Tristan da Cunha refers both to an archipelago of fairly small islands in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean and to the only inhabited island of the group. It is part of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha—a territory of the United Kingdom—together with Saint Helena and Ascension, which lie over 2,000 km to the north. Politically, Tristan da Cunha refers to Tristan da Cunha Island, Inaccessible Island, Nightingale Island, relatively nearby Gough Island, and a dozen or so islets near these islands.
The main body of this article deals with Tristan da Cunha Island; the other islands are covered in "Nearby" at the bottom of the page.
Tristan da Cunha is the most remote archipelago in the world, while the main island (also known as Tristan da Cunha) is the most remote inhabited island in the world. The nearest speck of land not part of the archipelago, Saint Helena, is a whopping 2430 km (1509 mi) away, and it's over 2816 km (1750 mi) to the nearest continent, Africa.
The entire population of some 270 inhabitants is concentrated on the only flat bit of this volcanic landmass, the hamlet of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas on the main island, recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the most isolated human settlement in the world. There are a few other islands in the archipelago, all uninhabited: Inaccessible Island, Nightingale Island, Middle Island and Stoltenhoff Island. Gough Island, some 300 km away, hosts a weather and scientific research outpost.
The islands were discovered in 1506 by the Portuguese captain Tristão da Cunha, who named the main island after himself.
The first recorded landing, for provisions, was in 1643 by the crew of the Dutch Heemstede. The islands were on the preferred routes for sailing ships from Europe to the Indian Ocean, and thus of interest; the Dutch East India Company mounted two expeditions to the island. The English and French followed. Nightingale Island was named by a British officer, likewise after himself. No base was built though, by any of them, probably because of lack of a safe harbour.
In 1790–91 an English crew lived on the island hunting seals. Also American whalers frequented the waters. A few Americans settled 1810. During the war against Britain, Americans used the island as a base. Because of this and to prevent the French from freeing Napoleon on St Helena, the islands were occupied by a garrison of British Marines.
When the garrison left in 1817, a corporal and his family stayed. A civilian population of mixed backgrounds was gradually built up. Whalers used the islands as a base.
The American Civil War hit whaling hard. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the move from sailing ships to steam ships made the islands isolated, as they were no longer on an important trade route. The year 1885 was a disaster for the residents: poor weather had made them short of food, a boat with most of the male population on board was lost and rats surviving from a shipwreck rendered growing of wheat impossible. The majority preferred to remain.
During World War II, the islands were used as a top secret Royal Navy weather and radio station codenamed HMS Atlantic Isle, to monitor U Boats and German shipping.
An eruption of Queen Mary's Peak forced the evacuation of the entire population from 1961 to 1963, to a site near Southampton.
Travel to Tristan da Cunha requires careful planning, often more than a year before a visit. There is no airstrip on the island; all visitors must arrive by boat. There are no entry restrictions based on nationality and, while the island requires an application (which must be approved), there are no "visas" for entry to Tristan da Cunha. Prior to booking passage all visitors to Tristan da Cunha must receive permission from the Tristan Government. Write an email to email@example.com and specify the proposed dates of your visit, preferred passage (name of vessel), type of accommodation sought, nationality, age, and the full purpose of your visit. A Police Certificate (official record of your criminal history, or lack thereof) may be requested. If you are a journalist or intend to publish any work as a result of your stay, you must declare so in your application. Film makers must apply for a permit (limited permits are available), have their intentions approved by the Island Council, and are subject to a £5,000 fee. All visitors must agree to and abide by an extensive list of terms & conditions to visit the island.
Visitors are the lowest priority for passage on vessels and may be forced to forfeit their passage to persons with a higher priority (medical evacuation, officials on official business, even locals leaving on holiday have higher priority). When planning a visit, consider a departure when several other vessels will be departing soon thereafter to avoid being stuck on the island if forced to forfeit your departing passage.
It takes five to ten days (depending on the weather and ship) to travel the 2810 kilometres from Cape Town. The South African polar research ship SA Agulhas and the fishing vessels Edinburgh and Baltic Trader do the voyage between Cape Town and Tristan da Cunha several times every year. A return ticket on Agulhas is about US$1,300, a return ticket on one of the fishing vessels is US$800. Schedules and further information is available on the official Tristan da Cunha website.
Oceanwide Expeditions offers a cruise to Tristan da Cunha and other remote islands in March–April.
Arriving by yacht or personal vessel
Radio: Channel 14, 16 and 78. HFSSB 4000 / 4149 / 6230 / 8294mhz
Hours: mid-morning to 19:00 GST (1 Oct-31 May), mid-morning to 17:00 GST (1 Jun-31 Sep); closed at various times to permit local fishing vessel operations
Anchorage: near 37°03.10'S/12°18.60'W or 37°03.04'S/12°17.85'W (with clearance from Harbourmaster)
Communications Officer (Tristan Radio Zoe): +44 20 3014-2034, +44 20 3014-5024 (after hours), or firstname.lastname@example.org
Visiting vessels are strictly prohibited from anchoring overnight off Gough, Inaccessible or Nightingale Islands!
Advance arrangements should be made by contacting the Police Department at +44 20 3014-2010 (telephone), +44 20 3014-2020 (fax), or email@example.com. Tristan Radio serves as the coastal radio for Tristan da Cunha Island and the port at Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. Communication with Tristan Radio must be established prior to arrival on VHF: Channel 14, 16 and 78. HFSSB 4000 / 4149 / 6230 / 8294mhz. The Communications Officer (Tristan Radio Zoe) can be reached at +44 20 3014-2034, +44 20 3014-5024 (after hours), or firstname.lastname@example.org. Vessels which have not made prior arrangements to call at Tristan with the Police Department must obtain clearance from the Harbourmaster, Medical Officer and Immigration Officer through Tristan Radio before anchoring or disembarking passengers or crew.
Visiting vessels must obtain clearance from the Harbourmaster to anchor off Tristan da Cunha Island, in open anchorage near 37°03.10'S/12°18.60'W or 37°03.04'S/12°17.85'W (maximum depth 50-100 m, due to shelving bottom). Aluminium anchors are generally ineffective in Tristan Harbour. Due to wildlife conservation measures, visiting vessels are prohibited from anchoring overnight off Gough, Inaccessible or Nightingale Islands. The Harbour is closed to visiting vessels after 19:00 GMT (1 Oct - 31 May), 17:00 GMT (1 Apr - 31 Sep), early mornings, late afternoons, and at various other times at the Harbourmaster's discretion to allow local vessels to operate in/out of the harbour.
The Visits Liaison Officer will arrange for an official party to board visiting vessels and complete local clearance procedures prior to the disembarkation of passengers or crew. All visitors must hold a valid passport and obtain permission to land by having a landing stamp inserted in their passport. The landing fee for yacht passengers is £15. If unable to transfer from anchorage to shore, a small RIB and crew can be hired for ship-to-shore £75 per day. There is a strict ban on the import (without permit) of any living or dead animal or plant.
Information from the Tristan government for visiting vessels may be found here .
Walking is the most common method of getting around Tristan da Cunha Island and the only way of moving about any of the outer islands. Due to rugged, steep terrain, going all the way around the island is difficult, but if you are just staying in the village of Tristan, the flat, grassy ground there is easy to manage.
There is a paved road (the M1) from Edinburgh (aka The Settlement) to the Potato Patches, which are about 3 miles away. There are no vehicles for hire on Tristan; however, local transport is available to the Potato Patches. This local transport could be an islander's car, tractor, and during the mornings a bus service also operates. The bus is targeted at pensioners, who can use it for free. The charge is £5 return  .
There is generally rugged terrain, which has several types of more or less harsh beauty, as you can see from some of the photos on this page.
These islands are home to rare birds, including the Tristan thrush; the Inaccessible Island rail, which is flightless; and the northern rockhopper penguin.
The Island organizes fishing excursions, walks, climbs and even golf for visitors. Once again, consult their website for more information.
- Climb the volcano – this is very weather-dependent, but on a clear day you may be able to reach either "First Base" (the plateau above the settlement) or even Queen Mary's Peak (the summit). A guide is required and costs (shared by all hikers): £200 for a trip to the peak or £120 (2 guides) or £60 (one guide) to the base.
- Visit the fish factory – tours of the island's fish processing factory are often available to visitors.
Exchange rates for British pounds
As of Jan 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from xe.com
The currency of the islands is the Pound sterling (£). Credit cards and personal cheques are not accepted. Travellers cheques, euros, US dollars, and South African rand may be exchanged at the treasury in the Administration Building.
A handicrafts and souvenirs store is located in the Tourism Centre.
Handicrafts and souvenirs are also available in the Island Store and, during cruise ship visits, may be available in the Café, Prince Philip Hall Community Centre, and some local homes.
Eat and drink
The only public place available is the Prince Philip Hall which occasionally serves food, the building also houses the Albatross Bar, which is the island's only pub. Opening hours are sketchy to say the least, and the only time it's very likely to be open is when cruise ships are docked at the island. If you are hungry and the hall is closed, the only other option is the Island shop.
The Post Office also houses a small café, serving tea, filter coffee and cakes.
Self-catering accommodation is £20 per night, while home stays, which include meals and laundry, cost £40 per night. There are discounts for Tristan Islanders and children. Booking information is available on the Island's official website.
Tap water is filtered from a spring and is safe and pleasant to drink.
- There is no mobile phone network on the island (nor will you have had signal for the last week after you lost sight of Cape Town)
- The Internet Cafe houses a number of PCs and spaces to use your own laptop, and costs £10 for visitors for the duration of their stay. Internet access for the island is via a satellite link, so the 3 Mbps connection is shared between everyone—don't expect it to be fast at 09:00 on a Monday morning.
- A payphone is available in the Internet Cafe, and you'll need to ask for it to be unlocked if you wish to use it.
- Post can be sent from the Post Office, or the post box just outside, but will likely travel back with you on the same ship as you are on. Expect it to take a couple of weeks to arrive at its destination. Last posting dates for each ship are advertised at the Post Office when known.
Visitors are welcome to attend Sunday morning services at St Mary's Anglican Church (08:00) and St Joseph's Catholic Church (09:00).
Public toilets can be found adjacent to the Café, in Prince Philip Hall, below the Council Chamber in the Administration Building and in the Post Office and Tourism Centre.
Despite the name, it is possible to visit the island. Only visitors escorted by guides from Tristan da Cunha are permitted to visit the island, and most visitors come as part of a cruise ship itinerary. There are no permanent settlements on the island and you should bring your own food or drinks. Along with (relatively) nearby Gough Island, Inaccessible Island was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
Some 38 km (24 mi) southwest of Tristan da Cunha is Nightingale Island, flanked on the north by two small islands—Stoltenhoff Island & Alex Island—both roughly 0.5 km in diameter and under 100 m high. The islands are an important breeding ground for up to 6 million migratory birds at a time (that's 2.6 birds/m²), which are the primary sight here. Nightingale is a volcanic island, which experienced its first eruption (undersea) in over 30,000 years in 2004. In the centre of Nightingale lay four small ponds (an area known as "The Ponds"). Cliffs ring much of this tiny island, the smallest of the Tristan da Cunha group at barely 2 km in diameter, but a landing can be made on the northern coast on the channel between Nightingale & Alex Islands. Huts have been built at the landing for visitors to spend the night on shore and a trail has been made to The Ponds.
Nightingale is covered by tall grasses (up to 3 m high) which shelter many of the smaller birds. Endemic (and really the only) vegetation on the island are the grass (Spartina arundinacea) and a tree (Phylica arborea). The only endemic bird is a landbird: the Nightingale Island Finch (Nesospiza questi), while the Wilkins's Finch (Nesospiza wilkinsi)—another landbird—is only found on Nightingale & Inaccessible Islands. The Tristan Thrush (Nesocichla eremita) is the third landbird found on Nightingale and endemic to the Tristan da Cunha group. Among the species of seabirds that flock to the island are Northern Rockhopper Penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome moseleyi), the Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchus), the Soft-plumaged Petrel (Pterodroma mollis), White-faced Storm Petrels (Pelagodroma marina), White-bellied Storm Petrels (Fregetta grallaria), Brown/Southern/Subantarctic Skuas (Stercorarius antarcticus), Tristan skuas (Catharacta antarctica hamiltoni), broad-billed pions (Pachyptila vittata), the great shearwater (puffinus gravis), the Atlantic petrel (Pteradroma incerta), the common diving petrel (pelecanoides urinatrix), Antarctic tern (Sterna vittata) and the sooty albatross (Phoebetria fusca).
Gough Island was first known as Diego Alvarez, but it was sighted again in 1721 by Captain Gough, from his ship the Richmond. This brought a new name, and a bit more attention, to the place. Though Gough Island is a UK territory, the only permanent settlement you will find is South African. South Africa leases a portion of the island from the UK for use by SANAP as the only permanently manned South Atlantic Ocean meteorological station. The island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Gough Island has no sheltered harbour or anchorage. The only suitable landing place for boats is at Glen Anchorage in Quest Bay on the island's east coast.
SA Agulhas, on a relief expedition, departs from Cape Town to Tristan da Cunha then onwards to Gough Island on an annual relief voyage. This ship carries cargo and passengers.
There is no access for tourists and even crew members from passing yachts may not go ashore except in the case of extreme emergency.
Getting around comes with great difficulty: a combination of excessively steep terrain and incredibly dense vegetation, and no paths to speak of. Nor is there any public accommodation on Gough Island.