As we progressed further away from the camp (and from the road from which most interlopers are likely to have travelled) the vegetation became wilder. We journeyed through a still pool of water for nearly a kilometre. Then I notice up ahead that our way was almost completely blocked by rocks jutting out of the water. A few of these were full grown islands on which were small trees. I noticed many birds took up perches here, no doubt hoping they were safe from jungle predators. As we got closer, I realised that the rocks did not cover the whole riverbed, nor even cause any cascades, the water moved smoothly through several well defined channels. Once or twice we could see submerged rocks that slightly scraped the base of our canoe, and I could imagine in the dry season navigating by canoe would be much more difficult. And by seeing the exposed areas around us, I could also see that in the main wet season the river level could go much higher, and again the currents might stop easy navigation.
As we followed the twists and turns of the river through these rocks we became aware of a lot of bashing in the trees to our right. Monkeys were bouncing from branch to branch; eventually we realised they were tracking us from the bank, rushing along for a few seconds then peering out at us to see what our reaction was.
We dropped down below the rocks in to another large still pool in the river; it bent gently round the left and opened up into a long strait. The sky had all but cleared, just the odd small cumulus cloud peppering the horizon, and the water reflected it like a mirror. With the exception of a few slight ripples, and the odd ring created by a gulping fish, the only break was way in the distance. Through binoculars I could see two brownish lumps above the water edge – maybe more rocks, but then I noticed something flickering above these rocks; their ears. The rocks were moving too and causing a little ring of disturbance around them. We were fast approaching a herd of hippos. As we got closer it was obvious these creatures had been observing us since we turned into the strait but they were calm about it; they just watched, occasionally flicked flies with their ears and apart from their eyes and forehead, nothing else of them could be seen. The warden was quite happy to lead us close to them, on the shore furthest away from the herd. As we drew parallel we were aware it was not just two animals, more heads appeared from below the water also not too concerned with us. The first animal we had spotted still intently watched us, and was well positioned between us and the rest of the herd. It was fairly obvious this was the dominant bull protecting his family.
Spot the ears
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.
Ready to board the launch
Easing out of James Bay
Jamestown left behind
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.
Guano marks the spot
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.
The precipitous valleys that meet the sea
The stacks off in the distance
Smugglers cave? most likely not
Where Lemon Valley meets the sea
Picnic site in the caves