As far as you can go – Down to the sea

Then, abruptly, the path stopped and all I saw below me was a ravine.  One of our guides, Val, took the plunge and eased her way down on the rocks.  We all followed.  We had to work our way carefully across the solid rock, avoiding where possible the scree that could plunge us to our deaths below.  She took care to drop into the protected gaps between the rocks, sometimes having to ease down forwards, other times turn around and climb down as if on a ladder.  After about fifteen minutes of this combination of techniques we were at the bottom of the ravine.  Only now did I look up and see how far we had dropped down what was, once more, a dry waterfall.  Our nurse friend was struggling.  I don’t think she had quite appreciated that often the idea of a walk in St Helena could turn into a scramble and possibly a rock climb.  We watched her coming down for a while and where possible guided her down the right path.  I spent the time looking up at the route and wondering how easy it would be to get back up to civilisation.  I really hoped no-one would have an accident down here as it would be a near impossible job to get back up.

 

We were still not at the bottom and the walk continued steeply.  There was barely a scrap of vegetation down here, even the lichens and mosses cowered away on the underside of stones.  Pat pointed out a scorpion here (yes one of those mythical creatures I had never believed in). What it managed to eat down here was difficult to fathom, but it was a fat plump one so there must have been enough other insects or maybe a stray animal that had lost its way from the uplands.

The roar of the sea echoed up the valley; at first I thought it was coming right up from the sea, but then I noticed that directly below where we were walking, there was a large hole in the rocks and sea waves were rocking in and out at regular intervals.  It just goes to show how porous the geology of St Helena is.  We dropped a little further, took a turn to the left and found ourselves at the beach.  I say beach, in fact it was another of these wave cut platforms but at least we had something solid to sit on for lunch.  Val scouted around for a while – it had been a year or two since she had been down here , but eventually located the post box behind a rock.  Like many of the post boxes on St Helena, it was simply a long piece of white plastic piping. When you took the lid off, you would find a long piece of string.  Pulling this brought up a plastic bag in which the log (an exercise book) a pencil, rubber stamp and ink pad were placed.  We signed our names and stamped our books, but Pat noticed that the ink pad was almost dry.  He brought our his little post box first aid kit from his own haversack, and topped up the ink, sharpened the pencil with a knife, but decided against having to refresh the jiffy bag.

 

The sea was choppy, even by St Helena standards, and the platform was frequently wetted by the spray.  We walked on a short distance to the east and found a dry niche out of the worst of the wind and settled down for lunch.  What a view.  Surprising to say so considering we were at sea level.  But there are so few places where you can even walk to the sea, let alone drive to it, that you cherished those few locations where you were close to the waves.  They flooded into the gaps and weak points on the rocky beach, forcing up a mini bore which thrashed against the cliff faces, sprayed over the tops, then sucked backwards towards the ocean.

Just a hundred metres from the land was a small stack, and beyond was a larger one.  Both were coated white in bird guano and a range of boobies and noddies were squawking away the whole time we were there.  It had been dull when we arrived but as the sun came out these rocks looked more and more like elaborate wedding cakes.  After lunch people ambled around the little bay and explored the sea caves on one side, or wondered at the power of the waves.  We also marvelled at the view to the west.  While Gill Point could be technically claimed to be the most south easterly point on St Helena, the next headland along was far more impressive.  A great spired peak rose nearly 500m in a single step.  Called the Great Stone Top it shimmered magnificently in the sunlight.

 

As with most of these coastal walks, the return trip had to retrace all our steps.  Back up the first valley past the huge blowhole, scrambling up the steep ravine, rising up the valley and then finally back onto Prosperous Bay Plain.   We became very spread out, our nurse was just not fit enough for the steep climb.   Here we did deviate a little.  We walked over to a line of oil drums, filed with sand and with little flags planted atop.  The marked the proposed route of the  new airport’s runway.  At this time no physical work had started on the airport.  The runway would cross most of the length of the plain; Rebecca had been working hard to ensure that the unique habitats on the plain were conserved as best they could.  The most controversial element would be that part of the gut we had just walked through would be filled up.  I wondered if the walk would still be able to exist, whether an alternative route would have to be mapped out.  But also how awesome it might be to be walking deep in the valley and have the daily jet to South Africa take off over your head.  As usual with these developments, mixed feelings.

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My view of the airport

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.

As far as you can go – Up High Hill

We collected at the Blue Hill Community Centre, the one where Edsel and I had attended the ceilidh a week or two before.  Edsel did not accompany me on any of these, hiking was not a favourite occupation.  He would only attend if there was a specific achievement he wanted – like walking up Diana’s Peaks or seeing Napoleon’s Tomb.  This walk started gently, we headed through another of St Helena’s secret valleys with just a couple of farmsteads were tucked away down here.  This location was about as far away from Jamestown as you could go by road – a lengthy 10 miles or so back to town.  The tracks were rough but easy walking, and indeed the walk through the forest was fairly easy.  It was obvious we were reaching the outer side of the island and the forest was more of the Mediterranean style with open understory and little grass layer.  We just had to be careful of the stony ground, as they were covered in some vegetation or lichens, they could conceal nasty little holes between the rocks on which you could easily twist an ankle.

The lichens themselves were beguiling.  Years of growth in these areas so far away from any industrial pollution, the lichens grew without hindrance, they covered every stone, draped from tree branches and clung on to the trunks.  We reached the peak of High Hill.  It was not especially high, but it was the last really high point as you headed west and it stuck out plainly from the ground around.  So High maybe was not the right word  – maybe it should have been called “Higher Hill”. But still, the overall effect  gave us both marvellous views of the crown wastelands down this coast, and a chance to look back at the central massif of the island, with High Peak, Diana’s Peaks and St Paul’s in the distance.

As far as you can go -Joining the walking club

As was my way anywhere I go, on my first visit,  I made sure I bought a map from Legal and Lands of the island, and began to explore the roads of the green heartland, visit all the sites I could on my own and, where I thought it was safe, would walk off on tracks and footpaths on my own.  But walking off the main trails was a hazardous business.  The ground was covered in loose stones, the slopes were steep.  The paths are not marked well.  Added to this I saw from my maps that the roads only cover a little over a third of the island, many of the crown wastelands have no vehicle access at all.  So where there were trails there you were quite literally heading off into the wilderness – and until you walked back by the same route, you were unlikely to come across another person, let alone a vehicle, on your travels.  Weighing all the factors up, and I am not usually concerned about heading off for long treks on my own, I decided it was not a good idea to walk solo in St Helena.

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My trusty St Helena Map

Fortunately there was a solution.   On my first trip I was invited on a walk organised by Rebecca just down the road from where she lived.  It was a marvellous walk which I shall describe later.  On that walk I got to talk one on one with almost the whole group and enjoyed in particular the company of two people, Val and Pat Joshua.  I mentioned that I enjoyed walking and wanted to explore further.  They invited me to join their walking group.  They were both key people in the St Helena Nature Conservation Group which amongst other things, maintain a series of post-box walks.  Similar to the letterbox walks in Ascension Island, the trails are plotted and at the end you can find a book to record your arrival, and a unique rubber stamp and ink to record your achievement in your own booklet.  As part of this service, the group organised regular weekend walks so they can inspect the post boxes and refresh the materials in each one.  Over the three visits I did several of these and managed to get to some hard to reach corners.

Some were easy treks; I went up High Hill once with the group.  Let’s not get confused here with High Peak.  You might expect that on a small island people would be able to name things uniquely.   But no, the early naming of features on islands is left to sailors and often they use simple descriptive terms like High, Long, White, Red.   I got tired when GIS officer in BVI explaining about the six Long Bays and several White Bays.  However, BVI did have a couple of really nice placenames like Dead Chest and Throw Way Wife Bay.  While some features on St Helena, predominantly the houses and estates, had names which harked back to other locations, primarily English, or to families long established on the island,  simple features, those that were probably named first, were given simple names.  I’ve already described my visit to High Peak to watch the flax being cut, but High Hill was several miles to the west.

On the RMS – The trials of walking and sickness on board

One of the aspects of this trip that had caused me some trepidation was the feeling of seasickness.  I’ve been on many boats and not had much trouble, but there was one very nasty experience in St Vincent when I was working on the coastal project there.  I had tried to prepare better for this, making sure before I boarded I had something sensible in my stomach.  And I also had found a tablet called Stugeron that others had recommended.  I’d taken a couple in good time before I got aboard but on the first trip I did feel a little queasy as we waited in harbour for the ship to be ready to depart.  I think it was because the stabilisers for the ship were not activated and the RMS was buffeted in lots of different directions at the same time.  It made it very difficult for my inner ear to decide which way was horizontal.  The way I had dealt with it in harbour was to grab a cup of tea in the sun lounge and head out on deck  Once in the fresh air, I was able to focus on the horizon and stabilize myself.

Now we were under way, I felt no ill effects at all, the stabilizers stopped the swaying in two  directions so all you had to deal with was the up and down of the waves we were crossing ahead of us.  I never had another queasy moment on any trip I had with the RMS.  However, on my second trip down the weather turned nasty not far out from Ascension Island and while I carried on as normal, I found I was amongst only a handful of the 70 or so passengers that were following the routine.  So many were holed up in their cabins, rolling around on their beds trying not to throw up, and many not succeeding.  I was in the bar in the evening and I commented on how quiet it was to one of the stewardesses.  She said yes, she had been helping the doctor go round the cabins and injecting strong anti sickness shots into people to keep them calm (and hopefully let them get to sleep).

So while the sea sickness was solved, the movement of the ship still caused physical challenges.  When you have never been on a ship you think of all the comedy films that show items sliding back and forth across floors, but the carpets and the fixtures make sure things stay in place.  I loved the little sticky mats on the tables where you could put a plate or glass and be sure it was still there as you crossed the next wave.

You got used to walking down the corridors, timing the steps to go with the flow of the rocking.  I could even work out how to get water on the right part of my skin when in the shower, although in the confined space it was rare that I would get through a bathe without banging my head on something.  It was a bit of a surprise if you went over a crest of a particularly high wave as you sat on the loo – when it turned more into a bidet than a lavatory.  And you just had to concentrate very hard when shaving.

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The Sun Deck but watch out for those heavy doors!

The areas in which you had to take extreme care were around the outside doors.  These were heavy duty watertight doors; left open in good weather to help ventilation, they were closed shut during any bad weather.  If you decided to chance your luck and head out to the open deck, you had to be ready with all your force to make those doors open and ensure all limbs were well away from the gap as it could swing back with many Newtons of force on the next wave.  I found all these dynamics just a series of new problems that needed to be adapted to and life on the ship settled down easily within a few hours of boarding.

Capturing the Diversity – The Rat Pack

With the cats gone, the worst of the introduced mammals were the rats.  A programme of rat eradication was impossible on an island the size of Ascension, there are simply too many hidey holes and their reproduction rate is phenomenal.  Rats, like anywhere where humans exist, were everywhere.  The small Environmental Health division of Ascension Government was almost completely taken up with their control.  They would do house to house eradication, they routinely tried to keep numbers under control by laying bait in key areas round the settlements.  And they worked very closely with the Conservation Department to try to keep them at bay from key biological concerns.  The bird colonies were prime target for intervention, but they also maintained a network of traps up on Green Mountain, as rats are omnivorous and enjoy a nibble on endemic vegetation as well as eating eggs.

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Greggy and his map of rat baitings

I tried to get to understand the work these guys did and had many meetings with Greggy and his supervisor, Charles, who also happened to be  the father of ‘Tasha, one of the long term sgtaff at Conservation.  Both really nice guys who I shared several beers with over the years, they loved a laugh but could also be methodical about their work.  One time I wanted to walk with them to find out their field craft, they were getting help from the Administrator’s son, Ash. Charles, Greggy, Ash and I piled into their Land Rover pickup and headed up the mountain.

Heading up the mountain is always a thrill, both the never ending series of zigzags as you reach up a very thin ridge to reach the upper elevations, and the way the vegetation changes as you rise.  As usual it was a lot cooler at the car park at the Red Lion than down in Georgetown, but the cloud level was low.  We were aiming to walk two paths.  I would join Ash on Cronk’s Path, Greggy would do Rupert’s alone.  Charles was going to drive down the mountain and round to the east to pick us up where the two paths joined.

Ash and I started across a manicured lawn which led past two bucolic cottages that were rented out by the Conservation Office (one of which Andrew and Phil had been renting).  The process here was similar to the cat scat trails.  You walked a few metres and would come across a dark green box.  There was a small hole where a rat could get in (but hopefully no cat or dog or small child’s fingers).  Inside would be some poisoned bait.  The rat would eat it, and fairly quickly expire.  On the sides of the box were firm spring clips that allowed you to access the inside, check the bait and replace it if necessary.  Sealing the box, it would be replaced at the side of the path.  Ash would then record what he found against the number painted on the box.  If he saw some of the bait eaten he recorded P for partial, T if the total amount of bait had been removed and 0 if none had been disturbed.  He also noted the number of dead rats in the vicinity, although that was rare as often or not the ill rat would have wandered off into the undergrowth before expiring.  The numbers had been painted on by Greggy when the route was laid.  Starting sequentially from the beginning of the trail at one, they had not only proved useful in recording the data, but you could keep track that you had seen all the boxes.  Being green they were camouflaged by the undergrowth.  They were set out at roughly 50m intervals so it was rare that you walked too far without seeing one.  If you got to a number that was one or two above what you expected to see next it did not take too much time to head back and search for the missing ones.