Tristan da Cunha is an island in the Atlantic Ocean, situated almost halfway between South America and South Africa. Neither continent is its nearest inhabited neighbour. That distinction belongs to the island of St. Helena, which lies 2430 km to the north. That’s a long way to go to borrow a cup of sugar. Tristan da Cunha is thus known as the remotest inhabited settlement on the planet. The island has a population of 261.
There is no airport on the island, and all travel must therefore be by ship. The island is visited regularly by three ships which make a combined total of nine or ten trips per year. Two of these ships are fishing vessels and they may take passengers as tourists if space permits. Since the southern mid-Atlantic ocean is so treacherous these ships do not guarantee a landing on Tristan. I have read travel blogs where tourists travel halfway around the world and spend seven days at sea only to face the heartbreak of being stuck on the ship, gazing at the island from afar because the seas were so rough. I would be in tears during the whole trip back to Cape Town if this happened to me. Fortunately there is one ship that makes an annual journey and guarantees a landing. How can it guarantee a landing at Tristan if the seas are too rough? If ocean conditions preclude safe anchorage, passengers may fly to Tristan via the ship’s helicopter.
The brand-new South African Antarctic polar research and supply ship S. A. Agulhas II has room for ten tourists. The ship stops at Tristan during its once-a-year visit to restock and restaff the research station at Gough [goff] Island, located 350 km south of Tristan. I am glad I started planning my trip for 2013 now, because I have just made the cut: I have secured the ninth berth for “civilian” tourists. S. A. Agulhas II actually has room for more than ten non-research staff, but these places are reserved for medevacs, government officials and returning Tristanians, in that order. The Agulhas II will take on more civilian tourists if these reserved berths are not taken. There is however also the chance that more officials and Tristanians will want to return to the island than the number of reserved berths allows. If this should occur, then the ship reserves the right to dip into the quota of civilian berths, using the last-on, first-off policy. As civilian tourist #9, there is a slight risk that I might have to surrender my spot. In that instance I will have to wait until the following year (2014) to visit the island. That’s my only worry about this whole trip.
Other cruise ships crossing the south Atlantic do visit Tristan da Cunha, yet these enormous ships cannot possibly dock there and let their hundreds of passengers onto the tiny island. In these cases, the Tristanians take their handicrafts, stamps, souvenirs and so on and sail out to the ship anchored far off shore, selling all their goods to the passengers on board. Official statistics for 2002 show that eight cruise ships called at Tristan, with 476 passengers setting foot on the island. In 2003 there were also eight cruise ships that called yet only 269 passengers landed. I do not have more current figures, but if these are typical numbers, then it is safe to say that even if I use the higher number, Tristan da Cunha sees fewer than six hundred visitors each year.