Sailing to the most remote settlement in the World – Part III

What makes Tristan da Cunha unique is the Tristanians themselves and their geographical isolation, not so much the island. I have much less to share about the Island than about the Settlement, but it certainly doesn’t lack in beauty and I have many pictures of my hiking there.


About halfway between the Settlement and the Potato Patches, one comes upon this large hill, “Hillpiece”, a 200 m high scoria cone, composed of very light rocks produced when gas fills the volcanic magma with bubbles. The patterns exposed by its erosion into the ocean are quite spectacular and indicate the many layers of eruptions to the expert’s eye. Unfortunately, the expert is not me.


Hillpiece is quite steep, but an easy climb, because the ground is almost like steps. I could probably pretend that it’s a very difficult climb and that I’m awesome for having completed it, but there is a big fat cow on the summit. She wasn’t parachuted there so I won’t pretend.


This strange hole is believed to be caused by a sudden release of underground gases, which blows off the top surface of the soil. Some are larger, but the phenomenon seems rare. I only saw two. Since I was walking on the hill, I consider this rarity to be a good thing.


The Settlement, seen from the top of Hillpiece. In the foreground, the road to the patches and in the background, the MV Baltic Trader, my ride back to Africa.


The Potato Patches from the top of Hillpiece. I asked a few people why the patches were so far from the settlement, especially considering that when they were placed there, people had to go by donkey. More fertile ground, better wind protection, I heard a few theories but nobody had a definite answer. A reasoning that disappeared with the person who made the decision, perhaps.


I found a few markers on the top of Hillpiece. Here’s a hypothetical bar conversation:

– I was in the US Army in 1968.

– Me too. Vietnam?

– No, Tristan da Cunha.

– …

[End of conversation]


The beach. Don’t know how often Tristanians use it, but they did build a small set of stairs to get there from the top of the cliff.


How far do I have to travel not to have tourists in my pictures? (Actually, as I am writing this a few weeks later, I now know the answer: Southern Namibia).


Cold, wet hardened lava beaten by the waves. It’s quite beautiful, but there are not many swimmers. Apparently, Tristanians do use the beach, but October is much too early in the Spring to do so.


The cliff facade. Incredible what volcanic activity does to rocks.


From the very end of the the patches, before the volcano cliff goes straight to the sea, you can just see Nightingale Island in the distance, on the left side. Inaccessible Island, on the right, is visible from most of the patches. Both are unhihabited, but there were failed attempts at settling on Inaccessible in the past. Nightingale has no fresh water.

Incredibly, just last year, a Maltese registered freighter and it’s Greek captain, while sailing the nearly absolutely empty and inconceivably gigantic South Atlantic Ocean, slammed right into Nightingale, breaking the ship apart and spilling tons of oil all around the island. This event is about as probable as me finding Elvis, alive, in North Korea, and one minute later, both of us being killed in the crash of a Saudi cargo plane chartered by the Mexican Government to transport a Chinese panda to Cancun. I heard many theories. None involved bad luck. Because of the lack of fresh water on Nightingale, the Islanders had to transport a great number of contaminated rockhopper penguins to Tristan for cleaning. There is a pool on Tristan, but last years the kids had to do without, as it was used in the rescue operation.


On the way back from the patches, I got a little glimpse of the volcano (look for snow in the clouds). It is almost always shrouded in clouds that it creates itself, as the ocean air hits the steep cliffs. The volcano is 2,000 m above sea level and climbing it is a very long and hard day’s endeavour. Because of the danger and the risks of disturbing the wildlife (ex: stepping on nests), two guides from the Island must accompany any expedition. Weather is also a big limiting factor. We were blessed with rare good weather during my stay, but the few guides who go to the top were sick with the flu or busy unloading the ship.


Finally, we did put together a group with guides to go to the base of the volcano (basically the plateau above the big cliffs you see in many pictures). The climb to Queen Mary’s Peak was cancelled due to availability of guides on Wednesday morning and postponed to Thursday, but I suggested we could try for the base in the afternoon if the weather improved. My suggestion was popular and weather helping, it happened. When we got to the starting point, I was afraid we would go nowhere. I didn’t screw up the exposure on this picture of a beautiful mountain in lovely weather. This is the start of the climb, under rain, mist, drizzle, fog, wave splash, all mixed together at the same time. I was afraid the guides would put a stop to it, but we kept going.


Less than twenty minutes later and 100 m higher, and the weather was beautiful.


A little higher. We can see the patches and Hillpiece in the distance.


And higher.


And the top of the cliff. I would guess it’s roughly a 700 m climb. Not long, but quite strenuous, as the route mostly goes straight up, with an incline similar to that of a steep staircase. Lying on the ridge of the plateau, I must say the immensity of the ocean is a little dizzying.


And the volcano. In 5 days on Tristan, I never saw the peak cloud free, even on bright sunny days. The vegetation on the plateau is very different from the pastures below. At that point, the weather would have allowed a hike to the summit. However, summit climbs must depart at dawn to make it back before sunset and we had left at 10:30. Also, we were not prepared in terms of water or equipment for such a long hike.


This looks like the summit, but it’s not. It goes further up.


To protect the wildlife, we stuck to a somewhat established path on the plateau. I normally would not get so close to a nesting atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, but she chose to put the nest almost right on the path. I realize there is no size reference in the picture, but these are very large birds. They only live on Tristan and the other islands around it. She didn’t flinch as we snapped a few photos. Too bad, that courage cost me a large omelet 😉


For the second half of the hike down, we took a different route. This steep hill does not look like a safe path at all. In fact, we ran down the whole thing (well, a few of us ran, others walked). It is composed of strange little volcanic pebbles, which makes walking in it as easy as walking down a sand dune. As long as you avoid the rocky parts, it’s safe and a LOT of fun. It’s also very fast, because for every step you take, you slide down as much as the length of the step. I wouldn’t recommend going up that way however.


I guess we we not supposed to go down that route, so I got arrested. My first time in that part of a police car; not nearly as comfortable as the front seat.


Sadly, the good weather allowed for the Baltic Trader to be unloaded promptly, and by Thursday afternoon, it was time to go. The mysterious sailors I had seen arrive on the ship 5 days later were no longer mysterious. I had a drink with 3 of the guys in that picture during my short stay, including, in one case, at his house. You make friends quickly on Tristan. Tristanians are a lot more fun than the complete lack of smiles in the picture suggests!


Five Tristanians (4 adults and a small child) were heading to Cape Town with us, only to return with the Baltic Trader in November. That got a lot of Islanders to come to the harbour to say farewell.




The passenger transfer cage being brought back down on the island’s small boat. Loaded on the deck are large numbers of empty gas cylinders. Tristanians use gas for cooking and hot water. The cylinders get refilled in Cape Town.


The all important mail bags. Mail is hugely subsidized. The Scotsman with us commented that sending a postcard to his neighbour would have cost less from Tristan than from home!


The South African research vessel SA Agulas II. Much larger than our cargo ship. Little rocking, no deafening engine noise, twice as fast, internet at sea; I wasn’t jealous at all.


Our South African cook, Neville, gives a fishing lesson in three easy steps. First, you must spare no expense when it comes to equipment. Without expensive, state of the art fishing equipment, you will catch nothing. Once you equipment is ready, throw it overboard.


Wait thirty seconds to one minute and pull everything out (there are actually three hooks on the line, all have a similar fish).


Remove fish.


Neville showing off the bigger catches he got while we were on the island. I had a telephoto lens on to photograph the birds, so even though I was almost falling backwards into the sea, I couldn’t get the whole fish in the frame! Neville looks younger than he is. He has been working at sea for longer than I have been alive.


The birds fighting over the scraps of bait thrown in the water. They are not as dumb as they look; they don’t wander very far when fishing is going on.


Waiting for more, no doubt.


I was surprisingly sad to leave Tristan. Granted the prospect of an upcoming 8 days at sea on a cargo ship might have had an effect on my mood, but I really wish I could have stayed a couple of weeks. That’s the problem with Tristan’s shipping schedule for tourism, your stay can either be too short or too long. However, if I had some sort of contract or project, I would love to stay for a few months.


An hour later.


My last sight of the island.


The only cargo we brought back. Three containers of frozen crawfish (apart from the mail and gas cylinders). Remember there is no port on Tristan, so these can only get off the ship in Cape Town. On Tristan, they are filled by hand, one small crate at a time.


Apart from all the great memories, one thing I got from Tristan is one of the World’s rarest passport stamp!


Last sunset on the Baltic Trader, from the lifeboat deck.

As I write this from Namibia, I already miss my Tristan adventure. I have seen beautiful places around Namibia, but they lack the excitement of Tristan. I wonder how much of it comes from the difficulty of actually getting there. I wonder if I would have gone to Tristan if it had an international airport?

Right now I am on the Namibian tourist trail (occasionally I am the only tourist, but it’s low season). I’m enjoying myself, but I already crave for something more adventurous. Such adventures require a lot of planning, however. Perhaps I’ll soon take a break and plan more adventures of that kind. We shall see.

PS: About the arrest: to save time, we drove to the base of the hike and back. We couldn’t all fit in one vehicle, so Inspector Glass kindly gave us a ride there and back!


28 thoughts on “Sailing to the most remote settlement in the World – Part III

  1. Great photos! It’s nice to put the visuals with your stories. I’m curious about the albatross – how big is it?

  2. Huge, with wingspans over 2 meters! Some species even 3 m. Sorry for the delayed response, in my defence, I just learned of Hurricane Sandy last night!

  3. Pingback: 36 hour trip: Portugal, Spain, the U.K. and Africa! | Colin's Notes

  4. I really enjoyed reading your adventures on Tristan. I am in the process of trying to visit there. I’d hoped to combine it with a voyage on RMS St Helena and an RAF flight back to UK from Ascension. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to work it out as the return of the Baltic Trader and the departure of RMS St Helena never seems to correspond.
    Thanks you for your clear explanations and the pictures. If I ever get there everything will be familiar as a result.

    • Thanks you. Good luck with that very exciting itinerary; it sounds like a lot of things will have to line-up for it to work. I was thinking of doing something similar this winter. I wanted to sail on RMS St-Helena from Cape Town to Ascension, and then take the RAF flight to the Falklands. I never got an answer back for the flight and in the end, I opted to go to Asia after Africa instead. In my opinion, TdC is worth all the efforts to get there and then some. Again, best of luck.


  5. Colin, for about a year or two I have envisioned a trip to Tristan wa Cunha but knew I’d probably have to quit my job first. Thanks for describing your visit. It seems like I have been there.

    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment; that’s really why I write this blog. It is hard to visit TdC, and you must have some flexibility. If you get there and an islander gets seriously ill, he might bump you off the ship and then you might have to wait for the next ship, in a month or two! But I can tell you it is worth the effort; the Tristanians are an incredible bunch of people. Easily one of my top travel adventures.


  6. Mr Colin you have done a great job sharing you experience with the whole world. Hopefully not everybody will like it as much as I did. Wish some day could make it there, already working on it.

    • Thank you,

      Even if everybody loves it, they won’t be able to go, as there are only spots for a few dozen tourists a year to travel there on the fishing or cargo ships! If you are seriously considering going, check out the island’s web site, it explains everything you need to know about the process. And plan early!

      God luck on your travel plans,


    • Thanks Craig,

      I am very jealous of your 23 day stay. I went on the Baltic Trader and we had only 5 days on TdC. Of course, the unloading and loading went this fast because the weather was good, so it’s part good, part bad. Sending yourself mail was really cool. I bought 2 copies of Dawn’s TdC cookbook and mailed them to my mother and girlfriend from the island. It became a bit of a running thing, since I later mailed them 2 Korean cookbooks from Pyongyang!



  7. Brilliant to come across this as I’m researching Tristan at present. I lived there for 5 years when I was a child. My father was the padre. We returned home in 61, just before the volcano blew.

    • Glad you enjoyed it and good timing on the volcano! If you are planning to go back, good luck with the logistics and I am sure you will find the same welcoming, fantastic group of Tristanians you knew in your childhood. Maybe a little older 😉

  8. How was the people’s religious life there, I know they had a Catholic, and Anglican Church, are they a devout people? In my research of the island in the past, I got the feeling this is a God-fearing bunch of people, to live in such harmony. I ask, because I am curious is the Christian faith is still strong there, or if they are growing less religious, like the prevailing pattern in the rest of Western Culture? BTW, I am a Christian evangelist and pastor.

      • Yeah, there are both an Anglican and a Catholic church there, although when we were on the island (for 5 years) the Catholics met in a house and had to rely on very occasional visits from priests. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (now called US) sent chaplains there for many years, of which Dad was one. If you read the Tristan news on their website it will tell you that a South African priest has at last been appointed, after a very long gap.

    • I think their attitude is summed up in their motto, ‘our faith is our strength’. My father was chaplain in the 50s and although I guess attitudes have changed since then, there still seems to be a deep underlying faith in God who sustains them through dangerous times.

  9. Hi Colin. I wandered in on your blog when I was looking for stories about remote islands in the world. Really enjoyed your blog on Tristan Da Cuhna. Really great blog! Happy travels. Ross

    • Thanks a lot Ross! TdC was one of the most amazing trips I ever took. Well worth the time and effort. Colin

  10. Colin, I really enjoyed reading your story. As a ham radio operator for many years I knew about ZD9 but have never been fortunate enough to work a ham from there on the radio. I stumbled across your blog while looking for information about Ham Radio on TDC today.
    Do not know how you could have made your report much better. Excellent!
    John WB8WUP

  11. What a tempting account, and so professionally written; many thanks for this.
    May I ask one question though after having read so much about rats on the island in various books and stories: have you seen any, or did I miss you mentioning the rodents?

    • Thanks for the compliment. To be perfectly honest, this is the first time I hear of this problem. Funny since compared to most places I visited, I did a significant amount of reading on the history and current situation of TdC. I guess I am the one who missed something. I just read about “Ratting Day” on the islander’s web site. Next time I’ll bring a few traps with me!

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