Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Goodbye Tristan

Ok the sun is shining and ship is finally being unloaded, after a few days of poor weather. Passengers are due to board at 4pm this afternoon.  The weather forecast doesn't look bad for the week ahead so I think we should arrive in Cape Town on schedule, in 6 days time.

While I'm really looking forward to seeing Simon (and Sandy & Ali) in Cape Town and everyone back home, after nine months here it is sad to be leaving too.  The people are extraordinarily kind and generous and I've made a lot of friends here.  Most of whom I'll never see again, I guess. I know one or two follow the blog, so I'd like to take the opportunity to thank them for welcoming me into their very special community.

It has been the most amazing experience of my lifetime. I called the blog Further than the furthest (thing) after the screen play of the same name, about the evacuation of the island in 1961 due to a volcanic eruption.  But the work has been harder than the hardest thing, because of the remoteness and isolation - not to mention the landscape, weather, vegetation and the plants themselves!

Interestingly I visited the summit of the 1961 volcano yesterday afternoon to investigate a reported rare plant the endemic fern (Asplenium insulare).  I eventually found it deep in crevices and fissures in dark recesses, between 0.5 and 3m below ground level. Surprisingly there was a lot of warm suphurous air coming up from between the cracks. I guess 50 years since the last eruption is just a blink in geolgical time. Or maybe this is a good time to be leaving...

I'll update the blog next from Cape Town.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Leaving Tristan - this time?

This might be my last blog from Tristan. The Edinburgh - the ship that I'm leaving on has just arrived. But as soon as it has unloaded passsengers, cargo and diesel for the island's electricity generators - and that can take anything between half a day and a week depending on weather and sea conditions - we'll be off!  And I still have some (re-)packing to do!

I'm leaving the island under a pall. There was a terrible tragedy at the weekend. One of the young island men was swept out to sea and lost his life. He leaves a one year son and fiance who had a joint birthday party the night before the accident, and as usual the entire island (or so it seemed) was there.  You can read more on the Tristan website www.tristandc.com

As a result most of our Diamond Jubilee celebrations were cancelled or postponed - except for the bonfire. You might have heard the chief Islander, Ian Laverello, on Radio 4 News at One the other day talking about it. Apparently we were the last Commonwealth country to light up before the queen lit the touch paper outside Buckingham Palace. We're 12 degrees west of the UK (about 1 hour) and they went from east to west around the globe. Our bonfire was made out of non-native invasive trees, which had recently been cleared from around the Settlement.

Bogfern or Blechnum palmiforme - one of the most important species on Tristan.
I had a great day out on Monday - a walk to The Ponds.  Where we surveyed the 100th 1km square - which sounds much better than 99!   Still leaves 21 - but many of those are coastal and mostly sea, or on the Peak and mostly scree. It is a pity we didn't quite finish but we do have a very good sample. On with the data analysis and report writing now...

Trigger showing us the road home.
There is only one butterfly species commonly seen on Tristan. I've been trying to photograph it all season, and have at last succeeded - probably due to the cooler weather making them less active.  Its the Southern Painted Lady, which as far as I can remember what the Painted Ladies look like back home in Europe is pretty similar!

I'll keep you posted on exactly when I leave, but if the call for passengers comes suddenly, there might not be enough time to give you an update. In which case my next blog will be from Cape Town in a week or so.

Bye Bye Tristan...

Sunday, 27 May 2012


The Tristan da Cunha archipelago comprises three islands – Tristan itself, the biggest and only permanently inhabited, and two smaller islands some 30-32km to the south west, Nightingale and Inaccessible.  Yesterday I visited Inaccessible with some island men and fellow ex-pat Adriano in the Wave Dancer.  It is always good to get away from the Settlement given that you can’t normally go much further than 5 km at most.  It was a stunningly beautiful day.  It was good to see the 2000m high Peak, now with a light dusting of fresh snow on patches of older snow.  The high escarpment around the island makes it impossible to see it from anywhere on coastal plains.  The sun is low in the sky and much of the western side of the island is in shadow.  I decide to wait until the return journey before taking a photograph, foolishly as it turns out because by that time the island is cloud capped.
Tristan with cloud cap from Inaccessible
It doesn’t take long in the Wave Dancer at 22 knots – maybe an hour and an half, even with a short pause to set four crayfish (lobster) pots.  We carry a small RIB (Rubber Inflatable Boat) half on deck, and half hanging off the back.  It is used to make a beach landing.  Which turns out not to be as inaccessible as the name suggests.  Apparently there are four places where you can land, depending on sea and weather conditions.  The name might better describe the fact that once landed there is only one easy route up the escarpment which entirely surrounds the island.  Unusually we make the landing with dry feet and haul the RIB up and secure it, disturbing some snoozing Sub-Antarctic Fur Seal pups in the process.

Inaccessible from the boulder beach, Blenden Hall
We land at Blenden Hall, a small coastal plain at the westernmost extremity and make for the hut used by visiting islanders and scientists.  It’s really well equipped with cooking equipment, mattresses and sleeping bags.  It even has solar powered lights and sockets.  A stream runs  nearby conveniently.

The plain and lower escarpment are almost entirely covered by coarse, dense and tall Tussock grass (Spartina arundinacea).  Well apart from Skua Pond, which like many Tristan da Cunha ‘ponds’ isn’t actually a pond but a floating bog.  This one is dominated by Big Bog Grass (Isolepis sulcata) with Pig Dock (Rumex frutescens) and Hydrocotyle filipes.  And true to name there is a gang of loafing Tristan Skuas - a local subspecies of the Antarctic Skua.  Which is remarkably similar to the Great Skua (Bonxie) in the northern hemisphere and similarly vicious and murderous.

After exploring Skua Pond and boulder beach combing, we return to the hut and continue up to the orchard.  A collection of old gnarled windswept apple trees with masses of fallen apples with only a few still on the trees – due to last weekend’s storm no doubt.  The air is full of the sweet smell of rotting apples.  But we still manage to fill 6 huge grain sacks of reasonably sound fruit.  When I said the Tussock is tall – I meant tall.  Up to 2.5m in fact, and this makes carrying the heavy apple sacks to the shore difficult. Here is Adriano taking the strain...
While we’ve been on the island the skipper and his mate have been fishing.  They’ve caught some massive Bluefish (Southern Butterfish), a beautiful Cape Mackerel and a dozen Five-fingers, a bream like fish which is my personal favourite.  We return to Tristan only stopping briefly to collect the lobster pots we set earlier.  We land a great haul of lobster, fish, apples (and beach-comb fish trays).  After scaling, skinning, gutting and filleting the fish – the haul is divided equally.  The highlight of the day is going round everyone’s house dropping off the fish and apples and stopping for a celebratory drink - or two.  It’s a late night...

News Headlines

The worse storm in over 10 years lashed Tristan last weekend.  It was awesomely violent. The noise of rain, wind and sea prevented much sleep.  The 100 foot TV mast collapsed, narrowly missing offices.  Otherwise there is not too much damage – just the usual leaky house roofs and some damaged huts.  However, TV pictures are restored in double quick time because of the UEFA Cup final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich!

Hottentot waterfall above the village
It's pretty unusual to actually see water in waterfalls or in gulches when it's not actually raining as the ground is so porous. But water flowed for a whole day after the storm.

The main road out of the village.

Not long now until the next scheduled sailing to Cape Town - just over two weeks. I had hoped to do some additional fieldwork in this period of Extra Time on Tristan, but it is getting more and more difficult as the weather worsens and the days shorten and get colder. So I’m concentrating on extracting and analyzing the data we’ve collected and writing up the report.

I was the observer at a Major Incident Plan exercise to test the island’s emergency response on Tuesday.  A fire at the school injured a teacher and six children and would lead to the death of another.  The main thing it revealed was the lack of resources (beds, equipment, nurses) at the hospital. Some of the patients had to stay on trolleys or even share hospital beds!

Culinary feats this week include another batch of Cape Gooseberry Jam – the biggest I’ve made to date (4kg), the best ever loaf of bread, and some new firsts: lasagne and sweet corn and butterbean soup.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Another 6 weeks on Tristan...

It's maybe not going to be as easy hitching a lift on a passing cargo ship as I thought. Not many pass one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world.  And much of what little traffic there is goes right past South Africa and onto the far east - to Hong Kong and Singapore.  These ships travel at up to 25 knots.  So we've got to make contact with them, or their head offices, well before they appear anywhere on the visible horizon - or even on the VHFradio horizon (about 100 miles).  To allow enough time to negotiate and agree passage with HQs.

The Tristan government has been using a professional ship tracking system that shows realtime position of ferries and all ships over 300 tonnes around the world. Particularly for ships in South American ports that might be coming this way.  There is a similar but free system on http://www.marinetraffic.com/ais/ . Check it out to see what's happening at your nearest port. Another website http://www.sailwx.info/shiptrack/ uses satellites to track vessels further out in mid-ocean.  But a lot of what I thought were ships near Tristan turn out to be floating weather bouys. 

Amazingly, some shipping companies advertise berths on their cargo ships.  I've been in touch with several asking if any of them are going near Tristan.  Generally though that is going from port to port - and not making unscheduled stops.  You can cruise the world on a cargo ship. (About $100 a day full board if you are interested.)  One passes Tristan every 77 days - and it picked up another stranded visitor and took her to South Africa a few weeks ago.

Anyway we've just heard back from a shipping company which is due to send a 268 metre long container ship from Brazil to Port Elizabeth, South Africa in a few weeks time. They gave us a quote of £30,000 for passage to South Africa. A bit steep, I think.  That apparently is the cost of a 500 mile diversion for a 268 metre long container ship.

I guess my best chance is the next scheduled sailing of the Edinburgh.  At least I'm seventh on its passenger priority list of 12.  So travelling is more likely.  I'm slowly getting over my disapointment at not getting home as planned and gradually becoming resigned to another month on Tristan.  Which is not so bad - it's a pretty amazing place after all!

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Edinburgh leaves - without me!

I'm packed and ready to go.  But today I waved goodbye to the MV Edinburgh - which left without me. A sad moment.

The island is trying hard to find a ship that might divert and take me to South Africa. One shipping company has responded to say they are looking and has forwarded the request to sister companies.  So quite promising but no definite yes's.  I've also e-mailed websites that organise cruises on cargo ships and wait to hear back.

My plans to meet up with Simon in South Africa for a week's holiday and travel back to the UK together are starting to slowly unravel.  Tomorrow he will have to postpone his flight from London to Cape Town. Deeply depressing. I was looking forward to that so much.

I've been restocking my food supplies which I'd run down. Its hard to know how much to buy - especially fruit and vegetables which will sell out shortly (a consignment arrived on the Edinburgh earlier ths week).   I need to start to plan what I'm going to do while on this extended stay. I guess I can't go too far from the Settlement in case a ship arrives suddenly...  Maybe tonight I'll go to the pub to drown my sorrows, well have a few pints.  Tomorrow morning I'll do some cooking - which is always therapeutic.

Other news:
A birthday card from my sister in America arrived this week which cheered me up.  Thank you Catherine. But sadly still no sign of the outstanding Christmas present.

I took groups of school kids for a guided walk and talked about plants this morning. They were excited about getting out of the class-room - and probably because this is the beginning of a two week school holiday.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Stranded on Tristan...

I’ve been dropped from the passenger list on the MV Edinburgh which was due to leave for Cape Town today.  This is due to a medical evacuation.  I’m re-booked on the next ship leaving on the 12th June in 6 weeks time.  But it’s a major spanner in our travel plans.  Simon was due to fly out to meet me off the ship in Cape Town and after a week’s holiday we were to fly back to the UK.   All our flights, accommodation and rail travel will have to be postponed or cancelled. It is such a disappointment as I was so looking forward to it.  And a major anticlimax after hectic weeks of finishing off and packing up.  

Although I’m higher up the list, there is still no guarantee I’d get on the June ship either as medevacs always take priority.  Andy, the Tristan Radio Operator, and Kobus, the Chief Executive, are contacting passing ships to ask if they could divert to Tristan and give me a lift.  Yesterday they made three enquiries – including one to the British Antarctic Survey, whose two ships are currently in transit between the Falkland Islands and the UK after their Antarctic summer season.  A little excitement to temper the disappointment.

As it turns out the Edinburgh is not going to leave on time – poor weather has held up off-loading until today.  It also has a bit of fishing to do before returning to South Africa. They predict taking passengers tomorrow afternoon and departing on Friday, weather permitting.

Meantime I’m packed up and ready to go – and I’ve got to stay ready as there might not be much notice of a ship arriving.    I’ll keep you posted ...

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Roast Mutton, anyone?

Last Tuesday was an ‘all hands day’ on Tristan. All able bodied men are expected to help with the annual sheep round-up.  Even visiting botanists!  I volunteered to help Nicky, Barry, Barny, Derek and Kevin.  First, men and dogs round up the entire settlement plain flock.  All 1,000 ewes, lambs and rams. (A few hundred sheep live wild on the Base and are not included.)  The sheep are corralled into pens near the potato patches. 

Then they are separated into family flocks.  No easy task when you have 1,000 sheep to select from!  But Nicky’s sheep are relatively easy to identify with very distinctive bright orange and black lines right around the sheep.  See the photo in the Sheep Shearing Day blog back in December.  But Kevin’s paint has faded faster and his sheep are harder to spot.  Though spotting does become easier amongst the dwindling collective flock – but not the catching!  After much noise, bustle and banter the job is done. We’ve got our 28 sheep. Time for a cool beer!

Then Neil, Head of Agriculture, comes round to inspect the flock and apply the quota. Every person is allowed two sheep, including children and extended family members.  Those sheep that are over quota must be culled to prevent overgrazing of the limited pasture. The rest can be released, after a quick shear if they missed out in spring, and after being re-marked.  I help with both tasks.  I’d never sheared a sheep before despite being brought up on a farm.  The main problem is to know where the wool stops and the sheep starts. I err on the side of caution; and the sheep is left with a long haircut and only a few bloody nicks. If a sheep could be thankful it probably was - as winter approaches and now is not the time for a short back and sides!

Another (slightly less) cool beer and a slice of excellent home-made pizza.  Then we truss the feet of the twelve sheep to be culled and load them into the bakki (pick-up truck) and head off to a quiet spot beside the potato patches for culling.  Lambs are never selected for slaughter – it is always sheep.  Islanders think – unlike in the UK - that it would be wasteful to cull animals which aren’t fully grown.  And, in any case, mutton is much tastier than lamb.  But the sheep are only two or so years old at slaughter – so the mutton is still quite tender.

I have always said that if you eat meat you should be prepared to kill it.  Well now was the chance to put words into action. Not that I was looking forward to it.  For a man who hates accidentally running rabbits over in the car, how was I going to cope with deliberately cutting a sheep’s throat?  Then skinning and gutting it?  Well you don’t really think about it too much.  There is a job to be done.  You just do it.  A quick cut through both jugulars and death soon follows.  It is amazing how far the blood spurts.  (Sorry was that too much information?)  The men work in pairs methodically and deftly with razor-sharp knives on each animal.  I help Nicky and Derek and it takes less than half an hour to skin, gut and process each carcass.

No part of the animal goes to waste.  Livers, kidneys and hearts are all used.  The stomach and parts of the intestine used for tripe or sausages.  The trotters and heads are used in soups. Only the fleece, stomach contents and lower intestine is put aside for fertilising the potato patches.  It’s a long hot bloody afternoon. Thirst slaked with another beer, we finish off and take the carcases and buckets of sweetmeats back to the settlement for dividing out.  The carcases are washed and hung for overnight before being butchered and frozen. 

Like after all major Tristan events men celebrate by going round everyone’s house chatting and having a drink. It’s another late night!  The following morning Emma, Nicky’s wife, pops round and very kindly gives me a huge joint for roasting and half a dozen ribs of mutton.  Roasted on a bed of coarsely chopped potatoes, carrots and onions, it was really tender and absolutely delicious!  Perfect for Easter Sunday!


We don’t have much survey work left to do but very frustratingly the weather and sea conditions continues to thwart progress.

We’ve just had a three masted sailing ship called the Europa visit the island and that has enlivened Easter weekend.  The shops, museum, pub have all been open and various events have been laid on for its 35 working passengers.  It started in Terra del Fuego.  Then visited the South Shetland Islands, where it temporarily got stuck in sea-ice, and South Georgia before arriving at Tristan da Cunha on Friday.  It’s currently rigging its sails and getting ready to depart for Cape Town.

 I spotted a martin (similar to a Sand Martin) flying over the village this week.  A reminder that this is migration time, though I’m not entirely sure where this bird was going.  Talking about birds, as dusk falls the air is now full of strange whistling noises.  Made by Black haglets, or Great-winged Petrels, I believe, as they return to their burrows in preparation for breeding over the coming winter.  They are nocturnal to avoid the attentions of predators like Tristan Skuas. But that doesn’t stop nest predation by rats and mice.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

One month left...

Sorry for the hiatus.  I don’t have long left on Tristan. So I’ve been concentrating on completing the survey.  I’m due to leave on the 2nd of May on the MV Edinburgh to Cape Town - weather and sea conditions permitting.   You can never rely on departing and arriving on time, so I’ve re-arranged my return flight to allow for up to nine days over-run.  I just hope that is enough.  It has been known to  take two weeks longer than scheduled.  
Brilliant news - Simon is now flying to Cape Town and is due arrive at the same time as me - so if all goes to schedule we’ll have a week’s holiday in Cape Town before returning to the UK.  We plan to chill out in Cape Town and visit my cousins Sandy & Ali nearby.  BTW we are returning to an excellent B&B we stayed at on the way out called Black Heath Lodge.  If you are ever looking for accommodation in CT I can’t recommend it highly enough!  See www.blackheathlodge.co.za
I’m feeling a bit homesick today.  My sister, Catherine, and her family travelled over from the USA last weekend to help my brother, Peter, with the lambing on the family farm in Perthshire. They’ve been there all week – in glorious spring weather I hear.  Tonight there is a big family meal at Mum’s before they jet off tomorrow morning and I wish I could be there too!
I’ve had a busy morning in the kitchen – baking bread rolls & tea cake and making mince and Cape gooseberry jam. This afternoon I’ve been out visiting islanders.  And tonight I’m going to Steve’s 21st birthday party at the village hall.
I’m not long back from a camping trip to Stony Hill in the south of the island where I surveyed 15 coastal 1km squares.  After that we have 28 squares left to do – out of a total of 118. Some have been partially surveyed but need another visit.  Many are coastal and are relatively easy to pick off.  We are planning a trip round to Sandy Point at the eastern extremity of the island next week.  There are 12 squares to do there.  A few of the remaining squares are on the Base near the ponds.  But many are on the peak, where there isn’t much vegetation to survey, the ground is easy and you can do a lot in a day.  Good weather is vital for that – but becoming increasingly rare. 
To date we’ve made some 5000 individual plant species records across Tristan of approximately 132 non-native and 76 native species.  I say approximately because we are not entirely sure about the identity of several plant collections we’ve made and I’ll take those to experts at Kew or elsewher for examination.
Dmap 1km UTM square distribution of Yorkshire Fog, or Farm Grass on Tristan (to date).
The size of the dot is proportional to estimated abundance.

Recently I’ve installed Dmap and got it set up to display their distributions against a map of Tristan (thanks Alan).  It is fascinating to see the data mapped.  It’s amazing how widespread some of the non-natives are.  The most widespread is Holcus lanatus, Yorkshire Fog (known as Farm grass locally) which is found in 89 squares.  The most widespread natives are Empetrum rubrum (Island or Peak Berry), Blechnum penna –marina (a Fern) and the endemic Isolepis bicolor (Little Bog-grass).  All three are found in 91 squares from sea level to near the summit of the Peak.  So far the rarest native is Cardamine glacialis (known locally as Scurvy grass): just three widely separated populations with only a few plants in each.  It is fascinating to see how some plants prefer low ground, while others like high ground; some only occur on the Base and others prefer the coastal plains.  Dmap is giving us a new way to look at our data.  It is also proving invaluable in spotting errors and omissions.
Distribution of Island or Peak Berry on Tristan (so far).

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Life on Tristan

Social Life

Tristanian society is very sociable, caring and close-knit. Families are extended and friends will have known each other all their lives. Everyone knows everyone. (What you'd expect in an isolated population of just 280!)  Old folk are looked after by their families. And children have a very special place on Tristan. Everyone watches out for them.

Friends and family help each other whenever there is major work to do. Like working in the patches (allotments), sheep shearing or something more major like house renovation or building. People are always dropping in for a chat – often with a couple beers for the hosts.  Such is Tristan generosity that when I go visiting I seldom leave empty handed. I've very kindly been given all sorts of things - cakes, eggs, fish, vegetables - even entire meals!

The Albatross is the focus for much socializing. The outside tables are popular on sunny Sunday afternoons or warm evenings - especially with the young crowd.  Inside men stand chatting at the bar whilst women prefer the comfortable chairs. A TV goes unwatched in the corner.

The Saturday night dances in the village hall next door are always fun. They are very lively and a bit like dances at weddings back home - with a weird selection of music and folk of all ages. Kids dance with parents and grandparents and children tear around playing with each other.

There is a Café beside the swimming pool which opens late afternoons.  But it’s not the sort of café that sells tea or coffee (well unless there are tourists on the island). Tristanians don’t go out for tea and coffee. Rather it sells beers and spirits and soft drinks for the kids.

TV & Radio

I mentioned TV. Reception is pretty ropey but on a good day there are two channels: BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) 1 & 2. Which are selections from the five main UK channels designed for 18-30 year old squaddies. Lots of sport, reality TV programs, soaps, quizzes and films. A weekly diet of Eastenders, Top Gear and Tool Academy! Weekends are particularly dire when there are often two channels of sport and virtually no news. On weekdays I watch BBC1 Six o'clock news and have enjoyed Frozen Planet and Downtown Abbey - some of the better offerings. Strangely we get the local news, travel and weather for London.  Seems odd to hear about traffic jams on the M25 on Tristan, a place where the phrase is seldom heard!

There is a radio station on VHF FM. BFBS Radio - except for two hours on a Sunday morning when it becomes Atlantic Radio with local programming and news. BFBS Radio itself is a lot like Radio 1 but even more puerile.  For intelligent radio I occasionally listen to the news or ‘From our own correspondent’ on BBC World Service on a small Sony radio attached to long-wire aerial over the garden. There is usually a good signal from the BBC transmitters on Ascension.

The Rectory

The Rectory, with the 700m high escarpment beyond.
Several people have asked where I’m staying on the island. Well I’ve got a three bedroom self-catering detached house.  The third bedroom has been converted to an office – and we use that as the project office and we use the second bedroom as a camping equipment and food store. The house is one of the closest to the sea.  It’s between The Residency, the Administrator’s house, and the ‘main street’ with the Island Store and government offices and workshops. It would normally be occupied by the Anglican priest but the position has been vacant for almost two years now. Apparently it is hard to recruit clergy to tend such lonely flocks.

View from the front door
The Sun

Frequent stormy weather can make it easy to forget that Tristan is near the equator. A similar latitude in the northern hemisphere would be North Africa. So the sun and its UV are intense.  Almost every day I wear a sunhat and sun cream. I carry lip sun block at all times and re-apply it regularly – but even then it is easy to get burnt – especially when it’s too windy to wear hats.  As an extra precaution I’ve only cut my hair once in 6 months.

The Sky at Night

On a clear night the southern sky is fascinating – quite different from our northern hemisphere night sky.  And there can be few places with less atmospheric pollution than Tristan for a pristine view.  Sadly the settlement has streetlights. These go off at midnight - except for a particularly bright one at the end of my garden!  Occasionally when camping on the base I have seen and been awestruck by the stunning clarity of the sky at night: the Milky Way with more stars than I've ever seen before!

PS I'd have taken a photo of the Milky Way if I could but here are a couple more photos of the house instead:

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Deep Gulch

Looking up Deep Gulch towards the summit

Deep Gulch is one of the most remote and revered of gulches on Tristan.  There is no easy way to get to there and few people visit.  You can’t get from the bottom up (from sea level) so you have to approach it from above.  We’ve just returned from an expedition to the area involving the ascent of the 2,000m Peak followed by a 1,150m descent to our campsite.  A challenge – especially carrying food for 6 days, plus camping and survey equipment.  (Though we didn’t have to carry the tents and sleeping bags all the way; we’d previously left them at 1,900m.)

That's a blanket of moss on the ground (not snow!)
We set off early on a beautiful morning. A couple of hours later the clouds gathered and we were in mist and murk.  But near the summit we emerged into gloriously warm sunshine with deep blue skies, above the clouds.  Quite stunning. The only problem was that we then had to descend back into cloud, navigate to the right ridge and find a sheltered camp site. But not before encountering some lovely high-altitude springs.  They are like oases with water and vegetation amongst a desert of volcanic cinders.  Here moss dominates. There are patches of Empetrum rubrum (Island or Peak Berry) with few other higher plants.  Those that do occur such as Blechnum penna-marina, Lagenophora nudicaulis, Nertera depressa  and Agrostis magellanica are quite sparse. Interestingly all of them seemed to be flowering or fruiting.

Sunrise over the South Atlantic
Gamochaeta thouarsii,
Cow Pudding Grass
With five days of successful surveying complete we begin our return walk to the settlement.  Around the base this time, but keeping high to make gulch crossings easier. The route takes us through some amazing landscapes of volcanic rock eroded in bizarre shapes.  It is a long and tiring walk, especially with a detour to drop of tents and sleeping bags near our next major survey area – Big Gulch.  We survey as we walk, and that slows progress a little but makes it more interesting. The highlight on the return journey was another population of the little endemic rush, Rostkovia tristanensis – at a new altitudinal record of 1380m.

Late Christmas presents
We’ve had a week at base since then, waiting for the weather to settle before the next big adventure.  It’s been an exciting week as the MV Edinburgh arrived with some new people, fresh fruit and vegetables and lots of mail for me - well not just me!  Including two more Christmas presents from back home.  One of them via Vancouver and possibly New Zealand. Both full of lovely bits and pieces like chocolates, puzzle books, oatcakes, shortbread, fudge, a mini-calendar and a newspaper from November last year!   Many, many thanks to Dot and Den and Rob and Janet.  The last two editions of BSBI News and the New Journal of Botany also arrived this week – keeping me in reading material.  (Thank you Gwynn.)  Talking about mail, I gather the postcards I sent last October arrived this week!

The days are getting shorter and it is starting to feel like early autumn here now.  The fields have a good scattering of mushrooms. The Cape Gooseberry bushes are laden and the Peak berries are starting to blacken.  I’ve been collecting and busy in the kitchen making Peak Berry crumble, Cape Gooseberry jam and mushroom soup.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Camping on Tristan

Day 1:

We're camping on the base at 750m in a grassy gulch. It's 7.30pm and the sun has disappeared behind a thin sliver of silvery-edged cloud low on the horizon. Immediately below there is a gaping chasm, and the broad expanse of The Base covered with Phylica arborea (Island Tree) and Blechnum palmiforme (Bog Fern). In the distance and far below I can just make out and hear waves on the sea.  Behind me and above our sodden tents, the peak, tinged red by the setting sun.

We’ve had a 4 hour walk with heavy rucksacks in driving mist and drizzle. We arrived just before midday soaking wet and pitched the tents - and stayed there until the wind and rain eased off - four hours later. Unlike Scotland you can't survey in bad weather because of the complex landscape and vegetation. Maps are not detailed or accurate enough to navigate with safely. You must be able to see.

It's now a fantastic sunset. The clouds have turned red. The flow in the waterfall above our tents drops noticeably. There is not much flat sheltered ground for pitching tents. So we had to use this gulch. It was dry when we arrived but water soon began to flow and puddle perilously close to our tents. We cut drainage channels. The vegetation in the floor of the gulch is entirely non-native. Quite depressing really. It comprises of Holcus lanatus (Yorkshire Fog) and Agrostis capillaris (Common Bent), so I don’t feel bad about it. Lourens compliments me on my moat - which seems to work.  We used Island Tree branches as extra strong (and long) tent pegs.  So we're now secure for the night.  Silent but for the sound of trickling water and distant sea.

Day 2:

We had planned a first-light start. But it has been drizzling and misty since 5am. Now it's 10am and we're still in the tents. This hasn't happened often but it is very frustrating when it does. All the effort getting here wasted. A blink of sunshine. Maybe it's clearing... An hour later blue sky appears and we breakfast and set off and have a really good day despite the late start.  We happen across the right ridges and gulches for once and cover a lot of interesting ground without huge effort.  Our route to the edge of the base is enlivened with rare encounters with Radiovittaria ruiziana (Bootlace Fern). From there we walk along the exposed edge, where the vegetation is wind blasted and easier, into the next square.

We return at 7.30 – with just enough time to prepare dinner before dark.  Spaghetti and mince (again).  With enough saved for tomorrow’s lunch.  Pudding is a thick slice of home-made tea-cake.  The sun sets on a crystal clear Peak tonight.

The Peak in evening sunshine
Day 3:

The day does begin with blue sky, but I can’t see the peak or the sea and the mist quickly closes in.  We breakfast, break camp and return along the boggy path towards Burntwood.  It’s at the end of the only road on the island and where we parked the quad bike.  We don’t have to make a final decision on whether to survey for a couple kilometers.

It seems to clear and we decide to survey.  Over much of plateau the vegetation comprises of no more than 25 taxa. I hope we chance upon an interesting gulch.  But here the gulches are narrow, weedy and scrubby.  Progress is slow and the botanising disappointing. 

We reach the edge of The Base eventually and see waves crashing onto Anchorstock Point far below. There is an even scattering on non-natives amongst the vegetation on the escarpment.  Most noticeably Leucanthemum vulgare (Ox-eye Daisy) and Holcus lanatus (Yorkshire Fog) but less obviously Aira caryophyllea (Silver Hair-grass), Vulpia bromoides (Squirrelltail Fescue) and Cerastium fontanum (Common Mouse-ear).  On a landslip, there is a large population of the native Apium australe (Wild Celery) in flower.

The weather closes in again and our return is windy and wet.  We stop and monitor Deschampsia flexuosa (Wavy Hair-grass) by the path.  As far is known this is the one and only population on the island.  How it got here is a puzzle. 

Just before the final descent, I collect Empetrum rubrum berries for Peak Berry Crumble.  The berries are just beginning to blacken and sweeten. (I’ll let you know how it tastes).  The highlight of the Burntwood descent is a 700 foot scree run. For once easy ground!

(Written in the field)

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Christmas presents arrive!

My Christmas presents arrived today!  Never have Christmas presents been so eagerly anticipated – and gratefully received!  Thanks to Simon for Christmas pudding and Panettone and David & Nicky for a lovely warm jumper and socks - sent in October when it was really cold.  Not to mention all the Christmas cards with nice messages inside. And a special consignment of food, kit and a copy of The Economist – the first newspaper I’ve seen in 5 months – kindly put together by my cousins Sandy and Ali in Cape Town. Thank you all very much!  One present remains in transit somewhere – I’ll let you know if and when it arrives!
Carex insularis - one of only two Carex (sedge) species found on Tristan.

Actually the presents arrived sometime last week, but we’ve been out of town on an eight day expedition and are just back.  Such long camping trips are only possible with the help of islanders.  We are only able to carry food for about four days - as well as our camping and recording equipment.  We take cameras, hand lens, binoculars, GPS, handheld PDA (miniature computer), batteries, solar panel charger and recording forms.  The weight of the rucksack makes difficult terrain even more difficult.  So it was great to have a food drop to our remote 900 metre campsite on Soggy Plain.

We live on spaghetti and mince, meatballs or corned beef, and make enough each night to have for lunch the following day. Breakfasts are Weet-bix, sultanas, condensed milk mixed with boiled water.  Treats include crisps, chocolate and a few apples.  Tristan is a severe test of camping equipment.  Two nights it got down to freezing and there was a dusting of snow on the Peak (remember it’s mid-summer). Another night there was storm force winds and it rained torrentially.  And one day it was so wet, windy and foggy that we just stayed in our tents! 

Soggy Plain (we camped by the pools)
Despite this we covered a lot of ground. Difficult ground. And made some exciting discoveries – big but local populations of the rare ferns Dryopteris wallichiana, Hypolepis rugolusa and Asplenium insulare.  And new grass and sedge species which don’t seem to have ever been previously described for Tristan – as far as we can tell.  But it is always hard to know what the natural range of variation is for each species.  Grasses and hook-sedges (Uncinia) continue to be difficult at altitude as many have yet to flower. Several pairs of closely similar species are being particularly difficult to separate, such as Grammitis magellanica and G. poeppigiana, and Elaphoglossum campylolepium and E. succisifolium (all ferns). Eagle-eyed Lourens spotted yet another population of the rare endemic rush Rostkovia tristanensis this time actually on Soggy Plain.  (Prior to our project its only Tristan record was ‘above Soggy Plain at 1100 metres’ by the Norwegian Survey Expedition in 1938.) 

Peak Berry, Empetrum rubrum
We had a few mishaps. I slipped 20 foot into a deep water pool, skinning elbow and leg and soaking my camera.  I was OK. More than I can say about the camera. In a separate incident we lost the GPS. Intensive searches were unsuccessful and we were almost benighted on the long circuitous return to camp. We keep the GPS on at all times to record our tracks, and download them to the mapping program Memory Map Navigator on our return to record our precise routes.  So the main loss was the track data for 7 days and not the machine itself (though that was bad enough).  We also rely on the GPS for the UTM 1km square reference and as a back up when the less sensitive PDA GPS fails to lock.  Then there was a near-death incident involving the machete which I won’t recount as just thinking about it still makes my toes curl!

Gamochaeta thouarsii, better known as Cow Pudding Grass!
Our return to the Settlement was equally exciting.  It was hot and sunny with storm force winds and big waves. This made landing the rowing boat tender very tricky and our return on the Wave Dancer slow.  Family and friends gather at the harbour to welcome their menfolk home.   Once the boat is unloaded, winched out of the harbour for safety and the work is done, the men go round the houses celebrating their safe return with a drink or two.  It quickly gets boisterous and women flee when the men invade.  About six houses (and hours) later we end up in The Albatross.  A good day after an eventful trip!

Infinity Pool with the sea 2,000 feet below.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Peak

Just back from a four day trip to a remote part of the island.  We camped on the Base at 1000 m above sea level, on the boundary between Island Tree (Phylica arborea) scrub woodland and short sward Blechnum penna-marina (a fern) and heathy Empetrum rubrum (similar to our Crowberry, Empetrum nigrum). We pitched the tents in a small clearing amongst Island Tree for shelter, pegged well down and guys tied tightly.  Necessary because of near galeforce winds for much of the time. But weirdly warm, sunny and very humid. Quite nice in sheltered ravines (gulches) and in scrubby woodland. And it was great waking up and finding you’re above the clouds!
Sooty Albatross chick line-up...
It is not easy to describe just how difficult the terrain is.  One kilometre on the Base can take anything between one and three hours. Every step and handhold requires a calculation on how much weight it can take. Nothing is certain. Even the rock is unreliable (but rarely exposed). The uneven spongy peat surface is covered by dense leaf litter and prostrate branches. All of which are hidden by ferns.  Amongst the scrubby tangle there is much deadwood which despite looking solid enough snaps instantly.  Green wood is more reliable but surprisingly brittle.  At times all-fours is the best way to squeeze through the tangle of branches.  It is just as well my work partner, Lourens, is adept with the machete!  Unwooded slopes are climbed by grabbing handfuls of vegetation. I’ve just about figured out how much you can trust different species, but there is a lot of trial and error (and cuts and scrapes).     
The bottom of a small gulch
The main question is ridges or ravines. Exposure sometimes makes ridge vegetation more open. There are also short peaty paths made by Mollys (Yellow-nosed Albatrosses) to commute between their sheltered nest sites and exposed launch-pads.  But otherwise they can be almost impenetrable.  Ravines (gulches) are often better for covering the ground as there is less rank vegetation and the rivers are usually dry unless it is actually raining.  (Few streams flow constantly on Tristan as the terrain is porous.)  But gulches are invariably steep-sided, deep and have periodic dry waterfalls - some hundreds of feet high - that are only bypassed with difficulty. 
The gulches are certainly much more interesting botanically.  For example last week we recorded 65 species in each 1km square on the days spent in gulches. But only 35 on a 1km square in which we ridge walked.  We have only ever found the rare endemic fern Asplenium insulare once so far on Tristan – and then a single population with just a few plants. So it was good to find a second much more extensive population.  It likes humid and sheltered conditions – so gulches are perfect. Especially narrow, sheltered ones with overhanging edges.  Its constant associate is Trichomanes angustatum – itself a rare endemic.  The secret appears to be to find the right habitat then look under other bigger ferns.  
Dryopteris wallachiana
These gulches are home to other rare endemics such the buttercup Ranunculus carolii, the starwort, Callitriche christensenii, and the Floating Sweet-grass, Glyceria insularis.  Amongst the bigger ferns we occasionally encounter Athyrium medium and Hypolepis rugulosa but the real surprise was to find the biggest population of Dryopteris wallachiana seen to date. This is a lot like our Scaly Male-fern (Dryopteris affinis agg.) and produces splendid yellow-green frond shuttlecocks. That is not to say that wooded ridges are without interest. We saw more of the rare endemic and well-named Bootlace Fern (Radiovittaria ruiziana) than ever previously. But generally they are less diverse, and you don’t cover as much ground.
However the highlight of the trip was an ascent to the 2,060 metre peak. This carrying our camping gear and surveying as we went. (Another day that would make SAS training seem easy!)  The peak has concentric vegetation bands that change with altitude.  The Blechnum/Empetrum sward quickly gives way to a heath dominated by Empetrum and the moss Rhacomitrium lanuginosum;  vegetation very similar to that found on the Scottish mountains, but rarely in such fine condition with so little sheep trampling and grazing damage.  Around 1200 metres, my eagle-eyed work partner Lourens spotted another population of the rare endemic rush, Rostkovia tristanensis.  (If you remember this had not been recorded since the 1938 Norwegian Survey Expedition.)  
The summit plateau
The spongy Empetrum-Rhacomitrium sward becomes increasingly patchy with altitude. Eventually the ground becomes too unstable, loose and dry for any but the hardiest of mosses. This is the Alpine desert cinder scree zone.  All plants at this altitude form dense mats or tight cushions – adaptations which create a (relatively) warm and humid microclimate that helps to minimise water loss.  We find the highest flowering plant at 1970 metres, just above Crater Lake – Empetrum rubrum again!  The view from the top is spectacular. Its like looking out an aircraft window on a brilliantly sunny day - down on distant clouds and blue sea. Closer in the Base looks surprisingly extensive and several other water-filled crater lakes are evident. But no where is the coast visible due to the steep escarpment. We have a quick dip in crater lake - a beautiful and sheltered spot - before continuing our survey on the descent to the settlement.
Crater Lake
After a few day's specimen pressing, data entry, battery charging - literally and personally, cooking, shopping, clothes washing and with a good weather forecast we are getting ready to go on another camping trip early tomorrow morning..

News Snippets:
  • The island went back to work on Monday – after the three week summer holiday.  This meant the Island Store re-opened for the first time since Christmas. I’d only run out of cereal and coffee but was also running dangerously low on beer supplies.
  • The MV Edinburgh is due to arrive from Cape Town tomorrow – hopefully with my Christmas presents that didn’t make the last ship.  And with some emergency supplies that my cousins, Sandy and Ali in Cape Town have kindly bought and despatched.  How exciting!
  • Simon is in Edinburgh this week catching up with friends and family. Unfortunately the Alfa Romeo is playing up - I think through lack of use!
  • Mum is making a great recovery, after breaking her leg in October.  She is able to drive again and can now get to the shops and to her normal full program of events and meetings.     
  • My sister, Catherine, and her family are coming over from America to see mum and help my brother, Peter, on the farm with the lambing this spring.