In 1506 a Portuguese sea-captain called Tristao da Cunha came across a group of six little islands far out in the Atlantic between South Africa and South America. The largest of them, which he named after himself, has a volcano in the middle. It was the British military, however, who secured the political future of Tristan da Cunha, when, on 14th August 1816 a garrison aboard HMS Falmouth took possession of the island on behalf of King George III. Population slowly formed from members of a temporary British garrison, shipwrecked sailors, and other Europeans, as well as women from other islands. By 1886 there were 97 inhabitants, clustered at the settlement of Edinburgh on Tristan da Cunha.
Every inhabitant of Tristan da Cunha—269, at last count—lives in the island’s only settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. Established in the early 19th century, the village is located on the north coast and home to 70 families, all of whom are farmers. Electricity is supplied by diesel generators. The island’s lone road, a narrow, winding path, is flanked by bungalow-style cottages, potato patches and roaming cows. The looming volcanic cliffs and low-lying mist create a secluded, hazy setting.
For visitors, a stay on Tristan da Cunha might be not be a typical island vacation. There are no restaurants. There are no hotels. Credit cards are not accepted, the beaches are not safe for swimming, and every month brings between 17 and 26 days of rain. Precisely in the middle of the island lies a giant volcano. But Tristan da Cunha is enticing because it offers something that no other island destination can: the most extreme isolation. Located in the South Atlantic Ocean, the 8-mile-wide British overseas territory is the most remote populated island in the world. The nearest mainland city, 1,743 miles east, is Cape Town in South Africa. The journey from there takes seven days by boat—traveling by air is not an option, as there is no airport on the island.
The gateway to the island sits a mere 2800km away in South Africa. Vessels leave from Cape Town to make the often arduous six-day crossing to the island. Boats making the trip vary in the summer months, and the spiffy new SA Agulhas II research vessel visits each September. There are a few cruise ships that visit the Tristan da Cunha islands most years, and others that visit from time to time, usually during island hopping voyages between the islands of the South Atlantic. They normally visit during the austral summer when the weather is better and there is more chance of seeing Tristan wildlife, especially if the visit is timed to coincide with the breeding seasons. As the harbor is too small for ships to dock, passengers land in zodiacs or tenders, although sea conditions may sometimes prevent this. Very large cruise ships tend not to try to land passengers, but islanders will normally come aboard to talk and sell postcards and souvenirs. In any case, the islands and their rugged coasts are sights you will never forget. But for the rest, a rough-and-ready voyage awaits. There are certain cruises which are epic in nature, and are done more for adventure than for comfort for the joy of the unvarnished experience. Eight times a year, cargo and fishing boats leave Cape Town’s gleaming harbor to tackle the rolling waves to Tristan. On board amenities are few – a sole bathroom shared by the half-dozen passenger cabins, a TV room where surprisingly varied meals are served, a couple of chairs on the deck and plenty of banter with the crew heading off to the crayfish-rich waters around Tristan.
Tristan da Cunha is a peaceful, pared-back existence with few anxieties—unless the volcano erupts. Such was the case in 1961, when earthquakes, landslides, and an eruption from one of the north vents sent the entire population fleeing to England via Cape Town. Now that the volcano has calmed down, life on Tristan da Cunha is an exercise in patience and planning. There is a grocery store, but orders must be placed months in advance so the goods can be loaded onto scheduled fishing vessels and delivered. Harsh weather can cause delays by making it impossible to land on the island. A hospital equipped with x-ray machines, a labor ward, operating theater, emergency room and dental treatment facilities takes care of most health concerns, but patients needing more specialized treatment must be evacuated to South Africa or the UK.
In addition to farming, residents sustain themselves by selling souvenirs, handcrafts, and rare Tristan da Cunha postage stamps online. Among the more distinctive souvenirs is the traditional “love socks” knitted by island women—the size and number of stripes on each pair of socks denotes a particular meaning, from “friends forever” to “head over heels in love.”
In a massive win for conservation, the tiny island of Tristan da Cunha is creating a marine protection zone that will make it the largest sanctuary in the Atlantic and the fourth-largest in the world. Except being the most remote inhabited island on Earth (according to the local tourist board and no less an authority than the Guinness Book of World Records), soon Tristan da Cunha will have another unique claim to make when it becomes the largest fully protected marine park in the Atlantic. In November 2020, the government of Tristan da Cunha made the announcement saying that the protected area will span almost 700 000 sq km, making it almost three times larger than the UK, and will protect 90% of the waters around the island chain by making them a “no-take zone,” in which bottom-trawling fishing, deep-sea mining and other harmful activities will be banned. The archipelago is home to many unique species including Southern right whales and their calves, the elusive shepherd’s beak whale, sevengill sharks, the globally-threatened blue-nose albatross, and the Atlantic petrel, as well as 80% of the world’s population of sub-Antarctic fur seals, and 90% of the world’s population of Northern rockhopper penguins. Tens of millions of seabirds feed here too. The sanctuary will go a long way in safeguarding local and visiting wildlife and will help the UK reach its target of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 through its Blue Belt Programme.
Stepping back in time is a big part of travelling to Tristan. In the end, of course, Tristan’s main attraction is its solitude. Walk the lanes of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas (referred to locally as simply ‘The Settlement’), seek out the resident rockhopper penguins with their striking carnival-like plumage, or sit and chat with affable locals over tea and cake. The journey to get here might be a little grueling, but then no one ever said that time travel would be easy.