It seems as though I am ticking off bucket-lister’s quicker than I can add them, visiting the world’s most remote inhabited island, Tristan Da Cunha, wasn’t even a place I knew existed until I joined this boat. A lot has happened since we left the vast, icy waters of Antarctica and returned back to the Falkland Islands. We’ve said goodbye to one group of scientists and welcomed another, we’ve star-gazed, moon watched, whale spotted; and I learnt how to play poker! But Saturday was a real highlight and a much needed break after two and a half weeks of nothing but the seemingly endless sea and sky.
I got up at the usual time of six, headed upstairs to set up for breakfast and then took my tea outside to watch as we approached our latest destination. We were absolutely spoilt for views with not only this epic island on the port side but a stunning sunrise on the starboard, trying not to spill my tea as I ran backwards and forwards trying to absorb both at the same time. The whole ship hummed with an excited buzz, the idea of placing feet on solid ground (and what rare ground it is) had everyone keenly pacing between decks, waiting for their allocated time slot to go ashore.
The main island of a tiny archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean, the volcanic Tristan is 2,000 km away from the nearest inhabited land, St Helena (where we are headed next), 2,400 km away from South Africa and 3,360 km away from South America. According to wiki the cluster of six islands was first recorded as sighted by Portuguese explorer Tristao Da Cunha in 1506. After naming the biggest island after himself he attempted to land but found the rough seas prevented him from setting foot ashore. The islands were later used as temporary bases by sealers and whalers and it was from here that the first settlers arrived. Jonathan Lambert who had sailed in from Salem declared himself emperor (if he does say so himself) but then disappeared in somewhat suspicious circumstances during an argument with one of his two companions. The other, Thomas Curry, was still on the island when the next inhabitants arrived.
The British later annexed the islands in 1816 and a population slowly formed from members of a temporary British garrison, shipwrecked sailors and other Europeans, and later women from neighbouring island St Helena. By 1886 there were 97 inhabitants living at the settlement of Edinburgh on Tristan Da Cunha, their interests aroused by Curry’s stories of buried treasure hidden somewhere on the island. Curry died from drink plied to him by the members of the garrison seeking the treasure, the whereabouts of which was never revealed.
The garrison had been sent by the British Government because they were worried that the island might be used for an attempt by the French to rescue Napoleon who had been exiled to St Helena in 1815. It was later withdrawn in 1817, however Corporal William Glass from Kelso, Scotland and his wife and children asked to remain on the island along with two stonemasons from Plymouth, UK; the stonemasons didn’t stay long but examples of their work can still be seen on the island houses. Others joined Glass and his family over the next few years, notably Thomas Swain from Hastings, UK, Andrew Hagan and five bachelors who asked a naval Captain if he could arrange five wives from St. Helena, Christmas coming early when the ladies later arrived in 1827.
Then in 1892 the Italia, an Italian ship was wrecked off the island and two of the sailors Andrea Repetto and Gaetano Lavarello from Gamogli decided to stay and married two local girls. Two sisters, Agnes and Elizabeth Smith from Kilkenny, Ireland met and married two islanders fighting with the British Army in the Boer War and afterwards returned with them to Tristan. Eight family names, Glass, Green, Hagan, Patterson, Lavarello, Repetto, Rogers and Swain are the only surnames now found on the island.
In 1961 a volcano eruption beside Edinburgh forced all of Tristan’s 264 inhabitants to evacuate, stopping for an uncomfortable night on nearby Nightingale Island before being rescued by a Dutch liner that happened to arrive the next day and who took them to Cape Town. The islanders were soon taken to England where after spending a brief time in wooden huts in Surrey they were housed at a former RAF base at Calshot, near Southampton where they suffered unhappily through an unusually cold English winter. After fighting to return to the island, some 200 inhabitants made it back to Tristan after the island was deemed suitable for living despite the lack of livestock after the dogs had had their share.
So as you can imagine we were all pretty keen to explore this island with its incredible history and fascinating culture. The weather Gods had blessed us with perfect clear skies and calm waters, making it easy and safe to drive the tender into the usually unpredictable and potentially dangerous harbour. Nine o’clock came and group 2 were called to don life jackets and prepare to go ashore, so as we, a group of excited seafarers, clambered into the rib we watched the settlement of Edinburgh get closer and closer and our floating home get further and further away.
We had been told by some of the scientists on board who had previously spent time on Tristan that it’s people were shy but very polite, this being confirmed by the kind-hearted hand shake given by a local girl that we all received upon arriving. We had also been told not to expect much in terms of amenities, this is the world’s most remote inhabited island after all, but we were pleased to discover a place to buy a few small souvenirs, a limited but pleasant ‘cafe’, a town hall, a church and of course, a small ‘pub’.
We walked around for a while just enjoying the feeling of gravel beneath our feet before we decided to go for a quick dip in a little bay near the harbour. Due to lava from the eruption (which is still very visible on and around the volcano) the sand was a magnificent black and had a dry, charcoal feel to it. Chris the Chef (whose birthday had coincidentally fallen on this day) stripped down and ran straight in, claiming the water was fine but who quickly got swept away by the choppy current. Amanda (engineer on board) and I were a little more hesitant but still managed to take the obligatory ‘We went swimming here!’ photo before the waves came in and knocked us over.
The scientists were right in saying that the people of Tristan were kind and polite, my Dad also vouched for that after working with a few islanders on board ships in the past. Not only are they gentle in demeanour but they are also pretty interesting to listen to, their accents being an endearing blend between well spoken and traditional English, pigeon English, a hint of what sort of sounds like Welsh and finally local slang. They also have a unique appearance; bronzed by the sun they have a healthy glow, broad smiles of white teeth and big bright eyes.
After our time was up we headed back to the ship and later that same day began our next journey, but not without gaining a few extra passengers. Islanders Dawn, Robin and their very sweet little daughter Amber Repetto are accompanying us on our last little stretch of water before disembarking in St. Helena. We will then make the crossing across the equator and begin our journey home. If you need me, I’ll be basking in the tropical sun and watching for whales!
(photo credits with thanks: Richard Turner http://www.richardturnerphotographs.co.uk/ and Alicia (Pips) Tomkinson https://wispywoowaa.wordpress.com/)