An amazing “family reunion” trip to island of Tristan da Cunha

August 30, 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

“We sailed on my 71st birthday in 2006,” related Heather Broadbent, laughing as she told us, “Later they gave me a hard time for not telling them it was my birthday because we could have had a party.”

She was bound off the southern most edge of the west coast of South Africa for the very remote Island of Tristan da Cunha aboard the RMS St Helena. To get that far, she had had to fly to London, England and then to Cape Town, South Africa, where she caught the ship.

Tristan da Cunha is the most remote island in the world, a volcanic island on the southern end of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the longest mountain range on the planet, running under the Atlantic Ocean. At the time of Ms Broadbent’s visit, there were less than 300 residents on the island, as they are now. Many of them were friends of hers which is why she was visiting the place.

Here is how those friendships started. In 1961, the volcano on Tristan erupted and flowed down over the only settlement, population 270.

Ms Broadbent told the story. “They were brought to Britain and started looking for work right away. There was an RAF barracks and married quarters near where we livcd, where they were housed and right away, people around were coming with furniture, bedding, household goods, clothes to settle them in.

“We were all asked to go and knock on their doors and say hello, see what we could do for them. So, I went there and knocked on a door and there were Ned and Dolly Green.

“Contrary to the grumbles that these people would be a burden to the neighbourhood, They were very keen to work, not too bothered about what work, so long as they were contributing to the community. So, they cleaned the streets and did whatever jobs they could find.”

While some of the Tristans had made connections in Britain and were committed to staying, many of them had reached the point where they had wearied of “civilization” in Britain and wanted to go home to their island. They began pressing the government to send them home and had met with resistance.

However, one evening, one of them, an older man who had been the chief of police on Tristan but had taken a job in security, was mugged on his way back to his home by a couple of young thugs, who stole his pay packet from him.

That was enough for the Tristans – an old man robbed of his pay by a couple of rough teenagers? It was enough. Facing the reluctance of the government, they made their own arrangements and returned to their home in the southern mid-Atlantic.

Thus, Ned and Dolly Green and their children and grandchildren continued the friendships they had made over all the years from 1961. After such a long time, Ms Broadbent went to see them, in 2006, for the 500th Anniversary of the discovery of the island. It was the Portuguese who happened upon it and named it after their Admiral of the fleet, Tristan da Cunha.

The voyage into the middle of the Atlantic was an adventure in itself, for the wildlife and the vistas of endless rolling ocean.

She commented, “We saw penguins and albatross. One night a female bird was confused by the lights of the ship and she landed on the deck. They’re used to that so they have a box ready for her. They kept her in it all night. When they let her go in the morning, her mate was still flying with the ship, waiting for her.”

Travelling to Cape Town was perhaps, the less challenging of the voyage, for after five and a half days on the ocean, their ship hauled up near Tristan but could not dock there. Being part of a mountain range, there is no deep water harbour possible on the island and so, small boats go out to meet the ships and bring in passengers, goods  and mail.

It is a process, whereby a passenger has to descend a rope ladder with wood slats and, as Ms Broadbent described it, “When the sailor tells you to let go of the rope – you let go!”

There was a call over the loudspeaker on the ship: “Would Heather Broadbent come to the master’s office.”

“I wondered what I had done,” she recalled, “When I got there, there was Dolly’s grandson, standing on the deck, smiling from ear to ear, he gave me the biggest hug. And instructions about the boat waiting to take me to the island.”

At last, it was the moment for them to go down the rope ladder, a shout came up – “Heather first!” she began the climb down, ready to release that rope when she was told to do so, waiting and ready – when a strong arm wrapped itself around her waist and hauled her safely onto the small boat – “Hello, Heather!” said the arm’s owner – another dear friend.

Finally on shore, greeted so warmly by Ned and Dolly and many others, she began to walk up the hill only to find the ground bouncing under her feet- it was she, in fact, who was bouncing, from being on board ship for nearly a week, the disorientation of motion sickness hit her.

They had a week together. Visiting, joining in with birthday parties, laughing , catching up on all those years. Remembering England and the time in between.

“Everyone was so nice and hospitable. I had taught the girls to jive and they got it pretty quickly but the boys were slower to pick it up.”

The main settlement on Tristan is named Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. They had an entertainment room there, where parties and functions are held.

“The building are constructed of stone,  of which there is plenty. They used to have roofs covered with rushes but that really didn’t work well so now they import metal for the roofs and that’s much better.”

Only a week and Heather was back up the rope ladder and on her long return trip to Canada, with a stop over in Britain to visit family there. For the value, her time in Tristan da Cunha, it seemed much longer. Friendship can run so deeply that it ignores time and distance. When the distance is taken away, friendship rejoices.

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