The ultimate island posting


A team of 22 assembled by Matlock-based Galliford Try is currently building a medical centre on Tristan da Cunha, the most remote inhabited island in the world.

Home to just 270 or so people and a British overseas territory, Tristan da Cunha is located in the South Atlantic between South America, South Africa and Antarctica. The island is essentially a dormant volcano with no room for an airport so access is ordinarily via an eight-day crossing in one of the 12 berths available on the supply ship which operates every five weeks or so from Cape Town, 1,500 miles to the north-east.

The structure of the new medical centre, which replaces an ageing facility built in 1971, consists of prefabricated panels and cassettes for rooms, ceilings, trusses, walls and floors manufactured in Malmö in Sweden, the home of flat-pack. They were shipped on the MV Glory vessel to Poole in Dorset where Galliford Try’s plant, equipment and modular accommodation was loaded before the onward voyage to Tristan.

Prefabricating the elements of a building for shipping to site for assembly is a familiar approach for Galliford Try since it was used for construction of the Halley VI research station built on Antarctica in 2010. It reduces erection time and simplifies logistics once on the island. Many of the team who worked on Halley are also contributing to the new Tristan project. One of them is project manager, Mark Aimson.

He said: “Just getting to the island as a visitor is a logistical challenge. I carried out a site visit in 2015 which involved around 30 hours flying time and 23 long days at sea. Getting every nut, bolt and washer to the island to build a state of the art healthcare facility is like doing a jigsaw with no lid and all the pieces facing the wrong way! We need medical equipment for a full operating theatre, dentistry suites, sterile areas and an x-ray room as well as all of the construction equipment, plant and materials not to mention an accommodation camp for the team on site.

“All told we’ve shipped around 3,500 cubic metres of cargo from the UK and Sweden. All of it had to be unloaded at sea onto pontoons for transport to the harbour, an operation which took many days and a lot of frustration to complete because of the weather.”

The first team of 12 arrived on a chartered ship from Cape Town on 28 October. They started by clearing the site, unloading the MV Glory (which arrived a week later), laying the foundations for the centre and building the site accommodation. During this five-week period they stayed with 11 families in the island’s only village, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. The second team arrived on 18 January after 10 days at sea and they are now all pressing on with the massive assembly job. “If only it would stop blowing a hoolie!”, said Mark. The medical equipment and commissioning engineers will arrive in May with half the team returning to Cape Town on the same ship with the final handover programmed for the first week of June.

Community relations is an important part of any successful construction project but never more so than when the workforce becomes so much a part of the resident community and boosts its size by nearly 10% as has been the case with this project.

Mark’s wife, Kate, is the community liaison officer for the scheme. This is her first role with Galliford Try and first job overseas. Back at home in Buxton, Derbyshire, she is an artist and helps run the local community art gallery. Although the two roles seem to be miles apart in more ways than one they share some common ground.

Kate said: “Among the features of the medical centre are vinyl silhouette murals in the waiting room and corridors and I’ve been liaising with the architects and the local school children who will be assisting with the designs. I’ve also been helping out at the crèche which has been short-staffed due to retirement and medical leave.”

Kate has also assisted with Children in Need fundraising and the production of scenery for the Christmas school play and children’s party which was further supported by a donation from Galliford Try. She arranged for three groups from the island’s school, St Mary’s, to tour the building site, the younger pupils posing for a photo with one of two JCB Loadalls that the company will gift to the island’s public works department on completion of the project.

She added: “The Tristanians have been very welcoming to us, the guys have been very well liked and there have been few issues. Some of the houses nearest the site were disturbed by noise from the refrigerated shipping containers for our stores so our carpenters made some housing to baffle the sound which has worked. Our guys wanted to explore the mountain on the island on their day off which initially was an issue for the island’s administration. Ordinarily access is restricted for tourists with island guides as the paths can be dangerous. But when it was explained that most of our team are experienced outdoor people and some are qualified guides they granted guide status to a couple of the guys to lead the others.” Other past-times on Tristan include mountain biking, fishing and socialising at the island’s pub, the Albatross Bar, which doubles up as the village hall.


Kate said: “Mark’s been working in far flung places like Antarctica for about 10 years. There was no role for me there but there is here. Previously I’ve been left at home just hearing about it but to see what Mark’s job is and how it works has been fascinating. I used to paint pictures from the point of view of the people who stay behind like sailors’ wives in the old days. Now I have the chance to see for myself exactly what it is he and his colleagues do and it’s fascinating. I have got a bit homesick from time to time which surprised me as I’ve been travelling with my husband. I have got to know many of the islanders and can always call round to someone’s house after work if I am missing my friends at home.  Christmas cards from them which were posted to us in early November didn’t arrive until the end of January.

“The comings and goings of ships are huge events. Partings here are always emotional. No-one is quite sure when they will see each other again.  If we’re lucky we get a couple of visits per month either by the island’s supply ship or a passing naval vessel, private yachts and, the other day, a tall ship with 35 student trainees and 10 teaching staff which stopped off for a day. Because of Tristan’s extreme remoteness there is very little tourism. Most of the islanders make their living from working for the government, finance department, school, shops, hospital and post office or crayfish factory. Many of them also keep cows and sheep and grow potatoes on parcels of land they call the patches.”


Read more news stories in
Building and ConstructionDerbyshire