannot advise how long the venture continued. However, as the annual costs for just the maintaining of a licence were high back then, the venture must have concluded before or during December 2001 when the licence was cancelled.”