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Holy Grail

For many years I had cherished an ambition to visit Tristan da Cunha but no opportunity presented itself. There were times when I almost despaired, yet I never abandoned hope of reaching the islands.

I could have written that. I mean, that’s exactly how I felt about traveling to Tristan: Near despair mixed with everlasting hope. The feeling is common among those of us who dream endlessly about faraway places.

And yet these are not my words at all but rather the opening lines of the very first article written about Tristan da Cunha in National Geographic, from the November 1938 issue.

As I read this early travelogue, I felt an instant fraternity with the author W. Robert Foran—I too dreamt of traveling to the remotest inhabited island on earth. I, too, never thought I would actually make it there—until I did.

I soon learned that while my boyhood longing for an itty-bitty speck on a map of ocean was quite personal, it was also rather universal. Tristan da Cunha is a kind of holy grail among well-traveled travelers—a whispered-about prize that is so elusive, it feels almost fictional.

Very few have ever made it to the island—there is no airport to land at, no commercial service, no tickets on sale at Travelocity. Getting to Tristan requires a minimum of five to six days at sea on a private boat.

“My trip to Tristan was the worst I have experienced in forty years of travel about the seven seas,” explains Mr. Foran—but then he was on a wobbly whaling boat that stunk of decomposing whale parts. Nor did have the luxury of sea stabilizers like I did aboard the MV National Geographic Explorer.

We still had it rough—after nearly a week at sea, we hit a healthy storm that tumbled us about with 20-foot waves. There was no guarantee that we would be able to even land on the island—there is no harbor and no beach. Tristan da Cunha is a volcano, a towering pyramid of green and black that rises up from the sea with such steepness and severity that when I first saw it, I wondered how anyone had ever managed to land, let alone scramble up the impossible cliffs.

But I made it–leapt out of the black rubber Zodiac onto the wet concrete of the pier, thrilled by the the sight of the sign on a nearby shed: “Welcome to Tristan Da Cunha.”

Indeed, I felt most welcome–I doubt any island could be more welcoming to outsiders. So few travelers ever actually make it to Tristan Da Cunha that the people who live there still seem to look upon us with novelty, kindness and a genuine spirit of brotherhood. I am glad that such places remain in the world–places that foster a sense of camaraderie simply because you managed to get there after all.

Tristan feels like a separate world. At least a week of empty gray seascapes separate it from anywhere else–in that time, my mind slowly forgot the land of convenient access from which we all come: countries where every day the shop shelves are stocked with Chilean grapes, Israeli oranges, and Mexican mangoes. Tristan is a place that still exists entirely on its own–the Tristanians eat the potatoes they grow in their patches and the fish they find from the sea. Imported drinks are served at the bar, and for cheap (a can of South African beer costs just one pound), and yet just this last February, the entire island ran out of beer.

What did they do?

“Some of us saw it coming and had laid some beer aside just, but otherwise, we just went without,” explained one of the men in the pub. The islanders waited for more than a month before the next shipment came in.

It’s hard to imagine life without stores and endless supplies of stuff. There is no Costco; Amazon.com does not deliver to Tristan Da Cunha. Money itself is a fairly recent introduction–up until the 1960s, postage stamps were valued in potatoes (in 1961, a 4-potato stamp got a postcard to England).

In addition to its unattainability as a travel destination, Tristan Da Cunha’s fascination among travelers seems to lie in the island’s anti-materialist reality. Stuff is limited and so outsiders seem shocked by the lack of excess. According to National Geographic, back in 1938 the entire island shared a single wedding dress, stowed safely in a hope chest inside the church. Today there is more than one dress on the island, but the same global disconnect persists–islanders only have whatever is available on the island.

My donations to the island of Tristan Da Cunha consisted of some books that I was finished reading and a hunk of cheese from Argentina. One islander told me that he missed cheese–they don’t make any on Tristan and its supply is very limited.

From Tristan I acquired a few prized souvenirs: a handknit Tristan wool cap, a license plate (Number 35), and a black lump of pumice from the volcanic eruption of 1961. Souvenirs are meant to remind us of the place that we were, and now that I am home, these three items have already delivered.

In its 123-year-history, National Geographic has published exactly three articles about Tristan Da Cunha. The first was Foran’s dream trip to a place that he longed for. The second (1962) was a description of the volcanic eruption that forced the island’s evacuation. The third (1964) was a review of the islanders’ return after their brief exile in England and how suddenly, their lives had changed.

And so I add this blog post to the pile–my own little observational rock atop the cairn of previous editorial that exists. I dreamt of traveling to Tristan Da Cunha and I traveled there, for one day. It is an imposing island volcano of great beauty, surrounded by windy silence and the vast Atlantic Ocean, and inhabited by some very friendly people who manage quite well on their own.

I wonder if it’s too much to dream of ever returning–but I am certain that I like it there and am eager to continue my exploration beyond the one fine day that I know of it.


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