As far as you can go – The Reclining Helena fades away

Then the farewells , the jokes, the hugs and the kisses have to stop.  The officials in the port start to gather the passengers for their security checks (yes even here) and line them up for the launch departures.  That moment where you drop down off the main wharf on the little platform under the cliffs to swing over to the launch, and sit there in your red lifejackets staring up at those left ashore, know you have left the island, but know you will be able to see it for several more hours to come, is another emotional hurdle to plough through.  No quick take off and away like aircraft.  The launch roars into full throttle and away you go – boarding the ship once more, the welcome and familiarity of the rooms and the staff, anticipation at the days of nice food and silly games.  But you must go up on deck one more time and look at the island.

And once you are there you cannot leave that deck.  You grab a mug of tea in your hand and piece of cake and head out, and with all the passengers, some you know, some you don’t, you longingly stare back at Jamestown proudly sitting in its gorge, the ladder and , if you are lucky, a glimpse of the green heartland in the clouds above.

You sit there for what seems like hours as all the official activities are seen through, finally the land crew disembark, the final doors are closed, but still you stare back at the land, you cannot bring yourself to embrace the ship.  You might be dragged back in for the safety briefing but once complete you are back on deck.  The island is starting to recede; first it gives you a wider view of the island – you spot a few new features you now know well – Flagstaff Hill, there is Lemon Valley, High Knoll Fort becomes prominent and you see the houses of Half Tree Hollow below.  Look – there is the Barn standing out at the end of the island one end, and now the peaks are standing proud as a backdrop.

Now it is starting to become fuzzy, the late afternoon haze is making the detail less visible.  But the overall shape of the island gives one final surprise – you see the shape of a beautiful maiden, maybe St Helena herself, lying on one side across the ocean, her shoulder pointing up where you used to know Flagstaff Hill was, and the Barn has taken on the curious shape of her curly hair.

I always planned to stay out here until the island sank beneath the horizon.  But it never did. It just faded, and faded and faded and then, no matter how tightly I screwed up my eyes, I could not be sure what I was seeing was land or just a billowing cloud.

St Helena was gone.

As far as you can go – Joyful memories, Tearful farewells

When Edsel was with me we had a couple of wonderful evenings to say goodbye – at both Annie’s Place where a special buffet was put on, and at the Wellington House with a sit down dinner.  I was slightly taken aback that so many people with whom we had worked had come to spend time with us and give us a rousing farewell.  Saints are like that, not just the excuse for a party, but a feeling they want to support people they believe have become friends.

When the time came the next day to go down to the wharf and head to the RMS, a surreal atmosphere seems to take over the whole island.  I experienced it alone the first time, just a visitor to St Helena on the edge of society there able to observe.  And I was almost crying when I swung on to the launch.  On my second trip, and Edsel’s first, I warned him that he was to see some poignant scenes and he should be ready.  He mocked me and said, “Yeah man, you think I’m going to cry”, and feigned wiping both his eyes.  I said in a low voice, “just watch what happens”.

There is routine in the boarding process, cases often have to be down at the customs shed well in advance.  Tickets are checked, and you are given a time to be ready for embarkation.  When the time comes for embarkation we headed down to the car park on the wharf, and found a few hundred people there, not just the passengers waiting for their launch, but whole families, friends, colleagues you have worked with.  We were always accompanied by one of the NT people, but once down on the wharf we would find so many people we had interacted with, and there was a handshake, a hug, a kiss as we exchanged a few words of friendship.  People we had drunk within the Rock Club, danced with in the Consulate, walked with on the trails, or just wave to every time we drove round the island, would have a word for us and wish us bon voyage.

But for the families, Edsel noticed what I had been talking about.  He hung around the Benjamin’s.  Sandra and Ray were heading back to Ascension, but Ray’s dad was also travelling with us.  He had been diagnosed with cancer and was heading to the UK for treatment.  So many of the Benjamin clan were at that waterfront saying goodbye,  huge smiles, lots of cheery words, but this masked what their faces were struggling with.  The trouble with being on an island where the only form of transport only passes through maybe every three weeks or so, and being up to  a seven day trip from the UK, and costing a fortune every time…  people who lived away did not travel to St Helena very often, and vice versa.  And when you said goodbye to someone as they boarded the ship, you did not know if you would see them in a year, two, or even ever again.  And the circumstances for the next time you see them may not be happy.  As Ray’s dad was helped towards the launch, you could see the agony in the faces of those left behind, who hoped for the best, but dreaded the worse.  Were they saying goodbye for the last time?

Edsel took me aside and we leant against the railings on the promenade.  “Man, I can’t get this.  This guy is leaving the island to die”.  He almost choked on the last word.  “Yep, I said you needed to be ready for this”.  Both of us had moist eyes and broken voices.

So much love, so much heartbreak.  Another steely part of the Saint’s character is their ability to experience, share then deal with the reality of living so remotely from members of your family and your friends.

As far as you can go – The power of the RMS

Tiny, distant, away from the interaction of so much of the world but with a treasury of jewels to offer up, as well as an insight in how to live simply.  St Helena was a perfect location…. but on its own terms.  I feared the upheaval that the Access Project was to bring.  But knew there were many benefits for the island.  Since my last visit there, the Access Project has moved far beyond the consultation stage – the new port at Rupert’s Bay was put in place, a road etched out of Rupert’s Valley and onto Deadwood Plain to give access for trucks to take heavy plant, materials and supplies up to the airport site (the gate at Jamestown would never had been big enough to get what was needed through, let alone having traffic head up to the east through all the existing settlement in Jamestown and Alarm Forest), the Dry Gut is filled in, the runway built and the terminal building standing.  What will it be like when the tourists and visitors first arrive at the east end of the island and have to drop all the way in to Jamestown, instead of approaching the capital from the sea?


A runway is here now


I know what will change.  The rhythm of the island will never be the same again.  You get used to the quiet week or maybe several weeks when the RMS is away.  And you notice the ramping up of the pace of life when it draws near.  Wholesalers, traders, DIY enthusiasts, all rush down to the customs shed soon after the ship arrives to load up their pickup trucks and take their new supplies away. I saw one time where the process was too rushed.  I was sitting in the National Trust office at the end of my first visit, typing up the proposal we were making to the UK Government, when I heard an almighty crash.  We all rushed out of the office but came to a halt at the front steps, as our way was blocked by pints of yoghurt.  A small truck had picked up a month’s worth of yoghurt cartons, I think it was for Thorpe’s supermarket.  But the driver had not secured the ropes carefully enough round the palettes and as he sped up Main Street they became unstable and the load was spilt right outside the offices.  Fortunately no-one was walking along the pavement there at the time or there would have been some nasty injuries, but as it was there was a sticky mess for some time after this.  And a severe shortage of low calorie desserts for the next month!

Big events often take place on the island when the ship is in.  The same afternoon as the yoghurt spillage, I attended a moment in history.  Tucked away in a gorgeous old stone warehouse where once where electricity on the island was created, is now the island’s museum collection.  Well set out on two floors, it covers key stages in the island’s history – the early sail days, the immigration onto the island from so many nations that gave St Helena its diverse ethnic mix, the incarcerations of Zulu, Boer and of course Napoleon, the old houses and the history of the governors and other key people, the history of electricity and telegraphy, astronomy (Halley set up observatories here in the clear southern skies),  life on the island, the various RMS ships and other visiting craft, and key events.  As well as the large ground floor space there is a first floor terrace with displays.  The problem till that day was that anyone who had trouble with stairs could not visit the top floor.  So I went to see the inaugural journey of the first elevator or lift on the whole of St Helena.  The governor was there, with the bishop, the speaker of the house, the chief clerk,  the head of the National Trust, and the duty RMS captain, who presented a model of the RMS to the museum’s collection.  And the guest of honour was Mrs Thorpe, the matriarch of the Thorp family, in whose house I had been staying.  She took her place on the ground floor, and like an Aged Venus rising from the sea, she emerged to the crowd of dignitaries on the first floor.

As far as you can go – the Queens of the Ocean

The captain allowed us plenty of time with the dolphins, but I feel it was the dolphins who tired of us first. The breaches started to diminish and I noticed the fins were appearing further and further away.  Then we were left with just a few hanging round the boat and the captain decided we should move on.  He turned up the engines and we continued south west parallel to the coast of St Helena but still a couple of kilometres from the shore.  Against the deep brown cliffs we could see puffs of spray every 30 seconds or so.  This time the captain was much more cautious and dropped the engines down to their lowest speed as we got within 300m.  Then he cut the engines altogether, and we were left with the swell of waves rolling all round us, and the snort of a whale’s blowhole as the only sounds.  Attached to the clouds of spray we saw a long thin line of thick skin, barely breaking the surface of the water.  It sat there almost motionless while it breathed.  But it was quietly submerging after each breadth below the waves, returning to the surface within a couple of minutes each time.  But then it arched its great body and we saw the whole mid section of a female hump backed whale , and then its massive tail fins slip so easily through the surface with hardly a splash as it started to dive deep down.

The captain was on the lookout again, and off in the distance another kilometre or so to the west he spotted another tell tale spouts.  We headed out that way, but this meant leaving the lee of the island and we were soon in rougher water.  It was not so bad as we moved forward but when he cut the engines we started to be tossed about.  He spotted that there was not one whale, there were three.  A single female that he had originally spotted, and a mother with her calf back towards the island.  We tried to watch the first, but the waves made it very difficult for the captain to keep us steady.  Added to the fact most of his manifest were on one side of the boat it was in danger of capsizing.  Just before he decided to take us back to the leeside, our whale lunged out of the water and slipped downwards with a farewell wave of her forked tail before disappearing forever.

The mother and calf were not going anywhere and the captain gently turned the boat round, battled as slowly and carefully as the choppy waves would allow back to the lee of the island and we were able to come to a halt barely a 100m from the family.  At first it appeared that the mother only was on the surface.  But then someone spotted that the calf was resting up on the neck of the mother, if indeed you can call that bit between the eye and the rest of the body a neck on a whale.  To see such tenderness expressed so simply by some of the most massive creatures that have ever been on earth was sheer bliss.  And although you sensed the mother knew we were present and hanging around she were sure she was confident enough not to let it trouble her.  I learnt from some marine experts on island that St Helena was treated by some humped backed whales as a nursery; a quiet zone away from the sexual hunting that goes on when the males are around, or the drudge of feeding that must go on in the Southern Ocean – constantly searching for krill shoals.  Here the children could grow up, become confident, be away from predation by orcas, and bond closely with their mothers.  And to see that bonding happening right in front of us was a magical moment.  Eventually , the mother’s tolerance came to an end, and she dove with her calf in tow, and the experience was at an end.

As far as you can go – The Dolphins come to play

But before all that we had a mission to say hello to two species of the ocean.  About 5km offshore the captain stopped the engines and the crew took up locations around the boat, one up in the raised bridge.  All the tourists looked too but we were inexperienced spotters and it was one of the crew who eventually shouted up to the bridge and pointed south west of us.  The captain thrust the engine forward and we circled round to that heading.  For about a minute we made progress at full speed and then dropped down to half, but he needn’t have worried.  We were soon joined by the animals who were too inquisitive to keep away.  These were pan-tropical spotted dolphins.  At first we saw a few gently breaking the surface with their fins, one at a time, then two or three together. Some were to starboard, others to port.  If you looked down you could see them under the surface keeping pace with the boat.

I recognized the game the operators were having with us.  Yes they did have to search a little for this pod, but they knew ultimately they would find them; to an extent that sitting quietly in the open ocean was just to raise our anticipation.  There was no question of us being disappointed.  And here we were, in amongst a pod of 50-100 dolphins all playing about in the water around us, maybe even for us.  A few would breach , toss about in the air and fall down, some would just do a little jump, flick their tails and pop back under the surface.  I took hundreds of photos and plenty of video from my little camera.  Most of it was useless as by the time you focused in on the jumping dolphin and took a shot he had already gone back beneath the surface.  You just had to anticipate the action and keep shooting – thank heavens for the days of digital photography.  In some ways it was better not looking down the lens of the camera and I took time out of my hopeless photography just to wallow in this spectacle happening all around me, hearing the whoops and cries of the people on board as yet another magical trick was presented somewhere round the boat.

As far as you can go – Heading out into the ocean

And of course, from this point you could see miles and miles of ocean with nothing else to break the view.  For most of my time on St Helena it was like the people cut themselves off from the sea, they lived for the most part in Jamestown, and the steep sides of the gorge kept you from seeing the coast, or in the leafy interior.  With so few places to access the sea it was ignored.  But there were a group of people who made their living from the sea, and several more who from time to time head off the land.  The waters around St Helena are rich in life, partly the position of this massive volcano rising thousands of metres from the ocean deep bring up huge amounts of nutrients from the floor which make plankton life bloom and start the whole food chain off.  Migrating and sedentary fish populations  feed the island;  like in Ascension, the Yellow Fin Tuna abound.  Two ships are registered in St Helena to trawl a massive empty quadrant of ocean almost alone, coming in to Rupert’s Bay to offload their cargoes for the canning factory there to make valuable export pounds.

We knew of a few people who had smaller fishing boats and sold to the local markets, and would take their friends and relatives out for fishing trips along the north west coast.  And once in a while special tourist trips would head out.  I took two of these and they gave me some of the most phenomenal experiences of my life.

We used one of the launches that ferried people to the RMS, and we used the same set of ropes we had on which we embarked to St Helena to board.  Then we headed out of James Bay.  Both times the water was surprisingly calm and we headed perpendicular to land.  The fantastic views of the island from this angle reiterated its fortress qualities – the huge cliffs almost completely surrounding.  Later we would come in close to the coast and spot the numerous noddy and booby colonies along the shore and on the stacks; their nests well away from potential predators on steep cliffs.

And we would see the marvellous geological formations, layers of different soft rocks spewed out by volcanoes and twisted and turned over time by the plate movements and more rock being laid overhead.  And the interplay between this rock and the relentless erosive quality of water.  If you said what was stronger, rock or water, you would naturally take the solid’s side, but if you were in this for the long term you saw how the ocean could lay waste a whole continent.  And we went in close to some of the little isolated batteries set up along that coast, particularly at the vulnerable Lemon Valley.  I always regret not having had a chance to walk down this valley from the top of St Paul’s but at least I saw its secret exit to the ocean.

As far as you can go – from the redoubt

Even at these lookout locations you only saw part of the island.  And from the tops of Diana’s Peaks you were so high up and the valley’s so steep that you could only make out some of the key features.  The one place in the island where you really got a sense of the tiny rock you were on and how close all the villages and valleys were was on the redoubt.   I had left visiting this castle, called High Knoll Fort, till the end of my first visit, despite it being an ever present part of my life on the island.  From some windows in my house I could see its dark walls high above me.  I drove past it several times on the road from Jamestown to Scotland, and it was visible from most places on the island.  That meant that when I finally did decide to go and see it for myself, coming off the main road and up a steep track past a couple of Half Tree Hollow’s houses through a scrubby woodland to the small gravelly car park, I knew I was going to get a wide panorama.  At the time the site was open all year round and you could just wander in.  A redoubt is a place where people and soldiers will retreat to when every other area is under threat.  Maybe that explained its position.  It sits at the back of the more populated areas of Jamestown and Half Tree Hollow and St Pauls and Alarm Forest were not so far away – basically even in historical times most of the population could get there relatively quickly.  It sits on a small rocky outcrop, and on the side up which you drive the access is relatively easy, but the eastern side drops precipitously away to the valley containing the Heart Shaped Waterfall and ultimately, Jamestown.  It is supremely defendable.

The fort is large but has a fairly simple structure.  A long almost cigar shaped curtain wall contains an open area – the assumption being it could store useful quantities of supplies to live out a long siege.  The front end contained the main defences, a round fortress – on the lines of Martello Towers used in the south east of the UK against St Helena’s most famous prisoner.  The rest of the wall was solid stone, save for a line of small square holes that made the whole place look like a giant zoetrope.  The insides of the fort had few artefacts and not a massive amount of form, but to me that was not important.  What was vital was to walk as much of the perimeter and see out.  Give this location it managed to overlook half the island, from the Barn in the east, past Flagstaff Hill, Donkey Plain, the edges of Longwood Village, Rupert’s Valley, Alarm Forest and down to my house, Jamestown itself and Half Tree Hollow down towards Ladder Hill Fort, and then out to Horse Pasture, and to the south St Pauls and Scotland, down to the secondary School and the playing fields of Francis Plain.  And in the distance High Peak and the Diana’s Peaks.  The only parts of the island missing were Levelwood, the further reaches of Longwood and Prosperous Bay Plain, Sandy Bay and Blue Hills.  I was so glad I had left it till now as so many of the surprising twists and turns of the roads and pathways, the hidden gems of buildings and the forests and open rock I had grown to love would have been revealed too quickly; and with my usual wanderlust I would have tired quickly of “the rock” and wanted to leave too early.

But now was the perfect time, I saw how all the elements of St Helena linked together, how some places as the crow flies were closer together than others.  Longwood in particular always felt like a trek of drive from Jamestown, but now I saw how Longwood Gate was only a few miles from the centre of Jamestown, just the huge Rupert’s Valley meant you had to detour right down to the south before coming back up again.

As far as you can go – A drop in the ocean

Particularly on the first visit to St Helena, which was at the bottom of their winter and rain and cloud often shrouded the island, I could often forget I was even on an island.  The deep valleys and twisting turning roads did their best to deceive you that you were nowhere near the sea.  Unless you walked down to the coast as I suggested, rarely did you get extensive views of the ocean. The north west coast looking down from St Paul’s or Half Tree Hollow was one of those areas.  A patch of rubbly grassy land called Horse Pasture , a popular camping and holiday spot for the Saints, was on  where the rolling hillside just continued to drop away and there was nothing to impede the hugeness of the sea beyond.


Am I really in the middle of an island?

It seemed funny that on an island so small people would go away for the weekend or longer.  But I suppose like everyone, a change is as good as a rest and to leave your domestic life and go somewhere else helped their psyche enormously.  I heard from others that this was not the most extreme case of this.  On one of St Helena’s dependencies, Tristan Da Cunha, about 250 people live in the capital and only real settlement of Edinburgh-by-the-Sea.  Many take their summer holidays a couple of miles away at the end of the only road on the island.  A fertile plain allows people to plant vegetables, particularly potatoes, and here they pack their cars up and head towards to stay in  little wooden chalets in amongst the plots. And on Pitcairn the 50 or so people who live there like to live dangerously by boarding a big wooden boat and rocking around on the waves for a few hours.  The thought that half the population of the island might be wiped out if something happened to that boat seems not to cross their minds.


Half Tree Hollow and the ocean beyond

Half Tree Hollow was another place where you looked out at the ocean, and I went to Ladder Hill Fort at the bottom of the town (but the top of Jacob’s Ladder) and sat on the cliff edge looking out north westwards – some 750 miles back to Ascension Island then nothing but ocean till you got to Bermuda and North America.  This side of the island was a good spot to look out for the RMS coming in from Ascension.  Cathy Hopkins and her husband, Keith’s house at the foot of Alarm Forest had a great view out over James Bay and Keith told me he often would await the coming of the RMS with his binoculars trained on the horizon and watch it approach for the last hour or so of its long journey.

While on the island I had kept busy, enjoyed the scenery and the people, and not thought too much about how far away I was from anything else.  But when you saw the ocean stretching off for miles in any direction, no distant island in site and no ships passing by, you did get that feeling of isolation well up inside you.  The sky was silent too – Cathy did tell me that once a week you might get to see a plane go by.  It had been worked out that it was some American airline flying a weekly service from Johannesburg to New York.  People knew roughly what time it would head over and would specially go outside to see if they could spot it.  Sometimes it came right over head, but more often you had to look off out to sea to the north to get  a glimpse of its contrail.

As far as you can go – A Picnic and Snorkel near the roaring ocean

The walking party made their base camp on a grey shingle beach at the back of the ponds and we ate our much needed packed lunches.  Then those who wanted to sun bathe settled back.  I did several forays over the rocks and took a look in the pools, but I had brought my snorkelling gear all the way from the UK and in six weeks on Ascension Island and St Helena I had not used it once, so I put on a spare t shirt, stripped down to my bathing shorts, plonked on the mask and snorkel and waded in my coral shoes into the deepest pool.  If was freezing!  But in front of twenty people I was not going to chicken out so I plunged into the water.  I was glad I did, as to be able to watch the zebra fish, the anemones and shrimps at eye level was enchanting.  But my body could only survive a couple of minutes at this temperature, so I came spluttering out to vigorously towel myself down and absorb as much heat from the sun that I could.  The contrast between the calm water in the pools and the raging Atlantic Ocean beyond the rocks was startling.  Lot’s Wife Ponds were renowned as one of the few places you could swim in St Helena, the others being a small area under the cliffs off the wharf in Jamestown, and Jamestown Swimming Pool itself next to the castle.  Almost anywhere else you ran the risk of being swept out to sea by a single wave, and with no lifeguards or easy access to boats, there would be little chance of being saved.

Above all the characteristics of the Saints which I had come to love over time, it was this ease with which they lived on this tiny rock in the middle of the ocean.  I did see frustrations; I knew some Saints who had left because they could not cope with this claustrophobia, but to see how homely, relaxed and friendly almost the whole population were, while they lived so close to some very dangerous sea, cliffs, mountains, was humbling.

As far as you can go – Dropping down to the sea

Just beyond this area, the most bizarre piece of landscape opened up.  Along the side of the mountain was a sand dune – but it was nearly vertical against the side of the hill.  The kids too great fun in climbing up it and surfing down.  It was perplexing to work out how a patch of wind borne sand had ended up here.

Paths in St Helena do not run smoothly, particularly out here on the very edge of the island.  Just before we reached our destination, the path ran out completely.  A metal spike marked its termination and route now involved heading down a gnarled old piece of rope attached to the spike.  One by one we dropped down about 50 meters on a loose scree.  Small knots were tied in the rope to hold onto.  You were able to just about stand upright but no way could you walk straight down without the aid of this rope.  It was easier to face the land and come down backwards. The last few metres dropped straight down a small cliff face to the beach below and you were climbing down, not walking.

But when you reached the bottom, boy was it worth it.  We had entered a magical rocky garden, called Lot’s Wife’s Ponds.  It was another of these wave cut platforms, but bigger than any other I ever saw on St Helena.  A couple of hard pieces of rock, again probably residual  metamorphic rocks left over from the pummelling of the ocean’s force, stood proud like chimneys, and worn away into the platform were several pools of clear ocean water.  These pools were at different levels, and after scouting round the whole site, I worked out that ocean were refreshing the easternmost pools with every wave, the influx of water caused little tsunamis in that pond which then washed over as temporary waterfalls every 8-10 seconds into the next pool along and so on to a little rocky bay where it was eventually sucked out again to join the great mass of Atlantic.

It meant that the water was constantly being moved through the system, but the deeper pools in particular contained much warmer water than the ocean, and were amongst the calmest water I had seen in the whole South Atlantic.  In each pool coral was thriving.  The water was perfectly clear and without man made pollutants. Those pieces of reef were the basis for a thriving community of invertebrates and fish, safe from bigger predators from being in their own open fish tanks.