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
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.