As far as you can go – Up through the Gates of Chaos

Our walk started by us passing through the Gates of Chaos.  It conjures up all sorts of Hieronymus Bosch style visions, but in fact was a different interpretation of hell.  It was one which was devoid of vegetation or water, and simply rock after rock stretching across steep sided valleys, jagged peaks and long ridges.  The weather was not the best and we rose up into a mizzly cloud, but as we reached the pass, blue sky started to break through and soon it was a hot sunny day.  We descended the far side in full sunshine and was able to see right along the coast to the south western tip of St Helena.  We were heading for the shore, but all I could see were deep ravenous valleys and sharply pointed ridges, and no sign of where the path was heading.  It drew a thin line across the scree in front of us, barely  a child’s foot’s width and was another of those famous St Helena pathways that not even total concentration of one foot after another could guarantee your safety.

The path started to become lower in elevation.  Above us to our right , we were now almost below Lot’s Wife; its top still obscured by swirling cloud.  It could have been mistaken for a live giant watching our progress and ready to pick off the juicier walkers when the others had gone by.

As I said, the route was devoid of vegetation; well almost.  A few lichens managed to cling on, battered by the salty winds; they stuck close to the rocks and gave them orangey or red hues. And one little plant hid away in any shelter it could find, a beautiful succulent called Devils Baby Toes.  The particular species is endemic to St Helena.  It has green fleshy and bulbous protuberances which could almost be baby toes apart from the colour, but their ends are reddened, which is why one of the common names added Devil on the front.  Everything around this part of the island seems to have more to do with Hell, or at least God’s vengeance.  In some places the baby toes had formed an extensive carpet several metres across but they were very endangered.  More common species of baby toes were prevalent elsewhere in the island but here, isolated on the south west corner was the largest known habitat of these special endemic forms.

As far as you can go – Lot and Lot’s Wife

The most dramatic of the walks, with the most enchanting destination, was the very first I did, which introduced me to the Conservation Group and the walkers who made my weekends so pleasurable on St Helena on all my trips.  It was organized by Rebecca herself and she had reached out quite widely and obtained a good turnout.  It included several tourists of the ship down, a few kids, and the governor himself, Michael Clancy.  Rebecca had organized the rendezvous to be the car park at Sandy Bay. Along with Rupert’s Bay and the wharf at Jamestown itself, this was the third and final place where you could drive an ordinary car to the beach.  Having circled round the back of the Diana’s Peak on to the ring road, you entered the small community of Sandy Bay, some three miles from the beach itself.  You turned off the main road and it steeply descended in a series of hairpins, past the community’s little church.

One spot was particularly precarious for cars with low chassis and I heard a grating noise as I dropped round a very sharp bend and the nose of the car appeared to drop vertically for a second. Although the main part of the village is up near the main road, there are a bunch of isolated farmsteads most of the way down the valley.  But the climate becomes more arid and dry as you drop down and few would want to eke out a living down in the rubble here.  But it was a popular place to come down for picnics. Rebecca had shown me round the Sandy Bay area very early in my trip; she had been trying to ensure the embattlement at the bay was properly conserved and had been having arguments with a couple of government departments on how it was being treated.  Sandy Bay is a bit of a misnomer, apart from a few pebbly bits of sand it is predominantly a rocky beach.

Despite this turtles had been known to nest here.  The waves came crashing in like anywhere in St Helena despite the bay being better protected by headlands than most.  On the day of the walk, we parked a little way up the hill – off the tarmacced road on a very hostile ridge.  It took a while for everyone to arrive (there being no mobile phone network on St Helena at the time you just had to wait and see who turned up).  I took the chance to look up the valley.  It was dominated by an amazing rock feature. A plug had formed when there had been volcanic activity on the island; the rock formed was metamorphic in that it had melted and reformed with the intense heat, and hence was a lot more dense and robust than the surrounding igneous rocks.  When those softer rocks had eroded away over the centuries, the massive plug was left high in the sky.  It had been given the name Lot by the first settlers.  Behind it in the distance was a similarly formed plug but it had eroded in to a much more slender and jagged shape; this had been labelled Lot’s Wife.

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Lot and in the distance, Lot’s wife

As far as you can go – Down to the sea

Then, abruptly, the path stopped and all I saw below me was a ravine.  One of our guides, Val, took the plunge and eased her way down on the rocks.  We all followed.  We had to work our way carefully across the solid rock, avoiding where possible the scree that could plunge us to our deaths below.  She took care to drop into the protected gaps between the rocks, sometimes having to ease down forwards, other times turn around and climb down as if on a ladder.  After about fifteen minutes of this combination of techniques we were at the bottom of the ravine.  Only now did I look up and see how far we had dropped down what was, once more, a dry waterfall.  Our nurse friend was struggling.  I don’t think she had quite appreciated that often the idea of a walk in St Helena could turn into a scramble and possibly a rock climb.  We watched her coming down for a while and where possible guided her down the right path.  I spent the time looking up at the route and wondering how easy it would be to get back up to civilisation.  I really hoped no-one would have an accident down here as it would be a near impossible job to get back up.

 

We were still not at the bottom and the walk continued steeply.  There was barely a scrap of vegetation down here, even the lichens and mosses cowered away on the underside of stones.  Pat pointed out a scorpion here (yes one of those mythical creatures I had never believed in). What it managed to eat down here was difficult to fathom, but it was a fat plump one so there must have been enough other insects or maybe a stray animal that had lost its way from the uplands.

The roar of the sea echoed up the valley; at first I thought it was coming right up from the sea, but then I noticed that directly below where we were walking, there was a large hole in the rocks and sea waves were rocking in and out at regular intervals.  It just goes to show how porous the geology of St Helena is.  We dropped a little further, took a turn to the left and found ourselves at the beach.  I say beach, in fact it was another of these wave cut platforms but at least we had something solid to sit on for lunch.  Val scouted around for a while – it had been a year or two since she had been down here , but eventually located the post box behind a rock.  Like many of the post boxes on St Helena, it was simply a long piece of white plastic piping. When you took the lid off, you would find a long piece of string.  Pulling this brought up a plastic bag in which the log (an exercise book) a pencil, rubber stamp and ink pad were placed.  We signed our names and stamped our books, but Pat noticed that the ink pad was almost dry.  He brought our his little post box first aid kit from his own haversack, and topped up the ink, sharpened the pencil with a knife, but decided against having to refresh the jiffy bag.

 

The sea was choppy, even by St Helena standards, and the platform was frequently wetted by the spray.  We walked on a short distance to the east and found a dry niche out of the worst of the wind and settled down for lunch.  What a view.  Surprising to say so considering we were at sea level.  But there are so few places where you can even walk to the sea, let alone drive to it, that you cherished those few locations where you were close to the waves.  They flooded into the gaps and weak points on the rocky beach, forcing up a mini bore which thrashed against the cliff faces, sprayed over the tops, then sucked backwards towards the ocean.

Just a hundred metres from the land was a small stack, and beyond was a larger one.  Both were coated white in bird guano and a range of boobies and noddies were squawking away the whole time we were there.  It had been dull when we arrived but as the sun came out these rocks looked more and more like elaborate wedding cakes.  After lunch people ambled around the little bay and explored the sea caves on one side, or wondered at the power of the waves.  We also marvelled at the view to the west.  While Gill Point could be technically claimed to be the most south easterly point on St Helena, the next headland along was far more impressive.  A great spired peak rose nearly 500m in a single step.  Called the Great Stone Top it shimmered magnificently in the sunlight.

 

As with most of these coastal walks, the return trip had to retrace all our steps.  Back up the first valley past the huge blowhole, scrambling up the steep ravine, rising up the valley and then finally back onto Prosperous Bay Plain.   We became very spread out, our nurse was just not fit enough for the steep climb.   Here we did deviate a little.  We walked over to a line of oil drums, filed with sand and with little flags planted atop.  The marked the proposed route of the  new airport’s runway.  At this time no physical work had started on the airport.  The runway would cross most of the length of the plain; Rebecca had been working hard to ensure that the unique habitats on the plain were conserved as best they could.  The most controversial element would be that part of the gut we had just walked through would be filled up.  I wondered if the walk would still be able to exist, whether an alternative route would have to be mapped out.  But also how awesome it might be to be walking deep in the valley and have the daily jet to South Africa take off over your head.  As usual with these developments, mixed feelings.

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My view of the airport

As far as you can go – Heading as far as you can go.

I was pleased to get to the Barn.  I was also pleased to head out to Gill Point, which is about the most south easterly point of St Helena.   It was only a week after the Barn and many of the same people were with us that day, including a nurse from England who had come down on the ship with me to take up her post at the hospital.  Our rendezvous point was just beyond the Millennium Forest, close to where the Public Works Department had a depot.  From this compound full of rusty bits of metal and piles of gravel, we soon headed out towards Prosperous Bay Plain, which is the same as the compound without the rusty bits of metal.  That is unfair – it can have that appearance at first sight, but in fact has a unique ecology and landscape that makes it rather special.  We dropped down gently in to Fishers Valley and found, nestled in amongst a patch of old gumwood trees and other low trees, there was a permanent stream.  It was another example of how St Helena turns your world upside down.  In many countries rivers start small and grow bigger as they get closer to the estuary, but so often in St Helena, streams build up in the wet highlands, push out into the drylands and either evaporate or disappear into the highly porous volcanic rock.  This one which comes from a catchment in Diana’s Peaks was more resilient than most and I think may have flowed to the sea from time to time.  That also explained the trees able to find enough water to grow this far down the slopes.

We rose gently on the other side and the ground opened up onto the plain itself.  When you are so used to the island being up and down (you never got out of third gear in the car), it made a refreshing change to see a flat area of land, and to walk around without watching every single step.  It did not last for long.   We entered the valley that would take us to the coast, and by its name, Dry Gut, we knew that we weren’t going to see a permanent stream here.  We were back on stony ground and the path started to gently descend eastwards.  We did not follow the gut closely – it obviously did flow sometimes and we saw some high dry waterfalls that dropped the gut deeper in a gorge.  The path circumvented the steep cliffs then dropped down to join the gut again.  But at about 250m above the sea, we hit one place where we could not avoid a clamber.  We reached a sharp edge and could see almost straight down to two small stacks in the sea.  To me there was no obvious way down but fortunately we had a few people on the team who had walked  the route before.  They pointed out the faint indentation in the stones which marked where a pathway had been worn away.  It zigzagged steeply for several hundred metres, managing to avoid the first cliff, but we could see another steep drop ahead of us.  We were now deep in the gully and the land, including Prosperous Bay Plain was towering above us.  On a map it appears as a tiny valley but the map cannot convey the vertical distance we were dropping.

As far as you can go – On the tightrope

This was likely to be the only chance in my life to go to the Barn, and the others in the group were up for the hike.  So I put my trust in my guides and stepped out on the exposed part of the ridge.  Once on the knife edge, I found it was not as bad as it looked.  I had to keep my wits about me, though.  I kept focused on the path at all times while I walked, and if I wanted to look at the view, I had to stop, ensure I was on a solid piece of ground before attempting to look around.  And looking around could make it worse, as if I looked down I could see little pieces of rock I had dislodged with my feet bouncing several hundred feet down the scree.  The wind would buffet into me and make me unsteady on my feet, but there was little room to spread your legs to get a better stance – the pathway was only one foot wide.

It was with some relief that the group came up against the side of the Barn itself, which offered more protection and meant we could not hear the waves crashing into the cliffs so clearly.  I was at the front of the group and we waited as the stragglers caught up.  One had had a nasty slip that had caused a small avalanche of rocks to fall down.  I hope it had not damaged the path so much we were now cut off!

Our position on the Barn still gave us the views back to Longwood and the Green Heartland but now a secret valley opened up below us – a rocky desert with no trace of human activity.   As the wind whipped the clouds across the sky, the play of light and shadow on the orange rocks below was mesmerizing.  The higher elevation of the Barn obviously caught more moisture than the valley below, our way was marked by a rich set of lichens, tough grasses and prickly pear plants.  Our guide was able to pick our way along a path which easily broke the Barn’s defences.  The path gently ascended the side of the cliff face then turned up a gully which broke out on to the flat top of the Barn.  We were not quite there, ahead was the final ascent for us – the small pimple of rock that was the Haystack.  Now we were up close we could see it was more than just one peak, it was like a Bactrian camel with two humps.  It was a deceptively long walk across the top of the Barn, and the ascent up to the top of Haystacks and the post box was one of the most punishing of the whole walk, but we were rewarded to an elevated position from which to watch the ever changing scene, and the natural cairn of rocks up here gave us a few places to nestle in away from the worst of the wind so we could eat our lunches without the sandwiches ending up in the Atlantic.

The Barn was susceptible to low cloud that day and we kept disappearing into the mist or a drizzly soaking rain, but when the mist rose we could see down the east coast of St Helena.  Beyond Longwood was one of the flattest areas on the whole island, an area labelled Prosperous Bay Plain.  Deep ravines surrounded the plain and more curiously shaped peaks – eroded volcanic piles.  One of these was labelled the Turk’s Cap – and if you looked at it at an angle, you could see the folds of the material spiralling up to a pointed peak.  I thought it looked more like a piece of dogshit.

I was fascinated in the vegetation that clung to the edge of the island here.  The lichen had strands which were several centimetres long, and like its more sophisticated vegetation cousins, the trees, they had become windblown and all pointed the same direction northwards.

Reluctantly it was time to head back.  Fortunately the wind had dropped significantly and the sun started to shine so our walk was much more pleasant.  I even took the chance to look over the razor edge ridge and down at the boiling sea.  I was interested to see that instead of seeing just a froth of white bashing against a cliff, there was a rocky beach. Not loose rocks, but solid rock jutting out into the ocean.  It appeared to be a wave cut platform where the sea has pummelled the cliff away, undercutting the solid rock on land until the cliff collapsed.  The loose material washed away to leave these platforms.  They can also form where sea level has changed but it did not look like this from my elevated position – it was just one small slab of flat rock.

As far as you can go – Heading out for the Barn

Another peak to conquer was a huge block of hillside called the Barn.  One of the main reasons St Helena always looked bigger than it actually was came down to the presence of the Barn in the north east corner.  It was not especially high, but from a distance seemed to be a cuboid shape with impossibly steep sides.  It blocked out the sea beyond from any point and you could easily be deceived that there was more land beyond.  Sitting atop was a small pimple of a hill called the Haystack and was the final destination of one of the most ambitious walks I did.

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The Barn from Millennium Forest

The walk started gently enough from Deadwood Plain.  Parked up on the grass we hiked enthusiastically across the grasslands, stopping to watch the odd wirebird en route.  We passed over a stile at the far end and the terrain became a little rougher.  You could see how the outer parts of the island had been denuded by overgrazing in the past.  Goats had stripped the vegetation down, leaving the soil exposed to the stiff Atlantic winds.  Once the topsoil was gone the rain scratched away at the sub soil, which formed little rills, that had now turned into deep gullies that continued to bight into these areas.  While efforts were being made to replant in some places, and the feral goats had been brought under control by extensive shooting forays, the damage was so extensive that wastelands were a very good description.

We had turned off a path I had chanced on my own when I had walked to Flagstaff Hill; now we turned right and went along a windy ridge. It gave us amazing views back across to Longwood and into the centre of the island, although there was a little cloud cover obscuring Diana’s Peaks themselves.  We crossed an area of wasteland here, walking on bare hardened sub soil the various minerals in the soil producing a rainbow of dramatic colours but you could see the damage from the erosion clearly. The ridge was high but the walking was easy as we were below the ridge top and protected from the worst of the wind.  However, the way forward to our destination looked precarious.  The ridge became more pointed and it steepened on the landward side, but dropped away even more precipitously on the seaward side to the crashing waves below.  In some places the pathway over to the Barn was barely a foot below the peak of the ridge.  The wind was blowing hard where we were standing – we would be fully exposed out in front.  And to add to the problems, I could not see any route up on to the Barn from the angle we were approaching.

As far as you can go – Up High Hill

We collected at the Blue Hill Community Centre, the one where Edsel and I had attended the ceilidh a week or two before.  Edsel did not accompany me on any of these, hiking was not a favourite occupation.  He would only attend if there was a specific achievement he wanted – like walking up Diana’s Peaks or seeing Napoleon’s Tomb.  This walk started gently, we headed through another of St Helena’s secret valleys with just a couple of farmsteads were tucked away down here.  This location was about as far away from Jamestown as you could go by road – a lengthy 10 miles or so back to town.  The tracks were rough but easy walking, and indeed the walk through the forest was fairly easy.  It was obvious we were reaching the outer side of the island and the forest was more of the Mediterranean style with open understory and little grass layer.  We just had to be careful of the stony ground, as they were covered in some vegetation or lichens, they could conceal nasty little holes between the rocks on which you could easily twist an ankle.

The lichens themselves were beguiling.  Years of growth in these areas so far away from any industrial pollution, the lichens grew without hindrance, they covered every stone, draped from tree branches and clung on to the trunks.  We reached the peak of High Hill.  It was not especially high, but it was the last really high point as you headed west and it stuck out plainly from the ground around.  So High maybe was not the right word  – maybe it should have been called “Higher Hill”. But still, the overall effect  gave us both marvellous views of the crown wastelands down this coast, and a chance to look back at the central massif of the island, with High Peak, Diana’s Peaks and St Paul’s in the distance.

As far as you can go -Joining the walking club

As was my way anywhere I go, on my first visit,  I made sure I bought a map from Legal and Lands of the island, and began to explore the roads of the green heartland, visit all the sites I could on my own and, where I thought it was safe, would walk off on tracks and footpaths on my own.  But walking off the main trails was a hazardous business.  The ground was covered in loose stones, the slopes were steep.  The paths are not marked well.  Added to this I saw from my maps that the roads only cover a little over a third of the island, many of the crown wastelands have no vehicle access at all.  So where there were trails there you were quite literally heading off into the wilderness – and until you walked back by the same route, you were unlikely to come across another person, let alone a vehicle, on your travels.  Weighing all the factors up, and I am not usually concerned about heading off for long treks on my own, I decided it was not a good idea to walk solo in St Helena.

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My trusty St Helena Map

Fortunately there was a solution.   On my first trip I was invited on a walk organised by Rebecca just down the road from where she lived.  It was a marvellous walk which I shall describe later.  On that walk I got to talk one on one with almost the whole group and enjoyed in particular the company of two people, Val and Pat Joshua.  I mentioned that I enjoyed walking and wanted to explore further.  They invited me to join their walking group.  They were both key people in the St Helena Nature Conservation Group which amongst other things, maintain a series of post-box walks.  Similar to the letterbox walks in Ascension Island, the trails are plotted and at the end you can find a book to record your arrival, and a unique rubber stamp and ink to record your achievement in your own booklet.  As part of this service, the group organised regular weekend walks so they can inspect the post boxes and refresh the materials in each one.  Over the three visits I did several of these and managed to get to some hard to reach corners.

Some were easy treks; I went up High Hill once with the group.  Let’s not get confused here with High Peak.  You might expect that on a small island people would be able to name things uniquely.   But no, the early naming of features on islands is left to sailors and often they use simple descriptive terms like High, Long, White, Red.   I got tired when GIS officer in BVI explaining about the six Long Bays and several White Bays.  However, BVI did have a couple of really nice placenames like Dead Chest and Throw Way Wife Bay.  While some features on St Helena, predominantly the houses and estates, had names which harked back to other locations, primarily English, or to families long established on the island,  simple features, those that were probably named first, were given simple names.  I’ve already described my visit to High Peak to watch the flax being cut, but High Hill was several miles to the west.

As far as you can go – Napoleon’s Tomb

Napoleon died on the 5th May, 1821, and there are plenty of conspiracy theories as to the method of the demise.  Some blame the arsenic used to make the wallpaper in his rooms.  Others wonder whether he was poisoned by one of the staff.  Or maybe it was the bad weather.  Or was his spirit just broken.  Officially it was recorded as stomach cancer, which could certainly have accounted for his death at the age of only 51.  Whatever the situation, a tomb was created in the forest and he was buried with minimal ceremony.  On my return to Jamestown, I stopped off on the road and went to take a look at the tomb.  The spot is in a valley, called Sane Valley, and is well marked by one of the ubiquitous white fingerposts in both English and French.  I descended a stony path through the pine forests till I reached a grassy clearing.  In the centre, the tomb is railed off, and an arrangement of flowers and endemic plants of St Helena for a picturesque little garden.  Of all the Napoleon sites, this is the most pleasant.

The tomb itself is empty.  In 1840, France negotiated a return of Napoleon’s body to Paris and he was given a hero’s welcome and state funeral.  While on a much smaller scale, I did find the reverence given to Napoleon on St Helena a bit duplicitous.  As I’ve said, he was public enemy number one, St Helena was his prison, he was a reviled figure in the British Isles.  In many circles in France he was also seen as a villain, both in domestic policies and international bungling that killed thousands of his soldiers.  But undoubtedly he is a figure of both historical and international importance, almost to a state of legend.  And for St Helena he is a rare and valuable portal for the world to know about the island.  All the tourists who had travelled on the RMS were making it a priority to visit the sites.  And many people make pilgrimages to see the place where he died.  But there still is that uneasiness within me that this was a prisoner, someone brought down, and yet he is revered in this way.

I think he also distracts from the island’s natural features and other history; the sailing ships, the other exiles, the submarine cabling and of course the lovely people.  But, I suppose, if it gets the punters in and the island noticed, it was worth preserving.

As far as you can go – Briars and Longwood

Michel manages all three sites, and gave me the tour of the Briar’s.  The single room in the pavilion had been lovingly restored as it was believed to have been during Napoleon’s occupancy.  Tasteful Georgian furniture offsets the dark green wallpaper.  Various bits of memorabilia about Napoleon are on display, including a substantial bust, which I imagine would never had been allowed during his incarceration.  I chatted to Michel for a while, but once I had looked around the room there was not much else to do at this location, and I could see he was doing this as a favour to the National Trust so I did not burden him too far.  I drove up Side Path, through Alarm Forest and headed out to the eastern end of St Helena.  Just at a gateway that heads off to the village of Longwood, I turned off and up a gravel track I parked up in front of a low but substantial building.

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The interior of the Briar’s pavilion

Longwood House was kitted out and made secure for the long term location for Napoleon.  Opinions vary as to what was the purpose of putting him over there. It was quite a way from the sea, so any attempt at a rescue would still have to battle up to the location; its exposed spot away from forests was seen as easier to secure than other houses.  Maybe it was the only sensible place available.  But I am sure there was a part that was ensuring he would be as miserable as possible.  While the residents of Longwood will defend the location, many visitors find this the most inhospitable lived in part of St Helena.  Longwood House sat on an exposed ridge, the south east trade winds blew straight in there bringing the soggiest coolest air and plenty of rain.  Napoleon reported that the house was cold and damp.  Even though it has been restored and turned in to a museum, it still had an unwelcoming air.  The furniture put into the restored house is the same tasteful Georgian style as in the Briars but here it looked uncomfortable and wrong.  On the tour you pass through various rooms, the billiard room, the drawing room where Napoleon would receive visitors, the private rooms where he tried to sleep, and, his favourite, the bathroom.  Over the six years Napoleon lived there, the visitors gradually dropped away and he became a recluse.  The house itself did not appeal to him, and his only solace was in designing and creating a garden in the grounds.  Much of his design has now been recreated and, being within walls, it is a leafy oasis on the barren ridge.