Day 120, greetings from… Dublin!
Touchdown at last! Well, in the country that neighbours my own… for now, that’ll do. Feels good to be on familiar shores! It’s the project that keeps on giving, and true to form this is my ninth distinct stint since leaving home in early May. And what a rollercoaster expedition it’s been.
Gough Island is an uninhabited dependency of Tristan da Cunha (a British Overseas Territory). The sign as you disembark on Tristan greets you with the message “Welcome to the remotest island”. The most remote inhabited island in the world. (We never got to disembark at Tristan, but we were lucky enough to see it as we sailed by to drop off our Tristan team members.)
Lying a further 350 km to Tristan’s south, Gough is also pretty remote! You can imagine how challenging it was to get there during Covid. But it was every bit as spectacular as I hoped. Everywhere on the island is a view to behold. Even looking up – never have I seen the Milky Way so clear, a shooting star, and a passing satellite all the same time.
Here’s me with the Gough Island sign (on a rare sunny day). And yes, it really did have a Jurassic Park vibe – right to the very end, when three giant petrels (incredible dino-like birds!) swooped alongside as we sailed away on the Agulhas – as if a parting gift for our efforts. Extremely cool!
The mice have gone! Our single mission was to spread bait over the entire island, in order that every mouse be exposed, feed, and ultimately, perish. The fortunes of the island’s 8 million seabirds (albatross, prions, giant petrels!) depended on every last mouse being eradicated. As we departed the island on 12th Aug, no living mouse had been seen for many weeks. The baiting appears to have done its job!
Now we wait as the monitoring teams look for signs of live mice. If none are found, in approximately 2 years’ time the eradication will be signed off as a success. Fingers crossed…
(Pre-empting some questions – we were not left with thousands of dead mice everywhere, the mice typically sought refuge in their burrows as the effects of the bait set in. They perished underground. This was operationally important, as it prevented secondary exposure to the bait for scavengers such as skuas.
Also, re the mouse eradication, this wasn’t easy on the conscience, but necessary. Who ever said conservation is easy!)
Signing off with a hike to Seal Beach
Seal Beach is somewhat of a local attraction. It provides a great taste of the rich flora and fauna Gough boasts, a stone’s throw from base. However, I’d put off going due to a fairly steep rope climb down and my phobia of heights (note: I recently learnt vertigo is not the same as a phobia of heights – Google it!).
I couldn’t leave the island without giving Seal Beach a go, so when chief medic Craig said he was joining, plus another with a fear of heights, I signed up. In three months on the island, this would be my last (and only) opportunity to get down to the sea! (Gough is surrounded by 100–300 m cliffs.)
The hike to the beach felt satisfying as a couple of days earlier I’d joined two of the guys (Roelf and Tom) to restore the boggiest bits of the path. This involved digging out overgrown vegetation, laying it along the path to create a firmer foundation, then rolling out jute lining to finish – pretty manual but very fun labour.
Then we got to the top of the cliff. I just went for it. The rope climb down was exhilarating! There were a couple of hairy moments when I chose the wrong route down (boy my heart started to race, damn phobia) but a quick readjustment to find the footholds and all was good. I even dared look down halfway and the views were incredible.
Down at the beach (a pebble/boulder beach, no sand here!) the waves crashed in, and true to name, the seals were soon visible. This place was a geographer’s dream! A playground of boulders and rock pools, and the Gony River meeting its end.
And the wildlife – we were in for a surprise! There before our eyes lay a huuuge two tonne elephant seal, absolutely ginormous when set beside sub-Antarctic fur seals. This thing was a beast!
We had to carefully navigate a narrow alley of rocks and boulders, with the crashing waves to our left and this beast to our right. Get too close to the elephant seal, it stirred angrily. Get too close to the waves, be drenched or worse!
Having cleared the beast, we set off to explore the rest of the beach, fur seals everywhere – very cute, but get too close and they can give you a nasty bite. Their mouths carry some horrid bacteria, I didn’t want to find out what treatment involved.
It was the back end of breeding season so juveniles were still about. There was a larger rock pool which they’d adopted as a crèche! It was a joy watching the pups playfully splash about, sheltered from the crashing waves.
As I leapt from boulder to boulder eager to see all I could, I got the occasional fright as an undetected seal pup literally screamed out at me in defence. More than a couple of times I was lucky not to end up crashing into a boulder as a result.
The climb back up was a rope ladder against a vertical cliff, which for some reason did provoke my phobia. This time I dared not look down!
We finished with a hike to the nearby waterfalls for one last time. A spur of the moment decision resulted in us all stripping down and taking a dip in Swemgat, one of the plunge pools. It was FREEZING. I momentarily hyperventilated as my body tried its best to acclimatise, sparking a little concern amongst the others, but a couple more steps and I was, well, at least no longer hyperventilating.
We just about managed the energy for a group pic, and promptly stumbled out. Never, would that have happened if it wasn’t a spur of the moment thing, but it felt damn good having done it!
A social experiment
Undoubtedly the other big win of the expedition was the team. It’s not often you get to go somewhere so cut off from civilisation, with a group of people you’ve never met. But somehow, upon being thrown into a potential cauldron, and despite our wildly differing backgrounds, we just clicked.
In many ways this was a social experiment. Big Brother, but without the cameras! But everyone wanted to be there – focussing on the positives, always chipping in to help. People were keen to learn new skills, others were happy to teach.
The more seasoned expeditioners noted early on how quickly we’d become comfortable around each other. It’s true – there was a positive atmosphere that allowed people to let their hair down, and it wasn’t long before we were fooling around in our downtime like school kids (stories for the pub!). This was critical for maintaining morale, particularly when things weren’t going our way.
I learnt a hell of a lot (see my July blog post) from a pretty inspiring group of people, so will I miss them? Definitely. It was a pleasure to work with true experts in their fields. From world-class pilots to engineers, bird ecologists, climbers, eradication experts and so on. And of course our GIS team! I hope we keep in touch.
Final thoughts (birdwatching is cool!)
One of the many reasons why joining this expedition was a no-brainer, was the chance to test myself, experience new things. The bait-loading, operating around helicopters, being part of the Deck Crew unloading the ship – these were all awe-inspiring experiences. But it was the little things too.
For instance, never did I think birdwatching would grab me. Then, at Admirals Cove I saw a skua, talons out catch a prion in mid-air – through my binoculars! A minute later three giant petrels were fighting over the prion carcus on the water, skua nowhere to be seen. It’s a tough life for these birds!
Going to Gough was also a much-needed detox from Covid. It was a surreal moment when in May we embarked the ship and we could take off our masks; able to mingle with other people, knowing we were all Covid-free. Being away from comms also made me realise how toxic the ‘news’ is – why did I check into the news several times a day?? Damn clickbait…
Anyway here’s a pic taken by pilot Bryan just before the excitement at Admirals. It’s a very cool place, especially when the thousands of Atlantic Petrels come in to roost each evening. Possibly where a new hobby was born!
So why am I in Dublin?
As I enjoyed my post-Gough, post-team-goodbyes solo time in Cape Town, I was faced with an intriguing problem: how do I get back to the UK, without having to do that god awful 10 day hotel quarantine?
They called it “red list laundering” – spending 10 days in an amber list country to launder your red list status. Only my task was made more challenging given I’m not yet fully vaccinated (I’ve only had 1 AZ), so I had to find a green-list country that would let me in.
As of 18 August, the date stamped on my passport as we passed through Cape Town Harbour immigration, there was no viable route back that did not involve hotel quarantine. But I had time on my side, and this was a problem I really wanted to crack. So I played the waiting game, whilst many of my unfortunate colleagues returned home to endure 11 days of solitary confinement in a bang average hotel room.
From the UK side, things weren’t going to change. The UK Government were taking a very (overly!) cautious line, and South Africa was destined to stay on their red list for the foreseeable. My hope was that less cautious, possibly more economically-minded countries might start letting travellers from SA in.
And as the end of August approached, bingo (a shout out to everyone’s favourite human being, on Gough anyway, Mr Tom Clarke) – Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Ireland started opening up to South Africa! I figured if things went wrong, I’d rather be in Ireland than the others, and so here I am in Dublin – self-quarantining for 5 days, then staying with friends for 5 days!
What’s next for The Jolly Geo?
I return to the UK around 15th Sep, dive straight into a 4-day MapAction training exercise in the Cotswolds, and then I am freeee.
I plan to catch up with all of you in whatever’s left of our summer (pray that summer lingers, otherwise it’ll be three winters on the trot for me!). And I’ll ease my way back into some Jolly Geo work – perhaps another expedition awaits… (certainly a quiz!)
So, what have I missed??