When I was a child I lived for 5 years on a tiny little island called Tristan da Cunha in the middle of the South Atlantic.
We left in 1961 to return to England, but then, a few months later, the so-called ‘extinct’ volcano rumbled into life and all the islanders had to be evacuated.
They lived in England for a while, but most of them were terribly homesick for the island and returned as soon as it was safe.
Peter Wheeler was the Administrator at the time the volcano awoke, and here’s his eye-witness account:
“Think back (if you were old enough then) to early October 1961 when the weather and the sea were both bad. We hadn’t seen a ship for weeks until, a few days earlier, the two fishing ships had arrived at the start of their fishing season. Meanwhile back on land things had not been easy for some time with earth tremors, bumps and rock falls, in and around the village, increasing in number and intensity day by day.
Nobody knew for certain what was happening deep down beneath us. Even the experts from England and South Africa could only guess – wrongly as it turned out!
There wasn’t much we could do ourselves except cross our fingers and hope for the best! We did however manage to establish that whatever was going on was happening right underneath us! This was not only extremely unlucky, but also extremely lucky as well – bad luck because we might have had to get out of the way very quickly indeed if things going on below ever came to the surface, and good luck because there were probably places we could escape to if necessary.
As it was, we just had to wait and see; but not for long, for on October 9th a spot on the grassy slope near the houses split, with one half rising some 10 feet above the other. What was it – the beginnings of a volcanic eruption or what? It wasn’t at all clear!
Common sense dictated that we should get out of the way and that night we slept, as best we could, at the Patches. Meanwhile, out at sea the two fishing vessels rode at anchor opposite to us and in the middle of the night, Scottie seeing the start of an eruption, sent up flares to warn us.
Mercifully, we slept on and were not tempted to try to evacuate to the ships in the dark. Mercifully too, when daylight arrived, the sea was calm and with the new volcano growing quietly we were able to leave from Little Beach without anyone so much as spraining an ankle.
Up to this point our biggest lucky break was that the new eruption grew slowly and didn’t explode hurling rocks high into the sky. If it had exploded I am sure that none of us would be around today!
Being blessed with good fortune during the evacuation itself right up to the eventual return to the Island, good luck stayed on, as one after another the jigsaw pieces fell into place during the days and months that followed.
The sea was calm, the volcano didn’t explode, an empty liner was crossing the Atlantic, another liner on its way to Southampton was waiting in Cape Town, the Army lent us some barracks and the RAF gave up no less than sixty four of their houses in Calshot and then, most important of all, in Cape Town and in England we were surrounded by kindness and real sympathy with people falling over backwards to be helpful.
And then finally the best bit by far. All those hundreds of miles away on Tristan the eruption stopped and it was safe to return.
Martha Rogers summed it all up beautifully when she said:- “We was meant to leave and now we is meant to go home.” (Peter’s piece ends here)
We went with my Mum and Dad and visited the islanders when they were living in Calshot. Peter Wheeler doesn’t say, but they were all absolutely convinced that God had protected them and brought them safe off the island.
For more about Tristan and photos of that amazing island: http://www.tristandc.com/index.php