Say hello to St He­lena

St He­lena in the South At­lantic is not your typ­i­cal post­card is­land of white beaches and palm trees. It’s much more in­ter­est­ing than that! Here’s your guide to a hol­i­day full of ad­ven­ture and discovery.

go! - - Contents - WORDS & PICTURES SOPHIA VAN TAAK

The charm of St He­lena isn’t ob­vi­ous. When you see the vol­canic is­land from the aero­plane for the first time, you do a double take. Where are the peo­ple, the beaches, the coast lined with ho­tels? That’s be­cause St He­lena isn’t your av­er­age is­land. There are no deck chairs or wait­ers serv­ing cock­tails; no bikini-clad tourists rid­ing jet skis or ca­lypso mu­sic in the back­ground.

St He­lena is dif­fer­ent. It has a raw beauty that makes it so at­trac­tive. For five cen­turies, Por­tu­gal, the Bri­tish East In­dia Com­pany, the Bri­tish Royal Navy and the Nether­lands were locked in a tug of war over the is­land. In the early 1800s it had a large Chi­nese work­force. Half a cen­tury later, when slav­ery was abol­ished, many slaves from Africa, Mada­gas­car, Malaysia and In­dia were sent there.

This mix of in­flu­ences makes St He­lena un­like any­where else on earth. I’d rec­om­mend that you start sav­ing for a plane ticket right now. I’m ac­tu­ally beg­ging you to do it! St He­lena still has loads of char­ac­ter, but who knows how long it will stay that way? The best time to visit is now. Use our guide to help plan your trip of a life­time.

THINGS TO DO Learn about Napoleon

Many his­tor­i­cal fig­ures spent time on St He­lena, in­clud­ing cap­tain James Cook, as­tronomer Ed­mond Hal­ley, Charles Dar­win and Napoleon Bon­a­parte, who is pos­si­bly the most fa­mous ex­ile in his­tory. For two months af­ter he ar­rived on the is­land in 1815, Napoleon lived in a small house above Jamestown called Bri­ars Pav­il­ion. In­ter­est­ingly, Bri­ars Pav­il­ion had also been home to the Duke of Welling­ton 10 years pre­vi­ously – the same duke that Napoleon fought dur­ing the Bat­tle of Water­loo! Napoleon was later moved to Long­wood House where he lived un­til he passed away in 1821. Long­wood House is filled with wooden fur­ni­ture, crys­tal chan­de­liers and gilded wall­pa­per – it’s hard to imag­ine this place as “dank and musty” as Napoleon de­scribed it. You’ll learn all this and more on an au­dio tour. You’ll also get to see the gen­eral’s camp stretcher, his lead bath, his sig­na­ture and the globe he must have stud­ied many a night while sip­ping a glass of Vin de Con­stance and won­der­ing what Louis the XVIII was up to in France. Cost: A combo ticket to Long­wood House and Bri­ars Pav­il­ion is R255 per per­son; the au­dio tour costs an ex­tra R35. It will take about two hours to see ev­ery­thing. If you keep your ticket, you can re­turn a few days later. Open­ing times: Long­wood House: Mon­day to Fri­day from 11 am to 1 pm. Bri­ars Pav­il­ion: Wed­nes­day and Fri­day from 10 am to 11 am.

WHAT ELSE?

Napoleon’s re­mains were re­turned to Paris in 1840, where he was laid to rest in the Les In­valides cathe­dral af­ter a state funeral. For two decades, how­ever, he had been buried in a tomb on St He­lena , un­der a stone with no in­scrip­tion. This is be­cause Bri­tish gover­nor Hud­son Lowe in­sisted that the grave be marked with Napoleon’s name and sur­name, whereas France wanted only his im­pe­rial ti­tle “Napoleon” on the stone. Un­able to re­solve the dis­pute, the stone re­mained anony­mous. Napoleon was buried in four coffins stacked one in­side the other – one made of tin, one of lead and two of ma­hogany. His tomb is a short drive from Long­wood House, in the Sane Valley. It’s about a 500 m walk from the park­ing area to a ter­race, from where you can see the grave.

Have a drink

Prickly pears grow on un­cul­ti­vated moun­tain slopes called the Crown Waste. It’s no easy task to har­vest the fruit, but that’s ex­actly what Paul and Sally Hick­ling did with their friends a few years ago: They har­vested and dis­tilled 15 tonnes of prickly pears to make a de­li­cious drink called Tungi Spirit. ( Tungi is the lo­cal word for prickly pear.) At the St He­lena Dis­tillery , the Hick­lings also pro­duce a first-class gin, a cof­fee liqueur called Mid­night Mist and a rum called White Lion, named af­ter the Witte Leeuw ship­wreck in James Bay. (Is­land slang for a rum and Coke is a “ship­wreck”.)

Brush up on your Boer his­tory

There are two memo­ri­als out­side a small church in the Knoll­combes district: a faded Vierkleur flag flies next to one me­mo­rial and the flag of the former Repub­lic of the Orange Free State is next to the other. On a slope in this narrow valley you’ll find the graves of Boer prison­ers of war who died on St He­lena. The first Boer prison­ers – in­clud­ing gen­eral Piet Cronjé and his wife Hester – ar­rived on the is­land in 1900. More ships ar­rived over the course of that year, bring­ing the num­ber of Boer prison­ers to about 4 500. They were kept in two con­cen­tra­tion camps: Dead­wood Plain in the east and Broad­bot­tom in the west. Some prison­ers were al­lowed to work in the plan­ta­tions, chop wood, dig ditches for pipe­lines

and to do ren­o­va­tion work and con­struc­tion. How­ever, many had fallen ill dur­ing the ex­haust­ing sea voy­age. Dis­eases like ty­phoid and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis even­tu­ally caused about 180 deaths. There were chil­dren among the prison­ers – about 300 boys re­ceived an ed­u­ca­tion on the is­land. The adults made pipes, kieries, brooches, whips and toys us­ing what­ever they could lay their hands on. There were small cafés in the camps, as well as a bak­ery. An Afrikaans news­pa­per was even pub­lished! Sports events would be held oc­ca­sion­ally – the cricket match be­tween Bo­ers and Brits was al­ways a favourite. As many as 40 000 let­ters were sent to Eng­land, South Africa and other coun­tries ev­ery month dur­ing the war, yet the peo­ple of St He­lena were so iso­lated that when a tele­graph ar­rived on 1 June 1902 to an­nounce that the war was over, both par­ties cel­e­brated, con­vinced of their vic­tory.

Be­cause St He­lena was a Bri­tish ter­ri­tory, the prison­ers were forced to swear al­le­giance to the King. Only seven Boer prison­ers re­fused and they were sent back to Cape Town for a court hear­ing. Five prison­ers stayed be­hind on the is­land and mar­ried lo­cal women, the rest re­turned to South Africa. In an open let­ter to the peo­ple of St He­lena, the Boer prison­ers wrote: “We find it im­pos­si­ble to leave St He­lena un­less we con­trib­ute our share of thank­ful­ness to His Majesty’s Of­fi­cers…, for what they have done to make us take courage to fight the fu­ture. … the con­clu­sion has been made that the prison­ers of war have been squarely and gen­tle­manly treated…

Their gen­eral at­ti­tude to­wards us prison­ers of war will al­ways be re­counted with plea­sure – an at­ti­tude at once firm and manly and wor­thy of ad­mi­ra­tion – and why? Be­cause ‘po­lite­ness’ was evinced in all their ac­tions and do­ings.” Park near the gate at the church and walk down the jeep track. There’s no space at the end of the track to turn your ve­hi­cle around and it can get quite muddy af­ter rain.

Meet Jonathan

The of­fi­cial res­i­dence of the gover­nor of St He­lena is called Plan­ta­tion House . You can take a walk around the ground floor to see the din­ing room and li­brary, and photo gal­leries of former gov­er­nors and mem­bers of the royal fam­ily who have vis­ited the is­land. Af­ter­wards, you’ll gain ac­cess to the lawn for about half an hour where you’ll meet some overgrown lawn­mow­ers: Jonathan – the old­est Aldabra gi­ant tor­toise in the world – and a few of his friends.

As well as be­ing the old­est tor­toise, Jonathan is also the old­est ter­res­trial an­i­mal in the world. He is es­ti­mated to be about 186 years old and was brought to St He­lena in 1882 from the Sey­chelles. He is start­ing to look his age – his right eye has cataracts, which makes it easy to dis­tin­guish him from the other tor­toises. The hour-long tour of Plan­ta­tion House takes place on week­days from 8 am to 4 pm. Book be­fore­hand via the tourism of­fice.

IN JAMESTOWN Drink lo­cal cof­fee

The first ara­bica cof­fee plants were brought to St He­lena from Ye­men in 1732 by the Bri­tish East In­dia Com­pany. Napoleon is said to have en­joyed a few cups a day. He de­scribed the cof­fee as “the only good thing about St He­lena”. At Rosemary Gate farm 6 , own­ers Bill and Jill Bolton grow their own cof­fee. Bill will talk you through the whole process: His 1 800 plants flower twice a year and they har­vest 2,5 tonnes of fruit by hand. It’s great fun to watch Bill lean­ing over the cof­fee roaster, wait­ing for the first bean to crack open like a pop­corn ker­nel. When he hears a sec­ond pop, the beans are ready and the colour and flavour will be per­fect. Bags of beans and ground cof­fee are sold at the Boltons’ cof­fee shop in the har­bour (pic­tured left). Ex­cept for Har­rods in Lon­don, this is the only place in the world where you can buy their cof­fee. Cost: A cof­fee tour costs R170 per per­son. Make ar­range­ments via the tourism of­fice.

Take in the views from High Knoll Fort

With all its moun­tains and sea views, St He­lena has no short­age of places to watch the sun­set. But few sun­set spots match High Knoll Fort 7 . Years ago, there were can­nons on the walls to drive doubt into the mind of a ship cap­tain think­ing about at­tack­ing. In­sub­or­di­nate Boer prison­ers were also locked up in the fort. Spend some time ex­plor­ing the moss-cov­ered nooks and cran­nies of the fort and watch the sun set over the South At­lantic from the para­pets.

Let Basil be your guide

Basil Ge­orge (above) is the grand­son of Al­fred Smith, one of the Boer prison­ers of war who re­mained on the is­land. Dur­ing a his­tor­i­cal town walk 8 around the har­bour and past some of the old­est build­ings in Jamestown, Basil will tell you how the is­land, which rises more than 5 000 m from the sea floor, was formed 15 mil­lion years ago by a se­ries of vol­canic erup­tions. He’ll also tell you how Por­tuguese ad­mi­ral João da Nova dis­cov­ered the is­land in 1502 and kept it a se­cret for decades un­til the Dutch and Bri­tish fleets came upon it.

As you wan­der from one his­tor­i­cal build­ing to the next, you’ll learn about the is­land’s eco­nomic de­te­ri­o­ra­tion over the cen­turies and how the econ­omy has been re­cov­er­ing steadily since the 1970s. St He­lena still faces many chal­lenges: It has no labour mar­ket or prop­erty de­vel­op­ers ( job op­por­tu­ni­ties are limited to ed­u­ca­tion, health­care and gov­ern­ment posts).

Once young res­i­dents leave the is­land to study in South Africa or Eng­land, there’s not much to en­tice them to move back. Basil also tells sto­ries about the whalers of the 1800s and that the cathe­dral – built in 1774 – is the old­est Angli­can church in the south­ern hemi­sphere. He’s pas­sion­ate about St He­lena and his tour will teach you more about the is­land than a book or a brochure ever can. Cost: A tour costs R170 per per­son and in­cludes a cup of cof­fee and a snack. The tourism of­fice will ar­range the tour with Basil.

Tea time at the Con­sulate

The Con­sulate Ho­tel 9 will take you back a cen­tury or two to a time when high tea was still an in­sti­tu­tion. If rainy weather ru­ins your plans for the day, this is a great place to while away a few hours. Sit on the ve­randa or in a comfy chair and ad­mire the col­lec­tion of paint­ings and sketches of Napoleon on the walls. Or­der a mug of hot choco­late (about R20) and a slice of cake (about R35 – they usu­ally have car­rot cake, choco­late fudge cake, scones, quiche and milk tart). Some­one might play a tune on the baby grand and if you’re lucky farmer Peter Mott (pic­tured below) and his duck­ling Don­ald will drop by.

Climb Ja­cob’s Lad­der

This stair­case will haunt you un­til you’ve climbed to the top. Be­tween 1829 and 1871, Ja­cob’s Lad­der 10 was a fu­nic­u­lar be­tween the town at the bot­tom and the fort at the top. Cargo cars were pulled up iron rails at a 40-de­gree an­gle, by three don­keys at the top rotating a cap­stan. The cars and rails have since been re­moved and all that re­mains are the stone steps. Ja­cob’s Lad­der is a must-do on the is­land. If you man­age all 699 steps you’ll have good rea­son to boast – and you’ll earn the re­spect of the Saints!

WHAT ELSE?

The mu­seum 11 at the bot­tom of Ja­cob’s Lad­der is open on week­days from 10 am to 4 pm, and on Satur­days un­til noon. You can spend hours brows­ing the ex­hibits on ship­wrecks, Boer his­tory, the flax in­dus­try, St He­lena in­fra­struc­ture and prom­i­nent fam­i­lies. Also ask about the life of Din­uzulu kaCetshwayo, a Zulu chief who was ex­iled to St He­lena be­tween 1890 and 1897.

HEAD OUT TO SEA

The ocean tem­per­a­ture around St He­lena might be a mod­er­ate 20˚ C, but the cur­rents are dan­ger­ous – if you get caught in one you might end up near the equa­tor! As such, the is­land doesn’t have any safe swim­ming beaches. Rather ex­plore the sea by boat.

Whale sharks 12 of­ten con­gre­gate around the is­land. It’s a rare priv­i­lege to swim with these gen­tle gi­ants – de­spite be­ing the big­gest sharks on earth, they are harm­less plank­ton feed­ers. Jump in with your Go­Pro and try to keep up with the shark as it drifts past ef­fort­lessly. (Div­ing mask, snorkel and fins are pro­vided for the trip.) You might also see bot­tlenose, rough-toothed and pantrop­i­cal spot­ted dol­phins. Cost: A whale shark out­ing costs about R500 per per­son and takes about three hours. Con­tact: Johnny Herne from En­chanted Isle Limited [email protected]

Scuba-div­ing around the is­land is bril­liant – the wa­ter is warm and vis­i­bil­ity is gen­er­ally ex­cel­lent. On the west­ern side of the is­land there are eight ship­wrecks for divers to ex­plore of which the Witte Leeuw is the best known. This Dutch cargo ship car­ry­ing spices, porce­lain and di­a­monds sank in 1613 af­ter a short but dev­as­tat­ing bat­tle with the Por­tuguese can­nons on the is­land. Cost: From R500 per per­son, in­clud­ing gear hire (re­mem­ber to bring your cer­ti­fi­ca­tion card and your log book). Also en­quire about deep-sea fish­ing and bird­watch­ing out­ings. Con­tact: di­ve­sainthe­lena.com; stad­ven­tures.com

WHAT ELSE?

Jamestown has a 33 m swim­ming pool 14 where you can do a few laps when the school kids are done with their les­son.

EX­PLORE THE IS­LAND ON FOOT

St He­lena is one big moun­tain and there are lots of amaz­ing hik­ing trails. There are 21 Post­box Walks, rang­ing in dis­tance from the 1,5 km Heart-shaped Water­fall Trail to the 12 km Su­gar Loaf Trail. The ter­rain in­cludes rugged vol­canic moun­tain slopes and sub­trop­i­cal cloud forests. The most pop­u­lar route is the 3,8 km trail that takes you to Diana’s Peak – the high­est peak on the is­land at 823 m above sea level. The hike is not too chal­leng­ing and on a clear day you’ll have views in all di­rec­tions. It goes through dense flax bush and past indige­nous tree ferns and in­cludes two other peaks, Mount Ac­taeon and Cuck­old’s Point. (On Mount Ac­taeon, look for the Nor­folk pine that Cap­tain James Cook planted in the 1770s. A Nor­folk pine has a tall, straight trunk – sea­far­ers used them as land­marks and as a source of wood to re­pair their masts.)

The 4,5 km trail to Lot’s Wife Ponds on the south­ern side of the is­land is an­other highly rec­om­mended route. It goes along vol­canic moun­tain slopes where masked boo­bies nest. Rock for­ma­tions to look out for in­clude Asses Ears, Lot’s Wife and Go­rilla’s Head. When you reach the tidal pools, climb down the steep slope us­ing the ropes. You can swim in the pools – a rocky reef shel­ters them from the open sea – but don’t take un­nec­es­sary risks. Keep your eyes peeled for trop­i­cal fish and the big red crabs that are nick­named Sally Light­foots.

WHAT ELSE?

The Post­box Walks are so named be­cause each has a post­box with a unique ink stamp that you can add to your di­ary to re­mem­ber the out­ing.

KNOW BE­FORE YOU GO Best time to visit?

St He­lena is a year-round desti­na­tion. It’s a sub-trop­i­cal is­land and the tem­per­a­tures are mod­er­ate. The weather can vary across the is­land: The sun might be shin­ing in Jamestown while it’s misty and rainy in the moun­tains. Bring a sun hat and a rain jacket. It doesn’t get very cold.

How to get there?

There’s an Air­link flight from OR Tambo ev­ery Satur­day and Tues­day. Re­turn ticket from R13 577 per per­son. fly­air­link.com

Do I need a visa?

No. All you need is your passport, proof of med­i­cal travel in­sur­ance and a short-term visa (about R300; pay upon ar­rival).

Where do I stay?

Self-cater­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion from R340 per per­son; B&B from R1 100 per per­son; ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tion R3 050 per per­son per night. Give the tourism of­fice your bud­get and they’ll sug­gest suit­able places.

Where do I eat?

The Boltons’ cof­fee shop in the har­bour makes a fine ham­burger (R100); the Sand­wich Bar at the mar­ket sells de­li­cious sand­wiches (R85); Anne’s Place in the cas­tle gar­dens serves freshly caught fish (R200) and the Blue Lan­tern has juicy steaks from South Africa (R340 per per­son for a three-course meal).

Are there any shops?

Yes, there are gro­cery shops that stock mostly Bri­tish and South African prod­ucts. Fruit and veg­eta­bles are put on shelf on Thurs­days and sell out quickly. The is­land pro­duces fresh meat and eggs on a small scale, but frozen prod­ucts are im­ported from South Africa. The shops are only open un­til lunchtime on Wed­nes­days.

What if I have a med­i­cal emer­gency?

There’s a den­tist and a small hospi­tal staffed with in­ter­na­tional doc­tors on the is­land.

Money mat­ters. There are no ATMs on the is­land and very few shops or places to stay ac­cept credit cards. Bring cash and ex­change it for St He­lena pounds (equiv­a­lent to Bri­tish pounds) at the air­port or at the bank in Jamestown.

Can I phone home?

Prob­a­bly not. But there are a few places with Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi at Anne’s Place works well. R112 per hour.

Does St He­lena have Uber?

No, but you can use your South African driv­ing li­cence to hire a car for about R280 per day. There are three fill­ing sta­tions on the is­land.

Con­tact: Visit sthe­le­na­tourism. com to plan your trip and visit saint he­lena is­land. info/ for more in­for­ma­tion about the is­land. The tourism of­fice is at the top of the main road in Jamestown, near the traf­fic cir­cle.

Sophia trav­elled as a guest of St He­lena Tourism.

GOR­GEOUS. Jamestown, the cap­i­tal of St He­lena, is sit­u­ated in a narrow valley on the north­ern side of the is­land. Climb up the moun­tain for a view of the town cen­tre, James Bay and Ja­cob’s Lad­der (on the far left).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.