Tristan da Cunha
According to writer Simon Winchester, Tristan da Cunha is the most isolated, permanently-populated island in the world. And to say it's a curious place may be an understatement. He should know. He's been banned from stepping foot on it.
Tristan da Cunha is a small cluster of volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean, 1,750 miles from the nearest land, South Africa. It's also the name of the main island, which is a mere 38 square miles in size. The islands were discovered in 1506 by Portuguese sailor Tristao da Cunha, but rough seas prevented his landing there. Three hundred years later, the British officially colonized the islands, and are still there to this day.
The main settlement, Edinburgh of the Seas, was threatened by a volcanic eruption in 1961, forcing all of its residents, 200 or so (mostly descended from some 15 ancestors), to evacuate to England. At that time they communicated with the outside world only by Morse code. They returned to the islands two years later, having seen everything from TV to motor cars. In 2005, they were given a postcode by the Royal Mail, to facilitate internet shopping. But, on the whole, life on Tristan da Cunha remains as it ever was – gentle, slow, a little quaint.
Now back to Mr Winchester… Upon visiting the islands in the Eighties, he learned of a young Naval officer who fell in love with a local girl. An ensuing book featured excerpts from the officer's writings about the romance, and the islanders took action. For betraying their closely-guarded secret to the world, he was blacklisted.
After being turned away on two visits, he now admits, he rather sympathizes with their decision. An intensely private people, they had asked him not to divulge their secret, but he had gone ahead anyway.
'Travel,' he says, 'brings with it many responsibilities: not to damage the environment, to “take only pictures, leave only footprints” as the mantra has it. But we, in our clumsy outsider way can unwittingly do other and less obvious damage too, like imposing, breaching codes, violating secrets.
'I have to conclude that a quarter of a century ago I did so too. So melancholy though it may be for me, I am inclined to believe that I have been given a late-term lesson in the ethics of tourism and that the people of Tristan, in obliging me to stay away and remain here, were quite probably… absolutely right.'
A humbling lesson for us all. RM