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!