St He­lena

New flights have opened up one of the UK’S most dis­tant out­posts, bring­ing St He­lena’s whale sharks, Napoleonic past and lo­cals (known as Saints) that much closer to home

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS & PHO­TO­GRAPHS LYN HUGHES

The is­land’s new air­port has been a long time com­ing, but one of the UK’S fur­thest-flung out­posts is now within reach, bring­ing with it Napoleon’s relics, whale sharks and a com­mu­nity liv­ing at the end of the world

Blue wa­ter, blue wa­ter, blue wa­ter, black wa­ter? “Whale shark!” Cap­tain An­thony and I jumped up in unison, all chat forgotten, as we leapt to the side of the boat, eyes fixed on the dark shape un­der the waves, longer than our ves­sel.

We were chug­ging along in An­thony’s boat, fol­low­ing St He­lena’s north-west coast back to Jamestown, the is­land’s cap­i­tal, and the seas were prov­ing busy. We watched as St He­lena’s res­i­dent pod of pantrop­i­cal spot­ted dol­phins – all 300 to 400 of them – frol­icked and por­poised pur­pose­fully across the waves. “I was con­fi­dent they’d be here; they head this way each morn­ing,” said An­thony. “But that’s a smaller pod than we some­times see; some days we can see seven to eight hun­dred.”

They were an ac­ro­batic bunch, some breach­ing high out of the wa­ter as they went. “Look at that lit­tle guy danc­ing,” pointed An­thony. A baby dol­phin, just a few weeks old, kept leap­ing ver­ti­cally out of the sea and ex­u­ber­antly tail-danc­ing across the waves. “For some rea­son they al­ways en­ter­tain us,” said An­thony. “It’s a real ‘Look at me!’”

There was no doubt that the whale shark and the dol­phins were the high­light of the boat trip, but it would have been fas­ci­nat­ing even without them. We had seen tur­tles, a ray and nu­mer­ous sea birds – brown nod­dies, black nod­dies, masked boo­bies, sooty terns and fairy terns. But it wasn’t just the wildlife that was hold­ing our at­ten­tion; this was a good op­por­tu­nity to see the is­land from the wa­ter and ap­pre­ci­ate its rugged and for­bid­ding ex­te­rior.

It grad­u­ally dawned on me that St He­lena was ringed by im­pos­ing for­ti­fi­ca­tions. Stone walls, forts and can­nons were all clearly vis­i­ble, with ev­ery pos­si­ble route onto the is­land hav­ing been blocked long ago, to de­fend it against po­ten­tial in­va­sion from other na­tion­al­i­ties who would ap­pre­ci­ate such a strate­gic po­si­tion in the At­lantic.

The Brits weren’t the first to spot its po­ten­tial. The is­land had orig­i­nally been dis­cov­ered in 1502 by the Por­tuguese, who used it as a re­plen­ish­ment stop. But when English ex­plorer Thomas Cavendish came across St He­lena in 1588, he de­scribed it as an “earthly par­adise” and spread the word back home. By the mid-17th cen­tury, the Bri­tish had taken pos­ses­sion of the is­land.

“This was a key stag­ing post,” said lo­cal guide Basil Ge­orge when I joined his his­tor­i­cal walk of Jamestown, St He­lena’s hand­some lit­tle cap­i­tal. A twinkly-eyed oc­to­ge­nar­ian, Basil brought the is­land, both its his­tory and present, to life for us.

“When St He­lena first de­vel­oped, its con­nec­tions were to the In­dian Ocean – In­dia and In­done­sia. From 1655 to the 1800s it was run by the Bri­tish East In­dia Com­pany. Ships couldn’t stop in Cape Town, as that was owned by the Dutch, but they could re­sup­ply here. The East In­dia Com­pany was hugely suc­cess­ful, but would not have been so without St He­lena.”

If those were the golden years, St He­lena has had its strug­gles since. By the late 20th cen­tury, the is­land was in a ma­jor eco­nomic de­pres­sion. It had fewer trans­port links to the rest of the world

‘A baby dol­phin kept leap­ing ver­ti­cally out of the sea and tail-danc­ing across the waves’

⊳ than it had 200 years ear­lier, and the pop­u­la­tion was fall­ing be­cause so many Saints – as the peo­ple of St He­lena call them­selves – left to find work. “Those who stayed have had to be adapt­able and re­source­ful,” said Basil. “We have had to do things for our­selves.”

But, af­ter many years of plan­ning and false starts, an air­port has now been built and flights im­ple­mented from late 2017. Ev­ery Saint seems to have their own view on its pos­si­ble im­pact: some hope­ful for the op­por­tu­ni­ties it can open up and how it can re­verse the is­land’s for­tunes; oth­ers ap­pre­hen­sive of change, or scep­ti­cal as to whether it re­ally will bring more tourists. They do at least have the peace of mind that they can get off the is­land quickly now if they have a med­i­cal emer­gency. Yet many are al­ready feel­ing nos­tal­gic about the RMS St He­lena (which com­pleted its fi­nal run ear­lier this year), the ship that was once the is­land’s life­line.

I’d had an itch to go to St He­lena for years, fas­ci­nated even as a child by an is­land that was best known as Napoleon Bon­a­parte’s last place of ex­ile. Sit­u­ated 1,900km from the coast of An­gola, 2,500km from Brazil, and mea­sur­ing a third the size of the Isle of Wight, St He­lena re­ally is a speck on the map, and boasts prob­a­bly the world’s most re­mote golf course, most re­mote dis­tillery and most re­mote marathon. With the ar­rival of the air­port, I was cu­ri­ous to see how life here would change.

Same but dif­fer­ent

Be­ing on St He­lena was dis­ori­en­tat­ing at first. The is­land’s Bri­tish­ness has a whiff of ex­oti­cism about it and re­minders of its rich his­tory were ev­ery­where. For ex­am­ple, English may be the main lan­guage here but Saints often slip into a di­alect that vis­i­tors strug­gle to un­der­stand, just as Sun­day roasts are pop­u­lar yet are often ac­com­pa­nied by curry.

The more I ex­plored, the more lo­cal flour­ishes I no­ticed. In­stead of pi­geons and crows, the birds fly­ing over­head were beau­ti­ful fairy terns, snowy-white in colour. The lo­cal cur­rency is the pound but the images on the notes and coins are dif­fer­ent: the 10p piece shows the is­land’s ubiq­ui­tous dol­phins, while the 5p is em­bla­zoned with St He­lena’s most fa­mous res­i­dent, Jonathan the gi­ant tor­toise, who is be­lieved to be the world’s old­est ter­res­trial an­i­mal at around 186 years old (no one knows for sure) and cur­rently lives a pam­pered ex­is­tence at the Gov­er­nor’s coun­try res­i­dence.

But men­tion the is­land to any­one and it’s a no­to­ri­ous for­mer res­i­dent who they al­ways ref­er­ence: “Isn’t that the place where Napoleon was im­pris­oned?” Yes, hav­ing pre­vi­ously es­caped from Elba (off the coast of Italy), it was clear that some­where much more re­mote and for­ti­fied was needed af­ter his fi­nal de­feat at Water­loo. St He­lena be­came the ‘Cursed Rock’ where the French Em­peror was ex­iled in 1815 and lived un­til his death from stom­ach can­cer in 1821.

“There was no way the Bri­tish were go­ing to let him es­cape,” said guide Aaron Legg when I joined his day tour. “You had to know the day’s pass­word just to pass through here,” he ex­plained as we drove through a for­mer gate­way in the di­rec­tion of Long­wood, the house where Napoleon spent the ma­jor­ity of his in­tern­ment.

Billed as a 4WD ad­ven­ture, Aaron’s trip was the per­fect in­tro­duc­tion to the di­verse land­scapes of St He­lena. On paper the is­land is diminu­tive, but its to­pog­ra­phy makes it feel much larger, no mat­ter whether ex­plor­ing on foot or by car. We drove through mi­cro­cli­mate af­ter mi­cro­cli­mate, some­times within a few me­tres of each other, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ev­ery­thing from an arid plain of cacti, to lush cat­tle-grazed pas­tures, shaded lanes and riots of trop­i­cal

‘Ev­ery Saint seems to have their own view on the pos­si­ble im­pact of the air­port’

veg­e­ta­tion all in­side a few short min­utes. With such con­trasts crammed into a small area, I could see why the is­land is often de­scribed as a walker’s par­adise.

En route, I was learn­ing more than an­tic­i­pated about his­tory, flora, fauna, and just about ev­ery­thing. We had al­ready had good sight­ings of St He­lena’s en­demic bird, a plover known lo­cally as the wire­bird – sup­pos­edly be­cause of its skinny legs. Once crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, a lo­cal con­ser­va­tion pro­gramme has been suc­cess­ful and its num­bers are in­creas­ing again. They are eas­ily spied on windswept Dead­wood Plain (a for­mer Boer prisoner of war camp), a view that Napoleon would once have looked down on from the grounds around Long­wood.

The last em­peror

We stopped for a pic­nic lunch at a view­point in the Mil­len­nium For­est, although I was ini­tially sur­prised at how low the trees were. When first dis­cov­ered, the is­land was rich in en­demic species, in­clud­ing St He­lena ebony, but over­ex­ploita­tion and the in­tro­duc­tion of goats and other plants and an­i­mals re­sulted in many of the is­land’s na­tive species go­ing ex­tinct. It was thought by 1850 that there was no St He­lena ebony left here, but in Novem­ber 1980 a sin­gle spec­i­men was dis­cov­ered on a cliff by a botanist, and to­day the species is thriv­ing again in the for­est and is the na­tional flower of the is­land.

Flax grows abun­dantly in some val­leys, form­ing the hedgerows that line the road in places. It was an im­por­tant crop here dur­ing the two World Wars but lost money out­side of that pe­riod, ul­ti­mately prov­ing to be too un­eco­nom­i­cal to farm. To­day, it grows wild and free as a po­tent re­minder of yet another false dawn for the is­land.

That search for fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence still con­tin­ues, and yet you get the im­pres­sion that any­thing could grow here, given the sun, rain and va­ri­ety of al­ti­tudes. On another day I vis­ited a cof­fee plan­ta­tion where Bill and Jill Bolton grow one of the purest and rarest cof­fees in the world, first in­tro­duced from Ye­men in 1732 and now avail­able in Har­rods as well as their own café in Jamestown.

At the most re­mote dis­tillery in the world, run by Paul Hick­ling, I sam­pled a cof­fee liqueur and a prickly pear drink called Tungi, both made from lo­cal pro­duce. I also tasted Jamestown Gin, flavoured with one of the rarest ju­niper berries in the world – this is the only place out­side its na­tive Ber­muda where this epony­mous ju­niper grows. Paul also showed me a spe­cial brandy he had pro­duced to com­mem­o­rate the bi­cen­te­nary of Napoleon’s ex­ile, and which sold for £200 a bot­tle.

The con­tin­u­ing fas­ci­na­tion with Napoleon is, of course, one draw to visit the is­land. Long­wood is a mod­est house, fur­nished with much of the orig­i­nal fur­ni­ture dat­ing from when he died. Wan­der­ing its rooms, you soon get a keen sense of the man. The win­dow blinds near the en­trance have tele­scope-sized holes cut into them from when he used to keep an eye out for any­one ap­proach­ing. Else­where, much of the fur­ni­ture is as you’d ex­pect; he had the fancy bed that he was given chopped up for fire­wood af­ter com­plain­ing con­stantly of the damp and the cold. In­stead, he slept in the same sim­ple camp bed that he used on his cam­paigns – a sol­dier to the last.

Napoleon’s for­mer tomb is in a beau­ti­ful spot that he picked him­self, hav­ing come across it when vis­it­ing the first house of Gen­eral Henri Ber­trand (who fol­lowed him into ex­ile). At that time, it may well have had a view over a val­ley, but now it is a tran­quil place in a grove of trees, with a sound­track of bird­song. His body was ex­humed and re­turned to France in 1840, but it was easy to imag­ine him still ly­ing there as a pair of fairy terns wheeled over­head.

Re­mem­brance of things past

The is­land’s his­tory isn’t just about Napoleon, but lay­ers and lay­ers of other tales. The list of vis­i­tors over the years is dis­tin­guished, rang­ing from Cap­tain Cook to Charles Dar­win. And then there’s the lo­cals. St He­lena’s Boer prisoner of war camps were ba­si­cally open pris­ons, with in­mates rel­a­tively free to work and start busi­nesses. While slaves were once found here, the is­land also played its part in fight­ing the slave trade once it was abol­ished, and ships were sta­tioned on St He­lena to in­ter­cept the slav­ing boats.

Down a lit­tle street in Jamestown, I had come across a door­way with flo­ral trib­utes out­side. A Saint ex­plained that it held the re­mains of some slaves that had re­cently been found. Basil’s son, Kevin, showed me the place where the orig­i­nal large burial site was dis­cov­ered. He was clearly moved as he told me: “They had ei­ther died on ship, or they were very weak and died of de­hy­dra­tion and mal­nu­tri­tion when they ar­rived. A lot of them were young­sters, just 12 to 15 years old.”

While most of the lib­er­ated slaves went on to the West Indies as free men, around 50 stayed on the is­land. With such mixed an­ces­try, it is no won­der that the Saints are hard to place when you first meet them. To­day, the is­land re­tains the feel of an English vil­lage. Un­like Lon­don, where peo­ple avoid each other’s eyes, here I had to read­just to say­ing hello to ev­ery­one I met walk­ing down the main street.

For my last evening, I headed out onto the wa­ter again, along with some Saints. It was a balmy evening of golden light and gen­tle breezes, the sun set­ting over the sight of St He­lena’s res­i­dent dol­phins putting on another splen­did dis­play. As we ap­proached Egg Rock, Madeiran storm pe­trels flew over­head, re­cently iden­ti­fied as an en­demic sub-species for St He­lena. The boat turned and we headed back in the dark, gaz­ing in awe at the blan­ket of stars twin­kling above.

“It’s just per­fect, isn’t it?” one of my com­pan­ions asked softly. “Has the is­land been what you ex­pected?”

“Oh yes, and more,” I replied, think­ing back to my child­hood dreams. “I don’t know what Napoleon was com­plain­ing about.”

‘It was easy to imag­ine Napoleon still ly­ing there as a pair of fairy terns wheeled over­head’

Happy land­ings Af­ter some initial dif­fi­cul­ties with cross­winds, reg­u­lar flights to St He­lena now go from Jo­han­nes­burg, bring­ing new chal­lenges and pos­si­bil­i­ties to an is­land for so long cut off from the world

Fac­ing his Water­loo Napoleon died six years into his ex­ile, but de­spite still hav­ing a tomb in the Sane Val­ley, his re­mains left for France in 1840

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