From the sea, St Helena looks like a fortress with huge, sheer cliffs completely encircling the land mass. Only in three places can you drive a car to the coast. From the deck of the RMS we were facing two of these right now. To my left was Rupert’s Bay, where the oil supply for the island would be transhipped, and the tuna from the fishermen of St Helena exported. To the right was Jamestown where most of the rest of the cargo of the island was offloaded and, of course, us.
Even Jamestown looks like a fortress. Apart from the wharf, a small swimming pool and a tiny park, the rest of the town is hidden up the valley behind a strong white castle wall. I could just make out a cluster of handsome buildings and a sturdy church tower crammed into the valley. But the most striking feature in front of us was a set of steps. In the half light of an early morning they were lit by a string of lamps and reached from the town to the top of the cliff. This is the longest set of single flight steps in the world and one of several key landmarks that I wanted to explore on the island – Jacob’s Ladder.
Disembarkment takes over an hour. First the immigration officers come aboard and run through the passports in the main lounge. Then the launch starts to ferry people back and forth. Down onto the floating platform – leaving behind the comfort of the ship into the blustery turbulent environment of James Bay. Then a helping hand on to the launch and the short journey to land. The cliffs look impressive enough from the ship, they are overwhelming as you draw close. Like in Ascension Island the ship cannot dock on the wharf, and has to stay about 1/2 kilometre offshore. The promenade goes from end to end of the valley mouth, but the only truly deep enough, sheltered spot to bring the launch in close is at the far eastern end. Sheltered is a relative term, as the little boat comes up close a rolling wave can easily push it close in to the overhanging cliffs. With supreme skill they keep the launch as stationary as possible while the passengers swing over on ropes onto the hard.
I had some trepidation about coming ashore after three days at sea, and I was not disappointed. The old sea legs had been quite easy to obtain on the RMS, but the land legs took about three days to find. It was not so much the wobbliness of my limbs, but the disorientation at being on solid ground. Particularly if I lowered my head to look at the ground, the earth would come up to meet me. There was a low throbbing in my head which seemed to echo the lost noise of the ship’s engines.
A small white bus sat next to the ropes and carried the frail and infirm along the wharf. Most of us elected to walk, dodging the port staff starting the process of bring ashore the containers. One large crane was already in position hanging over the sea wall in readiness for the barge.
We headed into an open shed where the hold cases had been already discharged. But this first trip to St Helena was the only time that happened. Once I arrived early evening and although it was dark we were allowed off. Our hold baggage did not make it though and we had to make do with overnight bags before heading back down to the wharf the following afternoon to retrieve our bags.