Setting foot on Tristan da Cunha at last

The helicopter flights off the Agulhas were scheduled for 08:00, yet the winds were so strong that no one was counting on getting off the ship within the hour. When the announcement finally came to give us the news, we were already expecting it. The flights were postponed for another two hours, and at 10:00 there would be another update.

All the passengers had retrieved their luggage from the storage room and kept their bags in their cabins last night. Four people in a cabin with suitcases taking up valuable floor space meant a lot of hopping around, trying to avoid stepping on anything. My cabin mates and I thus didn’t want to hang around our room for the next two hours, and as we anchored off shore we took strolls outside to look at the settlement on Tristan, its low houses and flat roofs resembling a colourful patchwork of aluminum. When the wind wasn’t as strong I took the same pictures of the island–again–even though there wasn’t any change in scenery. My cabin mates and I took turns taking photos of each other against the ship’s top deck with Tristan’s settlement in the background. The settlement, by the way, is formally called Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, yet no one, absolutely no one on the island calls it that. They don’t even call it Edinburgh. It’s simply “the settlement”. I have mailed close to twenty postcards already (all of which are sitting in the post office until the next ship arrives) and some of them give both versions of the settlement’s official name. In my posts I will never refer to it as Edinburgh because no one here does.

We hung around the ship’s lounges and I bided my time playing Minesweeper in the business centre since the Internet wasn’t working. At other times during this trip when the Internet wasn’t working I sat at a computer looking at my digital photos, or I sometimes read down there. There is a library on board, and I read there often, yet the business centre had a coffee machine on site.

Lunch was served at 11:30 and I was superstitious about looking at the dinner menu for fear that we’d still be on board come dinnertime. I however felt that there was no chance of getting off the Agulhas today. Rumours spread that the ship was going to head for Gough Island, taking the Gough Relief team of eight scientists down first. That would have meant two additional days at sea and would have been worth it if it allowed the passengers a chance to set foot on Gough. The Gough scientists themselves confirmed that that wasn’t going to happen. We also heard that the weather for Friday wasn’t going to be any better and that we wouldn’t be able to fly to Tristan until Saturday. Saturday! So close to Tristan yet so far.

One rumour we were hearing that was true was that the pilots were going to attempt to fly us to Tristan if there was any letup in the winds. Any window of opportunity, no matter how small, would be used to get the helicopters to the island. We had to be ready to rush down to the helicopter hangar as soon as the announcement was made. No one was expecting to hear any good news when the next announcement came at 16:45, so it aroused quite a commotion when the pilots gave the go-ahead. The first flight would commence in fifteen minutes.

All the passengers returned to their cabins to grab their suitcases and took them to the helicopter hangar. The hangar was a restricted area yet I did manage to see what it looked like inside from the helipad, when the doors from the outside would sometimes be open. I took several helicopter photos while at sea. I helped some passengers with their luggage, including Paul Repetto and his family, since they had an enormous quantity of wrapped boxes and packages. I understand fully well why, as an extended stay in Cape Town affords the opportunity to buy anything and everything they can’t get at the small island supermarket (or “canteen”, as it’s known here).

We moved fast, operating like a well-trained crew. I remained inside the hangar to take photos. When the third flight was called, I went inside to line up as I was on flight number four. You wouldn’t believe it but I had to fill out another waiver before they would give me a life jacket. All I seem to be doing here is absolve others of the responsibility of keeping me alive. Once the form was signed, we entered the helicopter preparation room and got our life jackets and earplugs. My flight had nine passengers and I was the second one in. Seatbelts on and cameras ready, we were suddenly in the air. The pilot had told us that the flight would be over before we even knew it. I could not get any good video or photos once we had taken off and I did not want to miss the flight experience by fussing with my camera, so I turned it off and watched the ocean pass beneath me. The next things I saw were the black rocks on the small Tristan beach, then the grass of American Field. It was over in less than a minute: I was on terra firma of Tristan da Cunha.

We exited the helicopter in rows, so I was next to last to get out in my row. We had been instructed during yesterday’s helicopter safety briefing that once we were on the ground we were to crouch and run on ahead. I couldn’t savour the moment of finally being on Tristan until I was in a safe area far away from the helicopter. Once all the passengers were there, we stood in awe at the Agulhas. A minute ago we were on that ship. And here we were, on Tristan da Cunha, with the volcano behind us and what seemed like the entire island out to see our arrival. It then dawned on me to take off my life jacket, yet I struggled with it more when I removed it than when I put it on.

Here is a photo that shows me stepping onto Tristan from the helicopter. The photo was taken by Murray Crawford:


No tears, no drama, just awe. I turned around to look at Tristan, finding it hard to believe that I was finally here.

I saw Cynthia Green of the tourism department standing nearby with a clipboard. She greeted the passengers and introduced them to their island hosts. She knew exactly who we all were since we had sent in photos of ourselves. Renée Green was my host and we walked through the field to her home. I smiled at everyone I saw standing in the field, leaning against the lava fences, or lining the road. We took a shortcut to the house through other people’s front and backyards, and I met Renée’s husband Shaun and their children Kimberley (Kimi) (15), Janice (12) and Dylan (9). The first thing Renée said to me once we were inside was that their house was my house, and now that I have been here for five days I can genuinely say that she meant it. I can come and go as I please, and there is no need to give me a key to the front door as no one locks his doors on Tristan. I am staying in Dylan’s room, and I do however have a key for his bedroom door because Dylan might want to go inside with a group of his friends where they could trash the place. Renée strongly encouraged me to lock my room door everytime I leave because she did say that Dylan had done that kind of thing before. Who can blame a nine-year-old for wanting to go play in his own room?

Renée asked if I had any food allergies or preferences or dislikes. I was totally honest with them and said that I did not care for lamb. I have never liked lamb and when it was served aboard the Agulhas I opted for the vegetarian dinner since the meat in the lamb dishes looked awful. However I was willing to try it, I told them. Lamb is a meat often served on Tristan since sheep roam in abundance here. I just expressed a polite request that I not be served lamb every night. For supper (the preferred term here for the evening meal) we did in fact have lamb, which, to my surprise tasted delicious. We also had Tristan crayfish or crawfish, which is known elsewhere as Tristan da Cunha rock lobster. Crayfish is regarded as an everyday food here, and no one considers it a delicacy since it is caught and packaged at the harbour factory. It was this factory’s lights that I saw in the distance when we approached Tristan very early this morning. Passengers aboard the Agulhas told me that if I wanted to have crayfish for supper I had to ask for it, as hosts were reluctant to give their guests this “ordinary” food. Much to my delight the Greens had some crayfish ready for supper as well, and I had a genuine Tristan welcome over the supper table with two Tristanian culinary specialties.

After supper I walked around the corner to the Albatross Bar, and went inside to chat with Kobus Potgieter, the CEO of the Tristanian government. I had gotten there only five minutes before closing and the place was practically empty. I saw a large Canadian flag pinned to the wall with two signatures on it, and was told that since I was a Canadian I would have to sign it. A recent Canadian visitor by the nickname of “Foxy” put it up. Everyone gets a nickname here. When I filled out more travel papers on-line from the library in Luxembourg, there was a question asking for my nickname. I replied that I didn’t have one, and hope that my inevitable reputation as the queer dancer won’t saddle me with an unwanted and derogatory name.

Prince Philip Hall, the gathering place that serves as a dance hall and meeting place also has a pool table and there were two people inside playing snooker. The Greens had told me about an upcoming snooker tournament and I wanted to go down to meet some people who might be playing. The hall was closing along with the bar and I met the two snooker players outside. Ann-Marie Collins (who does not have one of the original seven island surnames since her Tristanian mother had married a non-Tristanian) and her fiancé Danny Green and I had a lot to chat about, and Ann-Marie asked if I was a “travel geek”. I suppose I am in some ways, but I wanted to assure her that I didn’t associate Tristan da Cunha with geekiness. I expressed my admiration for the island, its self-sufficiency and history. We got along well, and made plans to see each other at the hall on Saturday since I had revealed my love of dancing. It was with Ann-Marie and her mother Marion whom I danced with on Saturday night.

I walked around the dark settlement, staring at the Agulhas anchored off shore. There weren’t many lights on so I didn’t really know where I was going, but I wanted to get out and see the ocean at night and watch the endless waves. I stumbled across the Residency of the island Administator, known as the “h’admin” with the typical Tristanian aspiration before all vowels. If a visitor pronounces words with the aspirate H he will make an instant friend. I have already heard the members of my host family say “h’other”, “h’airplane” and “h’empty memory stick”. When I got back to my room it was freezing. I later found out that Tristan homes aren’t heated. So I slept in my long-sleeve shirt as I had only brought pajama bottoms with me. I also piled on all the covers and buried myself down deep. My first night on Tristan da Cunha. I couldn’t believe that I would be spending the night on the island. The overwhelming number of tourists visit for just a few hours and then go back to their cruise ships. I will spend 23 nights on this island.

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