1. Lonely Island (Russia)
Arctic Ocean | Kara Sea
20km² | uninhabited
77° 29' N
82° 30' E
Loneliness lies in the centre of the Kara Sea in the northern Arctic Ocean. This island is
worthy of its name: it is cold and barren, trapped in pack ice all winter, with an average
annual temperature of -16 degrees; at the height of summer the temperature sometimes rises to just over freezing.
No one lives here
A former polar observatory has sunk into the snow and abandoned buildings doze in the belly of the bay, facing the narrow spit of land beyond the frozen marsh.
The observatory – one of the Soviet Union’s largest – was rebuilt during the Cold War. The name that the Norwegian captain from Tromsø had given the island was forgotten – in Russian, Lonely Island became Solitude Island.
The logbook contains precise records of the chief mechanic’s maintenance work: the levels of oil and petrol in every machine.
The final entry in red felt-tip spills over the confines of the columns: 23 November 1996: The evacuation order came today. Pouring the water out. Turned off diesel generator. The station is … The final word is illegible.
2. Rudolf Island
Also known as Crown Prince Rudolf Land
297 km ² | uninhabited
81° 46' N
58° 56' E
The sleds are travelling north in -50 degrees, laden with thirty pounds of bear meat, heading towards the next latitude. The bleeding paws of the sled dogs stain the snow.
Glaciers glisten and crack in the sunshine.
The landscape is barren, bare and white, like the map. The atlas has few blank spaces now; the last are waiting to be labelled at the edge of the world: the no-man’s land with no cardinal points.
The silent place which determines the direction of the compass needle has not been reached, so the riddle of the Northwest Passage remains unsolved: the dream of an open sea warmed by the Gulf Stream, a navigable passage, an ice-bound route to India.
Leaving the sleds behind, they sleep in glacier fissures and continue northwards on foot, led by Lieutenant Julius Payer, who was the first man to climb over thirty Alpine peaks and is now the commander of the expedition in this country.
But this is not a country
The compass shows that they have crossed the 82nd parallel north, a further invisible line in the snow which the lieutenant records on his silent map. In the evening, they reach the edge of Crown Prince Land.
What lies before them is not a navigable sea, but a gigantic open expanse surrounded by old ice. Mountainous clouds shimmer on the horizon.
The lieutenant sketches flowing lines on the piece of paper one last time: Cape Felder, Cape Sherard Osborn and the southern tip of Petermann Land.
They drive the Austro-Hungarian flag into the rocky ground and cast a bottle containing a message off a cliff ledge. Words frozen for future witnesses: Cape Fligely,12 April 1874, 82°, 5°, northernmost point. Thus far and no further.
3. Pingelap Caroline Islands
1.8 km ² | 250 inhabitants
6° 13' N
160° 42' E
Even the pigs on this island are black and white. It is as if they have been made specially
for the seventy-five people of Pingelap who see no colour: not the fiery crimson
of the sunset, not the azure of the ocean, not the garish yellow of the ripe papaya, nor
the ever-present deep green of the dense jungle of breadfruit palms, coconut palms and
A tiny mutation in chromosome number eight and Typhoon Lienkieki, which laid waste to the island centuries ago, are responsible. Only twenty Pingelap inhabitants survived the typhoon and the famine that followed; one of them carried the recessive gene that soon made its presence known as a result of inbreeding.
Today, 10 per cent of the population of Pingelap is completely colour blind, compared to a rate of one in thirty thousand elsewhere. They avoid light, avoid the day, and often only leave their huts at dusk. Many claim to always remember their dreams, and some say that they can see dark shoals of fish in deep water at night – they spot them by the faint moonlight reflected on the fins.
4. Deception Island
98.5 km ² | uninhabited
62° 57' S
60° 38' W
The entrance to the caldera is easy to miss: it is less than two hundred metres wide.
Here in Neptunes Bellows, at the gates of hell, in the jaws of the dragon, the waves crash interminably. Behind it, hidden beneath the dozing volcano, is one of the safest harbours in the world: Whaler’s Bay.
Apart from a handful of Chilean stokers, two hundred Norwegians live here, along with one woman: Marie Betsy Rasmussen, the first female ever to be in Antarctica. She is the wife of Captain Adolf Amandus Andresen, the manager of one of the three companies who have been whaling here for two years.
A steamer captures up to six whales and ships them to the bay in the evening. On the dark beach, the whalers hack the baleen away from the jaws, pull the skin off, separate blubber from flesh, and boil the white gold in giant containers to extract the whale oil.
The whale skeletons show white against the dark sand, the water is red with blood and the stench of rotting flesh fills the air. Thousands of plundered bodies decompose in the crater’s overflowing pond.
5. Banaba (Kiribati)
Also known as Ocean Island
6.5 km ² | 301 inhabitants
0° 51' S
169° 32' E
The Banabans’ most important tool is made of wild almond wood and sharpened
turtle shell. It is used to tattoo the skin with ink made of a dark paste of coconut ash
mixed with salt and fresh water.
The patterns are strictly prescribed. They are applied singly or repeated: straight and curved lines from which feathered lines grow. The head and the legs – practically the whole body – are tattooed. It is a preparation for the afterlife.
The souls of the dead journey to the west, where Nei Karamakuna, the woman
with the bird’s head, blocks the way and demands her favourite food: the patterns in
their skin. She pecks the ink out of their limbs and their faces with her mighty beak, and
grants spirit eyes to the dead in thanks, so that they can find their way to the spirit world.
Yet it was the birds who made this land.
They nested on a swelling in the sea and left their droppings, which sank into the water and hardened into phosphate of lime on the reef. This layer grew many metres thick and rose above sea level, forming an island of pure phosphate.
The Atlas of Remote Islands:
Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will
By Judith Schalansky