Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Christmas onTristan

The Island Sky at Night
The islanders put on a great program of events for visiting cruise ships. We had two over Christmas – the Island Sky and the Hanseatic.  The highlight is always a visit to Nightingale – a small island 30km to the south-west - where there are Rockhopper Penguins, Fur Seals with pups, Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Tristan Thrushes and Nightingale Buntings that are all happy to pose for the camera!   I travelled across on the Island Sky, with its 85 passengers and some island men who guide.  Seldom will islanders (or me) have travelled in such style.  It takes a couple hours to make the crossing.  Which gives plenty time to sample the luxuries on offer. Like a delicious a-la carte lunch with wine, or (on the return journey) beer in the lounge or afternoon tea with exotic cakes on the deck.  Even simple (but rare) pleasures like real coffee, newspapers and a fruit bowl with nectarines.   A great experience – a little luxury in an austere lifestyle! 

Fur Seal Pup
Ashore, the focus of attention is the penguins (Pinnamins, in the local dialect).  They must be the most attractive and comical of all penguin species, with their flashy golden-yellow head plumes.  Humans share the same landing spot as penguins, and from time to time a great surge of penguins leap from the crest of a breaking wave onto the rock beside us. They hop up a rocky path (hence the name) to their breeding grounds amongst the dense and high (2.5 metres) Tussock Grass (Spartina arundinacea) which dominates the island.   We follow the penguins up past noisy Fur Seals.  Occasionally sleeping seals lie hidden in the Tussock Grass and when disturbed bolt seawards across the path, snarling and barking aggressively, sending penguins hopping in all directions. They are big and can give a bad bite and so our guides go ahead to ensure safe passage.

Remains of dead Broad-billed Prions (Nightbirds) litter the path and soon the culprit swoops low and menacingly over our heads.  I should have guessed - a Skua.  Actually a Tristan Skua, the local subspecies of the Sub-Antarctic Skua, but quite similar to our Bonxie.  The Nightbirds nest in burrows under the Tussock Grass and can only safely emerge under the cover of dark. But the days are long in summer and many are caught taking a chance.  Tristan Thrushes (Starchies) feed opportunistically on the carnage.

Further on we encounter Yellow-nosed Albatrosses (Mollys) sitting on huge white fluffy chicks.  A major photo-opportunity.    But I’ve seen breeding Mollys before on Tristan and am more interested in Nightingale Buntings (Canaries) feeding enthusiastically amongst the Tussock grass.  Superficially like greeny-grey warblers but with an unmistakable finch-shaped bill.  As the name suggests they are only found on Nightingale.  There are two endemic buntings on Nightngale.  But we don’t see the other one; the Wilkin’s Bunting, as it is critically endangered with a population of just 40 pairs.

Though the main interest is obviously the birds and seals, I answer a lot of questions from visitors about the flora.  They are interested to see the endemic species Nertera homboei (Fowl Berry), and Cotula moseleyi (Nightingale Brass Buttons) neither of which I’d seen before myself as they don’t occur on Tristan.  I am puzzled to see so many populations of the fern, Hypolepis rugolusa, along the path side.  In my experience this species is rare on Tristan.  After Tussock Grass, sadly the next most abundant plant species is Holcus lanatus (Yorkshire Fog). It thrives in bird-enriched soils.  We return along the muddy path and over slippy rocks.  I stand still to catch breath for a moment.  Within a few minutes a large crowd of muddy Pinnamins appear from the dark recesses of Tussock Grass and begin to hop past, gingerly at first but then faster as confidence builds.   

Edwin & Brian with longboats
The visit to Nightingale is just one of many events and activities organised for visitors.  Many of whom stay ashore with island families for Christmas. They are joined by day visitors from the ships and there is a tremendous buzz around the village.   The programme includes a carol concert, a film show, guided walks at the Potato Patches and volcano and demonstrations of sheep-shearing, carding and spinning.  There is a craft show in the village hall where knitted penguins can be bought – along with many other handcrafts.  The Albatross Bar, Island Store, cafe, Post and Tourism offices are all specially opened.  A great opportunity to do a little last-minute shopping for emergency presents, home-made mince pies and things I’d forgotten to buy adequate supplies of (beer, mainly).  And, of course, the Christmas Eve and Christmas morning church services are very popular.

 But the highlight is local kids singing Christmas carols.  A great moment.  Afterwards Santa is to arrive by donkey (reindeer are in short supply on Tristan) to hand out Christmas presents to the children.  However due to a donkey malfunction, Santa has to walk and five strong men restrain donkey at Santa’s side.  The tourists’ reward is many photographs to remember a happy visit.  The children are rewarded with ice-cream, a rare luxury, which they enjoy in the warm summer sunshine.

PS Knitted Rockhopper Penguins and Edwin and Brian's model longboats are available on the Tristan da Cunha website -  Order now for next Christmas!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Breaking-up Day

Yesterday was one of the biggest days in the Tristan calendar.  Everyone celebrates going on three weeks summer holidays over Christmas.  Staff at each of the government departments and the fish factory start off with a communal breakfast – of (variously) eggs, bacon, sausages, beans, bread, toast, tea coffee and beer!  And that is then followed by all-day office parties. 

Everyone except us that is – because we need to make the most of any good weather.  We had originally planned to squeeze in a camping survey expedition before Christmas.  The morning was promising and we were set to go a 6.30 when my work partner, Lourens, suggested we ought to go to the Conservation Department breakfast and set off afterwards.  
So while having breakfast (at my house as it turned out) the weather turned suddenly nasty.  Which was just as well as we could then participate in the day’s celebrations with a clear conscience.   The idea is that you circulate from party to party.  I went round five different office parties. The liveliest was the Post and Tourism Office party – where people were dancing. The best food (delicious homemade pizza) was at the Comm.s Dept. party in the Internet cafe.  The most drinking seemed to have happened at the Admin Dept. party judging by the number of empties lying around by the time I got there!  After a short interlude it was off to a braai in the evening.  Tristanians certainly know how to party! 

The weather is still bad today so sadly our expedition had to be postponed yet another day (phew!)

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Sheep Shearing Day

Wayne in action.
Today is sheep shearing day on Tristan.  Families work together to shear, dose and mark their sheep quota of two sheep (plus lambs) per person. Everyone helps out – grandparents, men, women, children - even visiting botanists.  It’s a family day out.  Men use hand shears in a deft operation that is made to look easy.  But judging where fleece stops and sheep starts is tricky.  Wisely, I was given the task of catching and holding sheep down and not shearing.  (Otherwise there would have been a lot of blood.)   Old men are on light duties such as operating gates. Grandmothers sit knitting in strategically parked bakkies watching events, while younger women supply tea and sandwiches.  Children play together and collie sheep dogs run around excitedly.   There is a lot of beer, banter and playing.
No mistaking this one!
One of the final tasks is to select sheep for slaughter to bring the flock size back into line with the family quota that includes all one year plus sheep – and increases with last year’s lambs.    This is essential to limit overgrazing of the island’s pasture – which is shared with 600 odd cattle and 14 donkeys.   The limiting factor is the availability of winter grazing as there is no supplementary feed available.   Thin soils, frequent storms and extensive salt spray make growing hay or silage difficult if not impossible, and the cost of importing fodder is prohibitive.   The only exception is that milking cows are given boiled potatoes as supplementary feed – otherwise there would be little milk and no cream.   By the way I get milk delivered to my fridge straight from Sylvia’s hand-milked cow.  The top two inches of cream is a breakfast highlight on my porridge or Tesco Frosties.  
Anyway I digress.  The over quota sheep have to be slaughtered before Easter.  And generally it is sheep that are slaughtered and not the lambs as mutton is considered much more flavoursome and killing growing lambs seems wasteful.   The traditional Christmas (and Easter) dinner is stuffed roast mutton which sounds really delicious.
Earlier in the week I went to the Tristan School Christmas Nativity play.  There was standing room only in the school hall as all 32 school kids performed to parents, families and friends. I counted 140 in the audience – about half the island’s entire population.  (Many others had seen a previous performance specially laid on for the island’s pensioners.)  It was an entertaining show. But I was thinking how difficult it must be to teach such a small number of kids of all ages.  After short speeches by the Head teacher and Sean the Administrator and a rendition of the National Anthem the audience repaired to the Albatross Bar.
I mentioned last time that the Island Store closes for a month at Christmas.  What I hadn’t appreciated is that absolutely everything closes over the Christmas holiday – including the Albatross.  I now understand why bakkies are so popular on the island – they are needed to get the Christmas food and drink shopping home!  Considering the average income is about £2000 a year I saw some big bills being rung up – like £140 - and that was probably only one instalment!   My Christmas shopping included a couple boxes of posh biscuits to give folk who have been particularly kind to me.  And a 2 foot artificial Christmas tree, complete with decorations and 20 lights - bargain at £4.

Last time I told you about a very exciting Christmas present arriving – a hard drive with loads of films.  Well it transpires that only part of the consignment arrived.  All were posted at the same time in the UK.  Sadly there is no sign of the other packages – one of which contained Christmas pudding apparently! I hope they arrive in January, but I’m told it can take up to a year... if ever!

Another milestone in Tristan history this week – the internet is speeded up from 32 to 64 kilobytes/sec – between all 280 islanders and shared with 12 voice-over-internet telephone channels.  So it’s still slow but not quite as slow!  
I had a haircut this week.  Not easy you might think in a place where the nearest barber is 1500 miles away!   So when one of the Conservation Team lads appeared one morning sporting a neat haircut I asked how he’d done it, and arranged for Kirsty, the office clerk to cut mine too.

I previously mentioned that it’s rare to see (or hear) jets over Tristan.  I learnt this week that there is actually a scheduled service which goes over twice a week from Cape Town to Buenos Aries. But its at altitude and not always visible or audible. 

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

News Headlines


There is a lot going on just now so here are the headlines: 
Mum is well on the road to recovery after breaking her leg. She got out of hospital two weeks ago and is adjusting to living at home with the help of family - including my sister, Catherine who flew over from America - friends and health visitors.  Take care mum!
The Baltic Trader has just returned and I got the first mail from the outside world today since  September: a letter from America - thank you Catherine - and a Christmas present of a hard drive with loads of films - thank you Simon and Chris – it’s brilliant!
The microscope I ordered from GX Microscopes in September also arrived today. Excellent machine – thank you Bob!

The last day for posting Christmas mail is the 9th December.  But given that none of the Christmas cards I sent back in early October have arrived yet, I don’t hold out much hope for the cards I'm posting now!
Official last day for shopping is the 15th December when the one and only shop shuts until the 16th January.  A military-precision shopping expedition is being planned.
A technician has just arrived on the Baltic Trader to speed up the internet connection.  Fantastic!

I was invited to Cedric’s 18th birthday party on Saturday night in the village hall. Just under half the entire island population turned out. It was a bit like a highland ceilidh with every generation represented including kids and grandparents. The women tend to sit along one wall and the men stand around the bar or by the stage. Two long trestle tables were laden with savoury food and a vast array of cakes - all home made. There was also one of the biggest birthday cakes I've seen in a long time!  A great night with lively dancing and music.
Finally, back home we've got a new puppy - Rannoch.

Base Camp

Sorry for the radio silence.  I’ve been camping on one of the remotest spots on the remotest inhabited island in the world!  On the plateau above Sandy Point - the easternmost point of Tristan.  We travelled from the settlement by small boat, leaving just after bad weather cleared – and returning just before it set in again five days later.  But in case we got stranded (which we nearly did!) we took enough food, clothes and kit for a fortnight.

Carrying heavy rucksacks with survey equipment, tent, sleeping bag and food up the steep escarpment was hard work.  Especially going through Bog Fern (Blechnum palmiforme) and dense patches of Island Tree (Phylica arborea).  I’ve already mentioned how difficult it is to get through Bog Fern but that pales compared with Island Tree which forms a dense scrubby woodland tangle with fallen and standing deadwood.   (Island Tree is a member of the Rhamnaceae family and native to Tristan da Cunha group and Amsterdam and St Paul in the Southern Indian Ocean.)  It’s just as well my South African work partner is pretty handy with a machete.  I followed him in a hail of wood chips and cut branches!
Sunrise over Tristan
The soft spongy ground also makes the going hard.  It is quite amazing.  Slow-decaying mosses (including Spagnum recurvum), lichens, ferns and flowering plants make a dry light peat.  It sinks 4 inches with every step and makes normal tent pegs useless.  Pity we hadn’t anticipated that!  So we improvised with long wooden stakes and guys tied to trees and ferns.  A nesting Atlantic Yellow-billed Albatross (Molly) and several tame house mice shared the site.
Dinner with mice and mollys.

After a good night’s kip and a breakfast of porridge oats and cold water we set off at 6.30 for a full day’s survey work.  Apart from the wildlife and scenery a highlight of the day is lunch.  It’s amazing how good 5 day old sandwiches can be.  Mind you, home-made brown bread, with cheese, roast tomatoes, lettuce and Mrs Ball’s fine chutney does make an excellent sandwich. Oh aye, and big slices of home-made fruit tea cake!  We return 12 hours later after only covering a few kilometres to write up notes, process data, press plant specimens and have dinner (spaghetti al ragu) before dusk.  
Bootlace Fern (Radiovittaria ruiziana)
The flora was different from what we had seen elsewhere. This side of the island is in the lea of the prevailing westerly’s and the vegetation is more luxuriant, creating a humid microclimate – particularly in narrow gulleys or ‘gutters’ – for some of the rarer ferns like Athyrium medium and Hypolepis rugulosa. Though both of these were still unfurling and may have been overlooked previously.  For the first time, we saw Cardamine glacialis and the endemic Ranunculus caroli in flower.  It was great seeing several big populations of Trichomanes angustatum and abundant Hymenophyllum tunbrigense but puzzling to only very rarely find the brilliantly named endemic, Bootlace Fern (Radiovittaria ruiziana).

Typically we recorded about 50 species in a 1 km square. A few are dominant (like Bog Fern and Island Tree) or abundant (like Island Berry (Empetrum rubrum) and fern species Blechnum penna-marina and Ctenitis aquilina) but most are only occasional or rare. In this area there are few non-natives. The most widespread is Yorkshire Fog, locally called Farm Grass (Holcus lanatus).  All others are rare and only found in the gutters and gulches. They include Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium fontanum), Sheep’s Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) and Common Dock (R. obtusifolius).
The Descent to Sandy Point

After an exciting boat journey, we returned to a ritual round of everyone's house to thank the crew and skipper and celebrate a safe return with a beer (or two).   And, for me, presents of home-made cakes, bread, mutton and even a roast beef dinner!  The islanders are amazingly kind and generous.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Sounds of Silence?

You might think that the remotest inhabited island in the world is a silent place. Far from it. Wind noise is pervasive. The mean wind speed is 40km/hour.  When the wind is strong the New Zealand flax shelter belts makes additional thrashing noise. Rain frequently accompanies wind – and it sounds really heavy on the village’s corrugated steel roofs. If you can't hear wind or rain then almost certainly you hear the South Atlantic Ocean swell crashing onto Tristan's rocky volcanic shores. The ocean is very rarely calm and it’s a very peaceful noise to fall asleep to. The sound travels far.  One of the few times I've not heard wind or waves was 1100 metres up and well back from the edge of the base.

Tristan has one of the highest rates of vehicle ownership of any country in the world. Surprising you might think when there is only about 4 km of tarred road and a similar length of dirt track. All the vehicles seemed to be owned by men and I’m sure it is a status thing. The vehicles are mostly 125cc motorbikes and 4x4 bakkies (pickup trucks). So for about ten minutes every morning there is regular traffic noise. Fishing days, when government offices close and the men go fishing, are heralded at 4.30am by the ringing of the ‘dong’ - an old red gas cylinder near the Albatross pub.  Suddenly there is a stream of traffic heading to the harbour and later in the day, when the catch is landed a siren calls workers to the fish processing factory.

Tristan men at work
We heard a very rare noise this week - a jet!  Tristan is not on any scheduled flight path and it is very unusual to hear jets. Such events are reported in the local newspaper. While jets are rare we do have a natural equivalent - the low-flying albatross!  Which makes an astonishing and beautiful whooshing noise. They seem to aim for humans but unlike the Antarctic Skuas there is no menace – just curiosity.  It’s spring here but there is no dawn chorus as neither of the two breeding landbirds on Tristan nest in the settlement.  But I’ll tell you more about Starchies and Island Cocks another time - both of which are quite noisy.

On Wednesday we heard another rare sound - gunshot - as we watched island men kill then butcher a bullock.  There are no abattoirs on the island, so when the meat supply runs low a sheep or bullock is culled – often in some remote part of the island.  No easy task as livestock is very wary of men with guns (sensibly) and runs fast in the opposite direction.  But the men seem to enjoy the hunt.   In less than 30 minutes deft work with knives and axe, the beast was skinned, disembowelled, quartered and bagged up for the return journey to the settlement by boat. We were camping in a hut nearby and were kindly given some beef for our braai (barbeque).  Very nice too - if a bit chewy. 

We fell asleep to the sound of breaking waves, distant fur seals and rats rustling round the hut.

Fur Seals taken a little earlier in the day.

PS Exciting news – visitors from the outside world! A broken down round-the-world racing yacht is due to limp into Tristan harbour tomorrow morning. 

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Harder than the Hardest Thing?

I've mentioned the landscape before - it is truly fantastic!  A 2,000 metre high volcanic cone, often snow clad, surrounded by a high plateau (the base) around 1000m which is very deeply incised by numerous river valleys (called gulches) ending up with cascading waterfalls over a great escarpment which completely encircles the island and leaves only a narrow coastal plain in a few places.  In places the escarpment plunges straight down to the sea or leaves only the narrowest boulder beaches. 

The lush vegetation on the base and escarpment is dominated by ferns or trees.  More specifically Island Tree (Phylica arborea) and Bog Fern (Blechnum palmiforme).  The tree is rarely more than 3 or 4 metres high and forms dense thicket which are amost impenetrable - though we have yet to experience the most impenettrable Phylica on the more sheltered western side of the island.  The Bog Fern is more like a tree fern - it can be 2 metres tall with a stem 15cm in diameter and has very stiff branches.  More usually it is about a metre high and when growing close together makes walking through the interlocking branches tiring. The ground itself is spongey and very uneven and the fallen and hidden trunks of Bog fern are an additional hazard.
The Bog Fern is amazing as it is host to an entire community of ferns and flowering plants. These grow epiphytically  on the 'trunks'  getting support only but nutrients and water from the enviroment.  They include some very interesting species - including one of the few native to both Tristan and the British Isles - Tunbridge Filmy-fern (Hymenophyllum tunbrigense).  It is just one of three Filmy-ferns in that habitat.

We start early and finish late each day to maximise our time on the Base and with ascents and descents so steep that there are fixed ropes in places.  We traverse Bog Fern and Island Tree habitats and the numerous deep gulches to get to and from our survey areas carrying heavy rucksacks full of survey equipment, food and clothes for four seasons that are often put to the test.  SAS training must be easier!  

In future we will set up camp on the Base (Base camp - literally!) to minimise commuting time and effort.  But the weather must improve first and we need more grass and sedge species to flower to be able to confidently identify and survey - particularly at altitude.  About a quarter of Tristan's flora are grasses or sedges - and many that are found nowhere else (endemic).   At least our tents have just arrived - even if the microscope and other equipment from Kew have failed to materialise.  Before then we hope to take boats to the remoter parts of the island and stay in privately-owned huts  (holiday homes for islanders) and use them as bases for survey work.

In Britain you take good maps for granted. There is no such luxury here - only crude small-scale contour maps and aerial photographs - none of which show the grid squares we are surveying accurately.  None show paths accurately - and they are often the only way up and down the escarpment and the easiest ways around the Base.  And none are georeferenced properly so we are not able to plot routes and plant populations precisely.

My blog has made the island sound very exotic but the reality of working here is that it is hard. Very hard. Harder than anything I've ever done before.  Maybe I should have entitled the blog Harder than the Hardest Thing?

PS I've got some exciting news. We think we found the endemic rush species Rostkovia tristanensis on Thursday. TBC but if correct the first time it has been recorded on Tristan since a Norwegian Expedition survey in 1938. It was in a completely different place from their first record. The species is also known from Gough Island some 350km distant. For the botanists amongst you it looks a bit like Juncus biglumis except that it grows in acidic wet montane heath with Empetrum rubrum, Lycopodium insularis and numerous small sedge and grass species.

Here is a link to more information

Friday, 11 November 2011

Further than the Furthest Thing

You may have pondered the strange blog address.  It obviously refers to the island's remoteness.   But it is more than that;  I first learnt about Tristan da Cunha by watching a play entitled Further than the Furthest Thing at the Tron ten years ago.  (It was also staged at the Traverse and toured around the highlands and islands.)   Here is a synopsis:  On a remote island in the middle of the Atlantic secrets are buried. When the outside world comes calling, intent on manipulation for political and economic reasons, the islanders find their own world blown apart from the inside as well as beyond. A beautifully drawn story evoking the sadness and beauty of a civilisation in crisis.  If you are interesting you can catch it at the Ljubljana City Theatre, in Slovenia in April 2012.

Talking about remoteness, it has seemed pretty remote here recently.  My mum (85) fell and broke her leg badly a couple weeks ago.  Just the sort of thing one fears most about being stuck on such an isolated island.  Even in an emergency there is no medical evacuation.  Seriously injured or ill islanders are patched up and have to wait for the next scheduled ship.  Which is about once every month or two.  Or hope for a passing ship - and there are not many of them!  Anyway no sooner than I'd heard the news all communications were cut off for an anxious four days.

I'm very pleased and relieved to be able to report that she was up and walking the day after her 3 hour op and transferred to a local hospital within days.  There it is much easier for the family and village support network to swing into full force. Apparently she has even been conducting WRI meetings from her bedside.  (Get well soon, mum!)

On the same theme of remoteness...I've been without any fresh green vegetables for two weeks now.  But yesterday the MV Edinburgh arrived and managed to unload.  The supermarket was bustling with excitement and activity today and full of such exotica as pumpkin, squash, peppers, avocados, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, pears and pineapple.  There were even some barely blackened bananas!   I counted at least five bakkis (South African and local word for pickup truck) parked outside at once! So I went on a massive shopping spree.  What I buy now will have to last until whenever the next ship arrives and unloads in mid December.  I've unpacked my cache carefully and adjusted fridge temperature to optimise vegetable longevity.  Two degrees Centigrade I think might do it - unless anyone knows better?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Rockhoppers and Fur Seals

I saw my first Rockhopper Penguin today. Well two of them to be precise. They really do hop around rocks - unlike the African Penguins I saw near Cape Town which tend to stroll around rather nonchalantly.  But Rockhoppers are much more endearing - they have orange and red ear tufts and look pretty comical.  I'll upload a photo when I get a chance.  And I almost stood on a sleeping fur seal. (Not advised - they can be quite vicious!)  I don't know who got the bigger fright. But when sleeping they look remarkably like rocks on the boulder beach.

Possibly never in the history of plant recording has so much effort gone into recording so few plants. Today we decided to survey a 1km square which includes 'the ponds' - a series of three large lake filled volcanic craters on the north-east side of the island. Clearly visible on Google Earth - check it out.  We set off at 6.45am and walked up the incredibly steep Pigbyte path.  Its so steep that in places there are ropes to help you up. The going is hard because the ground is covered by a thin layer of peat and is very spongey. Anyway by 8.15am we were on the Base - the 2,500 foot plateau which encircles the 6,000 foot peak at the centre of the island (covered in fresh snow this week). The path then continues up to 3,000 feet before descending to the highest pond. It was great walking on a path on the Base - we've seldom had that luxury.  We walked along the narrow ridge between the middle and the highest pond. What a great sense of place!

After spending some time with a large flock of loafing Yellow-nosed albatrosses - you can almost stroke them they are so tame! - we descended through our target survey area. From about 2,000 feet to sea level - through almost impenetrable scrub on a landscape of steep slopes, deep ravines and sudden drops.  The going is very slow, difficult and dangerous. In places my rucksack would touch the ground behind me because it was so steep - and because my rucksack is stuffed full of survey equipment, gear for four seasons and usually - although not by then - a big packed lunch!

There are not many species to record on Tristan - it is so remote not many made it here (at least not without the help of man).  The flora has a high proportion of grasses and sedges, few of which are in flower.  We struggle to identify them from remnants of last year's flowers and fruits.  From there we had a level 3km walk back to Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.  Easy you might think - wrong!! It was possibly even more dangerous than the higher ground. We had to walk along along a narrow strip of boulder beach, between a literally crumbling, near vertical cliff face and huge South Atlantic waves crashing in over the entire beach in places.  It was here we saw the penguins and seals.

Stats: 12 hour day. 10 mile walk, 3,000 foot climb: 55 species recorded, plus a number of vegetation quadrats surveyed and 4 herbarium specimens collected. A botanist's lot is not an easy one on Tristan. Ah well, another of the 100 1km squares surveyed!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Tristan 3 - HMS Clyde 2

Sorry for the hiatus. I've now got the key the internet cafe and can get online out of hours when it is a little faster. Well, less slow. I've got so much to tell you I hardly know where to begin. Anyway here goes. I'll fill some of the other gaps in future posts.

We don’t get many visitors! So Friday was a particularly momentous day for Tristan. The Royal Navy ship HMS Clyde visited and spent the day here. She is en route between the Falkland Islands and Cape Town. The Administrator, the UK Government rep, took the opportunity of an audience to unveil a plaque - on the summit of the Volcano whose eruption lead to the complete evacuation of the island 50 years ago to the month. And while the Administrator and his wife entertained the ship’s captain to lunch at the Residency, the Tristan football team entertained a team from the ship on the adjacent pitch, with a large audience of sheep and cattle and a few islanders watching. The island team won 3-2, maintaining its run of four consecutive wins. It was a beautiful day and only a few islanders turned out to watch as there was important work to do in the potato patches (allotments). Ensuring the continuity of food supply and ultimately survival on one of the world’s most remote islands is a deeply ingrained island instinct. 

In any website on Tristan you always see this welcome sign. But when I arrived I was puzzled because I couldn't find it anywhere. Apparently it is so windy on the island that unless there are visitors and it's calm they take all signs down - including the welcome sign, road signs and one telling you we are 5,386 miles from London! So it suddenly appeared again when the HMS Clyde was in port.

It’s been a busy week for island fishermen and the fish processing factory, with three ‘fishing days’. Let me explain. There are only two employers on the island. The Tristan da Cunha government itself is by far the biggest. It runs an administration office and a treasury including bank, and a number of departments, like agriculture, mechanical, electrical, carpentry, communications, shop, post office, health and education. The other is the lobster processing factory. But many of the government staff are fishermen and on one of the few days which are good enough to launch the boats and get in and out of the harbour safely, a bell is donged at 4.45am and normal island life is suspended for the day. Generally there are 60 fishing days a year. The number is variable and depends on catches and quotas as it is critical that the fishing is sustainable. Once offloaded the factory works flat out to process and freeze the fish catch as soon as possible to ensure freshness. 

It’s been a momentous day in my kitchen too - preparing food for the week ahead. There is no fast or prepared food in the shop. I’ve made a loaf of brown bread, two mixed fruit tea cakes; butternut squash soup and a sausage and carrot casserole. But the really momentous bit is that I’ve used my last cabbage and carrot. There are none left in the island store and won’t be for at least another two weeks when the next supply ship unloads. The only fresh vegetables available in the 'canteen', as the supermarket is called, are onions and butternut squash. There are frozen vegetables but apart from peas they aren’t great - like tomatoes. I suppose that's one of the reasons every islander has an allotment. However the islanders are very kind and generous and I’ve been given potatoes, eggs, lobsters and a huge amount of beef and lamb – all delicious and produced on Tristan. I also get a bottle of milk delivered every other morning from Sylvia Green, straight from her cow, unpasteurised and still slightly warm. Its very creamy and great with coffee and frosties (when chilled).

The weather seems to have settled down here after last week’s deluge. We’ve had several dry and sunny days, and we’ve been up on the plateau at 2,500 feet called the Base, three times in the last week. We should probably be up there again today but it is pretty exhausting and we need some time to recharge batteries (literally and metaphorically!) The ascent is as steep as anything I’ve done in the Alps and even once you get up there the going doesn’t get much easier with deep ravines (gulches) to cross every few hundred yards. The plants are pretty difficult to identify – just to add to the challenge – with a high proportion of grass and sedge species amongst the 90 native and 130 non-native plant species. Because the season is late these grasses and sedges are almost impossible to identify with only last year’s remnants of flowers to go on - which are now frayed, battered or missing after a winter of South Atlantic storms. However it should get easier with perseverance and the advancing season

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Island Life – Friday 7th October

Tristans speak English, but the local accent is pretty difficult to understand. Judging by the blank faces, I guess some of the islanders find my Scottish accent equally hard. Tristan vowels are very clipped, they use different verb endings (like I goes and he go) and speak very fast. I guess I’ll pick it up in time. 
On that theme of communication; one of the best things about Tristan is that calls to the UK are very cheap and clear. Amazingly you just dial a London code (0203) from the UK to get through to the island. It has been great to be able to make long calls home. 
What is not so good is internet access. It’s so slow that the other end gives up waiting. The fastest I’ve seen is 400 bytes/sec. So I’ve not been able to transfer money to the island by internet banking or access some e-mail accounts. Fortunately my Kew e-mail address does work if slowly but I’m really struggling to upload blogs. It took an hour to get my anti-virus updates the other day. So most folk don’t have up to date anti-virus protection and consequently viruses are rife on the island. 
The working day for all Tristans starts early at 6.30am and finishes at 2.30pm and those early starts have been hard for me after nine disturbed nights on the Baltic Trader. All work departments, offices and the shop are open during these times only. Incidentally this compounds the internet problem as you can only access e-mail at work or at the internet cafe during working hours – there is no internet access from private houses. 
There is an air of excitement on the island just now with all these ships visiting within two weeks. As well as the Baltic Trader, the SA Agulhas has now returned to pick up the passengers who have been visiting Tristan over the last three weeks whilst the ship went down to Gough with the annual Met station relief. They are due to go off this morning by helicopter so weather and swell are less important considerations. The Agulhas can carry a lot of passengers and every available B&B and self catering cottage is occupied by visiting tourists, diplomats, scientists and engineers. Because of this there have been a lot of farewell parties and drinks this week and I’ve been out most nights.
And finally the MV Edinburgh is due to arrive this weekend variously collecting or delivering more passengers, mail and diesel fuel.  

The Baltic Trader is still sheltering in the lea of the island waiting for the swell to go down. It’s never been less than 3 metres since I arrived and we’ve had some amazing storms already. But I think that’s just normal. Thankfully I took a huge bag on as cabin luggage so I’m not too stuck for the essentials but it will be nice to be re-united with all my stuff. The folk who were due to return on it will probably miss their connecting flights out of Cape Town because the delay in departing. Interestingly one of the passengers on board the Baltic Trader, a BBC journalist and manager of BBC Radio Solent, Chris Carnegie has just done a piece for “From Our Own Correspondent” on Radio 4 which you can listen again to (but sadly which we can’t).

First Day on Tristan da Cunha - Monday 3rd October

It is great to have my feet on dry land after nine days on the South Atlantic. We were really lucky to get ashore. However we are still waiting for the Baltic Trader’s hold to be unloaded. Fortunately I took a huge bag on as hand luggage. But I’ll be pleased to be reunited with my belongings. The other impact is that the settlement’s store is looking sadly depleted. But I’ll tell you about the store in another time.
I’m in the Rectory, which is where the Anglican priest would stay. Except that the last priest left a year ago and there is still no sign of a replacement. The house is a bit dark, cold and fusty smelling having been unoccupied for so long but it is spacious and does have amazing sea views to the north. Like all other Tristan houses there is no central heating. I’m only there temporarily - until visitors vacate other visitors leave on one of the three ships due to depart over the next week.

People are very kind and friendly, if a bit shy of strangers. Apparently some of the older folk won’t even go out when there are visitors on the island for fear of catching flu or some other bug they have no immunity to. As an example of kindness my new boss came round with a massive two course roast beef dinner his wife had made for me.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Arrival on Tristan: 2nd October

Tristan da Cunhna - first sighting.

Our arrival on Tristan was very exciting, if a little bit scary. There was too much swell for passengers to transfer to the island RIBs. So the Baltic Trader was sent 10km around to the east of the island and we transferred there in the relative calm of the lee of the island.  We then had a very fast and bumpy trip round to the harbour doing over 25 knots. But the most exciting bit was charging into the harbour on the crest of the swell at the same speed and then braking very sharply.
Transferring to RIBs for trip ashore

Monday, 3 October 2011

Nearly There: Saturday 1st October

The day after my last posting the weather took an unexpected turn for the worse and we spent a couple days labouring in a Force 6 in very rough and confused seas doing only 1 or 2 knots over the ground. We are way behind schedule. The big swell makes it very unpleasant and I’ve spent a lot of time in bed and even missed a couple meals (not like me!) Conditions have only very slowly improved over the days but now we have just 175 Nm to go, and at 7.5 knots, I calculate we should arrive in 24 hours time – on Sunday morning.

This is the third consecutive day that no ships have been seen or detected on the ship’s instruments within 25 miles. All you can see is sky and sea. But there are a few signs that we might be approaching land. For one an Antarctic Tern - the first tern we’ve seen in 9 days - landed on the ship’s prow for a rest I think. And this morning a pair of Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses in splendid breeding plumage have been spotted following the ship. They breed on Tristan. But even before these developments, the bird species we have been seeing had subtly changed and here is an updated list:
  • Wandering Albatross
  • Pintado Petrel
  • Spectacled Petrel – predominantly dark brown petrel with white circles around eyes.
  • Soft-plumaged Petrel – dark wings with white undercarriage and a greyish breast band and dark cap.
  • Leach’s Storm Petrel’s – small black petrel with a white rump and a V shaped noted tail.
Ship’s time was put back another hour last night. We are now on GMT – like Tristan da Cunha. I’ve just done a wash in ship’s washing machine so I’ll have fresh clothes to wear on arrival. Which will be tomorrow if all goes to plan.

Mid Voyage: Monday 26 September

We have just had four of the most beautifully sunny and warm days. Today in particular is quite magical – it is almost calm and the sea is like Mediterranean in summer. We are making good progress with speeds up to 9.5 knots today. After some initial sea sickness I seem to have found my sea legs. We are settling into a routine of eating, chatting, strolling around on deck and watching films on DVD in the evening. There is even an exercise bike and I’ve been doing about 15 minutes a day on it.
Captain of the Batlic Trader at the helm

Gert the Engineer gave us a guided tour of the engine room today – which is immaculately clean and well polished. The engine is a 6 cylinder water cooled 96 litre turbo diesel. The radiator is cooled by sea water and amazingly not much bigger than the one in my car (and runs a lot cooler). It starts using a compressed air turbine. There are also 4 electricity generators for the engine auxiliaries, the ships crane, instruments, communications, cooking, and refrigeration in the galley and lighting. Also for the ship’s desalination plant which supplies us with water. Top speed is about 10.5 knots but they run it slower to avoid stressing it out.
Ok I think I’ve figured out what bird species I’ve been seeing. I’ve been using Ryan’s Field Guide to the Animals and Plants of Tristan da Cunha and a borrowed Birds of Southern Africa by Sinclair. The tentative list so far is:
Wandering Albatross – really big with a rather ugly big pink bill, white underwing with black trailing edge and the grey wings. There are a lot of confusing variations in plumage depending on whether the bird is juvenile, immature, sub-adult or adult. But I did wonder if we also had another entirely different species – the Southern Royal Albatross – a massive bird with 3.5 metre wingspan. Albatrosses are amazing to watch they never seem to flap their wings and seem to spend all day effortlessly gliding along often just inches above the waves.
Pintado Petrel – this is the most distinctive of all the birds with beautiful black and white mottled wings – and also one of the most common. They seem to love following the ship in ones and twos.
Blue Petrel – I only saw a few of these yesterday, I think. They have a distinctive dark M shape across their wings. Quite similar to Prions, but I think I’ve understood the difference.
Great-winged Petrel – we’ve been followed most of the morning by a group of five or six and that has given me a chance to have a good look at these birds, which I initially thought were Skuas. Like Skuas they are mostly brown with triangular tail fin outline. But these are petrels and have silvery highlights on both upper and lower wings.
Wilson’s Storm Petrel – Nice to see this old friend recognisable from the North Atlantic. The smallest bird species to be seen with that very distinctive white rump.

Sub-antarctic Skua – only the odd single bird seen yesterday. Very similar to the Great Skua or Bonxie we see around the British Isles.
If you’d like a copy of Ryan’s book, which I can thoroughly recommend, Summerfield (BSBI) Books sell it for £12. Interestingly it's on Amazon for £77.
We had a brilliant sighting of a pod of six dolpins swimming alongside and just in front of the ship yesterday . They are amazing swimmers – so fast and yet so effortless. They seemed to really enjoy swimming with each other and the Baltic Trader - regularly leaping completely out of the water. Although we’ve seen no whales breaching the surface we have seen the occasional distant whale blows!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Leaving Cape Town

Dolpins swimming alongside
It’s a beautiful morning. It’s warm and sunny. The sea is sparkling but there is a pretty big swell and we are rolling along. Despite scanning the sea with binoculars there is not much to see – no land, the occasional distant ship and a few albatrosses and petrels - I’ll update you once I figure out what species they are. Just a lot of sea and sky.

I didn’t sleep much last night – it’s hard getting used to the motion and engine noise. But the bunk is comfortable and there is a little light and air from a nearby port hole. There is an excellent shower but otherwise the plumbing is pretty dodgy but I’ll spare you the details.

Delicious fried eggs and bacon with lovely toast made from dense wholemeal bread for breakfast. And proper filter coffee. But it might have been a mistake because I didn’t feel too well a couple hours later. Anyway I survived but didn’t risk lunch. Actually I’m beginning to wonder how good my motion sickness tablets are. I explained to my doc that I was on a six day sail from Cape Town to Tristan and asked him for extra strong tablets. He prescribed Buccastem which you don’t swallow, but let dissolve slowly between your gum and cheek.

I’ve being trying to befriend the captain. But it’s quite hard work. He is Latvian and is a man of few words and even fewer in English. What I gleaned was that we are doing 7.2 knots and at 10am were only 160 kilometres from Cape Town. Our speed is (to me) surprisingly slow but not untypical for a cargo ship in a big swell. Even here the sea is over 2300m deep according to the charts. A straight line course direct to Tristan would be 260 degrees. However we are on a slightly more southerly course of 252 degrees to increase the angle with the swell and reduce roll. Just another 1600km to go....

To while away the hours I’ve been variously sleeping, reading, chatting and listening to music. For a bit of fun I’ve been listening to all my tracks which come up when you search for the word “Wave”. Not many as it turns out - Love is the Seventh Wave, by Sting; The Name of the Wave, by William Orbit and Brainwaves by Nitin Sawhney.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

MV Baltic Trader

I've said a sad farewell to my partner.  Nine months is a very long time.  And I'm now on the MV Baltic Trader and through a miracle of technology now posting this blog using my mobile phone. (This is going to be an expensive phone bill, but hey it will be the last for a while as there is no mobile service on Tristan.) There is just one little problem. We are still in the dock in Cape Town. It took much longer than anticipated to load, and now the cargo is being secured in the hold.  Everything takes longer in Africa.  The sun has gone down and so a nice shot of Table Mountain will have to wait until my return in 9 or 10 months.

Let me tell you about my fellow passengers. There is a Tristan couple and their young boy and three goldfish, returning home after a holiday in the UK. A BBC Radio Southampton reporter going out for 6 days to do a piece to mark 50 years since the evacuation of the island (to Southampton). An electrical engineer going out to do maintenance work on the island's electricity diesel generators. A doctor who is going out at 5 days notice for 3 months to relieve the island doctor. (Nobody is sure why the resident doctor has become indisposed so suddenly.) And two tourists who are both fulfilling a lifetime dream to visit the island  - even if only for 6 days before returning on the MV Batic Trader.

The ship is owned by a British company, crewed by Russians and flies a Panamanian flag. I'm not quite sure what nationality the captain and the first officer are but the engineer is South African.  Pretty international eh?!

We have just had pan fried lamb with boiled rice, followed by canned fruit for dinner.  But I've taken the precaution of stocking up on nibbles, crisps and chocolates before boarding.  And special sea sickness tablets you don't have to swallow - you put them between your gum and cheek and let them dissolve slowly. 

I think we might be about to go as a siren has just sounded. Ah yes the engines have just been started up. Better go... The forecast is good so I hope I'll be able to speak to you in 6 days time (or so).

Departure Day

Ok its bad but it could be worse. I’ve just had emergency root canal treatment yesterday afternoon and have another appointment this morning at 8.30. Hopefully the painkillers will work eventually and I’ll get some sleep. The dentist is sure that the treatment is essential as the tooth was definitely infected.  They use minature flexible round files and worryingly the tip of one of them has snapped off in the root. She is going to try to remove it tomorrow. (Sorry was that too much information?)  I really hope it’s not going to play up on Tristan – 1750 miles and at least 6 days away from the nearest dentist.

Meanwhile I’ve dropped my hold luggage off at Table Bay Marine, done some last minute shopping and made arrangements for the Tristan da Cunha agent in Cape Town to pick me up and take me to the MV Baltic Trader at 1300 today, 22nd September.  Its actually a small (82m length) cargo ship that takes up to 12 passengers as well as freight and its Russian crew.

Once on board there will be no further blogs until I land on Tristan. But I’ll do some off-line blogs, conditions allowing. Meantime you might like to do a bit of reading about Tristan yourself.  Just in case you haven’t discovered it the main island website is   There are loads of interesting stuff on this site – you just have to dig around a bit. Take a look at the Shipping Schedule on the Shipping page for example Just 10 Cape Town - Tristan return sailings a year!

Kew provides information about the vegetation at Take a look at the Alien Plant Reports on the Resources page.  Pretty interesting stuff. And there is a good general history site at

Also see and for more general information.

Here are a selection of photos from our holiday in Cape Town:
We did see them - African Penguins - at Boulder Bay!
Boulder Bay

Living with the penguins at Boulder Bay, Rock Hyraxes - apparently the closest relative to the elephant.

Hydobanche sanguinea, nice eh!?

Baboon near Cape Point

Carpobrotus edulis, Hottentot Fig (I think)


Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Dentist

I didn't mention it before but I've had toothache on and off this week. So I'm seeing a Cape Town dentist this morning.

Just the last thing I want on a remote island which won't have too many dentists, I guess. Wish me luck!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Penguins, whales and seals

Its great being on holiday!  We arranged to meet up with friends for lunch today on the way to see the African Penguin colony at Boulder Beach - one of only three mainland colonies in the world.   It was great to see our friends, eat lovely seafood and watch Southern right whales and Cape fur seals frollicking in a sparkling ocean right in front of the restaurant. (The Harbour House, Kalke Bay - I'd thoroughly recommend it.)  The seals have learnt an amazing trick of clapping their flippers to encourage visitors to part with food.

Our lunch ran over a bit and we left three hours later, so the penguins will have to wait. But that did mean more time for our return journey along the stunningly scenic Chapman's Peak Drive and sunset over the South Atlantic.

Arriving in Cape Town

Ok we have arrived in Cape Town. Got through security checks and immigration without incident. I was worried as my bags contained a load of specialised survey equipment which might have appeared a bit weird to an inspector (like boxes of batteries and wires and plant presses).  Passport control was similarly uneventful: the Officer had never heard of Tristan da Cunha and looked faintly bored when I explained it was half way between Cape Town and South America.
Table Mountain from Cape Town harbour
In Cape Town, everything is strangely different but similar. It's weird, at least for an unseasoned traveller like me, to go abroad and end up in an English speaking country driving on the left!  Talking about driving, we hired a car, Simon drove and I navigated and I took a 180 degree wrong turning when I forgot that in the Southern Hemisphere the sun is in the northern sky!  (Tests on which way the water goes down the plug hole have so far been inconclusive, but Brian Cox says that business is a myth - its completely random!)

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Adventure Begins

The bags are packed, farewells said and we leave for a flight to Cape Town in 30 minutes. It's taken meticulous planning to get everything I'm likely to need for the next 9 or 10 months for a botanical survey of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic Ocean.  One of the world's most isolated inhabited islands. 

I've just spent the last couple hours hoovering clothes velcro, pockets and rucksacks (after washing)  to make sure I'm not importing any British plant seeds into South Africa and Tristan da Cunha.  It would be pretty bad if I made the problem of invasive species worse than it already is.  The survey is a baseline systematic survey to allow an assessment of the impacts of climate change and the spread of non-native species. Here we go...