The Waters Are Wide: A Journey to Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha: where the post office doubles as a nightclub and potatoes aren’t just for dinner—they’re also for postage.

It’s the only place on Earth where ‘remote working’ could mean sending an email or rowing to the next island for a chat.

If solitude had a capital, Tristan would be its bustling metropolis.

Some call it “The Loneliest Place on Earth”.

This British documentary from 1989 (narrated by John Heminway) is the best doc I’ve seen on Tristan.

Heminway is corny, but it seems to work with the story of this amazing destination.

The documentary is called both “Tristan da Cunha – No Place Like Home” and “The Waters Are Wide: A Journey to Tristan da Cunha” (24th October 1989).

You can watch the Tristan da Cunha doc for free on YouTube by clicking the embed above or going here:

Journey to Tristan Highlights

Here are some highlights of the Tristan doc, including facts outside the film:

How to get to Tristan da Cunha

The only scheduled way to reach Tristan da Cunha is on board the Royal Mail ship St. Helena, a rough and tumble converted coaster.”

Another method is via the South African research vessel, the SA Agulhas II, which makes just a few trips to the island each year. That’s primarily for logistical support to the island’s community and research missions.

Additionally, fishing vessels and occasional cruise ships might offer a route to Tristan da Cunha, but these are less frequent. They require careful coordination with the ship operators.

The SA Agulhas II typically travels to Tristan da Cunha a few times a year, with the journey often scheduled around the island’s supply needs and research expeditions.

Exact frequencies and schedules can vary year by year, so it’s essential to contact the Tristan da Cunha administration or the shipping company for the most current information.

Travelers to Tristan should obtain permission to land on the island from the Tristan da Cunha government.

There have been some famous travelers to Tristan.

On January 2, 1954, science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein and his wife Ginny, stopped at Tristan da Cunha on their way to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

They traveled on the Dutch passenger-cargo liner Willem Ruys). This encounter is detailed in Heinlein’s book “Tramp Royale.”

During the visit, the ship’s captain remarked to Heinlein that Tristan da Cunha was the most isolated populated place on the planet.

Intrigued by the island’s uniqueness, Heinlein sent a letter to his friend and fellow traveler L. Ron Hubbard, keen on obtaining the distinctive postmark.

William H. Patterson, Jr., in his biography “Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue with his Century,” noted the visitors found it difficult to engage with the local residents.

The ship’s crew, seizing the opportunity, purchased penguins during their short stay.

Size of Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha, the main island of the Tristan da Cunha archipelago, covers an area of about 98 square kilometers (38 square miles).

The island is roughly circular in shape, with a diameter of about 11 kilometers (7 miles). It’s about 7,000 feet high

Tristan da Cunha Weather

Weather conditions on Tristan can be “so violent that even the harbor is no protection for a fishing boat.”

Yet the island sees relatively mild temperatures month to month.

Some Tristan weather highlights:

  • Temperature: The island sees relatively mild temperatures year-round. Temp ranges from 5°C (41°F) to 14°C to 20°C (68°F).
  • Rainfall: Tristan da Cunha receives a significant amount of rainfall, spread throughout the year, with no distinct dry season. The annual rainfall averages around 1,600 mm (63 inches). The wettest months are typically March and April, while the driest are September and October.
  • Wind: The island is known for its strong and persistent winds, especially from the west. Wind speeds can vary, but gales are not uncommon, particularly during the winter months.
  • Fog: Fog can occur at any time of the year, but it is most common during the summer and autumn months. This can reduce visibility significantly, affecting both travel and daily activities on the island.

In summer, which spans from December to February on Tristan da Cunha, the weather is relatively mild and more stable compared to other seasons, but still unpredictable.

Here are the summer-specific details:

  • Temperature: Average temperatures range between 15°C (59°F) and 20°C (68°F), making it the warmest time of the year on the island.
  • Rainfall: While the island receives rainfall throughout the year, summer tends to be slightly drier than the peak rainy seasons of March and April. However, occasional showers and persistent drizzle can still occur.
  • Wind: Summer experiences somewhat milder winds compared to the gustier conditions of winter. However, breezy conditions are still common, with winds predominantly coming from the southeast.
  • Fog: Fog is frequent in the summer months, particularly in the early mornings and late evenings, which can obscure visibility.

The Tristan da Cunha Volcano & Evacuation

On 10 October 1961, Queen Mary’s Peak’s parasitic cone erupted. This event, occurring very near to Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, necessitated the evacuation of all 264 residents.

They escaped by sea in open boats, aided by the local lobster-fishing vessels, Tristania and Frances Repetto. Those ships transported them to the deserted Nightingale Island.

On the following day, the Dutch passenger ship Tjisadane, rerouted to their aid, picked them up and ferried them to Cape Town. Subsequently, the evacuees were transported to the U.K. on the liner M.V. Stirling Castle, where they received considerable media attention. They spent a brief period at Pendell Army Camp in Merstham, Surrey, before being relocated to a former Royal Air Force camp near Calshot, Hampshire.

In 1962, a Royal Society expedition found Edinburgh of the Seven Seas largely unscathed. By 1963, the majority of the families had made their return.

Tristan Stamps

The world’s most remote inhabited archipelago naturally produces items of unique interest, including its postage stamps.

Their limited editions, due to the island’s small population and isolation, are particularly sought after by collectors.

This includes the unique story of the legendary “potato stamps” crafted in 1941 when the island was cut off during World War II, leading to a shortage of official postage.

Islanders used potatoes to carve out stamp designs, creating a makeshift postal system that kept communication alive.

These potato stamps are a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of the Tristan da Cunha community.

In general, the Tristan stamps offer vibrant designs showcasing the island’s wildlife, landscapes, and key historical events.

Napoleon Died on Tristan da Cunha

Napoleon passed away at the age of 51 on the island of St. Helena, located in the territory of Longwood, Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha. Exiled from France, his cherished homeland, and stripped of power, his health deteriorated over several months leading up to May 5, 1821.

Inbreeding on Tristan

The story of inbreeding on Tristan da Cunha is closely tied to the island’s unique history and its geographical isolation.

William Glass of Scotland and his family settled in 1817.

Over time, the population grew as additional settlers and some women from the island of St. Helena joined the community.

However, due to its remoteness, the island remained genetically isolated for many years.

The current population of Tristan da Cunha is thought to have descended from only seven females and eight males, leading to a situation where today there are seven family names in use.

Other Cool Tristan Factoids from the Doc:

  • Dentistry — They have no dentist so an outside dentist visits Tristan da Cunha only once every two years.
  • Fishing is the Main Industry — Fishing is the primary occupation: “…fishing not only subsidizes the island, it’s at the heart of the island’s soul, for every island man is deep down a fisherman.”

Thanks for reading!

Rob Kelly

Chief Maniac, Daily Doc