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.