A BBC correspondent visits Tristan
25 October 2011
'You'll be on in three minutes. And by the way, it's Radio Scotland ten minutes after that. I'm not sure what they want you to do, but here's the ISDN number...'
There's something undeniably thrilling about the single-handed live radio 'trip'. I think no other medium would let you fix the story, do the interviews, edit the content, rig the satellite dish and broadcast live, all on your own. It's one of the things I love about radio.
Britain's South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha has a special link with the Radio Solent patch. When the volcano erupted in 1961 at the most isolated settlement on earth - 1500 miles from the neighbours on St Helena - the entire population of 268 was evacuated to Britain, to live in temporary exile at Calshot on the banks of the Solent. Half a century on, I'm fascinated by the story but the time and cost meant a visit to Tristan wouldn't fit a local radio budget. So I arranged to do the trip as a holiday, 'returning' to work only while on the island.
Tristanians are famously wary of reporters. They lived for two years in the glare of flashbulbs, as editors despatched teams to Calshot to peer at this strange isolated group who'd been catapulted into the 20th century. They still bear bruises from that time. TV crews are all but banned (limited to one each year and subjected to a punitive access fee), and it took a vote of the Island Council to approve my radio trip. So far I'm the only broadcast journalist to have set foot on Tristan in this anniversary year.
And what a trip it was. The outward leg from Cape Town in South Africa was on a 36 year-old freighter called the Baltic Trader. In rough seas with no stabilisers, a planned six-day crossing turned into a ten-day endurance test. There's no proper port on the island and the conditions were too rough to anchor near the settlement. So the ship chugged round to the sheltered side and we clambered down a rope ladder into a launch.
The boatman took us around the coast, waited for the right moment, gunned the engines and surfed the Atlantic swell at high speed into the tiny harbour. Moments later, clutching only my radio kit and overnight essentials, I stepped ashore on the world's 'remotest island'.
The weather dictates a lot on Tristan da Cunha, most of all the travel arrangements, and it gave me fewer than five days on land. My objectives were to meet veterans of the 1961 evacuation and to paint a picture of island life today. Much of it was the familiar reporter's blur of recording, editing, writing (longhand, no printer!) and hitting live deadlines. But some moments stand out.
Close to the elements
There was Gladys Lavarello, one of several veterans who told me the whole 1961 episode was a divine plan to educate the islanders while sparing their village - she has inspired the title of my documentary: Act of God. There was the night I stood nervously in front of more than half the island population, interrupting a social to hand over a framed photo of the current residents of their old Calshot homes - and was rewarded with warm applause. There was filing for Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent from a makeshift studio.
And there was the morning we linked the last evacuee who still lives in Calshot with her 85 year-old brother on the island. I was on Tristan with the sat dish, our radio car was back in Calshot, the two spoke in emotional voices, and tears flowed at both ends of the earth. We did a good thing that day.
Not much about the trip was simple. To get home on time I had to hitch a helicopter ride to a different ship - leaving half my luggage still on that freighter, to be forwarded sometime in the future.
The weather was a constant challenge, with equipment needing shelter from sudden downpours and high winds. And the content was often won through patient negotiation with reticent interviewees, against tight deadlines. But the prize was some remarkable radio, and a bunch of memories that will last a lifetime.
The reaction from Solent listeners, including many who recall the events of 1961, has been great. Tristanians have been through a lot; their life is lived thrillingly close to the elements - air, fire and water. And what journey wouldn't you tackle, to meet people with a story like theirs?
Act of God, Radio Solent, 7pm, Oct 28
BBC © 2011