When we arrived at the end of January from South Africa, we explained to Hannes that we planned to stay on this remote British outpost for about a week. His retort, “what are we going to do for a week on St Helena?”. In fact he was surprised at just how much there is to do. Remote it may be, but the hiking trails are many and the scenery varied – from arid to lush. Armed with an Ordnance Survey map of the island, he got himself organised very quickly to go off bivouacking on his own for 3 days, and walked a significant distance, which raised a few eyebrows when he explained how far afield he’d been! He returned safely if somewhat muddy but definitely enthused about his experience. In fact he wants to return one day.
For us, it was finding internet at the Colonnade Hotel, depositing 15 kg of laundry for collection at the laundrette the following day, meals ashore as the Pipistrelle galley was closed, withdrawing St Helena £’s from the only bank (there are no ATMs), sussing out what provisions we could buy and where, and then arranging a rental car so as to see as much of the island as possible in the time that we had. By then we were already enamoured of the quirky, quaint main town that is Jamestown and the friendliness of the locals. Most people greet you in the street and wave as they pass in their cars – rather as it used to be decades ago in the UK.
Our first stop were the fortifications overlooking the jumble of Jamestown architecture, and the top of Jacobs Ladder, a mere 699 stone steps. The views of the town, the anchorage and moorings were superb.
We then visited St Pauls Cathedral, close to the apex of the island, where the graveyard as always tells its own story of the family names, their origin, the military involvement, the toll of the sea and of untreatable illness in young children.
On the far side of the island we ventured to Sandy Bay, involving a drive down an incredibly steep hill with hair pin bends tighter than we can remember elsewhere on our travels. We had to walk the last two kilometres to the bay, due to the danger of flints cutting the sidewalls of the tyres. It is really 4×4 territory, but once there it was well worthwhile. More fortifications, ample opportunity to walk and explore, and we had it all to ourselves.
We then headed back up the valley, and west towards the new as yet unfinished airport, passing acres of flax, which used to be grown for export, until plastic replaced the need for hessian sacks and ropes, and the industry died, aided and abetted by Whitehall mandarins interfering in a subject that they probably knew nothing about!
Plantation House, the British Governor’s residence, originally built in 1792 for the Governor of the East India Company was our next stop, where 6 giant tortoises, all gifts from the Seychelles, live in the grounds. The oldest, Jonathan, is now believed to be 184 years old.
High Knoll Fort was built as a redoubt for the island population in the event of an invasion, in 1790, by the Dutch East India Company who used it as a staging post en route to and from the Orient. It has great views across St Helena.
Our final visit was to Longwood House, which was Napoleon’s home during the last years of his life in exile. He lived there from 1815 until he died 6 years later, while still a prisoner on the island. The house is now owned by the French Government, and has some of the original furniture and many, many exhibits regarding his life.
Our final day on the island was to enjoy a morning looking for and hopefully swimming with a whale shark. These mammals visit the island from November through until April, with January and February being the peak months. After an hour or so, the sun broke through the cloud cover, enabling the skipper, who also runs the Ferry Boat to the yacht moorings, to spot a whale shark. Our group was split into two, with about 9 people in each group donning snorkelling gear, and swimming with the whale shark. What an experience, and what a way to finish a very enjoyable six day stop at the little known destination of St Helena!
About getting ashore
We had heard stories about hanging on to a rope and ‘jumping for it’ from dinghy or ferry to set foot on land in time with the swell/surge! Some in the past had missed and fallen into the water in big swells. At times the surge is so strong that going ashore is out of the question, in which case one does not want to be on a mooring either! Fortunately, we did not have to use our dinghy as the water taxi/ferry service is cheap and reliable. We did use the ropes to steady ourselves getting ashore but fortunately encountered no big swells.
About the airport
The new airport is almost finished and should be operational in May this year. Until now, the island could be accessed only by boat – commercial or pleasure. Since the Red Sea and Suez Canal have been out of bounds for most yachts due to piracy, St Helena has gained popularity with cruisers, who are made most welcome by the authorities. The number of visiting yachts in 2015 was over 80.
It appears there are still many aspects of planning for the future that have not been thought through such as how to deliver cargo to the island once the RMS St Helena is pensioned off in July. She has been plying the seas between Cape Town, St Helena and Ascension Island for years, carrying both passengers and cargo. Her final resting place will be London and to replace her a cargo/container ship will be utilised to transport bulky goods to the island at less frequent intervals, but will not be for the exclusive use of St Helena. Where to store containers is also an issue because there is insufficient space on the current dock.
Apart from logistical considerations, what we understand is uppermost in the minds of the locals or ‘The Saints’ as they are known, is how the demise of the RMS and the advent of regular flights to the island will affect their daily lives. Their concern is the already high cost of living will become even more expensive and deliveries of everyday goods less reliable. On the other hand, the airport will put St Helena on the tourist map and thus probably boost its economy. We will see!