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.
If you are heading north there was always a lively spirit. People from St Helena were heading away to work or on holiday. Tourists and visitors like me were on their way home and thoughts started to turn attention to the plane ride back from Ascension Island and the drive around the M25 (daft to think of that in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean but you did). When you were heading south there was a different mood.
Firstly, if you were on the three day cruise, the last few hours seemed to drag and drag. You had run out of things to do. I would read pages and pages of books. I could not concentrate on any work on the laptop. I felt so lethargic at the quantity of food and drink consumed and the lack of exercise. And everyone else’s mood changed too and compounded the sense of listlessness.
Down near the lobby there was a jigsaw laid out on a tray on one of the tables. On my first trip it was a picture of a tiger walking through long grass. I’d avoided it for two days but had seen a few people, mainly couples, having a little go. On my third afternoon I gave in and sat down at the table. For the next three hours I plugged away. I made little progress. The corners and sides had been done but only a few little areas in the centre had been completed. There were a couple of floating clusters of pieces that stuck together. The trouble was the sandy soil and long grass was exactly the same colour as the tiger so the whole picture was a mass of orange, black and white stripes with buff patches. But I stuck at it because, frankly, there was nothing else to do before dinner time. A few passengers would pop over and assist for a few minutes, and being close to the purser’s office and one of the doors to the crew areas, several staff gave a smile and an encouraging word as they went past.
In the end, all these activities are just filling in the time before the arrival in St Helena. My first time I arrived overnight. I wanted to wake up early to see the approach but by the time I awoke after the heavy night before, I opened my curtains to see a few white streetlights dotted around a dark looming hillside. The second time we approached in the daytime. I joined a host of Saints up on the bridge deck to see the outline of this mountainous island come into focus, start to see details and eventually see the gash in the mountains where the capital, Jamestown, comes down to meet the sea.
On my first visit I had a lot of thoughts about what it might be like to live on this little rock in the middle of the ocean, what the people might be like and how the work was going to go. For the saints there were usually strong emotions. Some may not have been able to get back to the island for a couple of years; others were just overwhelmed with happiness to be back where they belonged.
We pulled in as close to James Bay as we could, slowing all the time, then the chain of the anchors were dropped and we had arrived. The next part of the adventure was ready to start.
My first ever view of St Helena
St Helena in the morning twilight
A peek at the hills above
Only once on 6 trips on the RMS did I ever see another ship, though. I was in the main lounge reading late one afternoon when someone came in and started staring out the window. I asked what was up and he replied by pointing. I went over to take a look but it was way off in the distance, so I hurried up to the promenade deck to find most of the ship’s passengers leaning over the guard rail on the starboard side. How could something as simple as this become the focus of everyone’s attention? Obvious – because there was so little else to do!
All at sea
Now I may have built this up to much but the ship was not close – in fact it was only because it had three tall derricks that we could see it at all – the bulk of the ship was below the horizon. It was heading in the other direction so we only had its company for about 15 minutes before it was lost to us forever. I spoke with one of the crew saying about how this had been the first time I had seen another ship on any voyage. I got a travel weary reply that yes we are off the main shipping routes but you do see ships from time to time. The bridge will always try and make contact to get information from them, mainly about the weather and sea conditions but there had been some pirate activity in some parts and it was always good to know the way was clear – particularly at night. I wondered what the little RMS looked like from a distance. It had the appearance of a small provincial ferry at the back, and a coaster at the front. Apart from its distinctive yellow funnel it was a very ordinary looking ship, but to see it from a distance plying through the deep ocean waters would always be a bit of a surprise, I surmised.
There was very little other activity to look at but most people were still fascinated by the rolling of the sea and the spray, the ever changing cloudscapes, and especially the dramatic sunrises and sunsets. Seeing wildlife was a matter of chance. Although dolphins were common round Ascension and St Helena themselves, you rarely saw them out here – the crew would report if there were some chasing the bow wave. The odd whale might breach way off but I never saw them. One dull morning I went for a blow around the promenade deck. About 100m out from the boat, a large tern was struggling in the wind. We were about mid way between the islands and I wondered what had blown him so far off course and all alone out here. You could see by his flight pattern that he was utterly exhausted. I thought he might try for the ship but despite coming close by he flew overhead and continued on in a westward direction. That way, his nearest land would be Brazil – over 1000 miles away. Did he ever make it?
One species that made a regular appearance was the flying fish. I could sit on deck for ages watching them. I imagine it was the noise and wake of the ship that scared them but there may have been predators below. A shoal would emerge from the water, flick their wings modified from fins as wide as they could and glide two three wave crests away. If they caught the right breeze they must have been transported a couple of hundred metres in one flight. It was almost as if they were catching thermals in the water, or maybe just supreme knowledge of their abilities, but they would be seemingly about to hit the water when they would pitch upwards again and continue their gliding for another ten seconds.
On my first trip, the evening came towards an end; it had been a quiet night and my thoughts turned to how I would spend my first ever night at sea. I worked my way back to my cabin down the corridor from the main lounge. Unlocked the door, fumbled for the light, fumbled for the bathroom door, abluted and headed for the bed to undress. An evening of good food and plenty of booze had made me forget I was nursing a horrible injury but as soon as I tried to undress a searing pain crossed my lower ribs. I struggled to remove my shirt, and it was even worse when I tried to bend to take off my shoes. After a couple of low groans and contorted face expressions, I managed to push back the crisp white sheets, fall as gingerly as possible into my cot and draw the sheets back across me.
Then I had to get out again as I realised I had forgotten to turn the bathroom light off.
Lying in the dark I tried not to think of the pain in my chest. The motion of the ship rocked me side to side in my bunk and the low throbbing of the engines three floors below me was ever present. I found that I nodded off very quickly and another experience was under my belt. I slept so well and it was almost as if the RMS itself was rocking me and singing me a lullaby. For the first time of many, I started to think of the ship as a person.
Next morning the thin curtains across the port hole let in light as soon as the sun made its first rays come up over the Atlantic. I rose soon afterwards, well rested but my torso very stiff from the bruising.
Not glass on this occasion but still a lot calmer than you might expect
I got myself together and went for a quick breath of air on deck. A few people were having a smoke up there but otherwise it was all quiet and as for the view, it was blank. I was surprised to see that after the rolling of the night we were sailing across a sheet of glass. Here in the middle of the Atlantic, the last thing I expected to see was a calm sea, but here it was – as level as a billiard table, as reflective as a new mirror.