If we’re honest, most of us would have to admit dreaming of a remote tropical island at one point or other in our lives. But could we city dwellers really deal with island fever – seeing the same faces every day (if at all), watching the same TV channel day in day out and using the phone maybe once a week? There is fresh air, stunning scenery and wildlife on the plus side though. See for yourself what life on a remote island would be like…
1. Ascencion Island
Ascenion Islands’s Comfortless Cove – blue skies, white beaches and clear blue water.
Ascencion Island is a 91-square-kilometre volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean that belongs to the territory of Saint Helena. It is 2,250 km (1,400 miles) away from the South American east coast and 1,600 km (990 miles) from Africa’s western shores. The island has no indigenous human population and was first recorded by the Portuguese navigator Alfoso of Albuquerque on Ascencion Day in 1503 – the Catholic holiday he named the island after.
Though ships frequently stopped by to hunt the seabirds and enormous green turtles the island had in abundance, it wasn’t until Napoleon was exiled in neighbouring Saint Helena in 1815 – if one can call an island that’s 2,300 km away neighbouring – that Ascencion Island got populated. It was garrisoned by the British as a precaution.
Ascencion Island as seen from space.
Communications later on became the island’s main trade: First it was a hub for telephone and radio communication, now it has satellite tracking stations and one of the ground antennas that assist the Global Positioning System (GPS).
The island also hosts Wideawake Airfield, a joint military facility of the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force. It was used as a stopping point for those crossing the Atlantic during WWII and was also extensively by the British military during the Falklands War.
There are five settlements on Ascencion Island, with Georgetown the capital, and a population of 940 people, mainly military and civilian contractors. An employment contract is required for staying on the island as there is no permanent residency. Limited civilian air travel, made available in recent years, has brought some tourism to the island. Sport fishing and bird watching are popular activities, and the island also boasts owning the world’s worst golf course. There’s also one bank branch on the island and about 40 kilometres of roads.
2. Saint Helena
Longwood House, where Napoleon was held captive, photographed in 1970.
Saint Helena is a 122-square kilometre volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean and is said to be one of the most isolated places in the world – 2,000 km away from the African coast. Due to this remoteness, the British have used the island as a place of exile over the centuries; first for Napoleon Bonaparte and later for more than 5,000 Boer prisoners – Dutch, French and German settlers from South Africa.
The island was discovered by the Portuguese navigator Joao da Nova on his voyage home from India in 1502 and named “Santa Helena” after Helena of Constantinople. He spotted Ascencion Island a bit later on the same voyage but did not record the discovery – so maybe he tired of discovering new islands.
Saint Helena as seen from space.
The Portuguese sailors found the island uninhabited but with an abundance of trees and fresh water, so that it became an important stop for ships venturing into the South Atlantic after rounding the Cape of Good Hope.
The picture here beautifully shows the island’s sharp peaks and deep ravines. The island’s higher and wetter centre is green while the lower coastal areas are drier and hotter with little vegetation. The erosion of the volcanic rocks has formed the island’s distinct rugged topography.
Jamestown from above
Unlike Ascencion Island, Saint Helena has been populated early after its discovery and today has a population of 4,255 spread over eight districts. Saint Helena produces its own banknotes and has a bank, a post office and its own internet top-level domain, “.sh”. Tourism – attracted by Napoleon’s imprisonment – centres around the arrival of ships, as Saint Helena has no airport – though the majority of islanders are in favour of building one.
3. Tristan da Cunha
That’s why they’re called remote islands in the first place…
The map shows that though Ascencion Island and Tristan da Cunha both belong to Saint Helena, the distance between all three islands is great – 2430 km between Tristan da Cunha and Saint Helena alone (here in the center of the image, marked in red)!
Tristan da Cunha is a volcanic group of islands belonging to the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, and the world’s most remote inhabited archipelago – 2,800 km (1,750 miles) from South Africa and 3,300 (2,100 miles) from South America. Only the island of Tristan da Cunha is inhabited and has a population of 269.
Tristan da Cunha as seen from space.
This image looks like fate just dropped a volcano in the middle of the ocean more than a million years ago: the island is dominated by the volcano’s cone that towers over its green slopes. The last major eruption was in 1961, when the inhabitants of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas were evacuated to England but later returned to the island.
The islands were first sighted by the Portuguese sailor Tristao da Cunha in 1506 who named them after himself. Rough seas prevented him from landing so that an official survey was not made until 1767 when a French frigate stopped by. It was noted that the islands were uninhabited but that fresh water was available.
A stunning view of Tristan da Cunha’s west coast.
Like on Ascencion Island, the first settlements started on Tristan da Cunha with Napoleon’s exile on Saint Helena. The British, not wanting the French to use the island for a potential rescue operation, simply annexed it in 1816. First, the 113-square-kilometre island was populated by British military only but a civilian population was gradually built up.
Potato farming and cattle on Tristan da Cunha.
Today, the island’s main income comes from farming and most people also work for the local government. Outsiders are not allowed to buy land or settle on Tristan da Cunha. Even getting there is not easy and tourists are advised to plan their trip a year in advance as they need special permission and space on one of the few boats that visit Tristan da Cunha.
For those who live on the island, life has become a bit more high tech: there are now two TV channels, telephone lines, internet access and the local school (with five classrooms) has a computer room. Mail still arrives only ten times a year by ship.
4. Easter Island
What Easter Island is most famous for – the Moai.
Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch explorer, gave the island its name because he discovered it on Easter Sunday in 1722. The island was first populated by Polynesians, probably around 1200 CE, who came in canoes from the “neighbouring” Marquises, Tuamotou or Pitcairn Islands – 3,200, 2,600 and 2,000 km away, respectively.
Roggeveen estimated a population of 2,000 or 3,000 people and described huge standing stone statues that decayed over the course of visits by other European explorers. Easter Island was annexed by Chile in 1888 after much of its original population had died or had been brought to neighbouring islands by missionaries.
Easter Island from space
With the original inhabitants, the knowledge of the ancestors and the island’s culture disappeared, which is why many of the questions the island presented for early explorers remain a mystery even today: The Rongorongo language and alphabet have not been deciphered; the meaning of the great stone statues, the moai, has not been uncovered; and the sudden deforestation in the 18th and 19th century is also unexplained.
Hanga Roa harbour
The population of Easter Island today is 3,791 people, a mix of native Rapanui, Europeans and mestizos, and American Indians. Most of the population lives in the biggest settlement of Hanga Roa. Easter Island has the most remote international airport in the world, with two weekly flights bringing a steady stream of visitors – tourists, scientists and the curious, guaranteeing the island’s main income.
5. Pitcairn Islands
Pitcairn Island from space
The Pitcairn Islands are a group of four volcanic islands in the southern Pacific Ocean and the last remaining British overseas territory in the Pacific. Only Pitcairn, at 47 square kilometres the second largest of the islands, is populated. Though originally inhabited by Polynesians for several centuries, the island was deserted when British sailors discovered it in 1767. The island was named after crew member Robert Pitcairn who spotted it first.
Pitcairn Island is most famous for being the place where the mutineers of the Bounty settled in 1790 after they set fire to the ship. The wreck is still visible underwater in the aptly named Bounty Bay. The island became a British colony in 1838 and was one of the first to extend voting rights to women.
Pitcairn Island has always been sparsely populated, reaching a mere 233 inhabitants during its peak in 1937, and since then, many people have emigrated to New Zealand. It is today, with a population of 50, and therefore less than 1 inhabitant per square kilometre, one of the least populated jurisdictions in the world.
The Pitcairn Islands and Easter Island in the Pacific.
Farming, fishing and handicrafts are the main sources of income on the Pitcairn Islands, which have no airport and exactly one pay phone. Cruise ships may stop en-route every few months and only if weather permits. As described in Wikipedia: “Leaving the island is hit-and-miss; one leaves when transportation happens by, not necessarily when one wishes to go.”
As we have seen, no island’s history is the same and in our brief portrait of five of the world’s remotest islands, we have just scratched the surface. Many fascinating accounts of those who have lived on any of the islands have been written and we can only strongly recommend delving into those for further reading. Definitely before packing one’s bags.