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 . Check it out to see what's happening at your nearest port. Another website 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 ...