As far as you can go – On the tightrope

This was likely to be the only chance in my life to go to the Barn, and the others in the group were up for the hike.  So I put my trust in my guides and stepped out on the exposed part of the ridge.  Once on the knife edge, I found it was not as bad as it looked.  I had to keep my wits about me, though.  I kept focused on the path at all times while I walked, and if I wanted to look at the view, I had to stop, ensure I was on a solid piece of ground before attempting to look around.  And looking around could make it worse, as if I looked down I could see little pieces of rock I had dislodged with my feet bouncing several hundred feet down the scree.  The wind would buffet into me and make me unsteady on my feet, but there was little room to spread your legs to get a better stance – the pathway was only one foot wide.

It was with some relief that the group came up against the side of the Barn itself, which offered more protection and meant we could not hear the waves crashing into the cliffs so clearly.  I was at the front of the group and we waited as the stragglers caught up.  One had had a nasty slip that had caused a small avalanche of rocks to fall down.  I hope it had not damaged the path so much we were now cut off!

Our position on the Barn still gave us the views back to Longwood and the Green Heartland but now a secret valley opened up below us – a rocky desert with no trace of human activity.   As the wind whipped the clouds across the sky, the play of light and shadow on the orange rocks below was mesmerizing.  The higher elevation of the Barn obviously caught more moisture than the valley below, our way was marked by a rich set of lichens, tough grasses and prickly pear plants.  Our guide was able to pick our way along a path which easily broke the Barn’s defences.  The path gently ascended the side of the cliff face then turned up a gully which broke out on to the flat top of the Barn.  We were not quite there, ahead was the final ascent for us – the small pimple of rock that was the Haystack.  Now we were up close we could see it was more than just one peak, it was like a Bactrian camel with two humps.  It was a deceptively long walk across the top of the Barn, and the ascent up to the top of Haystacks and the post box was one of the most punishing of the whole walk, but we were rewarded to an elevated position from which to watch the ever changing scene, and the natural cairn of rocks up here gave us a few places to nestle in away from the worst of the wind so we could eat our lunches without the sandwiches ending up in the Atlantic.

The Barn was susceptible to low cloud that day and we kept disappearing into the mist or a drizzly soaking rain, but when the mist rose we could see down the east coast of St Helena.  Beyond Longwood was one of the flattest areas on the whole island, an area labelled Prosperous Bay Plain.  Deep ravines surrounded the plain and more curiously shaped peaks – eroded volcanic piles.  One of these was labelled the Turk’s Cap – and if you looked at it at an angle, you could see the folds of the material spiralling up to a pointed peak.  I thought it looked more like a piece of dogshit.

I was fascinated in the vegetation that clung to the edge of the island here.  The lichen had strands which were several centimetres long, and like its more sophisticated vegetation cousins, the trees, they had become windblown and all pointed the same direction northwards.

Reluctantly it was time to head back.  Fortunately the wind had dropped significantly and the sun started to shine so our walk was much more pleasant.  I even took the chance to look over the razor edge ridge and down at the boiling sea.  I was interested to see that instead of seeing just a froth of white bashing against a cliff, there was a rocky beach. Not loose rocks, but solid rock jutting out into the ocean.  It appeared to be a wave cut platform where the sea has pummelled the cliff away, undercutting the solid rock on land until the cliff collapsed.  The loose material washed away to leave these platforms.  They can also form where sea level has changed but it did not look like this from my elevated position – it was just one small slab of flat rock.

As far as you can go – Heading out for the Barn

Another peak to conquer was a huge block of hillside called the Barn.  One of the main reasons St Helena always looked bigger than it actually was came down to the presence of the Barn in the north east corner.  It was not especially high, but from a distance seemed to be a cuboid shape with impossibly steep sides.  It blocked out the sea beyond from any point and you could easily be deceived that there was more land beyond.  Sitting atop was a small pimple of a hill called the Haystack and was the final destination of one of the most ambitious walks I did.

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The Barn from Millennium Forest

The walk started gently enough from Deadwood Plain.  Parked up on the grass we hiked enthusiastically across the grasslands, stopping to watch the odd wirebird en route.  We passed over a stile at the far end and the terrain became a little rougher.  You could see how the outer parts of the island had been denuded by overgrazing in the past.  Goats had stripped the vegetation down, leaving the soil exposed to the stiff Atlantic winds.  Once the topsoil was gone the rain scratched away at the sub soil, which formed little rills, that had now turned into deep gullies that continued to bight into these areas.  While efforts were being made to replant in some places, and the feral goats had been brought under control by extensive shooting forays, the damage was so extensive that wastelands were a very good description.

We had turned off a path I had chanced on my own when I had walked to Flagstaff Hill; now we turned right and went along a windy ridge. It gave us amazing views back across to Longwood and into the centre of the island, although there was a little cloud cover obscuring Diana’s Peaks themselves.  We crossed an area of wasteland here, walking on bare hardened sub soil the various minerals in the soil producing a rainbow of dramatic colours but you could see the damage from the erosion clearly. The ridge was high but the walking was easy as we were below the ridge top and protected from the worst of the wind.  However, the way forward to our destination looked precarious.  The ridge became more pointed and it steepened on the landward side, but dropped away even more precipitously on the seaward side to the crashing waves below.  In some places the pathway over to the Barn was barely a foot below the peak of the ridge.  The wind was blowing hard where we were standing – we would be fully exposed out in front.  And to add to the problems, I could not see any route up on to the Barn from the angle we were approaching.