As far as you can go – The Reclining Helena fades away

Then the farewells , the jokes, the hugs and the kisses have to stop.  The officials in the port start to gather the passengers for their security checks (yes even here) and line them up for the launch departures.  That moment where you drop down off the main wharf on the little platform under the cliffs to swing over to the launch, and sit there in your red lifejackets staring up at those left ashore, know you have left the island, but know you will be able to see it for several more hours to come, is another emotional hurdle to plough through.  No quick take off and away like aircraft.  The launch roars into full throttle and away you go – boarding the ship once more, the welcome and familiarity of the rooms and the staff, anticipation at the days of nice food and silly games.  But you must go up on deck one more time and look at the island.

And once you are there you cannot leave that deck.  You grab a mug of tea in your hand and piece of cake and head out, and with all the passengers, some you know, some you don’t, you longingly stare back at Jamestown proudly sitting in its gorge, the ladder and , if you are lucky, a glimpse of the green heartland in the clouds above.

You sit there for what seems like hours as all the official activities are seen through, finally the land crew disembark, the final doors are closed, but still you stare back at the land, you cannot bring yourself to embrace the ship.  You might be dragged back in for the safety briefing but once complete you are back on deck.  The island is starting to recede; first it gives you a wider view of the island – you spot a few new features you now know well – Flagstaff Hill, there is Lemon Valley, High Knoll Fort becomes prominent and you see the houses of Half Tree Hollow below.  Look – there is the Barn standing out at the end of the island one end, and now the peaks are standing proud as a backdrop.

Now it is starting to become fuzzy, the late afternoon haze is making the detail less visible.  But the overall shape of the island gives one final surprise – you see the shape of a beautiful maiden, maybe St Helena herself, lying on one side across the ocean, her shoulder pointing up where you used to know Flagstaff Hill was, and the Barn has taken on the curious shape of her curly hair.

I always planned to stay out here until the island sank beneath the horizon.  But it never did. It just faded, and faded and faded and then, no matter how tightly I screwed up my eyes, I could not be sure what I was seeing was land or just a billowing cloud.

St Helena was gone.

As far as you can go – Joyful memories, Tearful farewells

When Edsel was with me we had a couple of wonderful evenings to say goodbye – at both Annie’s Place where a special buffet was put on, and at the Wellington House with a sit down dinner.  I was slightly taken aback that so many people with whom we had worked had come to spend time with us and give us a rousing farewell.  Saints are like that, not just the excuse for a party, but a feeling they want to support people they believe have become friends.

When the time came the next day to go down to the wharf and head to the RMS, a surreal atmosphere seems to take over the whole island.  I experienced it alone the first time, just a visitor to St Helena on the edge of society there able to observe.  And I was almost crying when I swung on to the launch.  On my second trip, and Edsel’s first, I warned him that he was to see some poignant scenes and he should be ready.  He mocked me and said, “Yeah man, you think I’m going to cry”, and feigned wiping both his eyes.  I said in a low voice, “just watch what happens”.

There is routine in the boarding process, cases often have to be down at the customs shed well in advance.  Tickets are checked, and you are given a time to be ready for embarkation.  When the time comes for embarkation we headed down to the car park on the wharf, and found a few hundred people there, not just the passengers waiting for their launch, but whole families, friends, colleagues you have worked with.  We were always accompanied by one of the NT people, but once down on the wharf we would find so many people we had interacted with, and there was a handshake, a hug, a kiss as we exchanged a few words of friendship.  People we had drunk within the Rock Club, danced with in the Consulate, walked with on the trails, or just wave to every time we drove round the island, would have a word for us and wish us bon voyage.

But for the families, Edsel noticed what I had been talking about.  He hung around the Benjamin’s.  Sandra and Ray were heading back to Ascension, but Ray’s dad was also travelling with us.  He had been diagnosed with cancer and was heading to the UK for treatment.  So many of the Benjamin clan were at that waterfront saying goodbye,  huge smiles, lots of cheery words, but this masked what their faces were struggling with.  The trouble with being on an island where the only form of transport only passes through maybe every three weeks or so, and being up to  a seven day trip from the UK, and costing a fortune every time…  people who lived away did not travel to St Helena very often, and vice versa.  And when you said goodbye to someone as they boarded the ship, you did not know if you would see them in a year, two, or even ever again.  And the circumstances for the next time you see them may not be happy.  As Ray’s dad was helped towards the launch, you could see the agony in the faces of those left behind, who hoped for the best, but dreaded the worse.  Were they saying goodbye for the last time?

Edsel took me aside and we leant against the railings on the promenade.  “Man, I can’t get this.  This guy is leaving the island to die”.  He almost choked on the last word.  “Yep, I said you needed to be ready for this”.  Both of us had moist eyes and broken voices.

So much love, so much heartbreak.  Another steely part of the Saint’s character is their ability to experience, share then deal with the reality of living so remotely from members of your family and your friends.

Capturing the Diversity – Farewell to Ascension

What the future holds for Ascension is not certain; the airport on St Helena is changing the dynamics already.  But through the hard sweaty work of many dedicated people over the years, the future of the special plants, animals and environments on Ascension Island have improved, and it is hoped it will continue that way for many years to come.

Leaving Ascension is an emotional wrench.  And you get a sense of just how fragile its connection with the outside world is. I’ve either been taken down by the Conservation staff or bussed down by the Obsidian’s driver, Mervin.  You queue out in the open for the initial check in, then through all the usual checks and out stamps in the passport, but after all that you usually have a couple of hours wait for the plane from the Falklands.  You read, you watch the BFBS or you chat to people you know.  So many conversations start with “I didn’t know you were leaving”.  It is one big happy family until the time draws near for the plane to arrive.

The waiting room is relatively small, but there is a square patch outside set out with picnic tables which is lovingly called the cage.  It certainly does have the feel of a prison exercise ground.  If it is warm, it is worth getting your patch early on.  The cups of pallid coffee and tea or soft drinks from the NAAFI counter keep coming (no alcohol allowed).  And then you start getting twitchy.  The activity out on the apron is increasing.  The fuel truck is repositioning itself.  A bus is set up nearby for the fresh air crew to board.  A fire engine, lights flashings, heads down the runway to check there is no debris.  Often I have positioned myself in the far corner of the cage next to the apron.  From this position you can see past the terminal building towards the sea.  You look and look and look and nothing happens.  And then, and this surprised me several times, a light comes in not directly towards the runway but at an angle, then turns and faces you full on.  No sound, just this light.  The very first time I went home, after the two days delay on the way out, the two and a half weeks on Ascension, the three weeks on St Helena, the time on the boat, and a further delay waiting for a plane…. this was the first aeroplane I had seen for over six weeks.  And I choked a little to see that light.

The light grows brighter, and others in the cage have sensed the atmosphere changing around them and come up to the cage to nose through the chains. Still no noise, but you can see the other lights on the plane now, and it is dropping, tilting slightly in the wind, then sweeping through the runway , bouncing on the tarmac, a sudden shockwave as the engine noise reaches you, and the roar as the flaps go up and the plane is braking, then it all goes quiet as the aircraft disappears behind Command Hill almost to the other end of the runway.  This great long runway that could take space shuttles.  It takes maybe five minutes more for the plane to come into view and finally come to a halt a hundred metres from the cage.

Then a hoard of overdressed Falkland Islanders descend the steps, fill up the cage, draw desperately on their fags and make a queue for the beverages and snacks.  And all at once the Ascension Islanders are not alone in the ocean any more.  The outside world has come to collect them, and soon you are aboard the flight and this little rock, with its quirky livelihoods and extra special geography, fauna and flora, is left far behind.