And it is not just a case of moving houses from one side of the island to the other. One of the major government policies over recent years is to reduce the dispersion of populations across the archipelago, and focus development, housing and facilities in fewer islands. The cost of administration, the logistics of education and health care, the isolation of some communities from entertainment, social care and job opportunities have caused this policy to be actively developed. Thulusdhoo already as an administrative centre for the whole atoll is one of the islands targeted.
We saw plans for about a hundred new housing plots over the western end of the island, as well as the small nature reserve there is an open scrubby area of ground where some cattle were grazing and crops grown, and various boatyards and workshops in different states of repair. According to the map we saw this would be overlaid with the same grid iron pattern of streets and house plots that dominated the rest of the island.
Plans for an island – is it sustainable?
Soon we were passing less urbanised islands. We passed the first of many resorts; the secluded high class villas and restaurants peeping out between the trees, and little jetties with yachts and dinghies gleaming with their chrome and shiny white hulls. On the right another island seemed to float on the ocean – a perfectly flat piece of land barely above sea level – I could see the waves on the other side through the palm trees.
These resort islands were tiny, but ahead was a more substantial piece of land. It was covered with trees and a red and white faraday cage covered with microwave transmitters and receivers poked up five times the height of the canopy. But we could only see a few buildings on our approach. We passed a couple of cruisers and turned the eastern corner of the island and now the “metropolis” of Thulusdhoo was revealed. Behind a number of small boats and one tall ship were a cluster of low roofed warehouses. And at last we could see some activity on the beach. The engines on our cruiser were cut down and we drifted gently into a small jetty at the end of one of the streets. I glanced down into the water – inside the reef it was so glassy, and so shallow that I felt I could put my finger tips through the surface and be already touching the white sand beneath
We disembarked and ambled along a short covered jetty to the main street. Apart from the odd child and dog, there was no-one around to greet us so we rested in a shelter on the beach. Around us fishnets were hanging out to dry from trees dotted around the sand. A gentle breeze made the leaves rustle but there were no other nearby noises. We sat and chatted about the needs for the project with Mohammed, sitting on cool tiled seats while we waited for our hosts.
It was about fifteen minutes later that a few serious looking gentlemen approached in suits or shirts and ties. They greeted Mohammed and we were introduced. They led us off into the settlement behind the beach. The houses were arranged in a regular grid of streets. I call them streets but really they were just formed from hardened sand. But the houses themselves were all substantial concrete buildings, mostly single storey and with airy verandas and neat gardens enclosed with high walls. We were led through a few streets, picking up people en route, and finally entered a more imposing building. It still was not huge, but appeared to be the council offices for the local district, of which Thulusdhoo was the capital. Several more men were seated around a table that stretched the entire length of the room. We set up our laptops next to a projector and squoze into any of the spare plastic patio chairs.
On the sleepy streets
Many people who visit Mauritius are unaware that it is just one of the islands in the republic. Nearly 500 km north east of the island is a long thin archipelago called St Brandon, where around 60 fishermen live. Over a thousand kilometres north are two sausage shaped islands collectively known as Agaléga, where about 300 people live cultivating coconuts and fishing in a narrow lagoon. It has an airstrip and rudimentary social institutions, but no running water and secondary education has to occur off island. A third island, Tromelin, is also claimed by Mauritius, which is little more than an airstrip on a coral platform, barely 1500 m long. As with many small rocks in the ocean, the claims on its possession are more about the rights that gives countries over the sea and what is under it. No wonder both the French and the Seychelles also claim Tromelin given it has no other land for 200km around, and so gives a nation an enormous Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ. All that fuss just for a colony of booby birds. Mauritius even lays a claim to Diego Garcia – a contentious part of the British Indian Ocean Territory.
By far the largest sister island to Mauritius, though, is Rodrigues. For most people it would be a distantly recalled name, and many I would guess place it as a former Spanish colony in the Caribbean Sea. No, it is about 500km east of the main island of Mauritius. If the twelve hour flight from the UK to Mauritius has made you feel like you have dropped off the edge of the earth, the extra hour and a half on a prop plane to Rodrigues would make you think you were now in a different solar system. East of Rodrigues, the next land is 5000km away in Western Australia. Apart from a couple of scraps of land the French claim, there is no dry land going south till you reach Antarctica.
My project manager, Mike, had made a visit there early on in the project and come back waxing lyrical about how different the island was from Mauritius – so much more relaxed, so pristine – and armed with a pack of the strongest pickles, the local delicacy, that you could ever wish for, or not as the case may be.
So I was looking forward to my own chance to visit Rodrigues in the October of 2008. We were to spend around a week there, work with the different agencies to build a similar plan to the main island, and conduct both boat and land surveys in the same manner too. The tickets were bought, the hotel planned. Then I got a phone call late one night. It was a call I knew might have happened any time in the last two months.
Rodrigues (copyright Google Earth, Digital Globe)
Nestled in my homestead I had the first inkling of a sensation that oft repeated itself on St Helena. I was inland. It might seem an odd thing to say, but in most of my experiences on islands you were never out of sight of the coast. St Helena was different. Partly the incised nature of the island meant you were often in a deep narrow valley and unable to see its terminus. But also, although St Helena had its highest peaks in the centre of the island, the fringes too were where some higher elevations could be found, and if you were in the parts in the middle you got the sensation that the land went on for miles in every direction. Only when you were at the true peaks or right on the cliffs did you see through the illusion and saw the enormity of the ocean that imprisoned the inhabitants.
Of course, most islanders would never have used the word imprisoned to describe their lives; to them this lay of the land gave them a lot of security. I was to learn that the richness of the landscapes in St Helena gave such a lot of diversity and opportunity that if you had the right mindset you would never be bored of this country.
The transect of my first drive up from the narrow streets of Jamestown to the lush greenery of my home in Alarm Forest was immediately demonstrative. I found out soon after than even a short walk from my house passed me from one climate to another. The house was on the fringes of an area often called the Green Heartland. But if I set out north from the house, under the eaves of a small rusty car port, I found an old track. Disused from vehicle use but still very walkable, it descended gently along the ridge. The trees were mainly pine here and there was little understory so I got good views out over the valley. Almost at the same level was a large building which I later found out was the only secondary school on the island, the Prince Andrew and out the front was one of the flattest pieces of land on the whole of St Helena. Called Francis Plain it was where many sporting fixtures, parades and ceremonies could take place.
Down the old trail
Into the Mediterranean zone
The Heart Shape Waterfall but with no water
The view back down to the Briars and Jamestown
As the track continued to gently descend the trees thinned out and I emerged to a wide open scrubby dryland. There was gorse and heather like plants and warm smell of dried vegetation. The track had dissolved but I was able to pick my way along the gravelly earth between prickly plants to a point where the slope steepened. I was on the end of the ridge and had a wonderful panorama which looked straight down at the top end of Jamestown. To my right was the ridge where Sidepath zigged and zagged and on my left was a formidable fortress set atop a magnificent cliff. You could see how much St Helena was on a volcanic rump by examining the layers of lava, the hollowed out caves in the pumice and the general fragmented nature of the rocks in this face. I had three weeks to explore so decided I would not rush round the island.
From the sea, St Helena looks like a fortress with huge, sheer cliffs completely encircling the land mass. Only in three places can you drive a car to the coast. From the deck of the RMS we were facing two of these right now. To my left was Rupert’s Bay, where the oil supply for the island would be transhipped, and the tuna from the fishermen of St Helena exported. To the right was Jamestown where most of the rest of the cargo of the island was offloaded and, of course, us.
Jamestown from the RMS
Even Jamestown looks like a fortress. Apart from the wharf, a small swimming pool and a tiny park, the rest of the town is hidden up the valley behind a strong white castle wall. I could just make out a cluster of handsome buildings and a sturdy church tower crammed into the valley. But the most striking feature in front of us was a set of steps. In the half light of an early morning they were lit by a string of lamps and reached from the town to the top of the cliff. This is the longest set of single flight steps in the world and one of several key landmarks that I wanted to explore on the island – Jacob’s Ladder.
Early morning arrival
Disembarkment takes over an hour. First the immigration officers come aboard and run through the passports in the main lounge. Then the launch starts to ferry people back and forth. Down onto the floating platform – leaving behind the comfort of the ship into the blustery turbulent environment of James Bay. Then a helping hand on to the launch and the short journey to land. The cliffs look impressive enough from the ship, they are overwhelming as you draw close. Like in Ascension Island the ship cannot dock on the wharf, and has to stay about 1/2 kilometre offshore. The promenade goes from end to end of the valley mouth, but the only truly deep enough, sheltered spot to bring the launch in close is at the far eastern end. Sheltered is a relative term, as the little boat comes up close a rolling wave can easily push it close in to the overhanging cliffs. With supreme skill they keep the launch as stationary as possible while the passengers swing over on ropes onto the hard.
The launch start the disembarkation
Coming off the RMS
Heading to Jamestown
Arrival at the wharf
Greeting the new arrivals
The cranes get busy grabbing the cargo from the RMS
I had some trepidation about coming ashore after three days at sea, and I was not disappointed. The old sea legs had been quite easy to obtain on the RMS, but the land legs took about three days to find. It was not so much the wobbliness of my limbs, but the disorientation at being on solid ground. Particularly if I lowered my head to look at the ground, the earth would come up to meet me. There was a low throbbing in my head which seemed to echo the lost noise of the ship’s engines.
A small white bus sat next to the ropes and carried the frail and infirm along the wharf. Most of us elected to walk, dodging the port staff starting the process of bring ashore the containers. One large crane was already in position hanging over the sea wall in readiness for the barge.
We headed into an open shed where the hold cases had been already discharged. But this first trip to St Helena was the only time that happened. Once I arrived early evening and although it was dark we were allowed off. Our hold baggage did not make it though and we had to make do with overnight bags before heading back down to the wharf the following afternoon to retrieve our bags.