So I have spent well over an hour and a half at the Internet café getting absolutely nowhere. I have had the hardest time trying to send photos or upload pictures to this post, and sending photos as attachments in individual E-mails takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r. I have tried to download Google Chrome, tried registering with Dropbox (whatever that is) yet am still no further ahead. So the frustrated traveller will commence his first post from Tristan sans photos, and since I am writing this as I am still awaiting Dropbox to load its registration page once again, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel if suddenly by the time I finish this post I can actually show you something. I am not optimistic as I shouldn’t think one would be able to download applications, even Google Chrome, to public Internet terminals.
The S. A. Agulhas II reworked its arrival time at Tristan in order to accommodate the oceanographers who had a lot of work to do on board. Our initial arrival date of 10 September was pushed back two days to 12 September at 07:00. I wanted to be in the sheltered observation area on the topmost deck to see Tristan appear from the darkness into the dawn. The chance to see the dramatic appearance of Tristan’s peak poking over the horizon would not happen since our arrival at the island was so early. When one approaches the island during the daytime, it can take a good three or four hours until that tiny pencil-tip of a snowy peak grows into a colossal volcano.
I had warned my three cabin mates at dinner on Wednesday that I would be setting the alarm for 05:00. I was not going to miss the chance of seeing the island of Tristan da Cunha appear out of the dark before my eyes. My cabin mates scoffed at the idea of getting up so early, since at 05:00 there would still be darkness and frigid darkness at that. It was the last night on board so no one, including myself, went to bed early, and even though I wanted to get up at 05:00, I still stayed up till midnight. I awoke several times during the night in childlike Christmas Eve anticipation, and was fully awake by 04:45, yet didn’t want to get out of bed should I happen to suddenly doze off and could squeeze out an extra fifteen minutes of sleep before the alarm sounded.
Needless to say I didn’t need that alarm to wake me up at 05:00, as not one but two of my cabin mates had decided to get up early and watch the approach of Tristan with me. Since they each got up, took showers and got dressed while I was still lying in my bunk, I didn’t get out of the cabin until 05:30.
I took the ship’s elevator from our fifth deck to the eighth level. I usually take the staircases outside but at night there are no lights on deck at all. The outside staircases aren’t conveniently placed on the decks in the same locations, and it involves quite a bit of walking and stepping over raised flood barriers to get anywhere. These flood barriers are all over the decks, and tripping hazards abound. It is a scary experience to walk out and see absolute darkness, with only the churning white ocean zipping past. I took my flashlight with me because the elevator went no higher than the eighth deck, and I needed it once I went outside. From the elevator I took one indoor staircase up, and then went outside to the ninth deck. Doors leading outside were heavy and swung something fearful should the wind catch it. I stood outside and saw nothing. It was complete darkness; I am not even talking about one pinprick of light being visible. I shone my flashlight and found the stairs to the tenth-deck observation area. The stairs were wet and the handrails as well. I thought that the six comfy chairs in the front viewing area would already be occupied by my cabin mates but they weren’t around. I took a seat and waited.
All I could see was blackness. This was my intent, as I wanted to see the horizon appear from the darkness and Tristan to show itself from a hazy blob to its volcanic green and brown dominance. I could not be sure what was ahead of me as it was stormy, which is typical for this area of the south Atlantic, and the dark patches on the slowly-emerging horizon were always changing as clouds drifted past, taking their dark storms with them. I was aware though that Tristan should be in front of me. With only an hour and a half before we anchor, the island, at least on a clear day, should already be in our faces.
Suddenly I saw three lights. Sometimes the lights merged together into a blazing flare, but as we got closer I could see three distinct lights. To my left was what I had interpreted to be a dark stormy band of clouds. I had seen similar bands of darkness in my 360° panoramic sweep of the stormy Atlantic and I realized only much later that what I had been looking at on my left from the earliest break of dawn through the thick haze was in fact Tristan da Cunha. By this time my cabin mate James Davis had joined me in the observation area and we both sat in silence waiting for the emergence of Tristan. When the hazy black blob revealed an end that dropped off into the ocean, we both knew that we were looking at Tristan. James could not believe it, and he smiled and silently nodded quickly in acknowledgement that yes indeed, we had arrived at last.
The wind was brutal. I had never experienced a windier time outdoors than on the tenth deck outside of the observation area. It was a struggle to approach the railings to get myself steady to take pictures. Barring extreme weather situations like hurricanes or tornados, which I fortunately have never been exposed to, this was the windiest weather I had ever been in. The first Tristan photos I took were blurry, yet I kept snapping until something emerged that wouldn’t induce vertigo in the viewer.
Everyone on board attended a helicopter safety session the previous afternoon and departure time for the first of five helicopter flights was 08:00. I was to be on the fourth flight. We were to await the announcement from the helicopter pilots when to proceed to the helicopter hangar and waiting area, yet as excited as I was to have finally made it to Tristan, I was not very optimistic that the weather conditions would be calm enough for helicopters to take off. Such is the state of the south Atlantic around Tristan: other ships cannot even land, and many times this year at Tristan visiting passengers could not disembark, and had to sail on past. The Agulhas II guarantees its passengers a landing because the ship can fly them to the island. Seething sea conditions prevent the longboats, Zodiacs or RIB’s from making a landing at the island’s tiny Calshot Harbour, but what if the winds are so bad that helicopters can’t even take off? Such was the state of the weather this morning. The scheduled helicopter take-off time of 08:00 was not looking very good. How long would we have to stay on board until the winds died down?