A Cruise to Tristan da Cunha Island in the South Atlantic 15-28 January 2004 via the RMS <i>St. Helena</i>, Part I, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in March 2004

The British island of Tristan da Cunha (TDC), 1,750 miles (2,816 km) southwest of Cape Town and 1,450 miles (2,333 km) southwest of St. Helena Island, is the most remote inhabited island in the world.  Roughly midway between Cape Town and Montevideo and situated just east of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, TDC rises spectacularly some 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) from the seabed; and its peak, snow-covered during the Southern Hemisphere winter, lies 6,760 feet (2,060 meters) above sea level.

Discovered by the Portuguese admiral Tristao da Cunha in 1506, TDC has been inhabited almost continuously since 1810 due to the activities of sealers who operated in the South Atlantic during the nineteenth century.  A small British garrison was also placed on the island during the early years of Napoleons captivity on nearby St. Helena.

The correct pronunciation of the Portuguese admiral's name is "tristan da koon'yah."  However, the modern-day inhabitants pronounce the name of their island "tristan da koo'nah."

I have been fascinated by the geography and history of remote TDC since I began collecting stamps as a young teenager in the early 1960s.  In 1999 I joined the St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society.  But it was my passion to complete the list of 317 world destinations compiled by the 1,500-member Travelers' Century Club of Los Angeles which recently drove me to take a 13-day cruise round trip from Cape Town to TDC on a luxury cargo vessel, the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena (RMS).

Launched in 1989 by HRH The Prince Andrew, the RMS was the first vessel to be purpose-built for the shipping service to U. K.s South Atlantic islands of St. Helena, Ascension and TDC.  In addition, it was the first passenger ship to be constructed in Britain since the QE2 had been built two decades earlier.

As we sailed out of Cape Town Harbor, the view from the deck of the RMS  was stunning.  Cape Town, with dramatic Table Mountain behind, is the most beautiful port in the world.  Half way to Cape Point, the RMS turned abruptly and headed toward TDC which lay about 1,748 miles (2,812 km) to the west.

TDC, a dependency of St. Helena, is administered by the governor of that island, to whom a permanent administrator on TDC reports.  The current governor, H. E. David Hollamby, was also on board the RMS for its final round trip sailing to TDC.  Although the RMS has a capacity of 128 passengers, only 57 were on board for this cruise, along with 56 crew members.  And the RMS was carrying only 38 metric tons of cargo to TDC even though the ship has a cargo capacity of 2,030 metric tons.  Sadly, Governor Hollamby said that it had become impossible to justify the expense of the annual RMS voyage to TDC when usage was so low. 

Due to rain and clouds on the morning of 21 January, TDC could not be seen until the RMS was only about two miles (3 km) away!  Africa Pilot, published by the U. K. Hydrographic Office, says that TDC, at 37 degrees, 7 minutes S., 12 degrees 18 minutes W., is a "truncated cone about 6 miles in diameter with its sides rising at an angle of about 45 degrees to a central peak 2,060 meters in height.  The sides of the island consist of walls of inaccessible cliffs from 300 meters to 610 meters in height which rise, except on its northwest side, directly from the sea.  On this side there is, in front of the cliffs, a comparatively low grassy slope from 30 meters to 60 meters high which terminates in Herald Point, the northwest extremity of the island.  The sides of the mountain mass as far as the central dome are covered with brushwood intermixed with ferns and long grass.  But above 1500 meters, coinciding with the normal upper level of clouds, the mountains consist of loose stones and volcanic rubble with occasional rocks and boulders." 

The RMS dropped anchor off Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, TDCs only settlement.  Formerly called Somerset, Edinburgh had been renamed after the 1867 visit of HRH The Prince Albert, second son of Queen Victoria.  Interestingly, the current Duke of Edinburgh, HRH The Prince Philip, also visited TDC.  The population of Edinburgh is 285.

Upon our arrival, some of the crew began fishing off the poop deck for yellowfish and five fingers using hooks and lines with bait; and it seemed as if they were pulling in one fish after the next.  As soon as one fish was snagged, hauled in and placed in a plastic sack, each fisherman re-baited and awaited the next bite, which didn't take long.  The waters off TDC are simply teeming with fish.

The first boat out to the RMS carried the administrator, the islands only policeman and three immigration officials who sat at a table in the main lounge where passengers who wished to go ashore paid a Sterling 15 (USD 28) landing fee.  Passports were stamped using a rubber stamp with a design showing a yellow-nosed albatross (known locally as a "mollymauk"), the silhouette of the island and the British crown along with the words, "Tristan da Cunha - South Atlantic."
Governor Hollamby's official party was in the first boat to go ashore.  I was in the first of two other passenger boats after that.  The use of a rope ladder and safety harness off the RMS in a heavy swell made it very slow going.  Passengers had been warned how dangerous it can be to disembark and embark using the rope ladder as ones foot can be crushed  between the RMS and one of the small boats.  During the past 20 years no passenger injuries had ever resulted from the use of a rope ladder on the RMS at TDC.  But in 2003 one crew member did break his foot.

Edinburgh's shallow Calshot Harbor was named after the former Royal Air Force station near Southampton where the Tristanians had lived for about a year following their evacuation after a volcanic eruption on TDC in 1961.  Calshot Harbor's two jetties had been sturdily constructed of double-ended anchor-shaped concrete blocks.

Removing the life vest I had worn ashore in the boat, I walked up the paved road to the often-photographed sign which reads, "Welcome to the Remotest Island - Tristan da Cunha - South Atlantic."  Adjacent to that sign is a marker which points the direction and mileage to various points around the globe:  Nightingale Island is 22 miles (35 km) away, the Falkland Islands are 2,166 miles (3,485 km) away and London is 5,337 miles (8,587 km) away.

After visiting the post office, I walked to the three-room museum and handicraft center.  The museum featured a copy of the flag of Jonathan Lambert, an American who had declared himself emperor of the "Islands of Refreshment" (TDC) in 1811.  The ensign of the Duke of Edinburgh, which last flew at TDC during the January 1957 royal visit of HRH The Prince Philip, was also displayed.  In addition, a cannon ball and various old rusted implements were shown.  In another room unique TDC wingless moths were displayed as were various geological specimens, a TDC crayfish (fishing for crayfish, or rock lobster, is the mainstay of the economy) and even the head of a rare Tasman whale which had once beached in the TDC Archipelago.  In that same room was a photocopy obtained from the British Museum of TDC's original constitution which dated back to 1817.

Then I went by the Rectory to the Residency, where the administrator  resides.  There a vintage cannon rests on the well-manicured lawn near the flagpole from which the Union Jack flies. 

Behind the Residency is a 9-hole golf course.  Apparently a spare set of golf clubs at the Residency can be borrowed, and a certificate is issued to those who have played the course.  Blue TDC Golf Club ties were also sold as souvenirs on the island.

As I walked up the paved lane along the side of the Residency, I noticed a number of canvas sailboats which had been tied down there with ropes in order to prevent their being blown about by strong winds. 

My next stop was Prince Philip Hall, the community center.  The roof of this building was blown off during a hurricane which struck Edinburgh in May 2001.  Currently the school hall nearby is used for community gatherings. 

I walked through the paved lanes of the settlement past many small houses with lovely flowers in their gardens.  The most prominent of the flowers were the hydrangeas.  Strolling along, I was struck by the large number of automobiles parked in the driveways.  Most vehicles seemed to have 4-wheel drive capability, but I did notice one small sedan car too.  Painted bright red, it seemed a bit out of place.  There was also a farm tractor with a flatbed trailer in Edinburgh.

Then I crossed a small stream and struck out across a daisy-filled cow pasture toward the lava cone formed by the eruption which began in October 1961.  After climbing over a low lava rock wall and skirting a few inquisitive cows grazing in the fields, I hiked up along the grassy ravine adjacent to the volcanic cone, following some well-trodden cow paths.  About half way up I turned and took a photograph over the settlement. 

From my high vantage point I could also see Edinburgh's small water reservoir to my left at the base of the steep cliffs.  The water drunk on TDC is precipitation that has fallen high on the mountain in the form of rain or snow and has filtered down through the basalt, finally emanating from a spring near the settlement.  Those who have drunk TDC water say that it has a fine taste.

End of Part One

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com

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