I leapt ashore across the bow, afraid to land in the waist-deep surf—afraid the driver of our rubber boat would change his mind and turn away.
But I was here. I had landed on Inaccessible Island in spite of its name. Thousand-foot cliffs towered above me, so that my neck ached from the moment I arrived—the same as in midtown Manhattan, where you try to see the tops of skyscrapers but cannot. Similarly, I could not see the top of this volcanic remnant that juts straight up from the ocean—the third and loneliest isle of the Tristan da Cunha group.
Brilliant and verdant, Inaccessible is perhaps the most beautiful and remarkable of the islands on my journey across the vast ocean. From the moment I saw it through my porthole, I was enchanted by its knife- ridge backbone and the way its severe cliffs appeared hand-chipped, like a flint arrowhead covered with fuzzy moss.
The rarity of Inaccessible is much of the attraction. Few folks know that such a place exists, and one of the best descriptions comes from a man who never traveled here. Way back in 1838, Edgar Allen Poe wrote about Inaccessible in his faux adventure travelogue, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (chapter 15):
The next island in point of size, and the most westwardly of the group, is that called the Inaccessible. Its precise situation is 37 degrees 17′ S. latitude, longitude 12 degrees 24′ W. It is seven or eight miles in circumference, and on all sides presents a forbidding and precipitous aspect. Its top is perfectly flat, and the whole region is sterile, nothing growing upon it except a few stunted shrubs.
Poe’s account still matches the present-day geographical reality, especially the “forbidding” and “precipitous” parts, as I myself was forbidden from climbing the more precipitous cliffs. The name “inaccessible” derives from a French sailor who failed to land here in the 18th century. He was not the first. Of the mariners and explorers who have passed by these rare islands, few have been able to make it ashore. Aside from Inaccessible’s impossible topography, the unhindered ocean swell and frequent storms make shore landings impractical, difficult, and quite wet.
I know this from personal experience, since I traveled to this island one year ago and failed to land due to twelve-foot swells. I dubbed it the “island that got away” and made peace with my failure, accepting the fact that, “In travel, like in life, the unattainable and the almost-attained can be more important than the easily-acquired.”
And yet one year on I returned, and with compliant weather, made a successful landing on the stony fringe of its leeward shore. At once, I felt the excitement of travel—the thrill of arriving in a new place and an eagerness to clamber up to the top and explore this far-flung reach of the planet.
Nobody has ever lived on Inaccessible, though some have tried. Since its discovery some 500 years ago, this crust of an island has been the rare haunt of whalers, sealers, explorers and a few unlucky shipwreck victims.
And yet one would think otherwise from the amount of man-made detritus that has collected here. After the initial joy of reaching the island, I was disheartened by the trail of garbage before me, an unsightly view accompanied by the hollow knocking of sea-smoothed stones as they rolled back and forth in the echoing surf.
I kicked through the rainbow assortment of plastics strewn against out on the rocks, a half-mile arc of brightly-colored detritus that skirted the shore. All this artificial flotsam had blown here from afar—unwitting projectiles whipped across the water by winds, currents and the occasional hurricane, only to slam abruptly into this sudden wall of cliffs in the middle of the ocean. From far away, the broken shards of inorganic trash formed a kind of cheerful mosaic. Up close, I encountered a million lost objects, each with its untold story: a blue bike pedal, one child’s yellow sandal, orange lobster pots, green fish crates, an empty Japanese shampoo bottle, a severed arm of a tatty wetsuit, a tangle of purple plastic netting. At the end of the beach, I found a snoozing baby fur seal curled up inside a blue plastic tub like a baby in a cradle. The site was both cute and disturbing—this little pinniped finding comfort in this castaway bucket.
No matter that I had traveled for weeks across the empty sea to arrive at this lonely virgin isle—perhaps Inaccessible Island is mostly inaccessible to man, but man’s refuse has made it here just fine. And yet the birds didn’t seem to mind. Among the plastic tubes of old flashlight handles, the rockhoppers stoically molted their feathers. Golden-winged Tristan thrushes skittered over and under the grass clumps and unseen seals bellowed out from their hiding places in the tussocks.
I found myself content to have merely landed on Inaccessible, though perhaps I harbored a secret desire to be accidentally marooned. The rational mind accepted that my traveling body only had a few hours on shore, but I believe that no matter where we go in the world, most of us secretly wish we could stay in every place for a lifetime.
Now that I have collected my own memories of Inaccessible, I am free to imagine how it is without me or anyone else perusing its coast. Besides the sea and the call of the seals and the honking penguins, I imagine most days there is total silence. I also imagine that a few good storms could blow away all that plastic and send it elsewhere in the world. Silent, clean, and left alone—that is how I want to remember Inaccessible.
But I will also remember how difficult it was to get there, and how difficult it was to get off again. When it was time to leave, I watched the waves recoil and then swell back up again, timing my jump from shore to ship, misjudging ever so slightly, and getting splashed head-on by full ocean force—the same force that prevents people from ever landing and the same force that lands all those nonliving objects onshore.