ST HE­LENA IS­LAND

Some­times, when you visit a place for the first time, you feel so at home that you won­der whether you might have been there in a pre­vi­ous life. Sophia van Taak spent a week on St He­lena and the is­land got un­der her skin in a big way. Here are ex­tracts fro

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Swim with a whale shark and climb Ja­cob’s Lad­der on St He­lena. Sophia van Taak shares ex­tracts from her travel di­ary.

FLAGS, FAIRIES AND FLAX (pre­vi­ous page, clock­wise from top left). It must have been a sign when the book­shop at OR Tambo In­ter­na­tional Air­port had this mag­a­zine with Napoleon on the cover. Fairy terns are a com­mon sight around the is­land. They’re com­pletely white, apart from their prom­i­nent black eyes. Look up on your walks and you’ll see them float­ing qui­etly above. Anne’s Place with its colourful in­ter­na­tional flags is a pop­u­lar pit stop for yachties on their way to As­cen­sion Is­land and then South Amer­ica. In the early days, St He­lena’s flax plan­ta­tions sup­plied the Bri­tish em­pire with rope and hes­sian bags. The in­dus­try died when rub­ber bands and plas­tic were in­vented. Flax plants now grow wild and free. A NEW EX­PE­RI­ENCE (op­po­site page, top to bot­tom). Most food is im­ported from Eng­land and South Africa, but a hand­ful of farms sup­ply the is­lan­ders with meat and eggs. Din­ner at the Richards’ house might con­sist of five dif­fer­ent kinds of fish and a bit of maths home­work. This is the fi­nal rest­ing place of 180 Boer pris­on­ers of war who died on St He­lena. A crowd of peo­ple is wait­ing in the de­par­tures hall at OR Tambo air­port: Saints (cit­i­zens of St He­lena), an English­man, a French cou­ple, a mother and daugh­ter from Pre­to­ria and a quiet Finn who is pag­ing through Light­houses of South­ern Africa by Ger­ald Hober­man. What a mot­ley crew! St He­lena is a small is­land – I sus­pect we’ll all run into each other in the com­ing week…

The air­craft touches down in Wind­hoek to re­fuel. Ap­par­ently the pi­lot is man­dated to carry enough fuel in case he or she can’t land the aero­plane on the is­land and has to fly to As­cen­sion Is­land, or turn around. For hours, all I see is a dense fog bank and the end­less blue At­lantic. Then, sud­denly, St He­lena rises from the ocean. The air­port is on the western side of the is­land, built by South African en­gi­neer­ing firm Basil Read. For a rel­a­tively mi­nor piece of in­fra­struc­ture, it was a mam­moth project. The Saints had been dream­ing about their own air­port for decades. Be­sides As­cen­sion Is­land, the near­est main­land is the mouth of the Kunene River be­tween Namibia and An­gola, 1 950 km away. Rio de Janeiro is 4 000 km away in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. Ten­der pro­cesses, lo­gis­tics and pol­i­tics slowed the con­struc­tion process, but now they fi­nally have their air­port. This was af­ter they had to build a new quay to off­load all the earth-mov­ing equip­ment and build a 14 km road to get all that equip­ment (and the rel­e­vant ve­hi­cles) to the con­struc­tion site. They also had to fill a 100 m-deep gorge to level out the ground for an airstrip (this took three years) and build the 2 km airstrip. Right at the end, the en­gi­neers re­alised that the air tur­bu­lence and grav­ity winds would make it too dan­ger­ous to land a big pas­sen­ger jet… I can feel the wind push­ing against our smaller, 100-seater air­craft as we ap­proach the land­ing strip, which has steep cliffs on ei­ther side. Out of the cor­ner of my eye, I no­tice a sea res­cue boat bob­bing on the waves. You can cut the ten­sion in the cabin with a knife. Ev­ery­one is hold­ing their breath. Here we go! Turns out the land­ing isn’t as hairy as I thought it would be. There are a few ner­vous mo­ments as the plane wad­dles and comes to a stand­still, but we’re on terra firma in one piece. Ev­ery­one is so re­lieved that we give the pi­lot a spon­ta­neous round of ap­plause. I’ll spend a few days at the Travel Lodge, owned by Derek and Linda Richards, in the St Paul’s dis­trict. St Paul’s is on a hill above Jamestown and it’s one of eight dis­tricts on the is­land con­nected by main roads. A dis­trict is a neigh­bour­hood of houses grouped to­gether on a hill or against a moun­tain slope – any­where the Saints saw fit to build. Even though the is­land is 121 km², about half the size of Bloem­fontein, the land­scape isn’t nearly as flat as the Free State… Coun­try mu­sic pours from the ra­dio in the kitchen and Linda sings along as she cooks din­ner. Derek brings the drinks – a bot­tle of KWV white wine! The Richards’ nine-year-old grand­daugh­ter, Jor­dyn, is busy with her maths home­work. I ask Derek about the is­land’s school sys­tem: There are three pri­mary schools and one high school and they all fol­low the Bri­tish cur­ricu­lum. If you want a ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion, most school-leavers go to Cape Town or Lon­don. You’d think that young peo­ple wouldn’t want to re­turn to the is­land once they’d seen the world, but many Saints miss the slower pace back home. Peo­ple might work over­seas, but they come home for vis­its. Now that there’s an air­port, it’s so much eas­ier to do. The Saints I meet are open, warm peo­ple. On the road over here, ev­ery driver waved at us or wound down his or her win­dow for a quick chat. It’s a small, close-knit com­mu­nity with a pos­i­tive energy. There are lim­ited job op­por­tu­ni­ties on the is­land, but the Saints find a way. Derek is a trained fire­fighter who has also worked as a news­reader at the lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion. He’s even done time as the is­land coroner! These days he’s the owner of a guest­house, a bee farmer, a wick­et­keeper and the chair­per­son of the is­land’s tourism as­so­ci­a­tion. He’s wear­ing a T-shirt with the words “le­galised pot” and a pic­ture of a big yel­low potjie on it. The fine print says “Nou gaan ons braai”. I’m far from every­thing that’s fa­mil­iar to me, but I feel very much at home. I can’t wipe the silly smile off my face. To­day I swam with a whale shark in James Bay! The big, mys­te­ri­ous an­i­mal was cov­ered in beau­ti­ful pat­terns, ap­par­ently as unique as a fin­ger­print. Whale sharks oc­cur in the warmer waters of the trop­ics and are of­ten spot­ted around St He­lena be­tween Novem­ber and April as they fol­low their mi­gra­tion routes. Af­ter­wards, I took my rented Nis­san Note

and drove into the moun­tains. It started to driz­zle so I pulled over and got out – the rain was warm. Frogs croaked and wa­ter drummed on the leaves. Streams mur­mured all around. In Jamestown down be­low, the sun was prob­a­bly still shin­ing, but all I saw ahead was mist. For ev­ery few me­tres you gain in al­ti­tude, you dis­cover a new mi­cro-cli­mate. Tem­per­a­tures are rel­a­tively con­stant year­round, but that doesn’t mean the weather is the same. In one day you can get rain, mist and balmy sun­shine de­pend­ing on where you go on the is­land. I en­joy open land­scapes like the Ka­roo and the Kala­hari and I tend to feel claus­tro­pho­bic in forests. But St He­lena has charmed me from the get-go: There are dense thick­ets that you can ex­plore to your heart’s con­tent (there are no preda­tors or snakes on the is­land) and the sea birds – like masked boo­bies, white terns, grey­backed storm pe­trels – are fas­ci­nat­ing. It all feels a bit un­real. I can’t be­lieve I’m ac­tu­ally here. Even the BBC news bul­letin I watched last night seemed ir­rel­e­vant to St He­lena, as if the dra­mas of the world have no im­pact here. Dur­ing the An­glo-Boer War, many Boer pris­on­ers were sent to St He­lena. In to­tal, the two con­cen­tra­tion camps on the is­land – Dead­wood Plain and Broad­bot­tom – housed 5 865 peo­ple. Af­ter the war, all the sur­viv­ing pris­on­ers were sent home. Ex­cept for five of them, who had fallen in love with lo­cal women. I’m alone when I visit the Boer ceme­tery in the Knoll­combes dis­trict and I feel oddly emo­tional. Not just for the long-dead pris­on­ers, but for ev­ery­one else who has to live with loss and ter­ror. In war there are no win­ners. Look at the man in grave num­ber 34, for ex­am­ple. Ac­cord­ing to the list of names on the memo­rial, he is MJH Boshoff. He was from the Potchef­stroom area and he was pos­si­bly part of a com­mando that joined Gen­eral Piet Cronjé, which was taken pris­oner dur­ing the Bat­tle of Paarde­berg. A month later Boshoff was on the Mil­wau­kee, watch­ing Ta­ble Moun­tain shrink in the dis­tance. What was he think­ing? Born and bred in the in­te­rior of South Africa, was he pan­icky on the open sea? Did he won­der how much longer the Boer forces would be able to main­tain the re­sis­tance? Lady­smith had al­ready fallen, Bloem­fontein too… Or was fight­ing for a cause no longer as im­por­tant as

WALK­A­BOUT (op­po­site page, clock­wise from top left). Will Atkins from Eng­land ex­plored ev­ery cor­ner of St He­lena on foot. He plans to write a book about his ex­pe­ri­ence. The warm waters around the is­land at­tract many an­glers. The Saints learn to fish prac­ti­cally as soon as they can walk. When con­struc­tion work­ers started to build the road from Ru­pert’s Bay to the new air­port, they dis­cov­ered a mass grave of African slaves. The re­mains of these slaves are now kept in this store­house. On Wed­nes­days, shops and busi­nesses are only open half- day. That’s when ev­ery­one in Jamestown takes it easy. You can learn a lot from vis­it­ing the many small ceme­ter­ies on the is­land. just sur­viv­ing? The war couldn’t last for­ever. He might see his wife and chil­dren again… One year, one month, one week – that’s how long Boshoff sur­vived on St He­lena. The is­land was damp and he died from a lung disease when he was 30 years old.

There’s Will Atkins, the English­man I met at the air­port! I recog­nise his red back­pack and pull my ren­tal car over to say hello. Will is on his way to see the ru­ins of Ed­mond Hal­ley’s ob­ser­va­tory. (Hal­ley came to St He­lena in 1676 to doc­u­ment the night sky of the south­ern hemi­sphere). I give Will a lift to the start of the foot­path. He sets off up the hill while I wan­der through an old ceme­tery nearby. Only low walls re­main at the old ob­ser­va­tory site and it’s not long be­fore Will re­turns. We sit among old, hand-carved grave­stones cov­ered in moss and share a Crunchie in si­lence. The is­land has a fa­mil­iar qual­ity that sur­prises me. But what did I ex­pect? St He­lena is re­mote and there aren’t many mod­ern ameni­ties: There’s no cin­ema, shop­ping mall or fast food restau­rant. But some­how it doesn’t seem to be be­hind the times – peo­ple on the is­land live lives just like mine. I shared this in­sight with Derek at the Travel Lodge last night. He laughed and said: “You’re wrong – we just wait for the tourists to go home, then we bring out our grass skirts.” I’m in Jamestown now, stay­ing at the Blue Lantern guest­house at the bot­tom of Ja­cob’s Lad­der. I look out of my win­dow at the crazy stair­case. It used to be a fu­nic­u­lar that con­nected the town and the fort at the top of the hill. I can also see a small store­house, which is home to some skele­tons that were un­cov­ered dur­ing ex­ca­va­tions about a decade ago. Both of these sights are dis­turb­ing to me. Ja­cob’s Lad­der, be­cause I feel duty bound to climb to the top, the skele­tons be­cause they rep­re­sent about 25 000 anony­mous African slaves who were brought to the is­land by the Bri­tish Navy af­ter the mil­i­tary ves­sels in­ter­cepted slave ships bound for Amer­ica af­ter the prac­tice had been abol­ished in the mid-1800s. There is no place on earth with an un­sul­lied his­tory. For the nearly 4 500 per­ma­nent res­i­dents on the is­land, slav­ery is a del­i­cate sub­ject. Some can trace their ances­try back to the slaves – or to the Chi­nese work­ers who once lived on the is­land, or to French, Dutch and Por­tuguese vis­i­tors… These days, the Saints see them­selves as a co­he­sive na­tion and ev­ery­one speaks a di­alect of the Queen’s English.

Tonight I’m go­ing to treat my­self to din­ner at the swanky Man­tis Ho­tel. It feels reck­less to walk alone through the dark­ness, but the Saints have as­sured me that it’s safe. When peo­ple park their cars on the street, they leave their key in the ig­ni­tion. There is a po­lice of­fice on the is­land, how­ever, and a jail, which cur­rently has only two in­mates. Their crimes were so in­signif­i­cant that no one can quite re­mem­ber what they did. In the din­ing room of the ho­tel, I spot the French cou­ple from the air­port – Marc Boré and Diane de Sel­liers from Paris – and they in­vite me to join them. The food is tasty but the ser­vice is av­er­age, de­spite the wait­ress’s earnest at­tempts to keep us happy. Her en­thu­si­asm speaks to the is­land’s ef­forts to make tourism work. Af­ter din­ner I wan­der the nar­row streets, look­ing for the source of the live mu­sic I can hear from afar. Fi­nally, I find the apart­ment. “Won’t some­body come and res­cue me? I am stranded, caught in the cross­fire!” The singer’s raspy voice sounds just like Ste­vie Ray Vaughan’s and in the back­ground I can hear some­one rock­ing out on a key­board. When they fin­ish the song, I give them a round of ap­plause from the pave­ment be­low. Two guys peer through the win­dow and this is how I meet Matthew Wil­liams and Hansel Ben­nett, also known as Square and Se­abird. They tell me they’re prac­tis­ing for a gig at the Wicked Wa­hoo restau­rant on Thurs­day evening. “We be havin’ a fish fry. Come on ova!” “Thanks! What’s the oc­ca­sion?” “Why, it’s Maundy Thurs­day!” Of course, this com­ing Thurs­day is the Thurs­day be­fore Easter week­end. I re­alise this as I walk back to the Blue Lantern guest­house. I stop out­side – that slave store­house is still haunt­ing me. I go stand in front of the wooden door with its big lock and two strings of rosary beads. There’s also a plac­ard with a quote by Madiba: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that re­spects and en­hances the free­dom of others.” Re­searchers are cur­rently us­ing DNA anal­y­sis to try and de­ter­mine where the slaves were from. In the process, they’ve also dis­cov­ered other in­for­ma­tion: Most of the skele­tons were chil­dren younger than 12, so sick and weak

that they died within the first few years on the is­land. Some of the slaves were taken to Bri­tish colonies to work in sugar plan­ta­tions. They would never see Ghana, Nige­ria and Cameroon again. Be­fore break­fast to­day, I climbed the 699 steps of Ja­cob’s Lad­der. I’m not go­ing to lie and say it was fun. It wasn’t. My legs are aching like they ached af­ter my first (and only) half marathon. Hazel Wil­mot, owner of the Con­sulate Ho­tel, felt so sorry for me when I hob­bled in for a cup of cof­fee that she brought me some oint­ment to rub into my calves.

The au­dio tour of Long­wood House, where Napoleon lived from 1815 un­til his death in 1821, is well pre­sented but it leaves me cold. As a larger-than-life his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, Napoleon al­ways seemed quite full of him­self. Maybe that’s the rea­son. It’s also funny to watch the staff sur­rep­ti­tiously fol­low­ing vis­i­tors to make sure they don’t take pho­tos in­side the house. And even fun­nier to see the Parisians’ re­ac­tion to this lit­tle piece of French his­tory. De­spite the photo ban, Diane man­ages to sneak a few cell­phone snaps of Marc do­ing Napoleon’s fa­mous handin-coat pose. It’s late after­noon. I’m sit­ting on a stone wall above Jamestown, drink­ing a Steri Stumpie. There’s a choir singing: “Who’s that young girl dressed in red? Wade in the wa­ter!” The sound is com­ing from St John’s church nearby. There are sev­eral churches on the is­land, in­clud­ing St James, which is ap­par­ently the old­est Angli­can church in the south­ern hemi­sphere. I hear some rocks tum­bling be­hind me. St He­lena is a vol­canic is­land. On the scree slopes where there are no plants grow­ing, rain­fall erodes and loosens the soil. It feels like I’m play­ing chicken with the moun­tain by re­main­ing here, but the cliffs around me all have steel net­ting to stop se­ri­ous rock­falls. “God’s gonna trou­ble the wa­ter!”

Maundy Thurs­day, ac­cord­ing to Angli­can tra­di­tion, is the day you buy or catch fish to eat in­stead of meat over the Easter week­end out of re­spect for the bro­ken body of Christ. Early this morn­ing, ex­pe­ri­enced fish­er­men were dropped off on the rocks bor­der­ing the is­land with their gear; boats will col­lect them again tonight and there will be a big party on the is­land. The fish caught will be deep-fried over the fire in pots of oil. Will of the red back­pack and I have made ar­range­ments to meet up with the Finn from the air­port – Jussi Tou­vi­nen – at the Wicked Wa­hoo. We find a seat as Square and Se­abird start their sound check. The first batch of fish has al­ready ar­rived and Ganz Ben­jamin and Leon Thomp­son are fry­ing like crazy over the flames. Square walks over to say hello to his onewoman au­di­ence from two nights ago. I ask him about life on St He­lena. His day job in­volves do­ing main­te­nance work on the steel net­ting in the moun­tains, to pro­tect against rock­falls; be­fore that he worked in Eng­land for 13 years, where he op­er­ated the ma­chine that adds holo­grams to ban­knotes and soc­cer tick­ets; later he made pros­the­ses. But now he’s back on St He­lena for good. “No other place like this, luv, nowhere.” Se­abird taps out a scale on his key­board and Square goes back to the mi­cro­phone. Their per­for­mance elic­its some de­ri­sive com­men­tary from the au­di­ence be­cause they hardly ever sing the verses of a song in the right or­der. But their pas­sion is con­ta­gious. Un­like most trop­i­cal and sub-trop­i­cal is­lands, St He­lena doesn’t have white beaches and palm trees, and the ocean cur­rents are strong and dan­ger­ous. It’s not the best place for swim­ming. That said, there are some places to get wet… Derek from the Travel Lodge takes Will and I to some tidal pools called Lot’s Wife Ponds on the south­ern side of the is­land, where it’s safe to have a dip. The foot­path to the pools goes over bare vol­canic cliffs and past the nests of masked boo­bies. St He­lena seems to of­fer up one ad­ven­ture af­ter the next. This must be what David At­ten­bor­ough feels like on ev­ery ex­pe­di­tion. Later in the after­noon, we sip sun­down­ers at a re­mote spot on the south-western tip of the is­land. Of all the dra­matic sea views, the val­leys and the cloud forests, this is the panorama that will stay with me. I’m deeply touched by the way the res­i­dents of the is­land have in­vited me into their lives. To­mor­row I have to say good­bye. I al­most feel like I’ll pinkie swear and prom­ise to stay friends for­ever. This is all part of the is­land’s charm.

WA­TER WORLD. In the south-western cor­ner of St He­lena you’ll feel to­tally iso­lated, sur­rounded by wa­ter as far as the eye can see.

STEP OUT OF YOUR COM­FORT ZONE (op­po­site page, clock­wise from top left). Ja­cob’s Lad­der – in all its 699-step glory. Ganz Ben­jamin (in the red apron) and Leon Thomp­son keep the fish pots go­ing at the Wicked Wa­hoo. This photo was taken dur­ing low tide at Lot’s Wife Ponds, but the tidal pools were still too deep to stand in. Look out for trop­i­cal fish in the wa­ter. Cen­turies ago, the masked booby was plen­ty­ful on St He­lena. The in­creased hu­man pop­u­la­tion, how­ever, forced them from their habi­tat. In 1988, a small colony started to breed on the south side of the is­land and is now be­ing strictly mon­i­tored. This is a young­ster.

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