Already since early childhood I have been obsessed with geography, travelling and discovering other cultures. In a way it was one of the first signs of my Asperger Syndrome. The obsession with geography caused me to spend hours and hours per week locked up in my room to read through maps and travel guides. I could stare for hours to very tiny little dots such as Puerto Williams, Pitcairn Islands, Kirkenes, … wondering how they would be like in real. The passion for geography never faded and it is still a passion now, more than 20 years after that childhood.
The extremes always have a certain attraction. The most isolated place in the world, the remotest inhabited island, the northernmost village on earth, the coldest place on earth, … Places few people know of and places few people have ever been. The first of my travel articles is dedicated to the remotest island in the world: Bouvetøya, or in English: Bouvet Island.
My fascination with Bouvet Island is not only because it is the remotest island on earth, but also because of the mystery surrounding it. A thick mist of mistery has always surrounded this tiny island. I remember my favourite book, the Dutch language book Eilanden (translated as Islands) by Dutch writer Boudewijn Büch. In this book he, in very pleasant reading style, described a 30 some islands of whom most people don’t even know where to locate them on the map. The book included islands such as Pitcairn, Socotra, and indeed Bouvet. Bouvet only recently revealed itself somewhat to the outside world. For long time, the island was so hard to access due to the extremely rough seas surrounding it and due to the extremely rough climate, that ships could not come near the island. Thus, early maps showing the tiny island sometimes contradicted itself as for its exact location. Büch described the island as "people knew it existed, but that was all they knew". The exact location was for a long time a mystery.
Bouvetøya is Norwegian territory even if it is nowhere close to Norway. It is at 60°S latitude and thus not subject to the Antarctic Treaty, hence Norway has complete control over the island located in the southern Atlantic Ocean, close to Antarctica. The island is 2,525 km away from South Africa. The exact latitude is 54°26’S 3°24’E. Excluding a few very tiny rocks and islet surrounding Bouvetøya, the nearest landmass is the Queen Maud Land of Antarctica, over 1,750 kilometres away but also uninhabited, like Bouvet itself. Cape Town is about 2500 km northeast, and is the nearest populated place of any importance. The nearest inhabited place overall is Tristan Da Cunha island at 2,260 km distance, however note that Tristan Da Cunha itself is the remotest populated place on earth, the UK territory has only a 250 some citizens.
The island is 49 square kilometers in size. Bouvetøya is volcanic; the center of the island is the Wilhelm II Plateau which is an ice-filled crater of an inactive volcano. Olavtoppen is the highest point of the island with 780 m above sea level. One of the reasons why the island is so hard to approach and thus for long time was hard to locate, is that the island is in the middle of very rough seas and extremely harsh climate, and the island is quite steep. In fact it is like a steep icy rock, almost impossible to come close with a ship and to make a harbour. Coming close to the island per boat and trying to set foot on land that way, is in 99 percent of cases like signing your own death certificate. The only somewhat safe way to set foot on the island is by helicopters taking off from a ship that remains at a safe distance from the island. Not that this is totally easy because remind the sub-antarctic seas can get quite rough. Pack ice surrounding the island is also very common.
The harsh climate, rough seas and unaccessible nature of this island made it very difficult to determine the exact location for early explorers. The first discovery was probably on 1/1/1739 by Jean Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier. James Cook tried to find the island because the earlier sight did not lead to an exact location. Cook didn’t even manage to see the island, and thought earlier sights must have mistaken an iceberg for an island. This all contributed to the mystery surrounding Bouvet Island, exactly what Büch wrote about in his book. Only in 1808 the island was seen again by James Lindsay, who named it Lindsay Island because it was too far off the assumed position of Bouvet earlier described, he thus thought he had seen another island than Bouvet. Only later it was found out that what he saw really was Bouvet Island, and he thus became the first person to correctly position the island on a map.
The island changed names a few times as each person coming close or setting foot on the island somehow doubted if this was Bouvet or another island. At some point, on 10/12/1825, Norris named the island Liverpool Island and claimed it for the British Crown. He also spotted another island, which he named Thompson Island. Never again this island was seen so even today some of the mystery surrounding Bouvet remains. Luckily the name Liverpool Island (which sounds more suitable for a small rock in the Mersey River) was never retained. In 1964 an abandoned boat was found near the island but what happened to the people on the ship remains a question mark even today, yet another mystery about Bouvetøya. Another unsolved mystery is the Vela Incident, when on 22/9/1979 a satellite spotted a strange flash of light between Bouvetøya and the Prince Edward Islands.
So as you can see, this very tiny extremely remote island has been subject to a lot of mysteries. But at least we now know the exact location, and the country governing this unpopulated island. Norway annexed the island in 1928, it became a Norwegian dependency two years later, and a nature reserve since 1971.
This however does not end the bizarre facts about the island. First of all the island has a cape with a quite odd name: Cape Circumcision. Despite the fact that the island it uninhabited and due to its very unaccessible nature will probably always remain as such, it has its own ISO code and internet domain .bv (which is in the hands of the Norwegian registry and remains unused until now – no .bv domains can be registered and it seems unlikely Norway will try to cash in on the extention by opening it to the public).
So to state that all we know of the island is that it exists, as Boudewijn Büch claimed, is exagerated and outdated. But for sure some mysteries remain unresolved. The island for sure is, despite its tiny size and remoteness, one of the more fascinating islands on this globe. Unfortunately, exactly because its remoteness and location, it is unlikely that any person other than scientists, will ever set foot on the island.