National Geographic Visit

Firstly, it is time to apologise. The process of getting these ‘letters from Tristan’ onto the site is a slightly protracted one, and we have been having problems.   The last time I myself was able to put the blog onto the website was when we were in Cape Town, three months ago.   It is out of the question to do it from here – the internet system is not nearly good enough.   So I have had to do it the long-winded way.   I write the posts and I edit the photographs, reducing them in size and adding the water-mark and a caption. Then this all gets emailed to a friend in the UK, two at a time as far as the photographs are concerned. This is the same process that even the Tristan News website has to go through.   Then my friend finds time in his busy diary to spend the 15 minutes needed to put it all on WordPress. Trouble is, he has become even busier.   Hence, for example, poor Nena and Mike’s wedding had to wait four weeks before my contact was able to get the blog published. The knock-on effect of this has been that my creative pen has been put to one side, so as not to create a huge log-jam of posts!

Apologies for this. Hopefully we are sorted now and there will be a regular flow of observations from these remote shores.

Rockhopper Penguins nearing the end of their moult

We had a three-week visit from a team from the National Geographic, which will probably have far-reaching consequences for the Island.   This was largely a research visit, as part of their Pristine Seas project. The team travelled on a chartered ship called Grenville, and they spent their three weeks on and around the four main islands (Tristan, Nightingale, Inaccessible and Gough Islands)

As you may expect from the Pristine Seas title, the scientists on board focussed very largely on the seas around the islands. A huge range of scientific processes were carried out, and there seemed to be specialists in everything imaginable. Not surprisingly, one of the main conclusions was that the seas around the islands of Tristan da Cunha are in extremely good health, outstandingly so when compared with anywhere else that they have done these studies so far. I say ‘not surprisingly’ because we are a dot in the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean, with a tiny permanent population of 263 persons for a sea area of thousands of square miles, and with the only exploitation being a crayfish industry working to a managed quota system and the very occasional ship being allowed under licence to fish for pelagic fish (always with an observer from the Tristan Fisheries Department on board)   The waters should be pristine!

Looking north from the Big Gulch

The team included a top-level film crew, and the aim is to produce film footage of Tristan which is likely to go global later in the year. It is for this reason that I mentioned ‘far reaching consequences’, for it seems likely that the image and reputation of the island will be greatly enhanced. We were all invited to a presentation in Prince Philip Hall on their final night, with a short film summary of the three weeks they spent and short technical summaries from the leading specialists.   The idea is that some of the team come back later in the year to share with us all the meat of their findings, and finished footage of their filming. We are so much looking forward to this, and I will place on this website details of when their details will appear on television.

An unusual visitor to these shores – a King Penguin here to moult. Note – check out the tail of the South Atlantic Fur Seal behind him!

One important feature of the National Geographic visit was that they enjoyed exceptional weather! They had factored in a 40% weather-related down-time in their planning – but in reality they were able to operate 100% of the time. This meant that they were able to achieve far more than they had hoped, and the film crew nearly ran out of digital memory!!

The team managed nearly 300 dives during their three weeks. On every dive they sighted crayfish, which gives an idea as to how well-stocked these waters are. They also filmed a fish that remains unidentified – evidently a never-seen-before species, or one that is exceptionally rare. Also they saw a porbeagle shark, the first one ever seen in the Southern Atlantic. Readers on the west coast of Scotland will be very familiar with the porbeagle. Talking of sharks, they carried out a shark tagging programme (rather them than me!) These tags are implanted onto the shark’s side; after six months the tag is released from its implanted stem and floats to the surface, whereupon it tunes into a satellite and ‘calls home’ with all the data of its travels in six months, – where it has been and at what depth.

The last of the National Geographic team going out to Grenville

It was a pleasure to meet many of the National Geographic team, and we look forward to seeing them again.

I have a quick message. I cannot, of course, publish here my telephone number or email address. But, if anyone reading this would like to get in touch you can simply post a ‘Comment’, including your contact details and if possible prefixing it with ‘Do not publish’. I can then contact you. What happens is that WordPress send me by email all comments, and I authorise or reject each comment.

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