Ship out to isolated St Helena before the planes land

There’s something uniquely attractive about islands. Self-contained and complete, their defined edges offer a sharp sense of being cut off from our everyday, grown-up lives. It is the attraction of the Robinson Crusoe story, the dream of being left alone to rule our own world, at least for a while.

Turned to darker purposes, that isolation has made a long line of prison islands possible: the Isle d’If, Alcatraz, Robben Island.

And St Helena, where Napoleon lived out his days, that British speck in the South Atlantic that is thousands of miles from the coasts of South America and Africa. It is one of the most remote places on Earth, and access is still only possible by ship – a five-day voyage from Cape Town on the RMS St Helena.

Drawn by romance and remoteness, our family began thinking about a holiday on St Helena. We were looking for a real break. The island seemed to be the opposite of Johannesburg, with its endless traffic, crime concerns and the twin obscenities of poverty and corruption.

After long preparations, we found ourselves at the Missions to Seafarers in the Cape Town docks, waiting to be bused to the RMS St Helena’s berth.

The RMS is the last working Royal Mail Ship in the world and still the island’s only regular connection to the outside world. She brings pretty much everything needed by the Saints, as the islanders call themselves. This is all set to change in the coming months.

The island’s first airport is being built, an ambitious project that is costing the British government R3-billion and involves filling in a whole valley. It is due to become operational in 2016, and then the island’s isolation will be dramatically lessened as it takes its place on the grid of airline connections.

The ship service will be discontinued at that point, and the RMS sold off. As we steamed north, the knowledge that it was one of the last opportunities to experience this way of travel was never far away.

The ship has comfortable accommodation for about 150 passengers, avoiding the brash glitziness of the big cruise ships.

You can spend the voyage reading, staring at the ocean and enjoying more meals than is healthy, but there is also a daily programme of activities, organised by a staff of excessively enthusiastic white-uniformed pursers.

The passengers were an interesting mix: a small number of tourists, some people travelling to the island for work, such as on the airport project, and then islanders who have been away for work, for medical treatment or to visit relatives elsewhere.

At first light on the fifth day, we had our first sight of the volcanic island: a looming presence on the horizon, its heights hidden in dark cloud. It was what the Portuguese seafarer João da Nova must have seen in 1502, when he and his crew became the first human beings to set eyes on it.

No easy access: Jamestown provides a difficult entry point to the island of S Helena. (Pic: St Helena Tourism)

The mind boggles at the sheer luck of finding this scrap of land in the vastness of the Atlantic, although his achievement is somewhat undermined by the fact that he promptly lost the island again. He noted down the position incorrectly, and it took the Portuguese some time before they rediscovered it.

The RMS St Helena sailed past sheer rocky cliffs around the island to get to Jamestown, the main town, on the northwestern side. There are very few landing places – together with its remoteness, this made it ideal as a prison island.

Besides Napoleon, Britain held Boer War prisoners, Bahreini princes and the Zulu chief Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo here at various times.

We entered James Bay through a pod of what seemed like hundreds of dolphins and anchored. There is no harbour, and small lighters came to fetch us while the ship’s cranes lifted containers on to pontoons that carried them to the wharf.

Getting ashore is an adventure all on its own. It was easy enough to get aboard the lighter, but at the wharf teams of men with boathooks and ropes had to hold the boat as steady as possible.

It needs fine timing to step ashore just when the swell brings it briefly level with the land. For the infirm, the RMS St Helena offers an “air taxi” – a metal box that is lifted by crane.

After clearing immigration, we drove our rented car into Jamestown, which has a population of 600 and is about as wide as a Johannesburg highway. All we had to do to be allowed to drive was report to the police station, where a British policeman entered our details into a large ledger.

The town’s main road runs from the seafront past a moat and a castle wall, a park and rows of Georgian houses to a tree where slaves were traded. There it splits into Napoleon Street and Market Street. The former leads out of town, the latter first climbs past the Bank of St Helena, which issues the island’s currency, then up to the hospital and out. And that’s the town.

The roads inland are winding, steep and so narrow that cars can only pass each other every now and again. Driving needs a different set of skills: you don’t need to know about any gear higher than third, but you do need to know the intricate system of giving way. There are no traffic lights but the basic rule of the road is: greet everybody.

And there’s the surprise: as the roads climb past places with names like Ladder Fort, Half Tree Hollow and Alarm Forest, the landscape changes quickly. The coastal strip around the island is rocky and bare, almost like a desert, giving way to hillsides covered in cactuses. But the higher central part is cool and misty, green and lush. 

Here, there are forests and meadows, and the roads are lined with ancient, knobbly trees straight out of Middle-earth. You expect them to spring to life like Ents.

No easy access: Jamestown provides a difficult entry point to the island of S Helena. (Pic: St Helena Tourism)

We climbed past ferns, thickets of flax and the occasional cannon to the highest point, Diana’s Peak. We noted the day’s significance in the Postbox on top, where you can record your presence and collect a stamp. From there, the whole island is visible, its green heart and harsh edges, and the endless ocean in all directions.

As attractive as the landscape is, the island environment has been reshaped by centuries of human activity, to such an extent that it is now almost impossible to tell clearly what it looked like originally.

There are no endemic land mammals, but goats, rabbits, pheasant and other animals and birds were brought to the island to supply passing ships. Forests were felled, and flax introduced to support an industry that flourished in the first half of the 20th century.

Among the animals brought to the island is the tortoise Jonathan who, at some 180 years, is reputed to be the oldest living land animal in the world. With other, younger tortoises, he lives in the grounds of Plantation House, the governor’s residence, where he apparently enjoys an active sex life.

The only surviving endemic bird species is the wirebird, a type of plover, that can be seen running around open, grassy areas.

Beyond the landscape and the historical sites, hikes and dives, the real attraction of the island is to see, however briefly and imperfectly, what life is like for this small, remote community of about 4?000 people.

The descendants of European settlers, African slaves and Chinese labourers, they speak an English that can be hard to understand, with a tendency to swallow the ends of words and sentences, an odd use of the verb “to be”, and stretched vowels: “It’s over the-ere!”

I puzzled over the nature of the island’s isolation: there was no cellphone network yet, the satellite internet connection is slow and expensive, but a range of television channels is available and the BBC’s World Service can be heard on FM.

It’s not as if the island is completely cut off, but the sense of physical isolation is strong. Watching the RMS St Helena steam out of James Bay, one is acutely aware that there is no other way to leave the island.

Surprisingly for such a small community, there are two local radio channels and two weekly newspapers, one of each supported by the government and one independent. None of them spent much time on the South African story – local Christmas activities were much more important.

Of these, there were many. We attended two Salvation Army carol services, a pantomime at Prince Andrew High School and a concert in St James church.

The most surprising was the Festival of Light: one evening just before Christmas, adults and children gathered at the hospital carrying coloured lights. They formed a loose and cheerful procession and made their way down to the seafront, accompanied by brightly decorated vans and cars blaring carols.

There the party continued late into the night. It felt as though every person on the island must have been there.

The shops are mostly general dealers and it takes a while to work out that the shop where you’re most likely to find stationery is also the one which sells wetsuits and costumes for hen parties, obviously a significant market. Advertising is minimal, and some of the shop signage seems to have remained unchanged for 100 years or more.

Noticeable for us as South Africans was the lack of crime. A lost wallet was announced on the radio, while police reports refer to damaged hedges, drunk driving and being cheeky to an officer.

The population of Her Majesty’s Prison, painted a pretty blue, consisted of 13, and we were not sure whether to believe the story that the inmates were allowed out on a Friday to choose videos to watch.

On a short visit, it seems idyllic, but domestic abuse is an issue and small-town politics and gossip can be pretty vicious.

The airport project is set to change life on St Helena fundamentally and irreversibly. The topic is never far from conversation, and reactions are multifaceted.

On the one hand, there are hopes of new economic opportunities to reverse the emigration of younger Saints – new hotels are being planned, and a sizeable fishing boat has been acquired that hopes to supply European markets.

There is also relief that emergency medical help will be more accessible by air than by the current ship connection to Cape Town.

At the same time, there is scepticism about whether the promised growth in tourism will materialise, worries about the costs of airline tickets and how cargo will be brought in when the regular mail ship service is stopped.

We were glad to have been able to visit the island before all this change happens. 

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