Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

To Nowhere Island! In The Middle Of The Sea

My dream vacation spot is an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It's a British territory, which may have you picturing Bermuda, the Caymans or maybe Turks and Caicos. Somewhere tropical and gorgeous, surely, because that’s what island vacations are for: lying on the beach, basking in the sun, and watching other tourists fail at parasailing. But this island is not tropical and gorgeous. In fact, the skies are usually grey. There are no beaches, no parasailing, and barely any tourists to fail at it if there was. It's called Tristan da Cunha, and it's the most isolated inhabited place in the world. This is where I want to go, and I probably never will.

The island is roughly equidistant between South America and Africa. Its closest inhabited neighbor (1,320 miles away—about half the width of the United States) is Saint Helena, best known as the island Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to because it was far enough away from everything else to prevent him from escaping or being rescued. Compared to Tristan's location, Bonaparte's final home hardly feels remote at all.

Yet 261 British citizens proudly call it their home today (it was 262 until the death of 81-year-old Lydia Green on February 8th, may she rest in peace). It's an insular community, to say the least: they share just eight last names among them. The island is roughly 40 square miles in area, most of which is volcano. Where the volcano meets the sea, the land flattens out, leaving space for one village (Edinburgh of the Seven Seas—called "The Settlement" locally) and some farmland.

There's no airport and no harbor either—not since the lava flow from a volcanic eruption in 1961 destroyed it. Tristan's only accessible through a port, which is used by fishing vessels and boats that ferry back and forth to the few large ships that pass by the island every year, delivering supplies and mail. Sometimes they also bring people.

The chance that I will ever be one of those people is pretty slim. It's a 1,750-mile voyage from Cape Town that takes at least six days each way and isn't cheap. When the ship finally arrives in Tristan's waters, there's no guarantee the water will be calm enough to take a smaller boat to the island. There's also no guarantee I'd be allowed on it. Special permission must be obtained from the 11-member Island Council, who require a background check and proof of health insurance.

I should be able to pass those tests, but then they’d want to know the reason for my visit. This presents a problem, as I don't really have an answer. The island isn't particularly beautiful, the weather isn't especially nice, and, aside from studying the island's native Northern Rockhopper penguin population (in which I have little interest despite their bold spiky feather hairdos), there doesn't appear to be much to do there.

They do have telephones, television and the Internet, which has been especially useful for my research. Tina Glass answers emails sent to Tristan's "general enquiries" address on its official website. She writes that most of the islanders are employed by the government or the fish factory, and they spend their non-work hours tending to livestock and communally-owned potato plots. The island has a school, a post office, a museum, a coffee shop, two churches (one Catholic, one Anglican), a supermarket, and a tourism center that can't possibly be very busy. A health facility provides free care to residents, many of whom suffer from the same genetic diseases the incestuous nature of a remote island and a small population breeds. There's Prince Phillip Hall, home to the Albatross Bar and the "social heart of the village," according to the website. All told, I think these places could keep me busy for three hours, maximum. Maybe another five hours if the Albatross Bar is well stocked.

I think what fascinates me, then, is the people of Tristan, not the island itself. What must it be like to spend your whole life in the same place with the same people, surrounded by thousands of miles of uninterrupted, unforgiving ocean? Since 1816, when William Glass arrived on the island with his wife and children, this community has steadily developed its own culture and dialect. Some residents have never left the island: What must those people be like? What do they sound like? What do they think of us? What do they do on the weekends? What do they wear? Who cuts their hair? It's probably just one person who can't have been trained properly. I bet they all have bad hair, just like those Northern Rockhopper penguins. What could we possibly have to talk about? Some of them have never seen a stoplight, or tasted McDonald's, or stepped inside a building more than two stories high.

Tina Glass has. She's been to South Africa and France, and lived in the United Kingdom for a year. She comes across as perfectly (and, I must admit, somewhat disappointingly) normal in her emails, writing "I found it all fascinating and very different from our environment." As different from me as these people may seem, at least one of them views my world the same way I view hers.

"On the island we have no crime and do not have to lock doors. We are a small community and where everyone knows each other," Glass writes. I come from a small town in Connecticut that sounds very similar and often felt just as remote. I hated it and couldn't wait to leave. And yet I'd be willing to endure weeks of travel and spend thousands of dollars to go to a community that is even smaller and weirder… in the middle of the ocean, next to nowhere.

Sara Morrison once lived in Los Angeles and played roller derby. Now she goes to graduate school in New York and thinks about roller derby. Top two photos by Michael Clarke; penguin photo by su neko.

25 Comments / Post A Comment

Megan@twitter (#44,868)

I get you. One of my dreams is to go to the similarly-remote island of St. Helena. You can only get there on an RMS mail ship from Cape Town and the cost of the whole enterprise is daunting.

But in my mind, that remote island in the middle of the ocean will be the most relaxing, calmest place I could ever visit. (Just thinking of visiting brings down my blood pressure, honestly.)

@Megan@twitter I read once that someone from Tristan visited St. Helena and was overwhelmed at how busy and peopled it was.

I think there's a 30-day cruise out there that goes to both islands. Let's do it.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

@Sara Morrison@twitter

Can we make it a loop through St. Helena, Tristan, South Georgia/Sandwich Islands and Falklands? This cruise would meet all of my South Atlantic island hopping needs.

@Tuna Surprise This is how Gilligan's Island started, I think …

I, too, have long shared the dream of going to Tristan da Cunha.

Brian (#115)

"What must it be like to spend your whole life in the same place with the same people, surrounded by thousands of miles of uninterrupted, unforgiving ocean?"

Pretty much the same thing as Earth in space. Boom?

melis (#1,854)


alli (#228,260)

You should pitch this to Harper's. They seem to love sending people on crazy random journeys with no real purpose.

travelmugs (#228,271)

Thanks Awl! I just spent the past hour on the Tristan da Cunha website.

shaman (#228,307)

Does anyone else look at that "inaccessible island" and think "sez who?" Because I am totally game to ship a kayak and some rock-climbing equipment and have at it. Maybe Richard Branson would want to come and underwrite the whole thing.

Oh, and hi! I'm new.

SeanP (#4,058)

@shaman Welcome aboard! And whenever you get that Branson-underwritten kayak and rock climbing thing lined up… I'm in.

lawyergay (#220)

I am obsessed with these little flecks of land in the middle of giant seas. There is a French archipelago off the coast of Canada called St. Pierre et Miquelon that I want to visit. Sometimes when I can't sleep, I'll listen to the St. Helena radio station on the internet.

@lawyergay if you haven't already, check out the Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky. Wonderful design and writing and cartography.

kua (#228,344)

The National Geographic cruise just left the island today! There's a blogger on board, Andrew Evans: http://digitalnomad.nationalgeographic.com/ And yes, he posted photos shot on Inaccessible Island.

shaman (#228,307)

@kua Wait– Inaccessible is a NAME? Like, like… Iceland? I thought naming things after attributes that they clearly ARE NOT was a coy trend that went out … you know, when the vikings settled Iceland.

Glad I didn't buy a kayak… :)

kua (#228,344)

Oh, I should probably have posted his Twitter page, because that's where the recent photos are:
I just started following him because a friend is on that cruise…

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

For an uncontacted tribe, these people sure seem civilized. Oh wait, they are just a bunch of weird Brits. Carry on.

Simon Winchester wrote about visiting Tristan, St. Helena, Pitcairn and other Brit colonial artifacts in his great 1985 book, "Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire" http://amzn.to/GDPMeN

@Peter Bailey@twitter I've read that, and it is great. I believe he was given a lifetime ban from Tristan for what he wrote about them.

Megan@twitter (#44,868)

@Peter Bailey@twitter He wrote about St. Helena again in "Atlantic," which I highly recommend for geeks of all type.

This island sounds great but the inbreeding is a huge creep factor. I would go there only if I got to hang out with the author who wrote this article. I choked on my coffee exactly 3 times while reading it.

caddie (#189,150)

Sara M from TWoP?! Hooray!

Slapdash (#174)

Do they ever eat the penguins?

I like that the author is genuinely concerned about the proper training of the island's lone barber.

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