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.