The Armchair Circumnavigator: Île Amsterdam

Somewhere in me beats the heart of an adventurer. I love circumnavigating the planet using Google Earth. During these explorations I've discovered new (to me) territories, towns, islands, and distant shores. Another part of me is a hermit -- I'd love to visit some of these places for six months or so and just write about them. I mean, what kind of people live thousands of miles away from everywhere else?

Take my newest discovery, Île Amsterdam, a French island in the southern Indian Ocean between Africa and Australia. Make sure to click on the pictures to take full advantage.

Here's the geographical stuff:

The island is volcanic but it has been inactive since 1792. It has an area of 970 square miles, measuring 13 miles on its longest side, and reaching as high as 2,844 feet at the Mont de la Dives. It's part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, and together with neighboring Île Saint-Paul (53 miles to the South) forms one of the five districts of the territory. Its only inhabited base, Martin-de-Viviès, formerly called La Roche Gódon, is the capital of the territory.

Île Amsterdam has a mild, oceanic climate, with an average annual temperature of 55°F, rainfall of 43", persistent westerly winds and high humidity. It is home to the Amsterdam Albatross, which breeds only on the Plateau des Tourbières on the island, and other rare creatures, such as the Great Skua, the Antarctic Tern, the Gentoo penguin, the Subantarctic Fur Seal and the Elephant seal. The only existing herd of completely wild cattle also lives on the island.

The island was discovered by the Spanish explorer Juan Sebastián Elcano in 1522 during his first world circumnavigation. He failed to name it, however, which strikes me as kind of strange. A little more than a hundred years later, in 1633, a Dutch captain named Anthonie van Diemen named it Nieuw Amsterdam (Dutch for New Amsterdam) after his ship, also kind of strange.

Even later, in 1792, French captain François Péron was marooned for three years on the island having survived a shipwreck. I wonder what happened to his crew, and if he was there during the last volcanic eruption. He was rescued and taken to Australia in 1795. Peron's Memoires, in which he describes his survival alone on the island, were published in a limited edition and are now an expensive collectors' item. Wish I could read them! In 1924, the islands of Île Amsterdam and Île Saint-Paul were attached to Madagascar and became a French colony.

The first French base was built in 1949, and was originally called Camp Heurtin. The Global Atmosphere Watch still has a meteorological research station there. There are no permanent residents, but from what I have been able to find out, researchers go there for a year at a time to work, and must pass strident psychological tests to be hired.

Ships bring small groups of visitors, as well as supplies, every two months because the only access is by sea. There are a few amenities which make their existence tolerable: a gym, a running track, bicycles, and the occasional game of pétanque, a form of boules. Photography is a popular pastime, and taking long walks across the island has its rewards, particularly when encountering the indigenous wildlife. For reasons of personal safety, no one is permitted to wander off alone or without a VHF radio beyond the limits of the base, as the volcanic terrain can be hazardous. Summer tours range from €4,800 to €6,200. Yikes!

One visitor wrote that the island is really beautiful, and that the cottages are colorful with flowerbeds.

I could look at this for six months, maybe. As long as I had internet access and they have drinkables... Come on. They're French. You know they bring wine!

For other nomadic souls: 37°49'33"S, 77°33'17"E

More info...

I think I'll make this a "regular" feature. It was a lot of fun!


  1. Swimming in the big blue sea, so far from anything, I am not sure I would enjoy that! A friend of mine lived in Antartica for six months, and he loved it.

  2. I confess I have a profound fascination for Antarctica. If I were invited, I'd go.

  3. Fascinating post, Steph. Looking forward to more of them. And those yellow leaves in the post below are wonderful.

  4. I have a friend who is into all things related to Tristan da Cunha. An island (well a few islands) in the south Atlantic that, I think, is the most remote community in the world.

    That's a good one to look into. I love reading about Pitcairn as well.

  5. Hilary: Thanks!

    Earl: Tristan da Cunha is EXACTLY the kind of place I'd like to go write about. Has your friend actually been there?

  6. That kind of isolation is not for me! I love civilization too much.

  7. I could do it if I knew it was only temporary, and if I had a computer with internet access, a camera, and plenty of wine. LOL! Seriously, if I were younger, say in my 20s, I'd look into going someplace like this so that I could write about staying in a remote location. I'm currently reading the blog of a 22 year-old guy who's stationed as a cook in Antarctica. Interesting observations.

  8. Boy would I love to go there! Sea kayaking, lying on the beach, watching the wildlife. How I wish all the beautiful things weren't only for the wealthy.

  9. Oh, please do! I had similar fun in my previous job when my line manager and I used to take 'world tours' on Google. Yup, I guess you came to the same conclusion: we were more like colleagues than manager and employee :-).

    Your post was fascinating and insightful. Thank you very much indeed.

    Greetings from London.

  10. I absolutely love Google Earth. It's like flying around the world, isn't it? I adore zooming down to a location, just like I had wings! It's amazing.

  11. I'm a sucker for white sand and blue water -- anywhere!!! I love the Caribbean! I'm told the Seychelles are nice, too. I keep thinking of retiring on a beach in Yucatan.

  12. Just a few precisions ... It is actually not so hard to go there, provided than you're younger than 29 and french (sorry guys!). France has a program called VCAT, that offers one year-jobs in these remote french territories. I actually applied and got accepted in both the Amsterdam Island and Dumont d'Urville (Adelie Land,Antartica).
    By the way,they have computers with internet access and free booze ... (yep, we're french, what did you expect ? lol)


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