Mice on Gough Island

Tristan da Cunha is remote, by any standards.  But within the archipelago that Tristan encompasses, there is an island that is considered remote even by the people of Tristan. Around 220 miles further south from Tristan is Gough Island, named after Capt. Charles Gough of the ship called the Richmond, who discovered it in 1732.

Gough Island is around 13 km long and 5 km wide.  It is home to around 10 million seabirds as well as two species of land birds – the Gough Bunting and the Gough Moorhen.  In recognition of Gough being a hugely important place for bird life, with a unique largely unspoiled habitat, the island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.  It’s classification was added to by being joined by Inaccessible Island (another small island in the Tristan archipelago) in 2004.

Gough Island is uninhabited.  However, for the last 62 years the South African Weather Service has had a lease arrangement with the Tristan Government, and during this time it has maintained a scientific base on the island.  Teams of staff spend an uninterrupted 12 months on the island, the main purpose of which is to monitor weather conditions in order to help with the forecasting of weather in southern Africa.  In addition to the meterologists, the team includes engineers and a medic. There are also normally three staff from the RSPB (Royal Society of the Protection of Birds) who are bird scientists, and whose job it is to monitor the bird population on Gough.

The South African met station on Gough Island             Photo – Richard Hall

The importance of Gough can be seen, for example, in the fact that 99% of the world population of Tristan Albatross nest on the island, and 100% of Gough Buntings nest there.  Both species are critically endangered.  There are also populations of a large range of other Albatross, Shearwater, Petrel and Prion species, some of which are also classified as being endangered.

Tristan Albatross and chick                                                                      Photo – Steffen Oppel

Around 2006, the use of camera traps was able to prove conclusively what a few observers had already suspected.  This is that mice were predating on the wild bird chicks.  Mice had been on the island for many years, probably brought there originally by sealers in the 19th century.  The mice lived in harmony with the bird population, their diet consisting of plant seeds and insects.  Then – they evolved into chick-eaters.  This evolution, the change in eating habits of mice, has been seen in a parallel situation on Marion Island, where by means of careful monitoring during the space of just four seasons, ‘normal’ mice had evolved into predators of bird chicks. The scale of this predation on Gough is enormous – in 2016 it was estimated that mice were responsible for the killing of 600,000 chicks.  Following a scientific study on Gough some weeks ago, this has now been revised and updated to 2 million chicks and eggs a year. There have been some quite gruesome pictures of groups of mice eating albatross chicks alive.  The interesting thing is that the parent albatross just looks on unconcerned.  One stab of the adult albatross beak could easily kill a mouse, and bear in mind that an adult albatross might weigh 2 kg as compared to a mouse of about 25 grams.  The problem is that the Albatross (and other species) have nothing in their genetic makeup to tell them that mice are dangerous.

Mice on an albatross chick – while the adult looks on                            Photo – Ben Dilley

The RSPB team stationed on the island, together with visiting specialists in September / October this year, came up with some alarming figures.  For example, they found that this year the population of the critically endangered Tristan Albatross reared just 309 chicks from of 1,435 nests – only 21% instead of the 80 – 100% that would be the target for the species to have a long-term future.

In recent years, just as there have been huge technical advances in camera traps and other monitoring devices, so also there have been major advances in rat and mouse eradication from islands.  Islands lend themselves to eradication programmes since, provided that strict bio-security measures are introduced and enforced, re-infestation can be prevented, whereas in any mainland situation re-infestation is inevitable.  There have been some highly successful island eradication programmes, including from South Georgia, Macquaire Island off Australia and Campbell Island off New Zealand.   All of these programmes have used helicopters with underslung spreaders that distribute pellets made of a cereal-based toxic bait.  The spreaders are standard agricultural fertiliser spreaders fitted with a small Honda engine, and the bait generally used is one of the second-generation anticoagulants called Brodificoum.

The world centre for this eradication work is New Zealand, and it was that country that the RSPB turned to when it set about the planning stages of an eradication programme on Gough Island.  Initially, the plan was to carry out the eradication programme in the winter of 2019, but this has now been postponed to 2020.  The winter months are chosen because it is at that time that there are no birds nesting, and the mice are keen to find all food alternatives – making them eager for the toxic bait that is used in the eradication programme.

In August + September this year, a small specialised team travelled out on the SA Agulhas 2, the ship used by the South African Government to conduct their annual maintenance and team-change visit on Gough Island.  This team was organised by the RSPB, and consisted of an eradication specialist and a specialist helicopter pilot (both from New Zealand), an aerial systems engineer, and a bird captivity and release specialist.  The purpose of the visit was to have a detailed look at the site so that they could modify and confirm a master-plan for the operation, in order to give this expensive operation the highest possible chance of success.

The interior of Gough Island showing ‘Hag’s Tooth’                               Photo – Richard Hall

The overall plan is that in the early winter of 2020, a logistical team will travel out to Gough Island, to take out stores and set up accommodation on the island – a team of around 30 people will be needed.  The bird captivity and release specialist will be in this advance party.  His role will be to set up a large aviary-type structure, and to capture a good number of buntings and moorhens to act as a security population.  If these species suffer from poisoning of the toxic bait, at least there will be a protected reserve of such birds in captivity, available to be released when the active bait is no longer present on the island.  The albatrosses and the rest of the sea birds do not pose a problem in this respect – the do not come to the island during this time of year, and in any case they do not eat while they are onshore.

Once all the on-island preparations have been completed, the dosing team will travel to the island on a second ship.  This team will include four helicopters (one as a reserve) and a whole team of specialist pilots.  The systems engineer sets out an electronic GPS-based grid pattern of the routes to fly to ensure 100% coverage – indeed each swath is arranged to give 50% coverage of the previous swath, thus arriving at a double dose of the toxic pellets for any given area.  Two applications of bait would be spread, ideally 3 weeks apart for maximum effectiveness.  The winter in these latitudes can be very severe, and it is anticipated that with any lull in the weather the team will have to work from dawn to dusk, to seize the opportunity before the weather closes in again.

No-one is pretending that the task will be simple.  Mice are more difficult to eradicate than are rats, partly because they can find protection from the weather (and the toxic bait) in all sorts of caves and holes.  The whole project is expected to cost in the region of £9 million.  The success of the project will be measured by two elements.  Firstly, 100% kill of the mouse population is needed.  If a single breeding pair remain, then the breeding birds will just have a short respite until the mouse population once again builds up to the present levels.  Secondly, it is vital that the bio-security arrangements in Cape Town and on the island must be so thorough and so effective that there is no possibility of the re-introduction of mice in the future.  I am sure that everyone involved in the project knows full well that they have just one chance to succeed.

A group of Yellow Nosed Albatross, nesting on Nightingale Island

Extraordinary people on TDC

With the development of the society in such a very remote place as Tristan da Cunha, going back over 200 years, it is not surprising that there are some extraordinary aspects to the people on the island, both as far as individual people are concerned, and also relating to how some noteworthy social customs have developed.  That is not, however, the limit to the incidence of extraordinary people on the island.  Some of the expat staff stationed here certainly fit into this category, and some of the visitors also deserve a mention.  All in all, it seems that through its extreme remoteness the island does nurture and attract people who are extraordinary!

Through the eyes of a visitor to the island, some of the working practices are remarkable.  In particular it is astonishing how all members of the community come together for specific work tasks.  For example, when a ship has to be unloaded everyone leaves their normal places of work and becomes part of the unloading team – working as a stevedore on the ship, manning the barges bringing cargo into the harbour, driving a relay of tractors and trailers from the harbour to the warehouse, unpacking crates, and being part of a human chain to stack boxes in the warehouse. There are other events when an ‘all hands day’ can be declared – for example when everyone is needed to replace a roof on a house.

Islanders teamed up to re-roof the church

There are also the examples of remarkable people in connection with the island fishing industry.  For the most part, fishing on Tristan means crayfish fishing.  Each boat is crewed by two men, and eleven small open boats go out on the days that have been declared as ‘fishing days’.  The boats make a very early start, the little boats wallow horribly in the water particularly when they are not making way when the pots are being hauled.  The boys leave the harbour at first light, and in the shoulder months the low temperatures and the chill factor can be really testing. Every man a hero!

Fishing boats coming back into harbour at the end of a long day

Once the crayfish are landed, they are transported to the factory.  The people who work at the factory are also remarkable.  During the week it is largely pensioners who do this work, some of them approaching the age of 80.  They may work for 8 hours or more during the day, or in the evening the factory siren may call them out for an evening shift of anti-social hours.  The Tristan fishing industry is dependent on this reliable and loyal work-force.  It is another example of the extraordinary people of Tristan.

It should not be thought that all Tristanians are alike – they may come together for specific tasks, but they are generally highly individual.  The population today is just 250 people, and I could probably detail them one by one to show how a high proportion of them are individually extraordinary – but that would not go down well on the island.  I must not be seen to have any sort of bias or favouritism!

At any one time, there are around 12 – 15 expatriates stationed on Tristan.   For example, at present these include three teachers, a doctor and a nurse, the Administrator, a finance man, a factory manager and engineer, a retail specialist, and an agriculturalist (me!), as well as a short-term postdoctoral researcher from the Natural History Museum.  Most of these expats are on 2-year contracts, except for the Administrator who is generally here for three years and the doctor who may be here for five months.  In a general sense, the expats can be described as being extraordinary.  They have committed themselves to spending a couple of years on a tiny island where the facilities are extremely limited (shops, restaurants, healthcare facilities, etc), where they leave behind family and friends, and for the most part where the opportunities for professional contact and CPD (Continuous Professional Development) are quite limited.  These privations are not for everyone!

As a result of Tristan’s location, deep in the South Atlantic, there are many scientists and specialists who come to the island.  In the course of the two years that we have been here somewhere over 140 people have passed through.  These may be fisheries experts, conservation specialists, seal experts or bird professionals.  They may be South African personnel going to Gough Island for a 12-month tour of duty, or the team coming off Gough after their 12-month stint.  They may be the construction staff who built the new health centre, many of whom had experience in Antarctica.  Or they may be specialists in seismology, volcanology, global magnetism or nuclear detection.  It is a real experience for the people on Tristan, both Tristanians and expats, to be able to have contact with all of these visitors, many of whom can be described as extraordinary.

Of special mention is the dentist from Edinburgh, who comes to the island every year for three week’s work, bringing her daughter with her.  Her much-travelled daughter slots back into the little school on Tristan, where she catches up with all her island friends.  This must be the most extreme example of taking your child to work with you!

A cruise ship at anchor off Tristan
Our dutch friends at the harbour, with their yacht at anchor behind them

We also have a small number of tourist-related people coming to the island.  A few small cruise ships make a visit, weather permitting, as do a small number of sailing yachts.  That gives us a further  chance to meet some more extraordinary people.  I am thinking here of the two Dutch men in a yacht, who stopped off to buy some groceries and then continued on to Melbourne and finally Adelaide, stopping off on the way at Les Isles de la Desolation.  I am also thinking of the young girl who sailed single-handed from Sweden to Tristan – real adventurers come to Tristan!  And how about the cruise-ship tour guide who came earlier this year – it materialised that before that job, she had joined her partner on a small wooden yacht deep in Brazil.  They sailed the ‘wrong way’ round Cape Horn, and in two years they sailed back to Norway – in fact she made history by becoming the first Norwegian female ever to sail through the North West Passage.  After passing eastwards through the North West Passage, they of course passed Baffin Island – this is the home of another extraordinary visitor we had here for a few weeks this year!

Yacht Lady Free ice bound going through the North West Passage (Photo Cecilie Evjen)
Yacht Lady Free approaching a Beluga whale (Photo  Jan Martin Nordbotten)

 

 

 

 

High-tech Tristan

Tristan da Cunha can not in any way claim to be particularly high tech.  In a practical sense, levels of both mechanisation and automation are well behind most other countries.  There is no system for the use of credit cards, and there is no mobile phone system.  Government and Departmental accounts have only just been digitalised, and the internet is not at all reliable, to say the least.

Yet, the island is home to some of the most high-tech installations imaginable.

The UN organisation CTBTO has a monitoring station on Tristan.  The Comprehensive (Nuclear) Test Ban Treaty Organisation was formed in 1996.  Over 180 countries have signed up to the Treaty.  In the original documentation there were 44 countries listed as being countries with nuclear capability, and signatures from all of these were needed before the Treaty could become Law.  It is noteworthy that 8 of these countries have yet to sign (China, Egypt, India, Iran, Pakistan, Israel, N. Korea and the U.S.A.)

World map of CTBTO installations

The history of nuclear testing goes back to 1945, when the U.S.A. tested a device in New Mexico.  Between then and 1996, over 2,000 tests were carried out worldwide.  Of these, 1,032 were carried out by the U.S.A., 715 by the Soviet Union, and 210 by France.  Between 1945 and 1980, nuclear tests have totalled 510 Mt (mega-tons), of which the atmospheric tests totalled 428 Mt – equivalent to 29,000 Hiroshimas.

Since 1996, there have been just 10 nuclear tests.  India and Pakistan each carried out 2 tests during a period of sabre-rattling in 1998, and North Korea has been responsible for 6 tests.  All of these tests were detected by the CTBTO.

This is the background to the CTBTO.  The monitoring station on Tristan is one of about 250 around the world, with around 320 eventually planned.  Clearly, the island is wonderfully well placed to host a monitoring station, in that any signals that are detected can be accurately triangulated with other monitoring stations in countries on either side of the Atlantic Ocean – and there are no land areas anywhere near that could provide the same service!

Each CTBTO monitoring station measures, with extreme accuracy, a number of parameters that are able to detect and record that a nuclear explosion has taken place.  The wealth of information that is generated is transmitted in real-time to the IDC – International Data Centre – in Vienna, where the central computer system can immediately identify that a nuclear explosion has taken place, and exactly the location of the explosion.

On Tristan, as is the case with all the other CTBTO monitoring stations, three distinct physical parameters are monitored.

  1. A network of sensors monitors infrasound waves, using micro barometers which are able to detect minute infrasound pressure waves.
  2. Air quality is monitored, the sampling being aimed at detecting evidence of nuclear activity as well as being able to determine the type of nuclear device.
  3. Seismic movement is detected by a group of 3-axis seismometers –  information from these instruments could also be useful in giving advance warning of active volcanic activity on the island.

The first category of sensors takes place on the Western Plain, beyond the Potato Patches.  There are five separate sensing units, each having four sensing hub.  Each hub has around 24 tubes radiating from it, like spokes of a wheel.   The purpose of this arrangement is to average out all variations in infrasound waves, to arrive at a true reading. Computer triangulation of the signals received by the five sensing units determines also the direction of the nuclear explosion.  Readings are sent by a microwave system to the station’s central computer, where they are computed and sent continuously via satellite link to Vienna.  One of the five sensing units also has a chamber in which, as well as the electronic package that looks after the infrasound information, there is a seismometer, ready to sense and calculate any tremor in the earth’s surface at that point.  As part of the fail-safe technology that is part of the station, whenever the cover is opened on the chamber notification is instantly sent to Vienna.

The western plain looking west, with a CTBTO sensing station in the mid-foreground   (Pic – Bernard Pronost)
Overhead shot of one of the sensing stations   (Pic – Bernard Pronost)

The remaining elements of the CTBTO station are all to be found in a cluster in the field immediately to the west of the Settlement.  For determining air quality, there are two distinct systems used.  The first machine is called Snow White, which is manufactured in Finland.  This unit samples 20,000 cubic metres of air each day, collecting all particles in the air onto a filter pad, which is then removed and compressed into a wafer by processing it in a hydraulic press at 400 bar pressure.  After 24 hours, the wafers are placed in a spectrometer, which is able to identify around 12 substances that are known to be produced by nuclear explosions.  The technology that is required in this process is impressive, and it requires temperatures below -220 Centigrade, and electrical voltages of over 2,000V. The second system is made in Sweden and is called Sauna.  This unit samples the noble gas xenon, and identifies the isotopes of that gas.  In the event of a nuclear explosion, the ratio between the four isotopes will determine what sort of bomb is being detected.

Snow White

Seismometers are also located in chambers nearby.

The CTBTO station is managed by a French company, with a French station manager on the island.  For the last two years, Leo Duval was on Tristan.  We have just had a handover to the new station manager Maxim Sanders, with Maxim Le Maillot actually doing the handover.  Maxim Le Maillot was Leo’s predecessor, so he knew well the island and the installation.  Each of these station managers are known on the island as “Frenchie”, which is a simple system for most of the year but which can cause a little confusion when there are two of them here!

Former Station Manager Leo Duval
A pair of “Frenchies” – new Station Manager Maxime Sanders (left) and former Station Manager Maxime Le Maillot (right)

There are two other monitoring stations on the island.    The first is a station that was set up in 2004 by Austrian Jurgen Matzka for the Danish Magnetic Institute.  Jurgen is now with the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) who now have taken over the station.  This station measures changes in the Earth’s magnetism.  Generally, these changes reflect changes in the Earth’s core, but they can also react to local influences such as the construction of the new hospital, or even someone with metal buttons on his jacket walking too close to the sensing unit.  The station is accurate enough to measure changes in magnetism of one thousandth of a degree, which Jurgen likens to kicking a football through a goal which is 500km distant!

Finally, in the same field there is a third monitoring station.  This one is operated by the USGS (US Geological Survey) and consists of seismometers that are specifically set up to monitor volcanic activity, earthquakes and landslides.  The information from these seismometers is continuously being monitored in the United States. The USGS was set up in 1879, and is set up to monitor a wide range of natural sciences around the world.

General view of the “high-tech” field

 

 

 

 

 

 

Medivac

Sixteen months ago, when we told family and friends of our decision to go and work on the most remote inhabited island in the world, there was a mixed reception. There were those who applauded this adventurous move, particularly at our advanced ages. And there were those who could not understand how we could consider taking the risk of going to work in such a remote place, particularly considering our ages and the possibility of needing medical facilities beyond what is available here. We chose to take the job with our eyes open, and with a degree of stoicism.

The medical facilities here are of course very limited. That is what you would expect on an island with a resident population of only 260 people. The other element of course is the extreme remoteness of the island. Around the year, about 8 cargo ships visit us from Cape Town, which is a voyage of some 1,600 miles. All our freight comes from Cape Town, and that city is the natural ‘first port of call’ for the islanders. The island even owns and manages a house – Tristan House – where islanders can stay if they are in Cape Town, for example for medical reasons.

As may be imagined, there are very strong links between the health facilities on Tristan and the medical facilities in Cape Town. There is a steady flow of people travelling to Cape Town for all sorts of operations and medical checks, as well as expatriates arriving to take up their contracts or to go on leave. This whole operation takes a huge amount of co-ordination – the cargo ships that come here have limited berths for passengers, and most often there are more people seeking a berth than available berths. Indeed, if anyone has a booking it is always provisional – there is always the risk of being bumped from a ship because of someone coming in with a higher priority.

At any one time, there is one or generally two expatriate doctors on Tristan. These are often people with experience some way beyond that of a normal GP, including some surgical experience in order to be able to cope with the occasional bone fracture or appendectomy.

It is within this background that on one Friday in early April I presented myself to one of the doctors, because of some health concerns that had just arisen. After a few tests, the doctor made a provisional diagnosis of something relatively straightforward, but without access to highly specialised equipment there remained the risk of one particular cause that would have been far more serious.

The following Monday, things moved on dramatically. The medical team here had done their homework, and the ship that was here at anchor was due to leave on Wednesday, and had a spare berth available. Better still, the same ship was due to leave Cape Town for Tristan about ten days after arriving there, and there was a spare berth on that return sailing. The easy decision was to go back to Cape Town as a medivac, to get things properly checked out. The difficult decision was whether to go on my own, or whether both of us should go. We decided that I should go on my own.

The raft that brought passengers and luggage to the ship – the 1961 volcano low in the background
Evening on board as we leave Tristan da Cunha behind

The ship that was here was the same one that we came out on in November – the Baltic Trader. This is not known for being the fastest ship in the world, particularly when the wind is on the nose. Unfortunately, in spite of the normal prevailing winds being westerly we had easterlies for the whole crossing, and instead of the expected 8 days we took 11 days to get to Cape Town, eventually docking around 8.30 on the Saturday evening. The manager of Tristan House also acts as guide and transport provider for the people from the island, and he (together with minibus and trailer) had his time cut out taking people through passport control in the port, and then on to wherever they were staying. This was a particularly daunting task because one couple were travelling with a vast amount of luggage, that on its own filled the trailer. I ended up on the third load, and to cut a long story short it was 1.30 on the Sunday morning before I arrived at the place that had been booked for me.

The place was awful. It had been booked online from the office in Tristan through a well-known global B&B agency, but seemingly the information it had online did not show the room that I had which was evidently the servant’s room from the old days of apartheid, with a minute room opening onto the car-port, and a separate shower-room that was accessed through the car port, which in turn was open to the street.

The sole advantage of this place, in the Gardens area of Cape Town, was that it was convenient for the manager of Tristan House to take me to the hospital for the beginning of my tests, at 6.30 on the Monday morning.

The hospital to which I had been referred was the Groote Schuur, made famous on 3rd December 1967 as being the place in which Dr Christian Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant.

I cannot speak more highly of the treatment I received at the Groote Schuur. The Professor and his team at the department that was following my case arranged test after test, keeping me up to speed all the time as to what they were finding and what they were deducing. I have heard horror tales from people in the UK, who for example had to wait three weeks for the results and interpretation of MRI scans. No such nonsense in the Groote Schuur – the results of all tests that I had done were made known to me within a couple of hours, at the latest. Impressive.

Old Groote Schuur Hospital

After a couple of days, I had the final, confirmed results that I was hoping for – the worst case serious diagnosis was ruled out. There was every indication that life would go on!

Once the hospital had finished with me, I had some days left to me until I had to be ready for the return ship. My priorities had changed. I no longer needed to be within reach of the hospital. I needed to get out of the hovel and into a hotel where I had some simple facilities, including WiFi . So I moved into a hotel within walking distance of the V+A Waterfront. Even though the following few days included a holiday weekend, I was able to do quite a number of work visits and, much more important, I was able to spend some solid time researching on the internet (which is virtually impossible to do back on the island). I was also able to explore and relax, all part of the process of moving on from the reason for being in Cape Town in the first place.

A yacht turns in Cape Town harbour, with the dry dock behind and Table Mountain in the background

Within a short time, I was due to re-board the Baltic Trader. A big cruise ship left the port ahead of us, and then we headed off for our 1600 mile crossing. We had the wind in our teeth the whole time, with some quite heavy conditions. For a period our speed was down to 1.3 knots, and overall it was 14 days before we arrived back at the anchorage off Tristan da Cunha. It was good to be home!

Stormy seas during the crossing

So, it was 36 days (11 days out, 11 days there, and 14 days back) all for a couple of days of tests. That is the reality of being a medivac from the world’s most remote inhabited island!

Approaching Tristan, taken from the bridge wing of the ship

Devastating Floods On Tristan

In the region of 200,000 years ago, one single volcano spewed billions of tons of rock out from the floor of the South Atlantic, and the island of Tristan da Cunha was formed. From the very time that the classic cone-shape was formed, the forces of nature began to beat and weather the newly emerged volcanic rock. Rain would be the main agent to erode the rock face, and the softer rock would erode most easily. At the same time, all around the shore the constant action of wave impacts would cause sea erosion. Year after year the process of erosion would continue, and year after year material eroded from the high ground would be deposited on the coastal fringes. Bit by bit the coastal plains would be built up with boulders, stone and grit from the high ground. Thus, over the years, the coastal plains would be formed, the biggest of which of course is the Settlement Plain. The plain is full of evidence of boulders and other material coming down from the high ground, reflecting years of particularly heavy rain. At the same time the rock and grit deposits on the plain would themselves be eroded by huge streams of water, cutting out the gullies and taking the deposits down to the sea.

It is clear that some years this process of erosion and deposition is relatively gentle, but some years the rain is unusually heavy and the erosion action of the rain is unusually high. Either because of the normal cyclical nature of weather patterns or perhaps because of global warming, we have seen very heavy rain in recent years. Last year we saw the land-slip across the road leading to The Valley being formed. This year, we have seen the worst floods and flood damage in living memory.

It all started, really, on April 14th. On that day there was continuous very heavy rain for a long time. The waterfalls were all in full force, the watrons (streams) were running hard, and people either kept indoors or went out in wellies. The gritty soil and sub-soil on the island drains very freely, and by the following day the signs of flooding were starting to disappear. Then came the night of the 17th / 18th.   Falling on ground that was already waterlogged, very heavy continuous rain caused storm damage of biblical proportions.

Devastation at the Potato Patches
Overview of the ruined Potato Patches

In the middle of the night, it became apparent that action was necessary to save properties that were being threatened by the flood. The Settlement street lights were switched on, and a small team of ‘action men’ turned out with a JCB, diverting rivers of water from the houses, particularly to the east of the settlement where the Big Watron was substantially overflowing its banks.

Towards the Settlement looking over the Big Watron – and the completely hidden cattle grid

The following day, and for a number of weeks, damage repair work was carried out on a priority basis. Help was given to some householders whose homes had been flooded. Gates were put up to take the place of cattle grids, which had been filled to the top with stone and silt. Also, the PWD (Public Works Department) turned out in force, partly to cut some sort of a roadway through the massive new fields of stone and grit, and partly to make temporary repairs to the erosion that had taken place in some of the gullies.

In the two days of heavy rain, 132mm of rain fell. This is not in itself a phenomenal amount of rain, but it comes after a very wet year. Already this year, five months in, we have had over three-quarters of the annual rainfall average

One of the of the questions that this emergency has raised is to try and find out the overall reason for so much land material being swept off the Base (The Base is the high land, running up from the top of the coastal cliffs right up to the Peak), because the main part of the damage done has been caused by alluvial deposits, rather than simply running water. It is clear that considerable erosion is taking place on the Base. Even some weeks after this awful event, when a heavy rain caused the waterfalls to run it was clear that there were white waterfalls and brown waterfalls. The brown waterfalls evidently had very heavy loads of silt and stone being washed off the Base. The unanswerable questions that need to be asked are along the lines of :- Is this amount of erosion simply a consequence of very heavy rain? Are we seeing increased rainfall as a result of global warming? Are there environmental reasons for this high level of soil erosion, and in particular is there a possibility that grazing by sheep has exposed the soil on the base to increased weathering? It will be very difficult to obtain factual evidence to support any particular theory, since there is a lack of survey information that measures, analyses and describes the situation on the Base, and access at the moment is dangerous and highly restricted. If we had a resident helicopter the task would be easier!

The damage that has been done can be divided into the following categories:-

  1. House flooding. Individual householders have been faced with flooded homes. Some carpets have been ruined, and the drying-out process has caused hardship to individual families
  2. Cattle grids. Three cattle grids have been filled to the top with silt, rendering them totally ineffective – cattle can walk across them with ease. As a result, a new gate has been installed in one case, and in two cases cattle have had to be moved from their normal pastures because they can no longer be retained by the cattle grids. The Agriculture Department is faced with the task of rebuilding these cattle grids.
  3. The road system has suffered greatly. Within the Settlement there is considerable evidence of the road structure being weakened and eroded. On the road to the Patches, there are whole lengths where the road has been completely washed out. In other sections, new potholes have been formed, and there is plenty of evidence of erosion causing further damage and vulnerability.
  4. Water troughs. Silt has been washed down the hill, in one case completely burying a cattle drinking trough.
  5. It is believed that around 12 sheep were washed out to sea by the floods, and one dead cow has been found half buried in the stone and grit deposits. It is assumed that these animals were sheltering in the gullies when they were overcome by the water.
  6. Gully road crossings. Three gullies on the road to the Patches were deeply eroded, making them impassable to any vehicle. PWD rapidly sent out excavators, and quick repairs were made by constructing barriers of boulders on the lower side of the crossings (known as ‘rip-rap’ to land engineers) and infilling with silt and gravel in order to make the crossings usable.
  7. Land slips. These are probably better described as alluvial fan deltas, rather than land slips, since they have been formed by water-borne boulders, stones and silt being washed down from the high ground and progressively being deposited on the slopes as the flowing water lost its momentum, rather than the mountainside slipping away en masse and being deposited on the plain.   The area and volume of the land slip which was formed last year increased considerably – perhaps its volume trebled. But the main devastation was caused by an entirely new slip or delta that swept down from the area of the Base that feeds Wash Gulch and which covered an area of about 70 acres. The grazing area that this slip covers, together with a number of smaller deposits, are now of no use at all to our grazing cattle.
  8. Potato patches. The Red Body Hill Potato Patches have essentially been destroyed by the new land slip described in the above paragraph. Some 15 – 20 Patches are lost. It remains to be seen whether anything can be done to restore these areas, or whether these Patches are lost for ever. What is certain is that if the island embarks on any programme to recover these potato growing areas, the work will be difficult, time-consuming and expensive.
  9. While in some areas valuable pasture land has been covered up by silt and stone, in other areas erosion has removed pasture and washed it away. For example, large areas of the seaward side of Hill Piece have been lost by erosion, before and after photographs showing the extent of the loss of grazing land. Meanwhile the sides of all the gullies have been eroded by the force of water, and more grazing land has been lost in these areas.
Erosion in in a watron through the Potato Patches
The seaward side of Hillpiece – just look at all the land loss
Slip of pasture land in Hottentot Gulch

The people of Tristan da Cunha are known for being able to respond to natural calamities in a pragmatic, practical and co-ordinated way. That has already been evident with the works carried out in the last weeks since the floods. During the coming months, a wide range of works will be carried out as part of the flood recovery effort. However, there is one aspect of island life and the island economy that will take a severe beating from this flood calamity, and that is the situation with the cattle. It is well established and well recorded that there has been substantial overgrazing by cattle for very many years. The overgrazing problem, simply caused by having too many cattle for the land resources available, has all of a sudden been made very much worse by the flood damage. The approach into winter is the very worst time for the island to suffer a reduction in the grazing surface of around 10 – 12%. The Agriculture Department is making all effort to minimise the impact of the flood related problems, but it is felt that there is increasing awareness of the strategic danger of having too many cattle for the carrying capacity of the land.

Queen’s Day

Every year, normally in February, the island holds Queen’s Day. This is rather like a combination of Village Fete, Highland Games, and Barbecue / Party. Sometimes it is difficult to find a suitable day for the event, because it falls at a time of year when a Fishing Day could be declared – or if a ship is in the weather could be suitable for an Unloading Day. Queen’s Day is normally held on a Friday, which leaves people free to ‘do their own thing’ during the weekend. If the decision is made to hold the day on a Saturday, then the following Monday is declared a public holiday instead. Clearly, it is important for people to be given time to ‘do their own thing’.

Everyone knows beforehand that the day is to be Queen’s Day, but tradition dictates that this is confirmed around 7.30 in the morning by the Chief Islander ringing the gong. This year, on February 24th, we heard the gong. The big day has started!

Different events are organised by different Departments. For example, the fishing competition is appropriately enough organised by the Fisheries Department.

The event is held in St. Mary’s School, and in American Fence which is just to the north of the school. On Tristan the word ‘fence’ can mean two things. It can mean a livestock barrier made of posts and wire, or it can mean ‘field’, all depending on the context. Hence, for example, you may have ‘the fence down the side of Hottentot Point Fence’. Simple really.

First and second prize-winning pictures of the Yellow Nosed Albatross

Most of the expats are charged with being judges in the Art, Produce and Vegetable events. For some reason I was in the team judging garden produce and flowers. Behind closed doors our little team had to judge entries such as funniest potato, best three carrots, and best wild flower arrangement, while other teams were tasked with judging the Swiss rolls, the children’s art, and the portraits of a Yellow Nosed Albatross.

Island Produce

Outside, the day was warming up and participants and spectators were gathering. Jonathan, from the Public Works Department, set up the air rifle shooting competition, with targets at 20 metres. It was a fun event taken seriously! It was not easy with just three shots, no sighting shots, using air rifles that could have their sights out of adjustment, aiming towards the sun with clouds casting moving patterns on the sea behind the targets, but at least it was the same for all!

That’s me going back about 50 years, shooting in the prone position!

For the numbers of spectators watching from the benches beside the school wall, one of the most entertaining events was the ‘wibbly wobbly’ race. Against the clock, competitors had to drink a glass of beer, run to a stick planted in the ground where with hand on stick and head on hand they had to do 10 dizzy-inducing circles around the stick, then they had to kick a football into a goal. Sounds simple, perhaps – but the results were really entertaining. I am sure it was the rotating around the stick that induced the dizziness, and not the beer, but you could not imagine anyone kicking a ball showing such total leglessness.

The races around the cemetery (ladies and gents) were astonishing, if only for the breakneck speed with which the men headed down the hill from the start.

Start of the men’s race, with speed and determination

As the day wore on, folk drifted away, so that they could take a bit of time out before heading up to the braii (barbecue). Preparations for this were made the day before, with two athletic young men going up to the Base to harvest some mutton. Fires were lit, drinks were served, and a good level of mellowness was achieved before one of the main events of the day – the Wheelbarrow Race. The pictures tell it all! The timing of this event was important, in that competitors were sufficiently relaxed to be able to avoid injury if they fell, without being so relaxed that falls were inevitable!

Start of the first Wheelbarrow Race

The braii itself was memorable, with a team of people (largely from the Agriculture Department) looking after the barbecue, and queues inside the Prince Philip Hall as folk filled their plates.

A busy Braii!]

The prize-giving ceremony was the last event of the day, with Administrator Sean Burns giving out a mountain of prizes to all the winners. It was of course a day in which everyone were winners – a fun and relaxing social day that everyone seemed to enjoy.

Wedding on Tristan

By any standards, Tristan da Cunha is an extraordinary place.  The population is about the size of a small village – just 263 people.  At present this population is augmented by a team who are building the new hospital (22 people) and a team who are carrying out harbour repairs (10 people).  Other than these two teams there are also the individual expats, including ourselves.  Including family members, today there are 27 individual expats on the island.  All together 59 expats on the island, which is a record.  This high number is quite exceptional – sometimes the figure is very much lower and earlier last year the number totalled fewer than ten.  These are very busy days, and with everything that is going on it seems a bit like a real-live soap opera.

I mentioned in a previous blog the forthcoming wedding of Mike and Nena.  Mike is ex-army, and he and I have established that we were at the same event in Oman, when he was doing guard duties at National Day celebrations and I was invited as a member of the Sultan’s staff.  That was around 1972.  No doubt we were also at one or more Friday curry lunches, too, at Bidbid, Nizwa or Sur.   Nena comes from Croatia, and was in banking until Mike came around the corner and swept her off her feet.

As I mentioned, their wedding had already been fixed and postponed twice, as a result of Mike being involved in crucial ship unloading operations before Christmas.  So, with great patience and perseverance, a third date was fixed, the 19th of January.  The hall was decorated, rehearsals were done, mountains of food were prepared, drinks and ice were organised –  but then just three hours before the start of the wedding service there was the most terrible accident in which a much loved and respected islander lost his life.  The wedding was of course postponed.

The funeral was the following day.  As newcomers, we were careful to find out about protocol for such an event, and the sad day was charged with emotion.  Mike and Nena established that the expected and accepted thing for them to do was to re-schedule their wedding for the following Thursday, and on January 26th the marriage actually took place.  The morning of the wedding, the widow of the man who had the accident telephoned Nena and told her that she must go ahead and enjoy her special day, she wanted no holding back.  Great courage.

The nervous groom awaits……
….. and the bride arrives

There were many ‘firsts’ with this wedding.  It was the first time that a female minister performed a marriage service.  Nena was the first Croatian bride.  It was probably the first time that a Welshman acted as best man.  It would have been the first time that Filipina girls were seen as bridesmaids; and it was certainly the first island wedding at which a kilted Frenchman played ‘Here comes the Bride’ on his saxophone!

Leo and his sax

The day was hot, sunny, and with very little wind.   It is not often that this can be said on Tristan!  Temperatures were probably around 24oC, and with very high humidity most jackets did not stay on for very long.

Outside the church, with the 1961 volcano in the background

Carlene, the lay preacher,  (during the day in charge of the mechanical department of Public Works)  performed the wedding service, and Harold (former Chief Islander three times) gave the bride away.  Barry was best man, his two daughters Roxanne and Sian were bridesmaids, Sally was Matron of Honour, and Dylan was usher.  Together with the bride and groom, six nationalities!

After the church service, the wedding party piled into the Administrator’s Landrover and were driven down to the famous ‘Welcome to Tristan da Cunha’ sign, for a photoshoot, before repairing to the Residence for some bubbly.

The wedding party outside the famous sign

By the time this little group arrived at the Prince Philip Hall the party was already in full swing.  The whole island had been invited, and there was a great mixture of islanders and expats, and of young and old.  The food was amazing – contributed by no fewer than 68 ladies (including of course Bee), the cake had been made by Carlene and exquisitely decorated by Head of Finance Lorraine.  Jonathan (head of a Public Works section)  did a wonderful job with his little team serving copious quantities of quality drinks as well as being in charge of the music.  Robin (Head of Plumbing and Electrical) was official photographer.

Altogether it was a thoroughly good party!

Arrival at the Prince Philip Hall
Us in our finery, outside our house. Check out the early 1800’s Scottish-built gables!

First Two Months on Tristan

It has been an extraordinarily busy time of the year.

For us, having arrived on November 30th, we went first into temporary accommodation as guests of Pat and Peter.  This was a good experience, they are lovely people and we heard many tales of the old days on Tristan, including the time of the evacuation.  After two weeks we moved into our ‘permanent’ place, which in one of the old original Scots-built houses from the very early 1800’s.  It has some good points and some not-so-good.  The kitchen is great, a good size and with reasonable work-tops, but – no hot water yet!  The view from the house is really superb.  Then – it is debatable as to whether our proximity to the pub is good or not!

The whole island closes down for three weeks over Christmas, all except some essential services.  This is the annual summer holiday.  Many of the islanders go down ‘camping’ at the Patches, where they have simple huts beside their potato plots.  The holiday period was this time interrupted by two Unloading Days, on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.  Certainly not ideal, but it had to be done.

As befits an island community that was founded by a Scot, Auld Year’s Night or Hogmanay is taken quite seriously.  All were invited to a party on the lawn of the Residence, where the Administrator lives.  This was our first experience of an island-wide social event.  During the late afternoon before the event we noticed a number of monsters on the streets – there were all together about twelve very frightening monsters;  seemingly they go around making reasonably harmless mischief, and then they come in to the garden party at the Residence.  These are called Okalolies, and the tradition for them on the island goes back a very long time.  I will try to find out more, and report back!  Parties go on into the wee small hours, with New Year announced at midnight by much ringing of the gong.

 

Monsters arriving at the residence

The holiday did not apply to the ex-pats, and in any case holiday or not I was quite occupied preparing my Inception Report.  This is a comprehensive and detailed piece of work outlining the agricultural situation on the island today, with in mind discussion and decision making which in turn will provide me with a programme to work to in the two years to come.  This is now all done, and I was able to present it to the Island Council on the 18th January.  We are due to have a sort of brainstorming meeting as a follow-up in about ten days’ time.

On the 13th and 14th of January, we had Shearing Day.  This is the annual community event when almost everyone goes down to the sheep pens, and in good island tradition work and fun are joined together.  The entire flock of around 1,000 sheep is collected in the central area of the sheep pens, and each owner draws out his own sheep, which he keeps in his own pen ready for shearing.  This is a time when sheep owners help each other, and when children get involved with the nitty gritty of sheep farming.  Bystanders and their cars and motorbikes surround the sheep pens area, music is played – and many of the women can be seen knitting.  Once the work is all done, it is time to celebrate, and bries (barbecues) and partying go on late into the evening.

Knitting being done as the sheep get shorn

We have had visits from four ships in the last week.  Late on the 14th,  HMS Portland arrived together with her merchant navy escort ship.  Crew from the ships became tourists, and in spite of it being Sunday the supermarket stayed open, the tourist shop and gift shop opened, and the pub opened.  The Navy played the Island at football, and the last of the Navy visitors were taken back to their ship around 7.00 in the evening.  There were many empty cans left behind!  Meanwhile, a ship chartered by the National Geographic arrived.   Grenville is on a research and filming expedition to Tristan and the nearby islands of Nightingale and Inaccessible as well as Gough Island, some 200 miles further south.   She was also carrying a number of passengers who were either people coming to work here or Islanders returning home.

The fourth ship was the Pacific Askari, with another consignment of building materials for the new hospital.  She was unloaded quickly and left the following day.

We (particularly of course Bee) are now involved in preparations for a Wedding, due to take place on the 20th.  Mike and Nena have been here for around 18 months, and because he is in charge (among other things) of all the unloading operations, which are so weather-dependent and so crucial, they have had to postpone their wedding twice because it clashed with a window in the weather that allowed unloading to resume.

Bee’s ornamental spoon among all the others

Profiterole Pyramid, ready for the wedding