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.
The ocean rolls over the edge at the top
Refreshing the top ponds with clean water
The swell moves down through several ponds
The water escapes at the lower end of the ponds
And a small beach is protected from the worst of the ocean
This secret world has remarkable geological features
Hidden away below the mountains
And the ponds are crystal clear, full of life, and freezing cold!
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When the weather turns wilder the sea breaks into the ponds
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.
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.
Sand dunes on the hillside
The last leg of the walk
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.
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First view of the ponds
Clambering along the slopeside
The lower ponds
This rope is our only way down
The governor treads carefully
Clambering down the slope
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.