emails from Tristan da Cunha, January/February 2005.
The organisation I worked for at the time for sent me on a trip to Tristan da Cunha in early 2005. Here are the emails I sent to a bunch of friends during the trip. They are unedited save for name changes.
Tristan Diary – 23/01/2005
“We were a magnificent sight as we left Capetown.”
That’s the sort of sentence that should start the description of this voyage. It wasn’t true.
I doubt if anyone watched us leave. It was around two in the morning, the floodlights on Table Mountain had been switched off and the good burghers of Capetown were presumably tucked up safe in their beds. The only people on the quayside were the two security guards who had hung around the ship all day. And they didn’t look the waving type. I think I was the only passenger still up and braving the diesel fumes being whipped across the decks when the pilot arrived to see us on our way.
We’d been delayed because the ship hadn’t been able to start “taking bunkers” (fuel) until earlier that afternoon and it takes a bloody long time to fuel a boat.
The delay meant that John and I had the chance to nip up Table Mountain and then do some more shopping for things we’d forgotten. And another fish and chips and beer dinner. I think I like Capetown. It’s hot there at the moment (30-40 degrees) and I love the shorts/T-shirt/sandals way of life. It has a nice waterfront with lots of bars, restaurants and cafes and although it has been redeveloped recently, you get the feeling it is still real. It helps to have seals playing in the water – their most popular activity seems to be farting while floating on their backs with only their rear flippers out of the water. According to our captain’s wife, Capetown has the most beautiful women in the world. I think she is compiling a league table – her first question to me after finding I lived in Austria was “what are Austrian women like?”.
The delay also gave us one more argument with the security guards at the dock gates. Taxis are not allowed in the docks, and our boat is a long way from the gates. Taxis are not allowed unless you buy some beers for the guards. We walked.
I got my first sight of the MSV Kelso at the docks, alongside her sister ship the MSV Edinburgh, the day I arrived. She was bigger than I’d expected, about 75 metres long, and only a little bit rusty. She started life as a Japanese fishing research vessel in 1971, although I can’t see how they’d get many whales on such a small deck. She was called the Toko Maru. I don’t know what that means, but it’s surely better than being named after a boring town in the Scottish Borders. The South African company wanted a boat specifically for fishing so they sent someone who knew nothing about fishing to look at this boat – it is rumoured that he bought it based solely on the huge amount of equipment in the radio room. And I thought only UNSAEF worked like that. It has now been converted to fish for crayfish and to take passengers and freight. The UK government contracts the company to do six passenger/freight runs per year using the two boats. There used to be a bigger boat, the St Helena, which had a cinema and lounges and a bar, which used to do an annual trip, but that has stopped. Sadly.
The boat is said to be better appointed than the Edinburgh. Fred and I share a small cabin below deck, with claustrophobic bunk beds and not much space. It’s very stuffy, mainly because we aren’t allowed to keep the porthole open in case it lets water in. Some of the cabins are bigger, and some even have fridges!. Theres a saloon where we dine, watch videos, play cards, read and waste time. The main deck is mainly taken over by fishing stuff, so it’s quite cluttered and unsuitable for deck quoits. But we do have a small “seal deck” at the back of the bridge where passengers are said to gather to sunbathe, although it’s not too pleasant because of the noise and fumes from the adjacent funnel. There’s lots of stairs and things to bang your head on.
There are lots of Japanese touches. We have a buddhist shrine above one of the stairwells, a geisha doll in the saloon, which also has willowy stained glass windows, an electronic toilet (sadly not working) and a sea-water bath in the bowels of the ship. And lots of signs in Japanese.
The most important thing about the Kelso is that she is fitted with stabilisers. There are two big tanks of water on the top deck and water is automatically tranferred between them to counteract the roll. It works. The ship does not roll from side to side. It lurches instead. Now I understand why, when describing the stabilising system, most people ended with, “I prefer the Edinburgh”.
Today is our fourth day at sea. We are now more than 800 nautical miles out of Capetown, with about 750 to go. It has been remarkably calm for the whole trip so far, with the ship doing 11 knots in a one or two metre swell. Weather has been mainly sunny, with the odd shower. The lurching has been got used to. I missed seeing some whales on the horizon this morning, but I did see the only ship we have come across so far. Seemingly, the re are a few livestock ships on this route, taking cattle or sheep from South America to the Middle and Far East. The captain said “you don’t want to get downwind of one of them”.
The average day on board goes like this. Woken at 6:30 for breakfast. Excellent bacon and eggs. Sausages, when available, are to be avoided. One morning the sausages all appear to have been cut from one enormous ships sausage, held in the hold for weeks on end. Then a sleep after breakfast. Lunch is at 11:30, followed by an afternoon snooze. Then dinner at 5, a post-dinner nap, then bed.
There really isn’t much anything to do except sleep. We have a selection of videos, which appear to have been stolen from a Capetown video shop, whose quality and appeal are summarised in the following exchange between someone entering the saloon and someone watching a video.
Enterer: “What are you watching?”
Let me go through the passengers for you. All names have been changed, not to protect the innocent, but because my memory isn’t up to the task of getting them right.
First we have the Administrator and his wife, John and Linda. John is everything you’d expect an Administrator to be. Very English, very pro-UK, very pro-Queen, very proper, wants to know everyone and has a witty but kind remark about them all. He has a very natty line in T-shirts from various expeditions that have passed through Tristan – I supsect it is the traditional gift from the visitors. Of course, being Administrator of a very small island is not exactly a pinnacle of achievement in the Foreign Office, but I’m too polite to point that out. I’m also too polite to point out the unfairness of the fact that the Tristanians have recently won the right to settle in the UK, whereas UK citizins are not allowed to settle on Tristan. At least John has taught me how to pronunce St Helena properly – the accent is on the second syllable. Linda sews.
Then there’s the new island doctor, John, and his wife, Linda, and their three daughters, Linda, Linda and Linda. John was sick for the first couple of days but has since been seen spotted eating bacon and eggs. They’ve got a one year posting with the possibility of a one-year extension. I think it’s very smart of the UK appointing someone who gets seasick so easily. he’s not going to want to come back at the end of his contract. I don’t think the kids, 4, 6 and 9, really know what they’ve let themselves in for. Linda sews.
We have one islander, Linda. She left maybe 20 years ago, and has been working in England ever since. She’s been back a few times since, but is now returning for six months with the prospect of staying permanently. She has one of her daughters with her, the other one being on the island already.
John is a photographer. He is on assignement from the Royal Mail to photograph the delivery of a parcel from Amazon, the company not the big river. They want to celebrate the fact that Tristan now has its own postcode.
Then there’s Linda, the biologist. She’s on here way to Tristan working for the RSPB doing a study of invertibrates on the island. Linda showed me my first Albatross, or “Alby” as they are called in certain South-African biological circles. It was dissapointingly small and grey – I’d thought it was a seagull.
Then there’re two “company men”. I’m not yet sure if they work for the same company or what. One is on his way to talk to the fish factory manager, to tell him that he is staying longer than planned. The other one is probably just here to get away from things. One of the two was responsible for allowing me and John on this trip. There was a huge hassle about the numbers allowed on the boat and he said that he was that close to saying we couldn’t come, but changed his mind at the last minute. Thanks, John.
Finally there’s the captain’s wife, who is here for a joy ride, although she spends most time complaining. Her favourite phrase is “the new South Africa” said with a slight sneer and a laugh, as if she preferred the old one. She was amazed to find that no-one in our group has ever been on a cruise ship – I think she moves in a different social circle.
And that leaves me and John from UNSAEF to make 14 passengers.
And there’s a dog, belonging to the doctor. The island has a lot of dogs, mainly working dogs, described as border collies with bad tempers. I don’t know if the bad temper is a requirement for the island or not. The Administrator doesn’t allow pet dogs at all – the doctor’s dog, Linda, is allowed because she is a temporary import.
Talking of imports, we’re indulging in a little bit of smuggling for the islanders. Two dozen bottles of cider and a couple of bottles of spirits. Big time.
The whole purpose of this trip is some sort of tax dodge, to keep the crew’s hours up. There will be no actual fishing on this trip for the crew. Just lots of cleaning, tidying, painting and video watchiong. The crew, Johns to a man, are nice and friendly and happy to point out that I have no idea how to fasten a life jacket.
I was hoping I’d get some work done on this trip, or my boss was. But it has proved very difficult. It may be smooth but the ship still moves around enough that it is incredibly difficult to concentrate. Even reading is difficult. It hasn’t been helped by the seasickness pills, which make you very drowsy. So I’m getting good at Freecell.
If anyone else thinks they are good at Frecell, go on the Internet and search for best scores. You’ll be humbled. There are people out there who claim to have had thousands of consecutive wins, putting my record of 14 in the shade. It makes you wonder what sort of life they must lead. In fact, it might cure you of your Freecell addiction, until you go on a long voyage. The captain and the chief engineer are the only people with computers on the ship. They always have Freecell running.
In my next installment, I will try and gather some island tales. The islanders still talk about Ben Fogle, or whatever his name was, who was there for only a couple of days yet wrote them up in his travel book The Teatime Isles.
Seemingly, he told a few fibs and is not welcome back.
Tristan Diary – 25/01/2005
Today is our sixth day at sea. We are scheduled to arrive at about 2 tomorrow morning. The captain has said we might slow down so that John the photographer can take photos of arriving at the island in the daylight. John may die mysteriously in his sleep tonight.
The weather has deteriorated a bit, the seas are a bit rougher, but it’s still quite smooth. We are hoping to arrive at Tristan before the forecast gales arrive – disembarkation is done using small boats and needs relatively smooth seas. The boat is then taking some people to Gough Island, where disembarkation is done using a crane at the top of a cliff which the boat moors under – that needs really smooth seas.
Life on board has been much as before. I haven’t been feeling too well so have been missing most of the meals. This is probably a good thing as the food is not very good. The best food so far was yesterday when we had cheese, tomato, onion and pickle sandwiches toasted on a Braai (Barbeque). This is, I believe, an Afrikaaner tradition. I then spoilt my mood by having one of the suspicious sausages.
I’m looking forward to being on Tristan, to the bad-tempered dogs, the feral cattle, the post-bell, the Christmas weather, the cray-fish manure, the Nightingale days. All these, and more, will be described to you when I find out what they are myself.
Tristan Diary – 27/01/2005
Landfall. Thank goodness. The last day of our sea journey was incredibly smooth. Not a single whitecap and the seaa had an unreal look, almost pixelated. I, of course, slept through the only bit of excitement on the trip. The captain spotted a big bit of plastic pipe floating in the water and stopped and launched a boat to retrieve it. Ships are very eco-senstitive these days and we are barred from throwing anything aboard. Although fag-ends seem to be exempt.
We got our first sight of Tristan at sunset from a distance of 80 miles (nautical of course). The captain had never seen it from so far, a silhouette on the horizon against the pink sky. It was too dark to take unblurred photos but that didn’t stop me. Look carefully on the horizon just to the left of the cable in the photo – you sould see a pale triangular island. Tristan ho!
We got our second sight when we woke at five the next morning. Not s single cloud and we could see the whole island – this too is very rare. It was too dark to take any photographs, but that didn’t stop me.
I was really glad to be getting off the ship. I had eventually got round to seeing the doctor after finding out he had to give the passengers a clean bill of health before we were allowed ashore – bringing bugs to the island and all that. He reckoned that I’d caught a virus in Capetown and prescribed Coca Cola and Pringles crisps. Not only did he prescribe them but he supplied them, stolen from his kids’ stash. A good doctor.
Landing was a hoot. Somehow, I’d got lumped in with the scaredy-cats who were transferred from the Kelso to the barge in a box on a crane. I should have gone down the ladder, as they almost missed the barge. Despite the calm seas, the waves were rough in the harbour and the barge (big name for what was just a small boat) had to time it right to find a big wave to bring us in safely. I almost kissed the quay.
So here were are, Tristan. It’s now our second day ashore and the weather has turned from sunburn to webbed-foot. I am working in the middle of a cow-field and a sheep dog seems to have adopted me. So far, we’ve visited the supermarket, the power station, the fish factory, the electrical store and the pub. There’s only the hospital, the cafe and the administrators office left, I think.
The sickness disappeared almost immediately I came ashore. Doctors, what do they know?
The St Helena stopped running due to a “rationalisation” of routes. It used to do a run from the UK to Tristan, stopping at lots of places on the way. Now it only does runs between St Helena, Ascension and the African mainland.
Tristan Diary – 28/01/2005
How to descibe this place? It is very difficult. At times it reminds me of north-west Scotland. At other times, Montserrat. Occasionally, it reminds me of Papua New Guinea. Then there are times when I think, nowhere on Earth is like this.
First, the people. The population is around 280 and there are seven families, seven different surnames, all descended from original settlers. One of the families is in danger of becoming extinct, with only one member left – a young girl – that could have offspring in future. This sort of thing is important to the islanders.
It seems easy to tell the family members apart, although I haven’t put it to the test yet. There’s a definite Italian strain – the last “settler” was a shipwrecked Italian two generations ago – one man at the dockside was straight out of the Sopranos, black patterned shirt, black slacks and shoes, earring and silvering hair.
The Tristan accent is very strange. It’s a cross between something very posh and plummy, almost Prince Philip-like, and something very coarse and earthy, some people say Gaelic although I say West-Country. People talk very fast and quiet and use many strange words and sayings and it is very hard to follow them.
As usual, I’ve forgotten much more than I’ve learnt. But went out last night, hoping to get “touched up”.
There is no hotel or guest house on the island, so visitors get lodged with local families, 20 pounds per night, all meals and laundry included. We are staying with John and Linda. They are very nice, although it is very strange staying in someone’s houses when their tastes are very different from yours. But I will refrain from commenting on theie awful taste in bathroom accessories. Linda seems to have spent the entire time since we arrived cooking. She keeps saying that she is busy and has to go out and we can just help ourselves, but then we stroll in and there she is making bacon and eggs / pizza / fish and chips / shepherds pie. I think I’ve already replaced all the weight I lost on the boat. Food is plain and simple, and plentiful. The potatoes are great, said to be because they use a mixture of guano and crayfish heads as fertiliser.
The house is cosy. It’s a small stone bungalow, with very cheap flimsy internal walls. A common feature on island houses is that they have “stable” front doors, that is two halves, which can be opened independently. It seems a very bad door to have in the cold winters. Or even today, when the wind is howling and driving the rain horizontally.
Television is a recent innovation. The island gets one channel from the UK Armed Forces network. It has Eastenders and football.
The supermarket is the place that reminded of Papua New Guinea. It’s just like the trade stores there. Rickety shelves and kronky freezers and fridges with a ridiculously varied set of wares, all looking a little bit old at the edges. The cheese is next to the frozen carrots. The boat that brought us also brought in the first fresh food supplies since September. The supermarket rations these to ensure a fair distribution among the islanders. I think our house got extra rations because we had an overflowing fruitbowl this morning.
We’ve become regulars at the new pub, which doesn’t seem to have a name. It is all new and a bit boring. Smoking is banned, so drinking seems to take place outside most of the time. Lots of kids hand around the pub and the games room in it. Otherwise it was just a few young couples and the factory women having a drink on the way home from work. I noticed one young women with her takeway – two cans of lager and two shots of Gin, in a plastic bottle she’d brought for the purpose. Maybe the pub gets livelier at the weekend.
Gin, you should know, is the islander’s one big vice. A “Tristan gin” is of mythical proportions and contains very little tonic. You are advised to avoid gin drinking, especially in people’s homes, if at all possible. All this became very hard to believe when I found out that the pub, and the Supermarket, had “run out of tonic”. Undeterred, I continued my researches and drank like the locals. All I can report is that Gin and Lime is mildly better than Gin and Coke, although that might just be the lack of ice in the latter. Gin is 40p per shot in the pub.
I have not noticed any evidence of the other famed vice, Country and Western music. John, who’s been here before, sent me to buy a selection of C&W CDs in Capetown. I think I did very well, even avoiding my own C&W favourites, but we have yet to deliver them.
Have to dash now as there is work to be done. Hopefully I will have a chance over the weekend to put together some more structured thoughts, particularly on Tristan and Stalinism.
Nearly forgot. “touched up” means being drunk.
Tristan Diary – 29/01/2005
Today is Saturday. Everyone has gone down The Patches – pronounced with a very long “a”. That’s where they grow their vegetables, mainly potatoes. This year’s crop won’t be as good as last year’s, there was bad weather in the spring which damaged the plants.
There is no unemployment on Tristan. Everyone works either for the Government or the Company – who own the crayfish factory and the boats. The Company pays better, so people people work there first, then change to a Government job when they need the rest. Everyone also has their plot on the patches and works there at the weekend, and sometimes in the evening.
A typical pub conversation goes:
– What ya doin’ weekend?
I think I’m the only person left in Edinburgh. Did I tell you the settlement was called that? Full name is Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. Anyway, there’s no one around as I sit in my converted container in the middle of my cow-field trying to persuade the UNSAEF computers to function. I’m the lucky one. The wind has turned to the South and Edinburgh is in the lee, and it’s nice and sunny and calm here. It’s pro’lly windy round Patches.
Tristan Diary – 30/01/2005
We took our first break yesterday afternoon. We went for a walk with the new Doctor and climbed the 1961 lava flow. I was impressed, but I always am with these things. The highest point we reached was maybe 1/3 of the way up the cliff behind Edinburgh, which is only 1/4 of the hieght of the volcano. Visions of a summit attempt are receding rapidly.
Actually, visions of anything that is not work are receding rapidly. The rumours about the departure of the Kelso vary day to day. We were meant to be here until next weekend, but we are now hearing that it will leave on Tuesday, or Thursday, or Friday, or Wednesday. There was also a roumour that it would leave tomorrow, but that can’t be true because we have an invitation to dine with the Chief Islander tomorrow night.
Anyway, after descending from the lava flow into the town dump, I went for a walk down to Pig’s Bite. It could be Bight, but I prefer my version. There’s a couple of rock beaches down there where you can see penguins. I didn’t, but there was a lot of poo-covered rocks, so they may be right. Pig’s Bite is about as far East as you can go from Edinburgh.
It may be the right moment to describe the island to you. It is roughly circular, 10 km in diameter, and 2 km high in the middle. Due to wave erosion, almost all of the coast is a very high cliff, up to 500m high in places. The north-west quadrant is the exception, where a huge landlide has created a little shelf that is just above seas level. This is about 4 km long and less than 1 km wide. It is the only part of the island that is easily accessible and everything goes on in it. The other parts are visited only rarely and contain sheep and the mythical feral cattle.
On the walk back from the lava, I came across Brian and the boys. Brian is a the 20-something son of our hosts and is so handsome and well built that half you readers would up and settle down with him at the drop of a pair of trousers. Donny is building his own house, and spent all of yesterday with his “buddies” racing dumper trucks around like teenagers with bicycles. The cool way to drive a dumper truck is shirtless, standing up.
Brian is building his own house. It costs about 15,000 to build a house here, once you have persuaded the Island Council to give you the land. All you need is materials shipped from South Africa and enough beer for your “buddies” when they help you build it. This approach does not apply to UNSAEF of course. Anything we want to build, say a wall, will need 12 people for a day and will cost us a lot of money.
Linguistic Notes. “Buddy” is the Tristan word used for your mates, pronounced “burry”. Tristaners both drop h’s from the front of a word and add them when a word starts with a vowel. So “hairy arse” is pronounced “airy harse”. The accent definitely sounds drunk upper class, as demonstrated in many BBC sketch shows.
Tristan Diary – 31/01/2005
Someone has asked some very important questions about the genetics of such a small community as Tristan da Cunha. No they don’t have pointy heads.
I did have a brief chat with the doctor, and a more drunken chat with the photographer, about the problems associated with reproduction in such a small community. The doctor points out that genetic deformalities are no more prevelant here than in other communities and that there is only one mentally handicapped person on the island. The photographer pointed out that “the kids look great, hey!”
There is a tendency to portliness and red faces amongst the people, even youngsters, but I suspect that’s more the fried diet and the weather. A lot of the people are quite ugly, but that’s just rural ugly people. My personal opinion is that the islanders are very aware of the potential problems and there are unwritten rules about who marries who to take care of them. There are certainly no laws more than those extant in the rest of Britain. And there are certainly no attempts to widen the available gene pool by seconding visiting Scotsmen.
Tristan Diary – 01/02/2005
Yesterday was a bad day. At one point I was convinced that I’d totally kaputed a certified UNSAEF station. And I’m getting very fed up of sitting in my green container in the middle of a cow-field shouting at computers while other visitors are up mountains, out fishing, down pub.
Today started better, when I was accompanied on my morning trudge across the cow field by a herd of chickens. They stopped and looked very puzzled when I passed the chicken coop. I think they wanted fed.
Animals. Our cow-field has cows, ducks and chickens. All the cows have names, but I know only a red one, called Candy, who has particularly sharp horns. The island dogs have turned out to be less alarming than predicted. Most are border collies and very cute. They are not bad-tempered as foretold, but very friendly and pally. They may bark a bit at strangers. I was told by one of the islanders that most of the sheepdogs can’t round sheep these days. Dogs are locked up at night, by law. Except those that you see running around.
I have been adopted by one dog, Jibe (or is it Gybe?). He, or she – I’m not looking between the legs of every dog I meet – follows me to work across the cowfield every day and comes on any longer expeditions. Jibe has a bit of a reputation as a cow-worrier, and he does run at cows, although he looks more in danger of getting hurt than they do. Jibe follows me everywhere, and I had to stop him from worrying penguins yesterday. We discovered that there are some rock-hoppers hopping over a beach near the station. Jibe was almost excited as Suzie would have been. These penguins are quite solitary, and moulting, and sometimes spend an awful lot of effort trying to hop up dirt slopes which they slide down again. There are also meant to be Gentoo Penguins on Tristan, but I have no idea what gentooing is.
The other dogs I know are Number and his brother, Twin, who is not his twin, but looks identical.
Back to penguins. Linda, the bird biologist, reckons that there was a big penguin colony on Tristan which has been wiped out by the islanders and we see some remnants of that colony as solitary penguins on the beaches. The Islanders used to hunt penguins – so that they could use the crests on the penguin’s heads to decorate their mats. True.
This Linda is getting very uptight about the islanders lack of conservation practice. She is here to teach the islanders how to collect insects (?) but is despairing at the lack of facilities and help. She thinks it is terrible that the family she is staying with have their own cow and chickens, but they drink long-life milk and eat frozen chickens.
We had frozen chicken last night. Defrosted of course.
People blame the arrival of satellite TV, British Forces Brodcasting, two years ago. I was too busy watching Eastenders to discuss this.
There is a limit of two cows and seven sheep per household. But there seem to be a lot more animals than implied by those limits.
Some of the sheep are kamikaze sheep. Following the greener grass that is always on the other side, they scale the huge escarpment that backs the settlement. You often see them up there, in ridiulously innaccessible places. The dogs are used to get them down, but sometimes the sheep come down themselves, the hard way. Tenderised mutton, hmmmmm.
Weather is back to bright and sunny. And it looks as if the boat is leaving on Saturday, as scheduled. May have no time for relaxation, as work is piling up.
But the evenings are fun. We spent a good night with one of the locals, John. Everyone else was drinking beer, but Jeff got it into his head that I was a gin-and-lime man – it was probably when I pooh-pahed his gin and Coke – and had gone to the pub to get some for me. Probably a plastic-bottle job. Some of the following stories are from John.
The previous administrator was known as Bin Laden. No-one knows why, but it was certainly not connected to his habit of being drunk by 10 am most days. He was not popular in some quarters dues to slight megalomaniacal tendencies. The road from Edinburgh to The Patches is a single track road, badly maintained. In a couple of places, it is like a short dual carriageway, where they have laid a new bit of road to bypass a bit that was getting very bad. One of the locals was seen by the Administrator taking the right hand side of one of these and was prosecuted for driving on the wrong side of the road. He was offered the choice of a fine or community service and chose the latter. Unfortunately, no-one specified the hours of service to be completed. So he stopped doing it one day, the Administrator had him in court again, and fined him. The new adminstrator does not drink much. I asked Jeff if they had a nickname for the new Administrator. He quickly replied, “arsehole”. But I don’t think that’s a widely-held view.
The priest also drinks, mainly the communion wine, which is presumably tax free. BUt the islanders like his preaching, probably because he never castigates them for drinking.
Blood Sports on Tristan. Once a year, in April or May, they have Rattin’ Day. The island has a lot of rats, presumably ones have deserted from sinking ships, and Rattin’ Day is when the islanders hunt them. The dogs sniff them out and the islanders dig out the nests and kill the rats, probably not humanely. They have a drink every time a rat is caught. Thousands are killed in the space of the one day. They have a dance in the evening and present prizes: most tails, biggest tail etc – the rats’ tails are kept as trophies, although I haven’t seen any hanging on walls yet. The young islanders have started cheating, catching rats up to two weeks before Rattin’ Day.
Yesterday was a fishing day. If the weather is suitable, someone rings the dong at 5 am to announce a fishing day and the fishermen go out in little boats to set their lobster pots. Individual fishermen are paid according to how much they catch, but each is set a quota for the season and so they all end up earning the same, as long as they have fulfilled the quota. I was hoping to go down at 4pm yesterday and get some photos of the boats coming back in. Unfortunately, we had a major computer crisis at that time and didn’t. Today is another fishing day, so hopefully I will have time later.
The craft and gift shop will be open tomorrow, 2-3. Or it may be today. No other day this week. But we may be able to make arrangements to get the key. That’s how island commerce works. John went to the bank to try and get some money. He forgot his travellers cheques, but they gave him the money anyway – he could drop the cheques in later.
“The Dong” is the main means of communication used on the island. It is an old gas cylinder, suspended in a frame and hit with a hammer. It is hit to announce fishing days, the availability of mail, fires, and by any drunk who passes it at New Year. There are two auxiliary dongs which are also rung for the fire alarms.
The postal system. The mail comes on the boat six or so times a year. The crew try and hold the post back because the islanders lose interest in unloading the cargo after the post and fresh fruit are unloaded. The post is then sorted by address, but only for the expats. All the other post is thrown into one bag. This is taken to the Hall and the dong is rung. People have to come to the hall and stand around as the letters are handed out, one by one.
Our boat brought some Christmas post with it. Unfortunately, it was for St Helena, not Tristan. They may get it by next Christmas.
Had supper with the Chief Islander yesterday. She always invites visitors and hangers on. Talked about the volcano a bit. But they were much more interested in recounting the tale of the Frenchman who got lost last year – turned out he had walked round the island accidentally evading all the search parties.
People are proud of the “Tristan Tot”, the measure they use to pour Gin and other spirits. “Two fingers”, they say, while holding up their index finger and pinkie, like a heavy metal fan.
Tristan Diary – 01/02/2005 – Supplemental
When I grow up, I do NOT want to be a lobster. There you are, lobstering along in the South Atlantic Ocean with not a problem in the world. Suddenly, you find yourself whisked away in a pot or a net with lots of other lobsters, crammed in a box of seething lobsterism, and delivered to a slide that runs through a fish factory.
Here, you are grabbed by some horny-naded son of the soil who rips your tail off and throws the rest of you away, into a big bin, still alive, squirming and, presumably, a bit sore. If you have managed to retain your long feelers, these are also ripped off and tied neatlyinto bundles.
Lobster tails is what Tristan does. Cleaned, boiled, frozen and boxed on the island. The rest of the lobster goes for bait or feed or manure.
Larger lobsters are subjected to a totally different ordeal. They are thrown into large tanks of water to recover. The water is cunningly flowing from one end of the tank to the other. The lobsters that recover fully, and most of them do, are boiled, then frozen, then sent off to Japan. The ones that don’t recover are consigned to the bin.
And the bundles of feelers that were scavenged from the dying lobsters. They are packed with the whole lobsters to be glued on if a feeler breaks off in transit. This is important to the Japanese market.
Yes, I’ve been to the fish factory today. Found out these were lobsters, not crayfish or crawfish, but there’s not much difference anyway.
Tristan Diary – 02/02/2005
The bar is called The Albatross Bar, although the sign is over the door to the games room rather than outside. It’s been rebuilt recently. The Administrator says proudly, and probably repeats ad naseum, “They’ve done it really well. You could be in any place in the world”. No you couldn’t. You could only be on Tristan. Little old wiry weather-beaten ladies sitting drinking cans of beer after a hard 3 hours work in the fish factory. Three types of Gin, yet everything else comes in only one variety. Beer (canned) comes in two options, warm or cold.
(The barmaid said there was choice of three types of gin, but I noticed that one of them was vodka.)
(Warm beer from a can. Reminds me of drinking Younger’s Tartan Special as a teenager.)
We visited the museum/craft shop/gift shop. They had only one type of postcard. I asked if there were any different ones available anywhere. “You can try the post office. They might have some”, as if the post office was in another city, not 20 metres down the road and the cultural centre of the island’s universe.
Somehow the chickens were outside the cow field this morning, waiting by the gate to be let back in. They must be smarter than I thought, although they still followed me madly thinking it was breakfast.
Weather has been sunny again, did I say? Today we have a bit of a gale, which might have blown the chickens out of the field.
(I later found out that the chickens can get under the gate, which I so graciously held open for them.)
Latest ship information. The Kelso arrives at 5 am tomorrow (Thursday) having succesfully got the people off Gough Island after a few attempts. It will leave on Saturday, unless the weather threatens to turn, when it will leave early. The Edinburgh arrives today. It will leave “sometime next week”. If the Kelso leaves before we finish the work, we may have to come back on the less-comfy Edinburgh, but we will get 4 cabins each, as there will be no other passengers.
Tristan Diary – 03/02/2005
All getting a bit frantic now. The Edinburgh arrived yesterday and the Kelso arrived early this morning. We have lots of work to do yet, and I still have tourism/photos/shopping to do. We mulled about staying on and leaving on the Edinburgh, but she sails “sometime next week” and I suspect if we wait for that then (a) it’d be impossible to do the short Botswana visit I have scheduled and (b) my boss will kill me.
Good night in pub last night. Leaning on the bar, drinking beer from cans as usual and, just as you are about to suggest another round, a fresh can appears at your elbow, courtesy of one of the locals. That happened at least twice, although I suspect the beers are more for John – on his second visit – and I am just a necessary expense to avoid rudeness.
Beer is 61p a can in the pub. Gin etc 40p a shot, doubles are the norm, trebles common. Mixers are free. If you want ice, you have to wrestle it out of one of those blue plastic ice-bags yourself. The barmaid has other things to do, like going outside for a cigarette in the gale. They ran out of the home-made crisps before we got here.
I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE!!
Sorry that no-one gets postcards. (a) I hate the palaver. (b) I lost most people’s addresses when my laptop crashed 6 hours before leaving Vienna. Those postcards I will send have to be at the post office this afternoon, to get on the same boat as we are sailing on. It’d be easier to post them from Jo’burg, but I suppose that defeats the point.
I wanted to steal one exhibit from the museum. In 1947, or thereabouts, someone had photographed all the houses on the island and all the families and put the photos together in two big frames. Really good, it was. I wish I had time to do that again, but I don’t, so I didn’t.
Weather turning grayer and colder. I hope this doesn’t herald the early departure of the Kelso.
Tristan Diary – 04/02/2005
Captain Jon was at the Buffet Dinner last night at the Administrators house: “we leave on Saturday. Unless the weather looks like turning and we board Friday night. So I got up this morning to a calm, but grey day, and thought, “phew, I’ll get everything done”. John, my host, looked out the same window and said “She’ll not hang about. She’ll be off today.” The wind, see, has turned to the north-west, meaning it’s coming from the north west, and that is not a good sign.
The captain’s wife was also there, her only time ashore in a 3.5-week trip. I wonder why she came, as all she does is complain about life on board, especially the food, in front of her husband.
Tristan Diary – 07/02/2005
We’re at sea.
This is the third day now. Yesterday, the sea was blue, deep and calm. The sun shone. Today both the sea and sky are grey, and the ship has started lurching again. Let’s hope my stomach doesn’t start to lurch in sympathy.
We are due to arrive in Capetown on schedule on Friday. Today is Monday. I’ve flown half-way round the world in 30 hours. But it takes seven days to get to or from one little island in the ocean. To paraphrase Derek Smalls at the grave of Elvis Presley, “that’s too fuckin’ much perspective!”
So what to do for seven days? You’d think I could write that novel, write an award-winning poem, read War and Peace in the original, or even get some work done. But it is very very difficult to concentrate on a boat, even just for reading. I’ve only read one and a half of the eight books I brought with me.
It was all a bit hectic at the end. During the Friday, the news came around that boarding would be between 4 and 5 in the afternoon. There was a 50%25 chance of the weather turning, so off we must go. The night before, someone had remarked that you had to run if you hear the ship’s hooter. At 8 that morning, while checking the UNSAEF equipment, I heard a hooter. There was no-one around to ask, so I gathered up my things and was about to make my way to the harbour when I met John, who told me it was the Factory hooter, calling the women to process fish. He thought this very funny.
Our big problem was that the work wasn’t finished. We’d done what we came to do, but John had discovered some problems and needed more time to sort them out. Bravely, he volunteered to stay on for two weeks, hitching a ride back to Capetown on the Viola, a long-line fishing boat that the Administrator could “call in” to Tristan in order to check its papers. Unfortunately, the Viola would have no room for passengers. Maybe it was fortunate. When we saw the Viola, it was half the size of the Kelso and therefore, I was at pains to point out, had quarter the deck area and one eighth the volume. The Edinburgh had been rescheduled to leave with the Kelso, but We managed to persuade the powers to delay its departure for a couple of days so John could stay on to at least tidy up loose ends. Although his Edinburgh was a less-comfy ship than my Kelso, John would be the only passenger and, I was later to find, get the VIP cabin, with en-suite.
(I’ve got a good cabin here. At first I was given our old cabin, all to myself, deep in the bowels. BUt a single cabin was free, up stairs where you could open a porthole, and it was grudgingly offered to me in sympathy as I was sick on the way out. Just in time, as John the photographer came sniffing round only seconds after I moved in claiming he needed somewhere to work.)
I would have liked to stay on on Tristan, but couldn’t. So I spent the morning packing and the afternoon strolling round to take a last look at Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. It was like a ghost town – there was no-one around, everyone was either down at The Patches or preparing themselves, their family or friends for the voyage. The people I did run into were much more open than usual, most of them now starting conversations, not waiting for me to start. The usual greeting was “Leaving today?”.
There was a good crowd at the harbour for the good byes. And all waved as we sped out in the little boat. There was quite a swell and I was daunted by the leap to grab the rope ladder and dangling ropes from the violently bobbing boat. So I scrambled into the blue cage again, almost crushing several children in the scramble. This entertained the Tristaners, and a John greeted me with a “scared, huh?” Yes I was, actually.
But I can’t say anything bad about this John. On the last day he’d presented me with my holy grail. An unmapped seamount that could have been the source of the volcanic eruption back in July. “Don’t show this to any fishermen”, he said. I wonder if fisherman read the Bulletin of Volcanology.
All aboard, fare well’s said, The Kelso turned slowly and took our leave from Tristan. The departing doctor was given the honour of blowing the ships horn, three times. I’d be lying if I said I had tears in my eyes as we left. I was happy. Happy to have got here. So happy that I missed dinner, as I sat with John the photographer at the back of the boat watching Tristan fading into a monochrome sea and sky.
It’s very difficult to describe Tristan da Cunha. Yes you can describe it’s shape and weather and people and whatever. But I find it very diffcult to sum up the whole thing. Sailing away, you get a real sense of how big the island is compared to the part that is inhabited. The vast majority is not used, it is out of reach, it is native, and when you are on it it is hidden behind the scarp, like a curtain. And I didn’t get to see a single bit of it.
There’s always next time.
It’s not that hard to get there. All you need is time, money and luck. It costs $300 for a return trip on the Kelso/Edinburgh, including all meals for at least 12 days, 25 if you are very unlucky with the weather. That trip needs the luck as the passanger lists are not finalised until the last minute and there is a lot of demand. Medivacs take prioroty, also possibly friends of the list compiler, so you can get dumped at the last minute. A simpler option is on the boat I cannot spell, the Aguilles or something, which is a South African research ship that does a tour every September of various weather bases. It is much more comfortable and all boarding etc is done using its helicopter. That trip gives you three weeks on Tristan. But it costs a lot, over $1000 return. And the crew is not friendly – they made Alison and her kids eat away from the other diners – not a surprise once you’ve seen the kids at meal times. Another option is next year, The Island is trying to charter the RMS St Helena for a single trip to celebrate some centenary or other – I think it’s the 500 year one. But that’ll only give a 5-day stay on Tristan or cruising the other islands, Inaccessible and Nightingale.
I have to come back. There are things I didn’t do, like:
– climb the mountain
– climb to The Base, the plateau behind Edinburgh, to see The Pools
– visit the beach
– talk volcanoes
– take a photo of the fish factory women having a post-work beer at the Cafe (I didn’t have my camera when I saw this perfect shot).
– take a photo of the Doctor with his pet hen. It is the pet of the departing doctor’s wife, she even lets it sleep in their bed, and the new doctor was having to get used to it, at least while the old doctor was still on the island.
– take a bus ride
– walk from end to end of the inhabited bit.
We’ll see. I have plans. But for the moment I’ll just dump my remaining Tristan memories and thoughts in this file and take my leave of you.
The last-night party at the Administrators house was a bit annoying. John the photographer was whittering away about how he’d done this, that and the other, been half-way up the mountain – although I think he exaggerated and only got a quarter of the way. And me, the volcanologist remember, had hardly got out of my cow field. In 9 days on the island, we only had two half-afternoons off. And it was only on the last night that we met some of the long-time visitors, including Linda the Hebridean bioligist, and a woman who has a column in a diving magazine and had been swimming with sharks. I felt a wee bit cheated, only meeting these people as I was about to sail.
Beer as currency. The island is very bartery, people do things for each other and I’m sure that slackers, those with negatve equity in the barter pool, are frowned upon. Beer is the currency for small tasks. Put a new gas bottle on for your neighbours and you get a beer. Help someone build a house, and you get beers while you work. I even got a beer for buying a T-shirt – I’d complained to someone that the T-shirts in the gift shop (sorry Craft Shop) were poor and they enthused about one woman who did her own T-shirts, mush better, “private like”. Always willing to encourage free enterprise, I went along. They were not impressive, but I had to buy one for the sake of it. So don’t laugh when you see me in a white polyester polo shirt with “I’ve been to Tristan da Cunha” written on the front.
Did I tell you I’ve taken to wearing a hat? I bought it in Capetown, an Australian-type bush hat. I think I look rather very natty in it, but probably don’t. Hopefully I’ll have grown out of it by Vienna.
Cars are called “buggies”, pronounced “buckies”. Asthma is pronounced “ashma”, don’t ask me why I know that.
As someone pointed out, the island is full of tractors, but not a single plough.
Tractors are used like buses. The island has a bus service, 25p to the Patches, free for pensioners. Hardly anyone seems to use it.
Seemingly the Kelso has fewer cockroaches than the Edinburgh. I’m thankfull for that, if not for the information.
I’ve discovered something about myself, how my mind works. You may not think it, but I do put some effort into this diary you have been reading. As the day goes by, I think of things to say, compose sentences and paragraphs in my head. But when I rush back and sit down to write, there is nothing – I remember nothing at all. Then as soon as I do something instead, like read a book or start to do some work, the things come back in dribs and drabs, and little flashes of memory. Very strange. I try carrying a notebook with me, but don’t always have it or always use it as I should. When I do, it’s not that much help – often I cannot read my own writing, sometimes even at the time I am writing it.
Maybe I should buy a dictaphone or whatever they are called these days and walk around, Alan Partridge-like, saying things into it. But I can’t see me using it as, like most, I don’t like the sound of my own voice.
I may have failed on the stamps front. I was given very explicit instructions about what to get and I gave these to the lady at the post office. But when I came to collect on the last day, she just gave me three litle bags of stamps, nothing like “minisheets” or whatever. I did try and get some used stamps, but took affront at the supermarket who had some sheets of old stamps which had been franked, although never attached to a letter at a pound each. I also asked around, and was told of someone who might have old stamps to sell, but they never materialised.
The islanders have taken to painting the sides of their sheep with big stripes and shapes, including one good rendition of an Austrian flag. They used to use ear-tagging to identify the sheep, but the paint makes it easier when the sheep go walkabout up the mountainside. They can identify them with binoculars – “saves a long walk”. But I noticed they’d only painted one side of the sheep – maybe they have two legs shorter than the other two, and always present the same side to the sea.
Linda, my host, gave me a goodbye present, very touching. Lucky I didn’t open it until I got on the boat. It was a pair of homemade socks. At least I hope they’re homemade with Tristan wool, you can’t do this sort of thing in a factory. They are grey, that sort of dark schoolboy grey you get in uniforms, with two wide stripes at the top. Purple and Orange. Maybe they’re signalling socks for when you fall overboard.
Tristanians all seem to own their own lifejackets.
The old ways are slipping. Linda the Hebridean has tried, in her time there, to get the islanders to perform traditional songs and dances. They won’t, all they’ll sing is a few lines of country and western songs. The accordian is the folk instrument of choice, but she has never managed to get anyone to play for her – “Desmond’s got the accordian” being a typical excuse. There is something called the “Pillow Dance”, which people just laugh at when mentioned.
The Administrator has brought his kilt, his wife being Scots. He wants to reintroduce Scottish Country Dancing, since the islanders used to do a lot of that. The first settler was a Scot. Most of the early settlers were bachelors, and they had to bring women from St Helena for them.
In an earlier installment, I may have given the impression that the Administrator and his wife were a bit of a joke. They are not, they seem very suited to working here, are very dedicated, and are widely liked. He does have very bad taste in jokes, though.
We could have gone to Gough Island. The boat was scheduled to go to Gough on the way back, to deliver some stores for the weather station there. Gough is just 200 nautical miles south of Tristan, but is in The Roaring Forties and is much colder. But Linda chartered the Kelso to take her and some others there for a short visit – although they almost got stuck and would have had a much longer visit. So we didn’t go.
Incidentally, the scientists on Gough have a beard growing competition while they are stationed there.
Many people liken life on the island to Communism. The boat is lurching too much to go into that here, but they may be right.
I think of Tristan as being way south. almost Antartica. But it is the same latitude south as the Azores are North. The world is very north-biased.
I just found a map of Tristan on my computer. This includes some local place names used by the islanders. I spelt Pigbite wrong. The Ponds are called The Ponds up the Eastard, although I think the mapmaker was just too polite to use the real name, The Ponds up the Bastard. There are headlands called Down-where-the-Minister-land-his things and Ridge-where-the-Goat-jumped-off. There’s an unnamed gulch between First Gulch and Third Gulch.
Life on the ship is as before. We already had the barbecue. I’m already fed up making tea with lukewarm water from a flask and UHT milk. I avoid the Red Bush tea bags. I don’t feel as sick as before, and maybe I’ll get some work done. When you sleep, there’s a definite sense of movement as well as the swaying, but it always seems to be to the back of the ship.
I spent part of yesterday trying to photograph Albatrosses. I thnk there are two species of Albatross. One, the big ones, only exist in Attenburgh-land, along with the friendly penguins. The others, the smaller ones, are specially trained to stay out of the range of long lenses. But they are beautiful to watch. They skim along at wave height, turning this way and that, riding the small updraughts from the waves, going down between waves, hardly ever flapping their wings. They seem to be systematically scouring the surface of the ocean, a long, long way from their homes – these nay not even be Tristanian Albies. They have their own paths, and just circle the boat a few times when they encounter it before going off again.
We did some speed tests yesterday, taking two engines up to full load for a short period – they normally run at half load. Speed increased from 10.3 to 13 knots. I’d like to say the prow rose out of the water as we aquaplaned thorugh the seas. But we didn’t. It was exactly the same as before, but we were using 50% more fuel. The boat has four engines, but only two used at a time. It’s said she can do up to 20 knots using the four engibes if she has to, and could make it to Tristan in 4 days. They’d do that if there was a volcanic crisis, although they wouldn’t have any fuel to get back.
I’ll stop now, before I get carried away getting philosophical about the meaning of life while sailing into the sunset.
Because we’re sailing in the wrong direction. The sun sets behind us. But the Albatross are with us, if only fleetingly.
See ya buddies!
Tristan Diary – 08/02/2005
“Wild cattle may be found in many parts of Tristan Island, and the islanders will only approach them if armed.” from Africa Pilot Volume II, 12th Edition, 1977, Admiralty Sailing Directions, Hydrographic Department, Taunton, UK.
And the boat I can’t spell is the Agulhas.