Helicopter to Tristan da Cunha

After a week spent sailing halfway across the south Atlantic Ocean, I have finally arrived in Tristan da Cunha. Since there are no hotels on the island of 259 inhabitants, visitors can choose whether or not they wish to stay in a guesthouse or with a Tristanian family. It was my wish to stay with a family and Shaun and Renée Green and their children Kimberley (15), Janice (12) and Dylan (9) have opened their home to me over the next three and a half weeks. Before I got there, however, I had to spend a week aboard the South African research vessel S. A. Agulhas II. The ship had plenty of facilities to keep its passengers busy, such as two lounges with bars, a library, gym, and since the ship was built in Rauma, Finland, it also had a sauna. The business centre had Internet terminals but these rarely captured a signal while at sea. I managed to write only two E-mails while I was aboard, and a third lengthy message unfortunately got lost in cyberspace and Gmail did not save it as a draft. The Greens’ computer is not configured to allow me to upload photos to this post (in fact, I cannot get LiveJournal [1] to switch over from HTML to Visual editor to enable me to do so and I always get “javascript:void(0)” messages whenever I attempt to click on the Insert Photo button) so I will wait until I am at the Tristan media centre to send photos as well as further travelogues. I am grateful to the Green family for allowing me to use their own computer, but with three kids in the house and only one computer, I am not counting on using it for any lengthy Internet sessions. That’s what the media centre is for, and I will upload my first photos of Tristan perhaps tomorrow.

Arrival time at Tristan was 07:00 and I wanted to see the island as soon as the volcanic conical shape of Tristan appeared over the horizon. The approach to the pyramid island from a distance is a commanding sight, and as the cone gets larger and larger it dominates the horizon until you are faced with sheer cliffs all around. I also wanted to see the island appear as night transitioned into dawn and greet the morning with the profoundly emotional experience of seeing Tristan da Cunha for the first time. All night however was a rainstorm, which we knew about since Monday, yet no degree of inclement weather was going to keep me away from seeing Tristan crest the horizon at dawn.

I had warned my three cabin mates at dinner yesterday that I was going to get up at 05:00 to await the arrival of Tristan. They thought I was crazy for getting up so early, but my idea seemed to have caught on because before my alarm even went off, two of my cabin mates had already gotten up and were dressed, ready to go out on deck. I left at 05:30 and since it was pitch dark outside, as there are no lights whatsoever on deck at night, I took the ship’s elevator from our fifth to the eighth deck, instead of walking up the outside staircases connecting deck to deck. These staircases are not stacked one directly above the other, and you have to walk in all directions on each deck to get to the next set of stairs. Once I made it to the eighth deck, where the elevator ended, I had to take the stairs to the ninth deck then go outside and take one flight of very wet stairs to the six-seat enclosed viewing area. I needed my flashlight for this climb. The waves were enormous: the entire bow got pounded by seven-metre waves. The south Atlantic is brutal, and I well understood why so many ships cannot even land at Tristan.

For an hour and ten minutes I scanned the horizon in front of me, however at 5:30 in the morning it was still so dark that there wasn’t any discernible horizon. Finally at about a quarter after six I could see a small cluster of lights far ahead. That couldn’t be a boat; it was Tristan! On my left I could make out a dark grey hazy band at the horizon. I did not immediately realize that this was Tristan. The storm was casting shadows all over the horizon and there were dark patches not only to my left but all around. It wasn’t until exactly 06:40 that I could make the unmistakable identification that this grey band was in fact Tristan da Cunha. James Davis, one of my cabin mates, was up on the observation deck with me and when he realized this (for he wasn’t sure that what he was seeing up till then was Tristan either) he turned towards me, nodded rapidly and flashed the widest smile. His wordless reaction said it all: This is Tristan da Cunha!

There is no easy way to land at Tristan, and large ships have to anchor off-shore and ferry their passengers aboard the longboats which the islanders sail out to meet the ship. Some ships bring their passengers ashore with Zodiacs. Rough sea conditions in many cases delay landings and I knew from reading Tristan travel blogs, as well as from my conversations with long-time Tristan travellers themselves, that sometimes your journey to Tristan is thwarted by the surging sea and you can’t even make a landing at all. The Agulhas II however has two helicopters on board and they pride themselves in guaranteeing its passengers getting onto the island.

We arrived at Tristan right on time at 07:00 and anchored off-shore. The helicopters were scheduled to start flying us off within the hour. However the stormy conditions worried us: the churning sea is one thing to delay arrivals at Tristan, but what if it’s storming out and you’re flying in by helicopter? We were not optimistic, and the 08:00 announcement confirmed this: flights were going to be delayed until 10:00. When the time came, we could see the writing on the wall as the wind conditions were no better than they were two hours earlier. So we waited. And waited. I went out on deck all morning and afternoon, taking photos of the same island shots over and over again, sometimes holding on for dear life for fear that I’d be blown away. You don’t know wind until you’ve been caught up in a storm in the south Atlantic. Rumours were circulating that we wouldn’t be able to fly to Tristan till Saturday. Oh great: so near yet still so far. Those travellers who had visited Tristan several times before took this all in stride and said that if the wind dies down for even a moment, the helicopter pilots will get on the intercom and corral us down to the hangar to start boarding immediately. All passengers attented a helicopter safety meeting yesterday afternoon, and we learned how to put on our life jackets and strap ourselves in.

At 16:45 the familiar chiming tones of the ship’s public address system sounded for yet another update. I was not optimistic. None of us were; we were all expecting the pilots to announce that the flights would be cancelled for today. We could not believe our ears when we heard the call to come down to the hangar: make it quick! Wind conditions had let up and flights were going to commence in ten minutes. I was on the fourth flight with eight other passengers. I was too excited about boarding and looking out both sides of the helicopter to worry about worrying. The trip was over before we knew it. The helicopter landed on a flat grassy area near the settlement and we crouched as we ran out of the helicopter and onto the safe area. I had arrived at Tristan da Cunha. Not one of the passengers on the flight took his life jacket off immediately. We were transfixed by the thought that we had finally arrived here. I could only look around and smile. I thought I might be in tears when I first set foot on Tristan but I wasn’t. Suddenly one of the passengers said “I guess you want these back” when the helicopter aides were signalling for us to remove the life jackets already, so we all undid the various clips and buckles and were directed to the island’s tourism officer who greeted us and introduced us to our host families.

In my next post I will write about the Tristan settlement, my walk this evening around the settlement, and the sights I saw on my first full day here. If I end up posting this message at the media centre, I will post some photos from aboard the Agulhas II, of the helicopters, and finally Tristan da Cunha itself.

[1] My former blog host

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