Edge of the Earth
To say that the South Atlantic volcanic island of Tristan da Cunha is “out of the way” would be a vast understatement. Located just over 1700 miles from its nearest mainland, Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, Tristan da Cunha holds the distinction of being the single most remote inhabited island in the entire world.
The geography of the small island is dramatic, to say the least; basalt cliffs rise sharply out of the ocean and what seems like constant and relentless storms pound the 40 miles of coastline. Portuguese navigator Tristao da Cunha discovered the island in 1506 – upon spotting it from his ship, he promptly declared the island to be his and christened it with his own name. But thanks to the stormy seas, he was never able to set foot on it. It wasn’t until 1811 that the first settler, an American named Captain John Lambert, arrived on the island. He too declared the island to be his possession, but on a fishing expedition a year later he would lose his life. In 1816, Tristan da Cunha became a strategic location for the British, who took over the island and guarded it from the French, whom they believed were planning on using it to rescue Napoleon from the island of St. Helena. Ever since that time, there have been settlers on the island – mostly relatives of the British soldiers who decided to stay. When the Duke of Edinburgh visited in 1867, he gave the primary settlement on the island, Edinburgh, its name.
One of the most interesting things about Tristan da Cunha are the inhabitants who choose to live there, despite the remoteness, the dangers and what outsiders might perceive as a place that offers nothing but isolation and loneliness.
Return to Paradise
Many people don’t understand why anyone would want to live so far from mass civilization, but the people of Tristan da Cunha have a special connection to the island that keeps them coming back even when they are forced to leave.
In August of 1961, the island’s volcano began a disturbing increase in activity. By October, the islanders had experienced a series of powerful tremors that damaged the harbor and ultimately created a massive fissure near the lighthouse, releasing strong sulfuric fumes into the air. Remaining on the island became too dangerous a proposition and at that point, South African naval ships were dispatched to pick up the islanders. To avoid apartheid laws, evacuees opted to ship off to England. Shortly after arrival, several of the older evacuees ended up dying from one of the most severe winter storms England had ever seen. Others faced harassment from the media and medical community, who said there was not enough genetic diversity on the island to make it a viable place to live. Still, some of the islanders were eager to return home, ignoring the advice of officials who were monitoring the volcanic activity. In August of 1962, a group of brave settlers returned to the island to make it habitable once again. They rebuilt the damaged harbor and got the island’s lucrative fishing industry up-and-running again. Martin Blair, one of the settlers who made the journey said, “As far as I am concerned, I have no choice about returning. They can say whatever they want about me, about us, but Tristan Da Cunha is my home and it is in my blood.”
Today, Tristan da Cunha still has a small settlement of devoted residents who keep the fishing industry going, not to mention a budding tourist industry. Thanks to modern technology, the island is also much more connected to the outside world. However, the influence of the modern world has not been all positive.
Despite its extremely remote location, these days Tristan da Cunha faces many of the environmental issues that plague massively populated parts of the world; chief among them, the unwanted effects of offshore oil drilling.
A recent study by researchers has found that the oilrigs hundreds of miles, if not more than one thousand miles, offshore from Tristan da Cunha, are having a negative impact on the island. Decommissioned oilrigs and small oil spills have caused, at last count, 62 non-native species of creatures to find their way to the island. Introduction of new species is dangerous because of the potential influx of pathogenic microorganisms. Such pathogens could kill off species, like the Tristan rock lobster, which local fisherman depend on for survival. Ultimately, such negative activity caused by new species could ruin the chances of continued human settlement on the island.
Tell the few hundred settlers of Tristan da Cunha that they are going to lose their remote, beloved home, and they will be none too thrilled.
Tusker Trail’s own Eddie Frank knows a few things about the allure of remote locales. For the better part of his adventure-filled life, he has been seeking out and venturing to destinations that are far removed from mass civilization, like the Altai region of Mongolia and the Sahara Desert, which he has crossed 34 times. His philosophy on going remote echoes the life-changing experiences that doing so has provided him.
“As far back as I can remember I have hungered to plant my feet and situate my soul in the most remote places on earth,” says Eddie. “This is what I call ‘remote control’. Once there, it’s like hearing a scream and a silence at precisely the exact same time. It’s magical, and there is no other way for me.”
Tristan da Cunha is one of those rare places in the world that not only has a vibrant and storied history, but also stands on its own for its unique sense of geographical place. For the adventurer seeking “remote control”, there are only a few locations that are as remote, or significant. Tusker Trail can take you there.