Tristan da Cunha: Island at the End of the World

This month's great read selected by our editors: Everything is off the beaten track on the world’s most remote inhabited island.

From the August/September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler

It's Saturday night on arguably the most far-flung inhabited island on Earth, and I’m nursing a South African beer at the Albatross, a pub that wouldn’t seem out of place in England or even, say, America’s Gulf Coast. A portly man croons to a country-and-western ballad playing on the jukebox. Local fishermen carouse. A football game—the British kind—is flickering on a TV set in the corner. The irony couldn’t be more obvious: I’ve journeyed to one of the planet’s remotest places and find myself in a scene resembling one from home. But there is, I’m learning, a distinction.

“You can get piss drunk here, fall down on your way home, and somebody will pick you up,” an Albatross patron tells me between quaffs from his drink. “You don’t have to worry about being mugged.”

I’m on Tristan da Cunha, a British outpost in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, roughly halfway between Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Cape Town, South Africa. There is no airport. There is no deep harbor. I reached the island aboard a South African polar research vessel, the S.A. Agulhas II, on one of only nine passages scheduled annually from Cape Town. The same ship will pick me up a month from now. Time at sea is seven days, each way.

Why travel to Tristan? Simple: to escape to a place that has eluded even like-minded escapists.

Certainly, no one could have prepared me for the arrival at the island. Though part of a small volcanic archipelago, Tristan da Cunha, upon our approach, looked solitary and lost, like an iceberg adrift. The island, essentially a 6,760-foot-high volcanic cone, is given shape by the vast negative space around it.

Today, stories and photos reach us from all corners of the globe, diminishing opportunities for true discovery. Even if we’ve never been to Timbuktu, most of us have acquired a vague notion of the place. Not Tristan. The name conjured nothing for me, except questions. Did tribal natives populate the island? What did they eat for dinner? What kind of trees grew there? A handful of other passengers on the S.A. Agulhas II were seized by the same curiosity. Some had business on the island—a Scottish dentist, a British priest, an American scientist planning to install a magnetometer to measure shifts in Earth’s magnetic field. But there were a few tourists too. Two German men hoped to summit the volcano, Queen Mary’s Peak. A Brit wanted to scuba dive where no one he knew ever had.

Standing on deck, I watched as our vessel approached the northwest side of the island. Soon, beneath the volcano’s towering flanks, a cluster of low-slung structures with red and blue tin roofs appeared above a narrow grass plateau overlooking the ocean. This human settlement with 262 full-time residents seemed most improbable, a community afloat in emptiness.

“People imagine us with grass skirts on,” dark-haired Iris Green, Tristan’s postmistress, tells me in a lilting English accent. I’m at the window of the post office, which shares a building with the tourism office at the center of the settlement. A lobby displays hand-knit wool sweaters, postcards of seabirds, and commemorative postage stamps depicting such island traditions as potato planting, sheep shearing, and “giving out the mail.” Tristan’s cheerful tourism coordinator, Dawn Repetto, greets me. (Repetto is one of the island’s seven surnames.) She had left a flyer at the private home where I’m staying—Tristan has no hotels or inns—promising to help fulfill my “Tristan ambitions.” I’d wondered how I would fill four weeks on an island with no real tourist activities.

“I’d like to hike the peak,” I say after introductions.

“It takes at least six hours,” Repetto replies, “and we require you to go with two guides. I’m happy to arrange that. But there are other excursions you might like too.” Among them: a fishing trip and a bird-watching outing to the nearby isle of Nightingale, home to rockhopper penguins and the endemic Tristan albatross. I ask about the island’s nine-hole golf course, where hazards include chicken coops and gale-force winds that have been known to destroy large ships.

Repetto smiles. “Tristan people don’t really play golf,” she says, explaining the course was built for a homesick British administrator. She ends with a caveat I’ll hear many islanders echo: “Everything here depends on the weather.”

I decide to begin with an exploratory walk and head to the island’s only road, a two-mile-long ribbon of gravel and broken pavement. The pastoral tableau of mountain and ocean before me evokes a blend of Scotland and Big Sur. I pass the golf course and, just beyond it, come upon Hottentot Gulch, named after African soldiers who pitched their tents here in 1816, part of a British garrison that was dispatched to ward off American privateers and any Frenchmen bent on using Tristan as a staging post to rescue France’s exiled emperor, Napoleon, who was imprisoned 1,343 miles north, on St. Helena Island.

I pass cows grazing beside Jenny’s Watron (Jenny’s stream), where a widow once dwelled, then stroll by Knockfolly Ridge, Bugsby Hole, and an eroded sea cliff called Hillpiece. I pledge to see Ridge-Where-the-Goat-Jump-Off and Pig Bite—landmarks commemorating notable local events—before I leave.

The road peters out at a mosaic of stonewalled plots overlooking the ocean, an area known as the Patches. Scattered about the farming plots are small cabins; during Christmas, Tristanians pack up and travel all of two miles from the settlement to enjoy a weeklong holiday here.

“Need a hand?” I call out to an older gentlemen standing with a pitchfork in the moist dirt of his potato patch.

“Suuuure,” Anthony Green replies. “Just waitin’ for the missus to get back.”

When the British military left Tristan in 1817—the attempt to rescue Napoleon never materialized—a Scottish corporal, William Glass, and two English stonemasons stayed behind. They built homes and boats from salvaged driftwood, then drafted a constitution decreeing a new community based on equality and cooperation. The collective spirit that sustained the island during years of almost complete isolation still exists.

I clamber over the volcanic rock wall that lines Green’s plot, and he hands me a spare pitchfork. We dig shallow rows, then lay in spuds from a plastic bucket, along with fertilizer pellets. At surrounding plots, I see other families hard at work, laying crushed lobster shells and sheep’s wool over their potatoes (everyone has a proven method). Some smile over at me with an approving nod.

“Tristanians consider potatoes as insurance,” says Conrad Glass, a descendant of William Glass and the island’s chief constable, a few days later. “If suddenly the world went crazy and money had no value, we’d still have our staple vegetable.”

I’d eaten potatoes every night, boiled, baked, mashed, stuffed into a lamb shoulder and roasted, or made into “snislens,” fried dough served with jams or combined with raisins to make a sweet pudding.

“Do you ever tire of potatoes?” I ask Green.

“No,” he replies. “Thing about Tristan is, you always have enough potatoes.”

THAT NIGHT AT THE ALBATROSS I discover that word has traveled about the tourist who helped Anthony Green plant potatoes. This earns me points, and at least one South African lager. I strain to pick up the Tristanian-English patois—an amalgam of languages that includes Afrikaans, Italian, and Americanisms such as “hey, buddy.” One young man is “heyen on” in a singsong cadence with his “fardi” (godfather) about collecting “jadda boys” (penguin eggs), his accent thickening as he becomes “half touch up” (wasted) after a few rounds.

“Come an’ dance!” Desiree Repetto urges me, adding with a sly grin, “Someone’s been askin’ about you.” The Saturday night dance is in full swing at one-story Prince Philip Hall, next to the Albatross. An 18-year-old deejay is serving up pop hits from the 1990s, but the dance floor is awkwardly empty, like at a junior high prom. Young men cluster around a gin bottle they smuggled out of the Albatross; the women are seated on a bench. The deejay begins spinning a pop song, then abruptly changes to a country-and-western tune. I watch the guys put down their drinks, swoop across the floor, and extend their hands to the ladies. Looking at me, Desiree nods toward a shy young woman, and I walk over to invite her to dance. She smiles, and soon we’re shuffling along with the other couples. When the song ends, the floor clears once more. Later, as I head home under a starry sky, the music slowly fades to just the lonely rhythm of breaking surf—a reminder that Tristan exists all by itself.

“ENTER, ENTER,” Gladys Lavarello urges as she waves to me from her front door. She lives down a curvy paved road with no signs, traffic lights, mailboxes, or even house numbers.

White-haired and squinting from behind thick glasses, she smiles warmly as she leads me into her living room, furnished with lace-draped armchairs and family photos. Like nearly every Tristanian, Lavarello descends from a settler who washed ashore, in her case Gaetano Lavarello, her Italian grandfather, who shipwrecked on Tristan in 1892 with crewmate Andrea Repetto and stayed, coming to love the island’s remoteness.

I’d been told that Lavarello knew all about the old times, and I wanted to hear how life on Tristan was before World War II, when islanders would row out into the ocean to wave down passing ships and barter for supplies.

“There wasn’t any money,” she says. “We didn’t really know what it was! We depended on cattle and sheep and fishing.”

Lavarello proceeds to speak warmly of island traditions that still exist—Old Year’s Night, a year-end celebration when men dress in masks and scare the women; Ratting Day, a pest-control competition—and wistfully about ones that no longer take place, such as Happling Day, an annual outing to fetch apples at a now defunct orchard. She then tells me about the day in 1961 when boulders suddenly began tumbling down Queen Mary’s Peak—and the ground split just beyond her house. For the first time, islanders learned that their mountain was an active volcano. Its eruption on October 8 caused the British government to evacuate all Tristanians to Southampton, England, for two years, where they quickly became media sensations and were subjected to all manner of medical tests.

“How was that for you?” I ask.

“We all—well, nearly everybody—wanted to return to our own hisland,” she exclaims, adding the Tristanian h.

Every day I find myself gazing up at Queen Mary’s Peak, hoping for good weather; every day thick, ominous clouds glower back at me. Then it happens: One morning I awake to a calm sea, partly cloudy skies, and light winds.

“Looks like a great day,” I say to Peter Repetto, Desiree’s father and my homestay host, a retiree who right now is padding about the front flower garden in his slippers.

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“It’s the lee that you’re seeing,” he says, nodding toward the flat water. Opposing winds have produced calm conditions, but they are temporary. Like most islanders, Repetto is a keen forecaster by necessity. Locals make their living from farming and fishing. Before he retired, Repetto ran the general store and trapped lobsters, the island’s main export. He doesn’t count on the good weather staying put.

For Tristanians, a great day means a fishing day. So when indicators look good one morning in the faint light before dawn, a man begins hammering on an empty propane canister next to Prince Philip Hall—the alert that, after two weeks of dangerous seas, it’s fishing time. Lights flick on inside houses as the settlement stirs. Soon men stream down to the harbor with rain slickers slung over shoulders and lunch pails in hand. In pairs, they board fishing boats loaded with lobster traps. It’s business as usual, but watching them, I get a sense that this is what these men live for. The women, including my hostess, Patricia Repetto, will process the bounty in a new factory beside the harbor—whole lobsters for Japan, tails for the U.S. Of course, they keep some: I’ll enjoy a delicious lobster curry for dinner that night.

Next door to the Repettos lives retired fisherman Ches Lavarello, for many years the island’s top lobsterman. I ask him to take me fishing; he doesn’t require much arm-twisting.

“Even if I don’t catch a single fish, I stay out on the water for hours,” he tells me as we reach an empty beach below Hottentot Gulch. “See these rocks?” he asks, gesturing offshore. “We’d come at night and catch sacks of spiny lobster here with a hand line and a scoop.”

Lavarello is large framed, with a silver chain around his neck and tattoos on his arms. He hooks a bit of squid onto his line as bait and, with a well-practiced twist of his body, lobs the line into the water. He doesn’t catch anything for a good while. Finally he feels a small tug—and ends up accumulating a respectable bucket of fish known as five fingers.

TWENTY-EIGHT DAYS after it transported me to Tristan, the S.A. Agulhas II returns. Not all of my Tristan ambitions have been fulfilled. I never bagged Queen Mary’s Peak, though I did spend a day hiking a lush landscape of mosses, ferns, and nesting yellow-nosed albatrosses halfway up the mountain. I also attended two baptisms, a wedding reception, two birthday potlucks, a lamb-marking, and a distribution of the mail. But holding to a tourist checklist on Tristan was never the point.

On my last afternoon on the island, I visit the Café, next to Prince Philip Hall, which opens briefly in the afternoon. A handful of Tristanians sit around tables drinking white wine and soda. The talk focuses on the weather, fishing, the potato crop, and local gossip. Life here may not be free from care—the island now is more connected to the world—but it is simpler. Yes, I’ve had Internet chats with friends back home. And Tristan’s lobsters are appearing on dinner plates in Las Vegas and Tokyo. Yet my time here has transpired in some kind of bubble. On Tristan, your camera won’t be stolen. You won’t hear a cellphone ring. And if you fall down drunk or, say, get hurt crashing your bike, someone will help you get home; everyone will know where you live.

Desiree Repetto walks me down to a grassy patch by the schoolhouse. Much of Tristan has gathered here to see off friends and visitors. A 21-year-old is departing the island for the first time, to take a scuba course in Cape Town (his mother has never set foot off Tristan); Conrad Glass, the constable, is headed to England for training.

“I’ve left Tristan five times in my life,” he says, “and it’s just as emotional now as the first time. You suddenly realize what you’re leaving behind.”

I think I know what he means. Tristan may no longer be isolated—cruise ships have discovered it—but it’s still insulated. To travel to a place like this today, even with nary a palm tree in sight, is to experience a vanishing kind of paradise.

Writer/photographer ANDY ISAACSON lives on what may be the world’s least remote island, Long Island, New York.
Follow Andy on Twitter @AndyIsaacson

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