We had a fine, settled day, lightly overcast but with the sun beaming through finishing in a warm day. Plancius anchored about half a mile offshore, and within an easy zodiac run to the tiny harbour. Once immigration details had been sorted, we landed, timing leaps off the zodiac onto the concrete quay between swells, and by 11.00 all were ashore.
We spent the day variously touring the settlement, heading up to volcanic outcrop which is a bleak souvenir of the destructive 1961 eruption, or going out to the potato patches a few miles from Edinburgh. Although for some mysterious reason the pub was not open, some useful commerce of the beer-drinking variety was achieved in the café, and many took the chance to top up on e-mails etc. Birds were relatively few and far between, but the famous Tristan thrushes, ‘Starchies’ were seen, along with Antarctic terns and Skuas. Some of us saw the painted lady butterfly, whose precise provenance is still debated (introduction or alien?) and others found a small gecko lizard that almost certainly was from a consignment of hay from South Africa about two years ago.
It was both educational and inspirational to wander around the little houses, many still with their old stone gables, though almost all have abandoned the flax thatch in favour of other materials. Perhaps most importantly it was good to chat and joke with the very friendly locals who clearly enjoyed our presence, aside from the chance to do good business. We also had the pleasure of having six guides from Tristan come on board to help with their knowledge of Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands.
The harbour was due to close at 17.00, and we managed this with about ten minutes to spare, returning to Plancius for a lovely dinner and a beautiful view of the starry night.
Tristan da Cunha
The island of Tristan da Cunha is the most isolated inhabited place on earth, right in the middle of the vast emptiness of the Southern Atlantic Ocean. It lies 3000 km west of Cape Town, and 3300 km east of Buenos Aires. The nearest human settlement is on the almost equally isolated island of Saint Helena, almost 2500 km to the north. Tristan and its smaller, uninhabited neighbours Nightingale and Inaccessible Island, were first sighted by the Portuguese sailor Tristão da Cunha in 1506. Uninhabited Gough Island, a nesting site for millions of seabirds, lies 450 km to the southeast. The islands are volcanic, the main island Tristan being the youngest, less than one million years old. Tristan is a classic cone-shaped volcano, circular, with a diameter of 11 km and a central peak with a crater lake, a little over 2000 m high. On all sides, the mountain is flanked by sheer cliffs, rising from the sea, up to 700 m. At the foot of these huge cliffs, there are a few low-lying plateaus.
The largest of these plateaus is just 6 km long and about 600 m wide. This is where the people live, and grow their potatoes in the legendary ‘Potato Patches’. Permanent settlement started in 1815, when a British garrison was posted on Tristan to help guarding Napoleon on distant St Helena. When the garrison left, Corporal William Glass stayed behind with his wife and two little children, together with some bachelor friends. In 1827 five coloured women from St Helena were imported to marry the bachelors. Later settlers, often shipwrecked sailors, chose to stay and marry one of the locally bred beautiful girls. Today there are seven families on the island: Glass, Rogers, Swain, Hagan, Green, Lavarello, and Repetto, of American, British, Dutch, Italian, Irish, South African, and Saint Helenian descent, with a total population of around 250. There is only one village, officially named Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, but usually just called ‘The Settlement’.
In 1961 the entire population was evacuated when the volcano erupted, and a new lava cone arose just next to the village, damaging and burning no more than one house. After spending a year in Britain, where to their great dismay they were turned inside out by legions of scientists and journalists, they returned to their peaceful island, to pick up their simple life of fishing, growing potatoes, raising sheep, and knitting. Their main source of income comes from a rich supply of crayfish around the islands, which is exploited by a South African company, catering for markets in the US and Japan. The second source of income is from the sales of stamps, sought after by collectors all over the world.
Together with Ascension, Tristan is part of the British overseas territory of St Helena and its dependencies, with a governor based in St Helena and an administrator on Tristan. The admin rules together with the island council. Council members and the Chief Islander are elected directly from the entire population for a period of three years. Tristan has a small hospital, with an expat doctor and local nurses. Children go to school till the age of 15. Those who choose further education have to go abroad. Tristan can only be reached by ship, six to eight times per year, five days sailing from Cape Town. Apart from millions of seabirds, the island host a number of unique, endemic land birds: a thrush, a handful of bunting species, a flightless moorhen, and the most exclusive and elusive of all, the diminutive and dainty Inaccessible Island Flightless rail, the tiniest non-flying bird in the world.