Saturday, January 13, 2007

A long way from anywhere

The Scanner

The world may be becoming a smaller place, but you might not believe it if your nearest neighbours were over 2,000km away. Rob Crossan visits the remote outpost that is Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha is not the kind of place that you could stumble across by accident. It is hardly suitable for a mini-break, and it certainly is not a place you can travel to on a whim. To visit the most remote inhabited community on earth requires no small degree of effort - especially if the tides are high and the hurricane season is under way.

Situated almost exactly halfway between South Africa's Cape Town and the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, Tristan da Cunha is a small volcanic island. An epic 2,333km from its closest neighbour - the equally bijou island of St Helena - it lies in the middle of the notoriously hostile stretch of the South Atlantic Ocean known as the Roaring Forties on account of its latitude and its fearsome winds: a veritable ships' graveyard which can increase the journey time of the few vessels that leave Cape Town from five days to anything up to two weeks.

The island does not have an airport, so until recently the easiest way to visit was via Britain's last remaining mail ship, the RMS St Helena. But this service came to an end last February, an ageing vessel and rising costs making it increasingly untenable. Now the only way to visit this ineffably distant place is by finding a berth on one of the tiny South African fishing boats that make the journey to Tristan seven or eight times a year to collect crayfish, the island's main source of income. I was lucky enough to be aboard RMS St Helena for her farewell voyage to Tristan, a journey that also marked the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the island.
Incredibly, Tristan da Cunha, just 110km2 with a hardy population of 268, is still a part of the UK. It constitutes by far the most remote of the anomalous hotchpotch of islands scattered across the planet - including Ascension Island, Anguilla, St Helena and Pitcairn - that make up the last remnants of the British Empire. Life on an island where there are only seven surnames, no mobile phones, one policeman, no crime and almost no visitors, is taking on greater importance as the 21st century progresses, with isolated communities such as this one becoming increasingly rare.

As the island's sole settlement, the evocatively named Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, comes into view it is as if we have travelled back in time to a 1920s Scottish highland village. The haphazard collection of tin-roofed bungalows clings onto one of only two small coastal strips; the rest is sheer rock cliffs. The passengers on RMS St Helena's final mail journey clamber down a precarious rope ladder and jump aboard a speedboat that takes us into the island's minuscule harbour. After seven days at sea, six of them spent without passing a single ship, bird or any form of human life, the normally forbidding sight of Tristan's volcano, rising almost 5,500m, is a very welcome sight.

Discovered 500 years ago by a Portuguese admiral named Tristão da Cunha, the island was first settled several centuries later. A small British military garrison was established to prevent the island being used as an escape route by Napoleon Bonaparte. This was never particularly likely as it would have involved Napoleon - who had been exiled to St Helena - making an enormous detour of some 2,500km. The British soon realised the folly of this venture and pulled out the garrison, but Corporal William Glass of the Royal Artillery - who was to become the first chief islander - his wife, children and two Devonian stonemasons, Samuel Burnell and John Nankivel, chose to remain on Tristan. In time, despite more than 200cm of rain a year, hurricanes, gales and the threat of the volcano erupting, the island became a thriving micro-economy through the sale of crayfish and rare postage stamps to the outside world.

The islanders endured their own two-year exile in the UK when the volcano erupted in 1961, destroying the crayfish factory but sparing Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. Incredibly, despite the islanders' exposure to cars, electricity, nightclubs and rock 'n' roll music during their stay in Calshott, Hampshire, almost every single one of them voted to return to the island at the earliest possible opportunity. This was despite persistent attempts by the UK government to block their return on the grounds that the island was now uninhabitable and suitable only as a site for nuclear testing. Many elderly islanders were so traumatised by their experience in the so-called civilised world that they have remained on Tristan da Cunha ever since.

One of the first things that you notice about Tristanians is their accent. The isolation from the outside world has created a local dialect that is a curious blend of early 19th-century colonial language (for instance, to feel ill in Tristan dialect is to feel 'qualmish', a word that died out in Britain in the early years of Queen Victoria's reign) and contemporary South African slang (pick-up trucks are known here, as in Cape Town, as 'bakkies'). When outsiders - or 'station fellas' as they are dubbed in a reference to the garrison stationed on the island during World War II - are around, the Tristan people's accent mellows to a soft, quiet lilt, reminiscent of the West Country. When talking among themselves, however, islanders' conversations appear all but unintelligible - a situation that I sensed they were keen to maintain.

A walk around the whole of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas takes just 15 minutes. Rising up behind the settlement is the endless cliff face of the volcano, covered with gulches that become torrential waterfalls when the rains set in. To the left of the village, only 200m away from the last house, you can see the enormous lava flow of 1961 which left a mountain of debris under which the original crayfish factory is buried. All the houses in the village are single-storey buildings that face towards the ocean. From the outside at least, most of them are virtually identical to the original cottages built by the island's earliest settlers. Loyalty to the crown is taken seriously and many houses contain a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. On clear days, the hippo-shaped rock of Inaccessible Island and nearby Nightingale Island can be seen. Here, the endemic and endangered Tristan Albatross breeds, making the island group a mecca for keen ornithologists.
Come and pull up a pew, man. There's loads of vodka to be drunk!' Leon Glass, 23-year-old son of Conrad, the island's policeman, offers me a stirring welcome at the Albatross Inn, Tristan da Cunha's only pub.

Open from 10am each day, it is a smart modern building where imported South African lager is just 60p a can and the surrounding ocean, rich in seafood, means that delicacies such as lobster quiche replace more usual pub snacks. 'There aren't many young people on the island at the moment,' Glass tells me. 'But those of us that are here want to stay. Almost nobody ever leaves Tristan for good. The quality of life here is so high. It's so safe; you know everybody and there are no worries for anybody in terms of money. I worked for a little while as a nightclub bouncer in Birmingham, where I saw some horrific fights and brawls. I'm glad I've visited the outside world, but I'm happiest here on the island.'

Glass's attitude is echoed by Mike Hentley, the current Administrator of Tristan. He has lived on the island for three years now and has presided over a period of great modernisation, including the installation of a new satellite communications system in 2006 which has allowed the locals to set up an internet café, and call the outside world at the rate of only 2p a minute. This is an enormous improvement on the eye-watering £6.50 per email and £1.80 per minute for phone calls that was the norm up to that point. 'We've only got one TV channel on Tristan,' says Hentley, as we talk in the spacious lounge of his house, which comes complete with a fluttering Union Jack in the front garden. 'It's the British Forces channel that comes from the Falklands, but I think even that has helped to put the people here off the outside world! They know that this is a very special place with a very tight-knit community. We have our problems, of course, but everyone here is so well looked after that there is no real desire to leave.

'Everyone is employed by either the government or Ovenstone [a South African company with an exclusive contract to sell the highly coveted Tristan crayfish to the US and Japan] to fish or maintain the village, and we have our own apartments in Cape Town where islanders can stay very cheaply if they want to take a holiday. We're almost completely self-sufficient here, unlike St Helena, which receives aid from the UK. Where else can you leave your house and car unlocked, or let your children go off camping on their own?'

But today even Tristan da Cunha is not completely free of the seditions of the outside world. Obesity is a problem, and Hently is currently leading a campaign to cut down the amount of alcohol consumed by the islanders: the culture of getting 'half touched' on most evenings is deeply ingrained in Tristan society. Another troubling issue is the lack of qualifications among Tristanians. Children leave the very basic island school at 15, and though there is the option to take GCSEs a year later, results are poor, creating a situation where even islanders who do want to leave are hampered in finding a job in the UK or South Africa. Yet, having fought so hard to return home after the eruption, the islanders have a rare attachment to their home. As the most remote community on earth, the people of Tristan are no longer quite as detached from the outside world as they once were. But as far as the strength and survival instinct of this reminder of the Empire goes, this place is unique. The slogan for the island - 'Our faith is our strength' -- could not be more apt.