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Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Ultimate Getaway

Some people go to the lake. Some to the beach. Others to the mountains or desert. But Mike recently read about an island that just might be paradise. You can visit, but don’t plan on falling in love with it and moving there. It’s against the law.

Tristan de Cunha is hailed as the most remote inhabited island in the world. It is a volcanic outcropping in the south Atlantic, 1,750 miles from the nearest land –South Africa. In the other direction, South America lies 2,090 miles away.

Tristan is one of four islands in the archipelago, and it’s the sole inhabited speck, crowned with a mountain peak capped in snow nearly year-round. It consists of 38 square miles – mostly volcanic rock. Only a sliver of land along the coast is inhabitable and another slice of land is available for farming and grazing livestock. Tristan is part of the British overseas territories.

Discovered in 1811, the Scotsman hailed as its founder is
Corporal William Glass, who returned to the island in 1816 with his wife and two children following his tour of duty there with the British garrison, Two white companions and a black woman made the trip with the Glass family.

As time went by, Glass was joined by sailors from passing ships and shipwrecks and “imported” women. They and their descendants compose the island’s seven founding families who have lived there ever since. Because of its remoteness and controlled immigration, most Tristanians bear one of seven surnames of the founders. And, because of intermarriage, many look strikingly similar -- tall with pale brown skin.

The population remains stable, varying between 270 and 300.

The primary sources of income are crawfish fishing and exporting, along with the sale of postage stamps and coins from the most remote settlement on the seas. Only an approximate 40 men qualify as fishermen and they can only take to the rough Atlantic waters on the 65-70 days each year when the weather calms the seas sufficiently for their boats to safely enter.

In addition to the quaint cottages we’d find on an island tour, we’d also see the British administrator’s office, two churches, an Internet cafĂ©, a pub, a shop, a supermarket, golf course, swimming pool, and post office. In the missing column would be a movie theater, restaurant and traffic lights.

There is one police officer and three special constables. In my reading, there was no mention of a jail. Just imagine the peace and tranquility!

Tristan has one school, St. Mary’s, which minimally educates the island’s children from age three to 15. As a concession to the 21st century, the school contains a computer room.

Health care is free, but, with just one resident doctor from South Africa and five nurses, the care is limited and serious cases require signaling passing fishing vessels to transport the patient and family to Cape Town for more extensive treatment.

Television did not arrive until 2001, and only one British channel broadcast from the Falklands in available.

It’s difficult to imagine the old-fashioned simplicity of this tiny land where the elders still speak in thee’s and thou’s. Women fill the clerical and shopkeeing jobs. The men are tradesmen who double as farmers, and some of whom double again as fishermen. Oh yes, and of course there are some government employees. Women also knit sweaters and socks from the abundant wool. Each family does its own butchering and baking.

All Tristan families are farmers and own their livestock. All land, however, is communally owned. Livestock numbers are strictly controlled to conserve pasture and to prevent better-off families from accumulating wealth. No outsiders are allowed to buy land or settle on Tristan.

If it looks like a commune and walks like a commune . . .

The charm and olde ways of Tristan present a mixed bag of positives and negatives, but the inhabitants are clearly devoted to their homeland.

The test came in 1961 when the volcano they call home suddenly exploded, assaulting the settlement with rocks, lava and fire until the entire population could be evacuated and moved to England where they were resettled at an unused army base. After two years of exposure to – or perhaps a different kind of assault from -- all the elements of modern life that they’d never experienced, the group was homesick and voted almost unanimously to return to Tristan.

And there they remain.

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