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

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by Ted Cookson
Published in April 2004

In January 2004 I enjoyed a unique cruise on the final voyage of the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena (RMS) round trip from Cape Town to the remote British island of Tristan da Cunha (TDC), roughly midway between Cape Town and Montevideo. 

During my eight hours in TDCs only settlement, Edinburgh, which has a population of 285, I wandered into Jane's Cafe, the islands only restaurant, where I found a number of other RMS passengers enjoying drinks, sandwiches and dessert.  As crayfish (rock lobster) is the mainstay of TDCs economy, it was not surprising that crayfish sandwiches were sold at the cafe; Chocolate sponge cake, beer and soft drinks were also available.  The proprietress took little notice of me as she continued her knitting.  A notice to the islands 285 residents posted on the cafe's bulletin board by the dental nurse warned that appointments for the upcoming dental visit had to be made at the hospital before 28 January 2004.  Outside Jane's Cafe were the only public W. C.s in Edinburgh.  

As I found the door unlocked, I photographed the interior of the empty Roman Catholic Church nearby.  Although I had passed the Rectory earlier, I never did find Edinburgh's Anglican Church which is said to contain an old photograph of Queen Victoria.

Continuing my walk, I passed Camogli Hospital.  The operating room and the X-ray machine in this facility suffered severe damage in a 2001 hurricane.  Nowadays from the outside one would never guess that the hurricane had caused one-quarter of the building to collapse.

At the far end of Edinburgh is a typical British bus stop sign.  Walking down the cement road beyond the sign, I found myself at the bottom of a steep, dry ravine.  In rainy times I imagined that this gulch must turn into a raging torrent of water, pushing boulders in its path.  The road was not paved across the floor of the gulch, but the cement did continue again up the far bank.  I continued to the top of the far embankment and saw a wide expanse of grassland ahead.  The paved road extended all the way beyond the grassy cinder cone in the distance to the Potato Patches which lie some 2 1/2 miles (4 km) away.  There islanders cultivate potatoes and other crops.  And I have read that on Friday afternoons a vehicle does in fact take residents from the Edinburgh bus stop to their "weekend homes" in the potato patches!  

Then I walked to the school on the opposite side of Edinburgh.  Along the way I took photographs of some of the settlement's dogs.  Though I passed many dogs today, not a single animal barked at me and only one even came up to sniff me.  In the school hall I purchased a first day cover from one of the women selling handicrafts and souvenirs.  I also made a donation to the headmistress for the school.

Beyond the school toward the lava flow lie three graveyards surrounded by low lava rock walls.  One graveyard is Anglican, another is Roman Catholic and a third is apparently for Freemasons.  All graves appeared to be well-tended and most were covered with cut flowers.  Outside the lava walls cows grazed lazily in the fields.

As I had heard that rockhopper penguins could sometimes be seen at Pigbite, the beach beyond the 1961 lava flow, I next wandered in that direction.  The half hour walk over the lava flow to a beach with large boulders revealed where TDC's outdated heavy equipment and various pieces of scrap metal had been junked.  This is also where TDC's garbage is burned.   

While I never did find any penguins, my walk over to the beach was an interesting one.  On the side of the road in the direction of Edinburgh I noticed huge fissures in the lava.  These fissures could only have been created by earthquakes.  Then when I reached the far side of the lava flow I saw a small waterfall created by a spring emanating from a point low on the cliff.  The wind was gusting strongly as I stepped over a small brook and began to walk across a grassy field.  There I was able to photograph a few skuas resting in a depression.  The large birds let me approach more closely than I had expected, but eventually they rose and floated away in the wind.

From the beach I returned to Edinburgh.  Realizing that I was hungry, I dropped into the local supermarket to purchase a small imported apple for eight pence.  The supermarket stocks many types of canned goods and dry goods plus frozen items and even handicrafts, including knitted sweaters.  While the fruit and vegetable department was nothing like back home, that was perfectly understandable, considering its location.  In general, though, I was surprised at just how much variety was available at the supermarket.  Adjacent to it were other stores selling plumbing and electrical goods.

In the early evening a final boat removed all passengers who wished to return to the RMS.  I often prefer to be one of the last persons to enter a small boat in order to avoid having to rock and roll while waiting for all the other passengers to board.  Consequently, because of my physical position in the boat, sometimes I am one of the first people to disembark. 

That was the case this time.  When I climbed the rope ladder up into the RMS, the small boat was sitting relatively still in the water.  But I had to hang around to wait for my backpack to be lifted up along with all the other loose passenger gear.  So I was in a good position to hear the horror stories told by those pale passengers who did not disembark until the very end.  Apparently shortly after I climbed the rope ladder the wind had shifted, causing the small boat to begin to flip around fairly violently.

What kind of person would ever consider taking a 13-day round trip cruise from Cape Town to TDC, you might wonder? 

The RMS passenger list included Jan and Kirsten, a Norwegian couple who seemed to specialize in traveling to obscure places.  Jan showed me his passport which even contained a visa for the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which surrounded by Azerbaijan.  This enclave is not on the Travelers' Century Club list and, interestingly, Jan and Kirsten had never even heard of the Travelers' Century Club.

TDC was the 286th Travelers' Century Club destination for George, a retired American doctor.  After Cape Town he planned to spend five days on Rodrigues Island, a dependency of Mauritius, before flying home to San Diego via the Kalahari and the Algarve.  George was finishing a five-month trip in fulfillment of his quest.  And, though we are fellow Travelers' Century Club members, George's quest was much more involved than my own.  In addition to traveling to all 317 world destinations on the Travelers' Century Club list, he was also trying to visit all of the world's major natural features such as deserts, etc.  

Richard, the only other American on board, planned to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway next year from Moscow to Vladivostok.  Like a surprising number of others on board, he was a repeat passenger on the RMS, having previously sailed to St. Helena and Ascension.

Walter, one of a number of Germans on the RMS, was the Hamburg-based producer of the German television crew.  He once spent a week filming on Jan Mayen Land, a Norwegian island situated between Spitzbergen and Iceland, and had also traveled to remote parts of Iran and Oman.  Incidentally, Walter, who once worked in Cairo as a journalist and is married to a Palestinian, was the only other Arabic speaker on board aside from myself. 

Stan, a retired professor of Canadian studies from Fredericton, NB, had been involved with philately since the age of six.  His interest in postal history led him to visit some stamp shops in Cape Town prior to the cruise in order to check out their covers.

Others, like South Africans James and Tara, booked at the last minute and benefited from a 50% fare discount.

John, a discriminating traveler from London, planned to take an 80-day round-the-world cruise on the Oriana next year.

There were five Swiss on the RMS.  Jean, Yves and Leopoldine, three friends from Geneva, were avid sailors who, in their younger days, used to sail their yacht around Europe at every opportunity.  Stefan, from Zurich, was an experienced and sophisticated traveler who had rented a house and car for a week-long holiday in a seaside suburb of Cape Town nearly every Northern Hemisphere winter for the last 15 years.  He confided that South Africa represented excellent value for the Swiss. 

Stefan's lively and inquisitive friend Yalcin, of Turkish extraction but with a Swiss passport, was interested in odd destinations.  Yalcin, who collected airline sickness bags, entertained us at dinner one night with stories about Busingen and Campione dal Italia, German and Italian enclaves in Switzerland, respectively, and about Samnaun, a Swiss town which must be accessed from Austria as no direct road connection exists with Switzerland.   

Dacre, a former pilot for British Airways and later, after retirement, with Singapore Airlines, and his wife Ann were booked on the RMS all the way north to Ascension.  Both spent their childhood years in Chile, where they met.  Dacre was fascinated by the controls on the bridge, and our captain took special pleasure in explaining the instruments to him.  Dacre collected old airline timetables, some of which are apparently very valuable.

The remaining passengers were mostly British but with a number of Germans and South Africans also in evidence.  Surprisingly, several elderly British were on the passenger list.  Some were traveling alone.  Eve mentioned that she had taken the RMS to St. Helena on another occasion and came along on this cruise to TDC as the captain had told her how interesting TDC was.

In spite of their varied travel experiences, most passengers felt that this cruise to Tristan da Cunha on the RMS St. Helena was a unique experience which they will remember for the rest of their lives.

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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