You are hereA Sojourn to St. Helena (Part II)

A Sojourn to St. Helena (Part II)

We had arrived on a solitary rock shrouded in cloud in the middle of the South Atlantic. The island of St. Helena.

It was time to rendevouz with my contact. Let’s call him Arnold. Arnold was as well connected with island politics, having served on the council for many years, as he was with the goings on at grass roots. The two were in fact one and the same. Arnold pointed out into the bay and told me of the Dutch sea captain whose ship was rusting at anchor. The Dutchman hoped to secure his retirement on his last sea voyage transporting drugs from the Far East to Europe. Interpol got wind of this and scuttled his plan by flying in some people to Ascension and thereon by the RMS to St. Helena. The Dutchman called in to the island having at that time a near mutiny on his hands. The drugs were discovered under the stove. He was duly sentenced to a fair stretch in the island’s goal, and was its sole occupant for a number of years.

The St. Helenians, also referred to as “Saints”, share a diverse DNA of European settler, including Portuguese, Dutch and English, as well as Malay, Goanese and Madagascan slave who were brought in during the formative years of the colony. The Saints have over time accumulated a mixed array of surnames including Bargo, Hudson, Maggott, Piek and Yon. Nicknames are widely used. Conger Kidneys and Clock Eyes rather maliciously refer to the physical peculiarities brought about by interbreeding. The Saints I met were a friendly and cheerful bunch, somewhat limited in their intellectual horizons and pursuits as a result of the extreme remoteness of their island habitat. Though Christianity is strong, there is also belief in magic and the occult, particularly the power of the evil eye. Dance bands have been known to refuse to play due to one of the audience being deemed in possession of the dark power.

Jamestown to the northwest is the main centre of the island. It sits in a deep valley that leads down to James Bay. Thus the way out of town is up, either by road or by Jacob’s Ladder. The latter’s 699 stone steps are trodden regularly by the feet of school children on the way to and from the school in the old barracks building at the top. Upwards is not for the fainthearted. By the time I had reached the top I thought I had arrived in Heaven. Were that indeed the case I would have most likely been rebuked by St. Peter, and sent back down. At that time it was not a motivating prospect.

Striking out into the hinterland of this volcanic island, whose lofty central peaks reach over 800 metres above sea level, one has to climb above 400 metres before vegetation kicks in. The vegetation cover is a function of the prevailing climatic conditions. St. Helena lies well within the tropics, yet the climate is modified by its mid-ocean position, the consistent south-east trade winds and the cooling influence of the Benguela current. Thus just 5 kilometres from Jamestown a downpour will ruin an afternoon’s tennis at Plantation House, the Governor’s residence, while the townsfolk will be scuttling around in search of shade from the blazing sun.

No visit to St. Helena would be complete without a visit to Longwood House, which housed Napoleon and his entourage during his six years in exile. The house and grounds were ceded to France by Queen Victoria, as is evident from the tricolour fluttering over the domain. Napoleon’s death in 1821 remains a matter of controversy to this day. One more recent theory has it that Napoleon was over time poisoned by arsenic in the wallpaper of Longwood House. I decided that I was not going to hang around long enough to test the theory. The emperor was subsequently buried in a place of his choosing, close to the head of a nearby valley. Although his body was removed in 1840 to rest in Les Invalides, the massive tomb remains.
I was reacquainted with Longwood House a couple of days later when my contact, Arnold, invited me to a round of golf. We teed off in brilliant sunshine. By the third hole it was drizzling. Dense fog came in by the seventh, and we had to call off for a while. Approaching the ninth in brilliant sunshine once more, I sliced my shot. The ball flew off to the right and over the stone wall of Longwood House. No problem, I thought, just nip over the wall, recover ball and take a drop. My host tried in vain to stop me. “You can’t go in there” said he. “The French consol will shoot you. We have all heard of your Nelson antics on the ship on the way down” (see Part I). Really? Good news travels fast on the island, it would seem. “He’s still upset that Nelson was one of those instrumental in Napoleon being here in the first place.” A British sense of humour, it seemed, was not appreciated.

At this point I should mention my meeting Jonathan the giant Tortoise, who apparently was some two hundred years old. It was amazing to think that he could have been ambling around the island before and during the time of Napoleon’s stay.

For the gourmets among you, the culinary delights of the island I found somewhat curtailed to goat meat and fish. With a specific emphasis on tuna. I had never before or since experienced such an endless list of tuna dishes. Tuna steak, tuna pie, tuna cakes, tuna curry and, yes, tuna salad, to name but a few.

After eight days on the island I had that inner feeling that I was losing proportion and going ‘rock happy’. It was therefore with some relief that I spied the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena on the horizon from my vantage point on Flagstaff Hill. Looking over the stern of the RMS as we sailed from St. Helena, with Cape Town some seven days away to the south east, the wonderment of the remoteness and ruggedness of this solitary rock in the middle of the South Atlantic was to me all apparent.

There are still a few relatively untouched places in the world today were you can travel in a disposition of your choosing. Cruise International magazine had this to say "A cruise on cargo passenger liner RMS St Helena is a voyage in the truest sense – a chance to re-discover the joys of time and ultimately to explore a naturalist's paradise". Whereas not so long ago you could fly Concorde to New York and then pick up your oversized cruise ship for the Caribbean, today you can still only access the island of St. Helena by mail ship. And some thirty days from start to finish. Yes, please.

Some years ago I had the pleasure of a sojourn to the island of St. Helena.

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