CHAPTER VI

A TRIP TO SEAL BAY

MY husband was anxious to explore as much of the island as he could during our stay, so when he heard that a boat was going to Seal Bay he asked to be one of the party. The men were quite glad to have him, and he went in Tom Rogers's big boat, the Canton. They do not as a rule take the small boats to Seal Bay unless the weather is a settled calm.

The following is his description of the visit:


"Seal Bay is on the south side of the island. It is interesting as being the haunt of penguins, which come to moult in March and again arrive in August and lay in September. Seals no longer much frequent the caves, which abound in this part of the island. The islanders make fairly frequent trips to Seal Bay in search of driftwood, which floats up here in considerable quantities sometimes, being brought along by the strong current which sets into the Bay. Pieces of timber from wrecked ships or washed overboard are often found, and are of considerable service to the Tristanites for housebuilding or for ox-wagons or for repair of the boats. All manner of wood, save firewood, is very scarce indeed; in fact, there is always a wood famine! The Bay is also visited to get the berries which flourish in this part, while the islanders have a few apple-trees planted there in sheltered nooks. Some tame cattle, too, are kept on the flat above the Bay. Tom Rogers was going to kill a cow he was pasturing at Seal Bay to get the meat ready for salting down for winter use, while other members of his boat's crew desired to fetch some wood which was lying ready stacked near the beach. The journey can be done in favourable weather in one day, conditionally on the boat being able to sail one way at least. But as a rule the crew have to row a great deal of the journey owing to the variable winds and strong currents which prevail round the island at all seasons, and it is most often a piece of hard rowing even when a favourable day has been picked.

"The first attempt to reach Seal Bay was most disappointing. We were only able to row a couple of miles, to Hill Piece and Red Hole. This is a high red cliff just beyond Hottentot Point and near the first Hardies (Hardies is a Tristan word for the high rocks standing up perpendicular out of the sea which my husband named "the old woman and her daughter"). For half an hour we hung in the current off Hill Piece and gained not a yard in spite of desperate pulling at the oars. The wind was contrary and the sea rising, and so Tom Rogers reluctantly gave the order to turn back, and we landed at Little Beach with our jackets wet with spray.

"The next day the weather seemed a little easier, and we made an early fresh start. For myself I was not very entranced by the weather prospects. There was a head wind, a rather considerable cross sea running with what the natives here call 'blenders' (waves that break out at sea and in an irregular manner), and we had a very hard pull to get along at all. The boat, as a precaution, had been ballasted with sacks of stones before starting, and rode the heavy sea very well, but nevertheless rocked unpleasantly from side to side, and only careful pulling and good steering made it possible to get along without shipping a green sea of a size to have sent us all to Davy Jones's locker unpleasantly quickly.

"The course for Seal Bay lies past Ankerstock Point and Long Bluff, and it was confidently predicted by some of the crew that when we had passed Ankerstock Point it would grow smoother. It did not; it grew rougher, and we were all relieved when Cave Point, which is one termination of Seal Bay, hove in sight. In a cross sea when there are 'white caps' on the waves, Seal Bay is not a nice place to negotiate in a canvas boat. It is well to look at, indeed, a fine wide bay with deep water close in. But it is full of shoals, beset by reefs with here and there snags of sharp rocks rising above the water. Over these reefs the sea breaks in a welter of white spray. The usual landing-place is in a clear space betwixt two rocks called 'the pond,' but ugly in a swell as the boat might be swept on either reef and smashed. Our boatmen, however, knew their business, and we got in just in the nick of time between the big waves, and quickly had our boat hauled up safe on the shingle.

"There is another landing-place on the near side of Cave Point, but it is quite impossible in rough weather. After unloading our boat of the stores we had brought over, as we intended camping out for the night, we carried all into a big cave running back deep and having a high front facing the sand and the sea, which from its form is called the 'Archway Cavern.' There are several much smaller caves near, and a bank of sand drifted some 40 feet high on which the Rev. J. G. Barrow slept once when staying over at Seal Bay. The wind had drifted the sand almost as high as the low cliff, which there overhangs the beach. There is also a fine natural archway of rock called ' Archway Rock,' but it is some little distance from the Archway Cave. The men are experienced campers, and soon had plenty of wood collected for a fire and fresh water brought from a clean mountain spring a half of a mile distant along the beach. Tea is always brewed (if there is any to be had) on these occasions, and, besides, we had some potatoes, some small flour cakes, and some tinned meat. I much enjoyed the picnic, though June is a winter month in these latitudes.

"Everyone was very tired with the exciting and arduous row over, but dried grass was collected and filled into clean, empty sacks to make a comfortable bed. Tom Rogers said ' he would not try to kill the cow that night, but would look for it at dawn the next day.' Its whereabouts were, however, ascertained. It was feeding with some ten more in a green gully near. The tame cows do not go near the wild ones, curiously. The wild cattle are at Stony Hill, a most interesting geological formation. The land at Seal Bay is like that at the Settlement, shut in by the huge cliffs of the Base, as the people call the lower approaches of the Central Peak, which occupies the greater part of the island. Seal Bay district is divided into two fine levels of moderate extent, with a break in between, for there the Base comes out to the sea and forms the headlands beyond Seal Bay at either side. On the second or farthest level is Stony Hill, an isolated cone with a flattened top. The two levels together are about the size of Settlement Plateau, some 9 miles in length, but Seal Bay is rather the smaller, and communication is possible only by ascending the hill or going along the beach under the cliff at low tide.

"Stony Hill Plateau is the home of the Tristan wild cattle. We saw one herd of twenty in charge of a big fierce old black bull, who on scenting our approach quickly assembled his family into a compact body and seemed to be preparing for active hostilities, but we eluded him by going down along the beaches. It is a chance, the men say, whether 'they run away from you or run at you.' They are very wary; they soon scent human beings or dogs coming, and can only be stalked like deer. No one really knows the number or the exact origin of the herd, for the islanders are very vague and have a mental inability for counting. They only manage to kill some of these beasts by shooting them from a safe distance and an ambush.

"The whole of Tristan da Cunha bears aggressive evidence as to its volcanic origin. The Peak is approached over dry beds of decayed larva, which crushes under your feet, and it is bare of vegetation, and the entire surface of the island is thick with water-worn volcanic rock. It gives an air of intense ruggedness and desolation. Stony Hill was, we can be sure, the scene of prehistoric volcanic activity. It stands by itself, a mass of stones piled up as if they had boiled over from underneath with little or no earth atop. Along the beach near the Potato Patches and Hill Piece on the way up to Seal Bay are a series of detached cones or sugar loaves, like hills, only in miniature, which once on a time were clearly engines of furious volcanic activity, and to-day you may find sulphur stones anywhere.

"It was wonderful lying down in this vast cave with its great arch as high as a cathedral over us and open to the sea, and gazing over the vast, empty expanse of ocean illuminated by a brilliant African moon. I could only doze intermittently, for the roar of the great sea was ever in my ears. The men seemed to feel the influence of the majestic surroundings, and by the ruddy flames of a huge campfire I could see them sitting like statues, only talking in low, hushed voices and saying a few words and relapsing into silence, and so I fell asleep. During the night the wind changed, and the sea, rough the day before, got up strongly, and by daybreak the bay was yellow with heavy rollers breaking in all directions. I was up soon after daylight, and stepping out of the cavern watched the great rollers running into the bay. Long rollers are unusual at Tristan, but very common, I believe, at Ascension and St. Helena.

"Tom Rogers soon joined me, and remarked, 'It is quite impossible for any boat to-day,' which was obvious, and he added, 'I have never seen the sea get up so quick before.' There was no interval between the big waves.

"We had the option of remaining at Seal Bay until the weather moderated and the sea went down, or returning overland, which is by a stiff climb and over a rough track across the mountain, or else along the beaches and a footpath which runs round the Bluff. The Bluff path is very narrow, and runs along the face of a cliff many hundred feet sheer above the sea. It is fast rock and earthy, and one wonders why the islanders have never set to and made a decent wagon road and so obtained easy communication between Seal Bay and the Settlement. They lack enterprise sadly, and there is no recognized headman, and so no efficient leadership in matters of public benefit. Years ago the present somewhat dangerous path was worked out, but since then nothing has been done. They say it is because they have no tools. There is something in this excuse, for their tools are few for even such a simple engineering feat. Mattocks, shovels, and crow-bars are badly needed, and barrows they have none.

"The walk from Seal Bay by the shortest route takes several hours, and nothing can be carried but a small pack. At times when the sea is calm they walk along beneath the cliffs, but this is dangerous, for one could be caught by the sea or overwhelmed by a sudden fall of stones, and such accidents have occurred with fatal results. If a road to Seal Bay were once made immense benefit would ensue in new pasturage, fuel and wood, and access to good flat land would be easily available.

"On the third day at Seal Bay our provisions began to give out. The islanders usually run short in this way when on journeys. They bring food for one or two days, and are often compelled by stress of weather to stay a good deal longer. However, the folk at the Settlement were well aware that we should be short of food, and very thoughtfully sent a party of three to our relief."


Here I insert an extract from my own diary, as follows:


"When the Seal Bay party did not return on the appointed day I felt rather anxious for my husband, as he had not taken much in the way of food nor a change of clothing, and this the islanders always take in case of getting wet. Nor was it nice to be alone so long. However, later on in the evening, Mrs. Bill Rogers came across to say that 'little Charles Green,' a big lad, had been sent home with a message that the Seal Bay party were all right, but the sea was too rough for the boat to get off, and the men were staying by the Minister, but they had no food except the beef and fish. Mrs. Rogers said, ' Her husband would walk round with food for the Minister, as we can't let him starve, and he's not used to the kind of food our folk eat.' She also said, 'Bill will start before daybreak, so will you cook to-night?' I hurriedly baked some rolls and small cakes before I went to bed, and whilst I was in the midst of cooking John Glass came to the door. He is Parish Clerk, and he volunteered to walk along with Bill Rogers and help carry supplies, so I sent some clothes as well as food."

My husband writes: "The relief party told us on arrival that they had started from the Settlement at 4 a.m., and they reached us at 8.30 a.m., just as we were about to start for home breakfastless.

"The sea had gone down at the Settlement, but it was still very rough on our side. The men had been eyeing it very doubtfully, but, encouraged by the report of conditions farther round, they began to load up in better spirits. Tom Rogers, who is an excellent boatman, remarked, 'It would be quite safe if they got out smartly, but he thought the boat a bit heavy laden for a flying start.' The cargo consisted of cow beef and some big blocks of timber off the famous Big Tree, and some other pieces of driftwood. The Big Tree deserves special mention. Mrs. Barrow says in her book, Three Years in Tristan da Cunha, that it measured then 120 feet long and 20 feet round, but there is evidence that it had been even longer, for it was broken off. The currents washed it up under Long Bluff, and then off again and into Seal Bay. It was probably a redwood tree from South America, and it lasted the islanders for twenty years as a ‘cut and come again.’ But now it is all used up for ox-wagons, furniture, and so on. It is interesting that some of the wood of this much-travelled tree was made into models by the islanders and sent to the Wembley Exhibition of 1924-25, where a good many must have seen them in the little Tristan da Cunha corner of the South African Pavilion.

"Seal Bay is more interesting to the naturalist than the Settlement. Not only is it possible from here to see Nightingale and Inaccessible at one time, which cannot be done elsewhere, but there is an interesting penguin rookery of large size, and shells in several varieties are found, also stinging jellyfish, called the ' Portuguese man-of-war,' and sharks and cat-fish abound. The jelly-fish sting is most severe and quite dangerous. Fish are easily caught with handlines in the deep water near the shore, so though we might have been forced to a rather carnivorous diet we should not have starved. I found vast quantities of small mice everywhere, and these with an occasional rat ran over us while we slept in the big cave.

"We were very glad to see the reinforcements for our crew as we were all hungry, and it was not a 'cushy' job getting our heavy-laden boat out through the boiling surf into the smoother water beyond. I helped push her off with the rest, and when Big John Glass, who is one of the strongest men on the island, put his back into his oar with a pull all together, we were soon outside the surf and going for home for all we were worth. Seal Bay is full of kelp, which is of immense size, and often serves to mitigate the force of the big seas, but it is laborious to row through. We got back to the Settlement in about three hours—quite good under the circumstances.

"Watchers had been posted to look for us at Hottentot Point and warn the Settlement by running back and crying 'Tally Ho!' The women at once prepared tea for us, and my wife, with Mrs. Repetto, came down on to the beach to meet me armed with cups and teapots. A very pleasant finale! The usage is to cry ‘Tally Ho!' if an island boat is sighted from a house, and the inmates cry out to their next neighbour throughout the Settlement and all then run down to meet the boats. But if it is a steamer they cry, 'Sail Ho!' and the men hasten down to put off a boat at once. Ox-wagons had been brought down, and soon willing hands were unloading our boat, and it was pulled up to its usual station on the beach.

"Our prolonged absence had caused some anxiety, and everyone seemed very glad to have us safely back. It was a Sunday afternoon when the boat returned, but we were, of course, obliged to take the chance of fine weather for coming, no matter what day it was. As soon as everything was carted up to the Settlement and the folk had had their dinners, I announced that there would be Evensong as usual, though I felt rather tired. I think all felt the same, and we went to bed quite early that night."



Chapter 7