2,500 miles from the coast of South America and 1,200 miles from the coast of southern Africa, St. Helena is located in the South Atlantic Ocean and is the second most remotest inhabited island in the world, the first being Tristan da Cunha, another British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic. Which begs the question: why go there? As George Mallory is alleged to have said when asked “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” he replied “Because it is there”. And it was because it is there that St. Helena was on my Bucket List.
Only half way up the list for some years it suddenly leapt up to first position when I found out that an airport was being built on the island and would be due to open in 2016 opening up the island to mass tourism, even though initially there would only be one flight a week which would be via Johannesburg in South Africa. Currently approximately 900 people visit St. Helena each year but it is expected that something in the region of 4,000 will visit when the airport opens. As good a reason as any to go now, I thought.
For the last 600 years the only way to reach the island has been by ship and now seemed the moment to go there by this most pleasant of ways, a five day cruise from Cape Town in South Africa. Before the Suez Canal was opened in 1869 St. Helena was an important stopover for ships sailing to Europe from Asia and South Africa and particularly ships from the East India Company but now the only ships stopping there are the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) St. Helena, which operates a three week schedule from Cape Town-St. Helena-Ascension Island-St. Helena-Cape Town and also occasionally very small cruise ships and private yachts.
I joined the ship after a very pleasant 3½ days in Cape Town (my first visit) and joined 103 other passengers and a lot of cargo for the five days on board. And what a pleasant five days it was. The sea was totally calm, the sun shone, the company was extremely congenial and the food and drink flowed. Films were shown, games were played, quizzes were won and lost, cricket was played (yes, honestly) as were skittles and bingo and the time passed very agreeably. There were only 104 passengers on board, out of a possible total of 156, but only 25% were tourists and the others were either Saints, as the inhabitants of St. Helena are known, or people under contract to work on the construction of the airport OR South Africans going to work at the island’s hospital or in other capacities
There is no harbour as such at Jamestown, the capital of St. Helena and the RMS, as she is known to the locals, anchors off shore and passengers disembark by tender. The cargo is off loaded on to barges, an operation that took all of the two days the ship was anchored off shore. I had decided to stay the two nights in a hotel in town rather than stay on board the ship and the Consulate Hotel I had chosen in the centre of town was very comfortable. In the afternoon I joined a car excursion round the island with two very pleasant passengers from the ship and a local driver/guide. I wrote in my diary “The geography of the island was not as I expected. Very hilly, very green, very narrow steep roads. A few cattle, one or two dogs (which apparently have to be on the lead when out). One donkey. No horses on the island” Napoleon was sent to St. Helena in exile in 1815 and died on the island in 1821. The house where he lived is now a museum and is owned by the French. The tricolour flies outside and there is a French Consul occasionally in residence. We also visited the grounds of Plantation House, the residence of the Governor, to see the oldest resident on the island, now 183 years old, Jonathan is a giant tortoise brought to St. Helena from the Seychelles in 1882. We also visited a fortress, a distillery, and ended up at Colin’s pub, only open on Saturdays from 12 noon to midnight. Luckily we were there on Saturday! Another point of interest in Jamestown is Jacob’s Ladder, a steep uphill climb of 699 steps; the record of getting to the top apparently 4 minutes and 23 seconds. I did not even attempt the first ten steps.
Many of the passengers who had been on the RMS from Cape Town were staying on St. Helena and returning to Cape Town after the RMS went to Ascension Island and back again. Instead about 10 of us went on to Ascension Island, a further two days away. There are no taxis or public buses on this island so I hired a car for one day and, together with a couple of passengers from the ship drove around the island. Twice. That did not take very long! But we stopped for coffee at the NAAFI on the RAF base, saw the European Space Agency tracking station for the Ariane rocket and the BBC radio relay station from whence BBC World Service broadcasts to West Africa and South America. There was a cemetery where sailors with yellow fever were put ashore from a sailing ship called the Bonetta in 1700 and something. Then to English Bay, a beautiful sandy beach with clear blue sea; there had been no beaches on St. Helena. Finally we visited the local museum which had been opened especially for us by a local volunteer; very interesting, very well laid out and well worth a visit.
There are no commercial airlines operating from Ascension Island so I had booked to fly home with the RAF. I had visualised sitting sideways on a bench on a Hercules aircraft wearing a helmet and a parachute… That was not to be. We flew on a civilian aircraft with pretty young cabin staff, chartered by the M.o.D. No alcohol on board following past occasions when young squaddies, many of whom fly in from the Falkland Islands, had made too much of the duty free liquor. The flight returned to Brize Norton after an eight hour flight and a very successful 17 day trip.