Hunting for wasps and chickens – A new way of living

Life of the island was turned upside down, even geographically.   The southern third was left as an uninhabitable exclusion zone, a further third declared an intermediate zone where no-one can live but some activity, the odd farmer’s field, can continue.   The rest of the island’s activities are squeezed into the remaining third, previously the less developed end of the island.  The government was located on a steep hillside at Brades near a small sheltered bay on the north western side of the island.  With no functioning airport everything  had to come in by sea to this bay.  The population reduced to only 3000.  The social and economic problems associated with this upheaval caused great tensions, exacerbated by an insensitive reaction from the UK Government, culminating in the response from Clare Short when the Montserratians asked for more help that “they will be asking for golden elephants next.”

The activity at the volcano eventually calmed, but with occasional large events and frequent clouds of sulphur, ash and material flows, Soufriere is still a dominant neighbour of the nervous Montserratians trying to re-establish their lives at the other end of the island.  New estates have now been built on the hillsides and some returnees have swollen the population up to nearly 6000.  The smaller villages down the west side have remained too, and a new capital at Little Bay below Brades is being formalised moving from emergency portacabins into proper buildings, for government, market, infrastructure.  A new airport was built straddling the central ridge of the island in the north.  It has been a slow process.

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New housing to replace what was buried at the other end of the island

Into the Jungle – Finding a way across the Lagoon

Over the years there have been various methods for doing this.  The slowest would be to travel round the estuary by road, but this would be a trip of over 100km and could take up to 5 or 6 hours.  It meant going north to the main road to Conakry before sweeping round the headwaters of the estuary then approach Freetown from the south east along the peninsula containing its high mountains.

The second slowest would be the car ferry.  A twenty minute drive south from the airport to the tip of the Lungi peninsula followed by a wait for to board an old ferry with every truck, bus, minibus, bicycle and a throng of people on every trip for the hour or so crossing to Kissy.  I never took this one as it would leave me on the wrong side of town for both my work and accommodation in the west of the city, and at most times of the day travelling through central Freetown you were ensured of gridlock.  The potential for delays (and missing flights) and personal security issues made this one for the bold and brave only.

The fastest route at one time would be an incredibly cheap helicopter ride that would make the crossing to the western suburbs of Freetown in around 10 minutes direct from Lungi airfield.  But they were operated by poorly maintained Mil-M8 Russian copters, and the service came to a dramatic halt in 2004 when 22 people were killed at Lungi Airport as one of the craft came in land but crashed instead.

Another alternative had been to take a ropey old hovercraft from the beach near Lungi to the little peninsula at the tip of Freetown, a district called Aberdeen.  One day this sunk midway across the channel and all the passengers were rescued by other craft.

So you can see why I started calling the trip back and forth between Freetown and the airport as “running the gauntlet”.  Fortunately there was one more option which I always took. On some occasions it was a dream, others it seemed a never ending drudge.  But it was a happy compromise between speed and safety and actually deposited me on the right side of town in Aberdeen. This was the Pelican, or Sea Coach Express.

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Waiting for our ferry

The Ankle Deep Sea – Goodbye Rodrigues…. Goodbye Mum

My fellow passengers were a mix of intrepid tourists, government officials and Rodriguans heading across the gap between the two islands.  The little prop plane lifted out over the wide blue expanse of the lagoon, the reef, the sand, the fringing islands and then the deep blue Indian Ocean below me.  Another project colleague Paul, picked me up from the airport and I spent a difficult night at the project house in Calodyne.  At this stage I just wanted to get back to my family.  Every hour I was in the wrong place was painful.   I drove us to the airport the next morning, narrowly avoiding a speeding ticket from a cop on the motorway near Curepipe once I explained the circumstances.

As the plane pulled out over the Grand Port lagoon, turned left over the eastern part of Mauritius and set its course for the UK, I still felt numb.   I was so grateful at the understanding from Mike and Jeremy, from the consulting firm I was working for, and later I got so many messages of condolence from the people in the Mauritian government with whom I had been working – the incident over the visa issue totally forgotten.   The next couple of weeks would be intense, but in fact the whole of life would now be different.

The Adopted Dog – The ups and downs of a small island

This was the last time I went to St Vincent to date.  I had spent so much time there over the previous seven years, it had become one of the most familiar destinations for my work, and pleasure.  That I still could find new interests here in this tiny country is a testament to how diverse and wonderful small island nations can be.  It has changed somewhat since – the new airport in Argyle is now close to completion.  The disastrous cricket ground for the World Cup sits as a sore reminder of bad planning in Arnos Vale.  I am sure more hillsides are being covered in houses, squats or not, and the number of resorts, villas, marinas are increasing, particularly in the Grenadines.  I wonder what happened to the little dog we adopted.

I just hope the character of St Vincent and the Grenadines is preserved as they continue to strive to develop and it does not become just yet another Caribbean island emulating the USA and capitulating to the tourist dollar at the expense of a more diverse island.  To increase diversity away from the banana industry was a prime objective of the work we were doing.  The more I explored St Vincent the more I saw it was already very diverse; maybe there is a way of capturing that for the good of its whole population

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Kingstown

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?

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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 – 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 – Dinner with the Governor

Probably because it had the best of both worlds – lots of greenery and a drier, temperate climate, many of the more salubrious properties were located here in St. Paul’s, as well as some of the island’s institutions.  The district is named after the island’s cathedral,  modest in size but distinctive architecturally with its tiny bell tower at the west door (which with religious perversity is of course at the east end of the building).  Just around the corner is Plantation House, where the Governor of St Helena resides.  St Helena has several grand edifices, often of that clean cut Georgian style, but none are as arresting as Plantation House.  Not just its size but the bright yellow cream exterior with highlights picked out in white at the time, and also its long sweeping lawn looking out towards the ocean to the north west it is positioned well to be admired by all who approach from town.  I once was invited to dinner at the Governor’s House.  I parked my car up and walked over the gravel path to the imposing porchway.  Greeted by one of the governor’s staff I was one of half a dozen he had invited that night.  At the time, the Governor was Michael Clancy.  I already knew him – I had been walking with him with a Sunday group and come across him a couple of times in meetings I had held on island.  His wife was usually off island, having a busy career in the UK.  What it must be like eating alone in this big empty house, I did not dare contemplate.  While trying to look sophisticated and act all bonhomie, I could not help gawping at the eclectic collections of paintings, porcelain, furniture and curios in the residence.  Most had some connection with St Helena, and I was taken aback by the number of artists who had painted scenes around the island.  The old maps also fascinated me of course.

We were taken in to a private dining room and sat round a large table.  A waiter served the food from silver salvers and porcelain tureens, but I must say the quality, while nourishing, was more homely than haute cuisine.  A vegetable soup that could have come from a Heinz tin, beef with veg, and a thick crusted apple pie with custard.  Like most of these types of dinners, it was not just a courtesy invitation, Clancy was there to ask advice and gain knowledge.  Being my first visit on the island I had little local experience to offer but I did try and make comparisons with Caribbean Islands.  Trouble is only a couple of Caribbean islands are comparable enough in size with St Helena and none had the issues of isolation that the Governor was dealing with.  Another guest that night was Nigel Kirby.  I had been on the ship down with him and knew him to be the long term project manager to evaluate the needs for an airport on the island, develop the options for how to build it and tender it out to commercial concerns.  At that stage the negotiations had already been going on for many years.  There was a push from the British Government to give air access to St Helena as supporting the RMS was incredibly costly.  In some ways the subsidy to keep people on St Helena was one of the largest of any of the UK Overseas Territories, but much of it went into getting people and cargo on and off the island.  Relatively speaking the incomes and standards of living on island were very low, and there was a lack of investment in on-island infrastructure, industry or environment.  The issue of changing the method of access to St Helena had so many implications on the landscape, economics and culture of the island that the debate had been a difficult one for an island who had not had such a huge issue to deal with since Napoleon had been incarcerated there.