Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Wish You Were Here?

IN Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, Sara Wheeler flies to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, on her way to Rothera, the base of the British Antarctic Survey on the Antarctic Peninsula. As they pull up in Stanley, a panel of judges reveal their scores for the landing - Strictly Come Dancing-style marks out of ten on big pieces of cardboard.

Sometimes when I get bored, I go to Opodo, the flight website. It helps me dream about exotic locations while simultaneously wishing I had more money. Opodo doesn't do budget fares. But what it does do is plan routes expertly and unexpectedly. The game is to try and trick the search engine. What airport is too obscure for it? It will get you from London to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in two stops. It can easily get you to Malé, the capital of the Maldives, via Germany or Qatar. It will even get you from Heathrow to Lukla, a tiny airstrip built by Sir Edmund Hillary on the edge of a Nepalese mountain.

Today I got distracted by Opodo. I started by searching for Malé, which got me thinking about island nations. Disappointingly, Opodo cannot find any valid routes to South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands. With a population of about 20 people, I suppose that this is not surprising, but it is included on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, although the entry for this territory rather amusingly states that "there is a low threat from terrorism".

South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands is just one of several forgotten British colonies, one of those claimed by Captain Cook. But although we hear about Australia frequently, and the recent change in government in New Zealand made the British newspapers, when was the last time you heard about Anguilla, or Caicos?

It turns out that there are 13 remaining British-ruled 'Cook' colonies. You might not have ever heard of some of them.

Anguilla has a population of 10,000. Separated from St Kitts & Nevis in 1980, it is a popular tourist destination. Bermuda, famous for its triangles, has a population of 60,000, and is the oldest British colony. The British Antarctic Territory has no permanent population (except penguins). The British Indian Ocean Territory is a UK and US naval operations centre with a population of 3,000. There's the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falklands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, the Pitcairn Islands (rather vaguely "between Panama and New Zealand"), St Helena, South Georgia and the Turks and Caicos Islands, formerly owned by Jamaica. All of these countries are populated by British citizens.

I had never heard of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Also known as the Chagos Islands, this is an archipelago of over 1,000 islands over 6 atolls. The capital, Diego Garcia (see picture), is a joint UK/US naval base, built in 1971 for the mutual benefit of both countries (2,000 native peoples were relocated to Mauritius; by British law they cannot yet come back). It was strategically significant in countering the Soviet threat, and has since been used as a base for operations in the Gulf War of 1991 and subsequent activity in Afghanistan and Iraq (and presumably current efforts to combat piracy in the Indian Ocean). The yanks have to ask for our permission to use the colony, but we have to return the lands to Mauritius once we're done with them.

What really got me excited today (when I should have been doing some work) was Tristan da Cunha. Technically, this is part of St Helena (as is Ascension Island), but Tristan da Cunha is 1,509 miles to the South of St Helena and 1,743 miles from Cape Town, the nearest mainland city. It is the most remote archipelago in the world, and 267 British citizens call it their home.

In truth, I have always been excited about Tristan da Cunha: from early geography lessons when, like the geek that I am, I would study the world map in my spare time. Here was this exotic-sounding island in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and just next to its name, in parentheses, was "U.K.". How exciting for my country to own this mystifying land!

Today, I vowed to myself to go to Tristan da Cunha.

The trouble is, Opodo can't get me there. You have to sail from Cape Town on one of several fishing vessels, which leave on average once a month, or on the annual cruise aboard the SA Agulhas, a South African polar research vessel.

But once there, just imagine! I could pretend that I yearn for solitude and a peaceful way of life because of the stresses of the busyness of life in London - but in truth, I don't need to be in London to feel like that. Tristan da Cunha's capital, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, seems to be essentially a fishing community on the edge of the world, where village life is the name of the game. For some such isolation would be torture, but for me it sounds amazing - life there is surely about the people and their character.

Named after Admiral Tristao da Cunha of the Portuguese Navy, the country was on the 'maritime motorway' used by the Dutch East India Company in the seventeenth century. It was renamed the Islands of Refreshment by Jonathon Lambert from Salem, Massachusetts, in 1810, but Lambert drowned in a fishing accident three years later. The British have had possession since 1816, claimed for George III.

In 1961, the volcano at the centre of the main island of Tristan (the other islands are called Nightingale Island, Gough Island and, delightfully, Inaccessible Island) began to threaten to erupt. By October the island needed to be evacuated, and all 264 islanders were relocated... to Southampton, England. In 1962 a Royal Society expedition studied the impact of the eruption and found Edinburgh largely untouched. Contrary to the plans of the British government, who had assumed the evacuation to be permanent, 198 islanders decided to return. They escaped the 'swinging sixties' and repopulated their home.

Now Tristan da Cunha is a farming, fishing and stamp-collecting nation, the only overseas island to have its own British postcode (TDCU 1ZZ) and its harbour was recently restored by an emergency MoD Joint Task Force.

Frankly, life in the most remote community in the world seems to be truly exciting. How wonderful that it is a part of Britain.

Sources: BBC News, Wikipedia, tristandc.com, tripatlas.com, MoD

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