Sunday, 20 March 2016

Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands

In the previous post in this series Tristan da Cunha (part 2), I described my afternoon exploring the Settlement, which left me quite tired. The next day was to prove no easier ...

Before we sailed away from Tristan da Cunha on Tuesday, about six of the Island men came aboard to act as guides the following day. Exhausted from my exertions on the Island, I took a quiet dinner in my cabin (which Silversea call a ‘suite’, to remind everybody how upmarket they are). The ship sailed for around a hour and a half to a sheltered anchorage off Nightingale Island where we spent the night.

Wednesday, 16th March 2016: Nightingale Island

The Island is the remnant of a volcanic cone, now only 36 Hectares in area. The name has no connection with birds but was so named in 1760 after Captain Gamaliel Nightingale. The people of Tristan de Cunha have traditionally visited Nightingale Island and the Tristanian guides were to provide advice to the expedition team on places where Zodiacs might land.

It was decided that the landing place with easy walking to the Rockhopper penguin rookery was unsuitable because of the sea conditions but that an alternative “back door” landing place was feasible. Unfortunately, this landing involved climbing over slippery rocks followed by a stiff climb assisted by ropes to use as a ‘handrail’. At the end of the climb, a trek through tussock grass would lead down, on the other side of the island to the penguin colony itself. Because of this increased difficulty, the expedition leader offered three options – land and definitely reach the penguins, land and at least attempt to reach the penguins or take a Zodiac ride, viewing the colony from the sea. I elected for the middle option, along with over half of the passengers.

When my turn for the Zodiac ride came, I discovered that the landing place was a small, protected cove where we stepped out directly onto the rock. A short length of carpet had been placed on the slipperly rock and there were willing hands to help passengers ashore. There was very little space on the rock so the climb started almost immediately. It was perhaps fortunate that I was unable to assess the problems of ascending the muddy gulley before commencing the climb. We were told only grasp green tussock grass for support (brown might give way) and make use of the rope lying alongside the route.

On the more vertiginous stretches, expedition team members or our Tristanian guides were positioned to help but I found it a tough scramble and was relieved to arrive at fairly level ground. There was a fairly clear undulating path to follow through tussock grass eight to ten feet tall. Eventually, the path descended and we were on a rock platform above the sea with Rockhopper penguins all around. Rockhoppers are crested penguins (similar to the Macaronis we’d seen earlier in the trip) and always manage to look as if they’re dressed up for a party. Before too long, we were making our way back.

On the return we passed various birds. The thrushes ran across the path or clung onto the tussock grass. The seabirds, even as chicks, impressed with their sheer size. The yellow-nosed albatross (called locally ‘molly’) breeds on the island. The wingspan of this bird can be 8 feet! One example, setting on a rock at the side of the path, showed its indifference to the strange visitors by continuing to stare seawards as we passed within a few inches.

I don’t think any of the group were relishing the descent of the gulley to get back to the landing place – I certainly wasn’t. Coming down backwards clutching the rope was recommended but, of course, this made it hard to see the route and decide where to place feet so my descent involved a lot of sliding in the muddy sections holding grimly onto the rope. I arrived back at the landing place with only minor scratches to my knuckles, which I discovered a number of the passengers sustained.

Whilst waiting to be picked up by the Zodiac, we watched the antics of the fur seals. The sea had eroded a deep chamber in the rock at one point which, for some reason, reminded me of a washing machine drum. Certainly, it fascinated the fur seals – in turn, I noticed a number clamber into the ‘drum’ and apparently delight as the sea alternately filled and emptied the chamber. As the Zodiac bounced over the waves back to the ship, I looked back at the route we’d taken up the gully and could scarcely believe what I’d accomplished. Back on board, I later discovered that, of the more than 50 people who selected the climb, two had realised on seeing the gully that it was ‘not for them’ and everyone else had completed the climb.

Wednesday, 16th March 2016: Inaccessible Island

Once everyone was safely on board, the ship moved to nearby Inaccessible Island where it anchored offshore. Somewhat audaciously, the expedition leader had decided to attempt a landing. The scout boats went out to set up a beach landing site. As the tide turned, conditions deteriorated but the team experimented for some time with different landing positions or with a ‘reversed landing’ with the stern of the Zodiac (rather than the bow) hauled onto the stone beach. After various attempts to find a safe method of landing the passengers, the expedition leader was forced to conclude that, once again, the Island had lived up to its name and the landing was cancelled.

Next, the ship cruised back to Tristan da Cunha so that we could return our new friends, the Tristanian guides, back to their homw. It was dusk as a Zodiac ferried them back to Calshot Harbour and, as the street lights were turned on in the Settlement, it was a magical site. Tristan has mains electricity (as far as I know, produced by package generators near the Fish Factory). Distribution by overhead cables has been replaced by buried cable and a set of modern street lighting has been provided.

Although Gough Island is part of the Tristan da Cunha group, it is some 160 miles away from the main island, so we sailed through the night to reach this rocky outpost.

All my posts on this trip can be found here.

My pictures

Since internet service resumed on the ship, I’ve added a few more pictures each day to the album South Atlantic Voyage, but most of them will not be uploaded until I return to the U.K.