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Tristan da Cunha: Far Away, But Far From Lonely

Posted on March 15 2020

Tristan da Cunha: Far Away, But Far From Lonely

If you want to go adventuring to the most distant, inaccessible place in the world, well, good luck. There are some insanely remote places, most of which involve extremely harsh conditions (well, duh, if they were nice, people would be living there!). Still, you can leave almost all of civilization behind and get to some very, very isolated places that still sustain a human presence, and the farthest of all these is considered to be the little island of Tristan da Cunha. It sits in the South Atlantic Ocean, somewhere around midway between the southern end of Africa, and the east coast of South America. From there, it’s about 1,700 miles to South Africa, and over 2,000 miles to the shores of Brazil to the west. Tristan da Cunha is one of six islands in a group that goes by the same name, and at at 38 square miles it is its biggest member. The islands of Inaccessible, Nightingale, Middle, Stoltenhoff, and Tristan da Cunha are close neighbors, all being within 25 miles of each other. Gough Island, also part of the group, is around 200 miles off to the south-southeast. Gough is the site of a manned weather station, but of the others, only Tristan da Cunha is well and truly inhabited, sporting an actual community. The island group is part of the British Overseas Territory of St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha, with St. Helena being the closest inhabited member. It’s a mere 1,500 miles away, and no people live closer. Suffice to say, Tristan da Cunha is out there. Way, way, out there.

Tristan da Cunha cuts an imposing profile.

Tristan da Cunha cuts an imposing profile.

 

Welcome to the Remotest Island Sign

Welcome to the Remotest Island Sign


How does Tristan da Cunha come to be so far out in the middle of the ocean? All the islands in the archipelago are volcanic, and one might think the Mid-Atlantic Ridge had fed the magma to build them, but that tear in the ocean floor is about 250 miles off to the west. Rather than sprouting from a rift between plates, these islands grew up from a hotspot, similar to the origin of the Hawaiian Islands. Rising up through more than two miles of ocean, Tristan da Cunha kept building to where its summit, Queen Mary’s Peak, stands at 6,760 feet. The ocean has eroded the sides of the roughly circular island into tall steep cliffs, above which is an elevated plateau that serves as the base of the central peak. Around the margin of the island are a few low-lying flat areas, and the largest, along the northwest, is where the settlers chose to set up their living space, a little village called Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, or just Edinburgh. If you walked the entire perimeter of this modest volcanic expression in the middle of the ocean, you’d only go about 24 miles.      

3D view of Tristan da Cunha

The oblique view Tristan da Cunha’s seafloor surroundings shows it takes the material from a lot of eruptions to achieve an island.

Location of Tristan da Cunha on earth view

Location of Tristan da Cunha from space.

The six pieces of Tristan da Cunha

It's a fair question to ask how and why such a far-flung island came to be the home of nearly 280 souls, and it all started when a Portuguese explorer, Tristão da Cunha, happened upon it in 1506. He reportedly wasn’t able to land, so his sole contribution to the place was to record the location and apply his name, which was later anglicized to Tristan. Attempts were made to establish settlements there, but none lasted until the British annexed the island and set up a military post in 1816. They had some fear that the French might use the location in some kind of plan to liberate Napoleon from his imprisonment on “nearby” St. Helena. The military promptly left the next year, in 1817, but three hardy soldiers stayed on. Their number grew bit by bit by way of shipwreck survivors, European settlers seeking to leave the homeland far behind, and the arrival of women (so key to growing a population) from St. Helena. The expansion of whaling brought more activity to this chilly and distant part of the world, which spurred commerce and habitation on the island. However, in the mid-1800s, the decline of that industry meant more isolation for Tristan da Cunha. The population of the island rose and fell over the years, reaching nearly 100 by 1896. Its bleakest period was during World War I, when the annual supply ship from Britain was discontinued. Communication with the outside world was next to nonexistant, sparing the few residents from the horrifying news of that war. During World War II, the British set up radio communication there to keep tabs on Nazi U-boats, and a weather monitoring station on the island to aid ship movement in the South Atlantic.

The six pieces of Tristan da Cunha.


The little settlement of Edinburgh is backed by stunning relief.

The little settlement of Edinburgh is backed by stunning relief.

A Tristan da Cunha potato patch. Everyone there grows potatoes—they are a regular part of the diet and keep well should there be a prolonged gap in supplies from the outside world.

A Tristan da Cunha potato patch. Everyone there grows potatoes—they are a regular part of the diet and keep well should there be a prolonged gap in supplies from the outside world.


Islanders got along in their isolation by collecting albatross, shearwater, and rockhopper penguin eggs, fishing for shellfish, growing potatoes, and raising livestock, which they still do, although the sales of local postage stamps and coins, and some hand-manufactured goods supplement the economy now. Life on the island involves weather—the little chunk of land is a bit like a boat out on a cold, windy ocean, and it rains more than half the time. Those who would like to climb Queen Mary’s Peak for the view have few opportunities given the cloud and mist that are rarely absent. Still, it’s not unbearably harsh—it generally doesn’t get below 50 degrees Fahrenheit at any time of the year, and high temperatures range from the mid-50s to the mid-70s depending on the season. The town has all the requisite amenities, although supplies must be ordered far in advance, and delivery time is not assured. A small clinic can handle common medical situations, but for major procedures a patient will have to endure a sea journey to more developed shores. All the houses have diesel generators for power, and there are bigger ones for the seafood processing plant that serves the exporting business of the island, source of 80 percent of the local economy. There several hundred cattle and sheep, some of whom live on what doubles as the island’s golf course. They act as mobile hazards there—volcanic boulders, gale winds, and a lack of greens provide even more challenge. In a lot of ways the island is a microcosm of the outside world, but there is one principle there that comes from a more idealistic mindset than us outsiders can manage: All the land is owned in common, and each household has farming space and grazing rights to support itself. The community is intensely mutually supportive, a quality that would seem imperative on a small and distant outpost.

Albatross are also residents of the islands.

Albatross are also residents of the islands.

Rockhopper penguins inhabit the islands of Tristan da Cunha.

Rockhopper penguins inhabit the islands of Tristan da Cunha.


At one point, all of the structures, animals, and belongings of Tristan da Cunha had to be abandoned, when Queen Mary’s Peak rumbled to life. In August and September of 1961, earthquakes and landslides rattled the island in various places and by October, the damage came to the settlement. A lava flow took out the seafood processing plant and the two best landing beaches. With unknown destruction possible, it was decided to evacuate the entire populace. A multi-stage trip (luckily there were high-capacity boats in the area at the time) took them all to South Africa and thence to Southampton, England, where they stayed for two years. Not surprisingly, the culture shock was huge despite the common language. Still, many did well, adjusting to the bustling world of Britain. Geologists monitored the volcanic situation back on the island and in two year’s time it seemed safe enough to return. The British government would just as soon have abandoned Tristan da Cunha permanently, but a vote of the refugees was 148 to 5 in favor of returning. And so they did. It must have been a big job to clean up and repair the damage wrought by the quakes and lava, as well as the two years of neglect, but it was done, and the community fully reestablished itself.

When the weather’s fair, the hiking is fantastic.

When the weather’s fair, the hiking is fantastic.


The families that live on Tristan da Cunha are close—all share one of nine last names, mostly those of much earlier arrivals. The names are all British, except for a couple that are Italian, the descendants of shipwrecked crew. Though there are some expatriate workers there temporarily, new full-time settlers need not apply, as the island has only a certain carrying capacity. It’s not as though one can’t visit the place—boats and ships do call, even cruise ships. The sea is the only way get there, as there is no airport. Though they don’t arrive frequently, or with more than a handful or a few dozen passengers (the largest ship might carry 260 tourists), ships bring visitors to see the impressive landscape views and wildlife of the island group, mostly from the water. As there is no safe harbor for large vessels, the ships must anchor offshore and ferry passengers ashore by tender, if the weather allows. For the larger ships, the locals will go out themselves, bringing stories, handicrafts, and souvenirs to sell onboard. So while the outside world does make itself known to the Tristanians, visitors’ presence is controlled, leaving the farthest flung outpost of civilization largely to its own peace and quiet. In a place with no more than two miles of roadway, where no point of land is more than 8 miles from anything else (as the albatross flies), life is at once isolated, constrained, and yet rich with community, family, and respite from the craziness of the outside world. For Tristanians, it’s a fair trade-off.  


 

Want to get the big picture and see how far out there Tristan da Cunha is?

Hang this National Geographic map of the Atlantic Ocean on your wall—it’s even got insets of the islands mentioned in the Geo-Joint. Order one today from Maps.com!


 

PHOTO CREDITS:

caption: Tristan da Cunha cuts an imposing profile.
source:   Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

caption: The oblique view Tristan da Cunha’s seafloor surroundings shows it takes the material from a lot of eruptions to achieve an island.
source: Google Earth (Public Domain)

caption: Location of Tristan da Cunha from space.
source: Google Earth (Public Domain)

caption: The six pieces of Tristan da Cunha
source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

caption: The little settlement of Edinburgh is backed by stunning relief.
source: Flickr
author: CTBTO
license: CC by SA 2.0

caption: A Tristan da Cunha potato patch. Everyone there grows potatoes—they are a regular part of the diet and keep well should there be a prolonged gap in supplies from the outside world.
source: Wikimedia Commons
author: Brian Gratwicke
license: CC by 2.0 Generic

caption: When the weather’s fair, the hiking is fantastic.
source: Flickr
author: Brian Gratwicke
license: CC by SA 2.0

caption: Rockhopper penguins inhabit the islands of Tristan da Cunha.
source: Wikimedia Commons
author: Brian Gratwicke
license: CC by SA 2.0 Generic

caption: Albatross are also residents of the islands.
source: Flickr
author: Brian Gratwicke
license: CC by 2.0

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