We were heading to the most remote inhabited island in the world. Four days sail from the nearest mainland, Tristan da Cunha is one of the last outposts of the British Empire. Stranded alone in the midst of the South Atlantic, the Tristan archipelago lies midway between Africa and America, 2 800 kilometres from the Cape of Good Hope and 3 950 kilometres from the nearest landfall in Argentina.
For many passengers aboard Le Lyrial, our Ponant expedition ship, Tristan da Cunha was the Holy Grail on their world traveller’s bucket-list. None of the crew, passengers or expedition leaders had ever visited Tristan before. Captain Remi Genevaz, our experienced Antarctic navigator, knew he was in big trouble if the notorious big swells of the roaring forties prevented us from landing. A few passengers had tried to land before, been defeated by bad weather and come all this way to try again.
Expectations grew steadily on our three week expedition cruise around the peri-Antarctic islands of the Southern Ocean. After four days at sea from South Georgia, Tristan materialised like an apparition in the great infinity of the Atlantic. We were all out on deck the day we arrived, anchoring off Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, the isolated settlement which lives in the shadow of the mighty volcano. Every documentary gives this island a new sobriquet - “an ocean away from anywhere”, “the forgotten island”, “a step out of time” and “further than the furthest thing” (Zinnie Harris’ award-winning 2002 play about Tristan).
But the swell at high tide was way too big. We watched the drenched crew do a test run and ride the gauntlet through the rocky entrance of the harbour. The captain informed us that the island authorities had refused permission for us t...
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...n my French map as “carres de pommes de terres” (meaning “apples of the earth”). The patches also double as a weekend getaway when you’ve had enough of the bright lights of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas! I spotted a rockhopper penguin waiting at the island’s only bus-stop.
At the end of the potato harvest in May, the islanders still celebrate Ratting Day when they compete to catch the most rats. One of the world’s most unusual public holidays. Tristanians are very self-sufficient and share in the profits of the main crayfish industry - the men doing the fishing and the women running the factory. The island’s coat of arms feature four albatrosses, two lobsters and a tall sailing ship. Their motto is “Faith is our strength” - and the Anglican and Catholic churches co-exist side by side. I spotted an unusual southern right whale wind-vane on St Joseph’s Catholic Church.