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Read articles about St Helena

Articles related to the Island of St Helena

Wear the old coat and buy the new book.
Austin Phelps

Read how St Helena has been reported in the world’s media.

This page is in indexes: Island Detail

St Helena is one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands, but despite that it occasionally manages to feature in main-stream news. The following are news items featuring St Helena. Unless stated otherwise they are reproduced{1} in full and unedited, even where they contain errors. These are the most recent items; older items are here.

Our Library next to Castle Gardens in Jamestown Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Our Library, next to Castle Gardens in Jamestown

Please note that this does not claim to be a comprehensive or exhaustive list of everything ever published about St Helena. That would be a massive task and would require a government grant to complete the work{2}. This selection represents items that a) came to our attention; and b) interested us enough for us to transcribe them. If you have published something about St Helena and it isn’t included here you might want to contact us and tell us about it.

If you want to read about how St Helena has been mis-reported, see our Do they mean us? page.

Below: St Helena: The island where everyone knows your nameUnusual Coverage!Is world’s oldest tortoise GAY?Napoleon, tourists, divers and flu: flight opens up remote St HelenaFirst commercial flight touches down at St HelenaDate set for final voyage of last Aberdeen-built shipNew Air Link and Luxury Hotel Will Transform Tourism on Tiny, Remote St HelenaSt Helena inches closer to commercial air serviceSaint of HeartA St Helena Fisherman’s Wish Comes True


St Helena: The island where everyone knows your name 

By Emma Thomson, ‘Stuff’, New Zealand, 29th December 2017{1}

Control tower and terminal buildings Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The control tower and terminal buildings are seen from the window of a passenger plane as it takes off from St Helena airport
RMS St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The RMS St Helena sails in the harbour in Jamestown
Napoleon’s Tomb Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Napoleon’s Tomb lies in a clearing near Alarm Forest, Saint Helena. The French Emperor was exiled to the island before dying in 1821, with his body returning to France in 1840
St Paul’s Cathedral Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
St Paul’s Cathedral in Saint Paul’s, Saint Helena
Old graffiti Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Old graffiti welcoming the RMS St Helena adorns a deserted World War II gun emplacements at the harbour
Jacob’s Ladder Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
A man poses for a photograph at the top of the 699-step Jacob’s Ladder
Travellers disembark Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Travellers disembark the second scheduled passenger flight at St Helena airport in Prosperous Bay, Saint Helena
View of the harbour Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
A view of the harbour in Jamestown, Saint Helena

I’m going to break the first rule of travel writing and mention the view from the aircraft window. In this case, you see, it really is important. For four hours, cotton-ball clouds had been rolled out across an unbroken blanket of blue.

Cabin crew to seats, please, instructed the captain, his voice tight with nervous concentration.

Seated aboard only the second commercial flight to St Helena - one of the world’s most remote islands - I’m among the very first to see her like this.

For half a millennium she’s only ever been seen from the sea: an impenetrable ring of volcanic rock hunched against the restless Atlantic waves. Now I can glimpse her emerald interior of mist-laced, fern-filled forests. The only chink in her armour is a candy-coloured clutch of buildings squeezed into a 1000ft ravine - the capital, Jamestown.

The new airport - built at a cost of £285.5 million (NZ$541.3m) - was due to open last year, but suffered a series of setbacks while they solved the problem of wind shear - essentially updrafts of ocean wind that hit the rocks and churn upwards, pushing the plane down.

It was dubbed the world’s most useless airport, but that’s unfair. Parking on a pebble is downright tricky.

Only four pilots in the world are currently qualified to fly into St Helena, says Jaco Henning, the man who was responsible for landing the inaugural flight on October 14.

We’ve been training intensively since March.

Until now, if you wanted to reach St Helena it would have taken five nights sailing aboard the RMS St Helena from Cape Town - a seafaring tradition that hasn’t changed in more than 500 years, since the island was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1502.

It is hoped the new airport will bring the chance of self-sufficiency to an island previously dependent on aid from DfID, Britain’s Department for International Development. Now I don’t have to wait three weeks for my next client, explained Aaron Legg, a fifth-generation ‘saint’ - as locals are known - who has combined 4x4 adventure tours with his family’s tradition of farming.

It will mean I can actually run a business.

Reversing his vehicle up an off-road track to an outcrop called Flagstaff, he suggested we get out and hike towards the peak. The trees were hunched over protectively against the ceaseless wind; beneath them sprang delicate yellow flowers.

Everlastings, said Aaron, gently cupping the petals. The seeds were sent over by Lady Holland to Napoleon [who was exiled here at Longwood House] and now they’re everywhere. St Helena is a melting pot of plants - hibiscus, bananas, flax - and people - Indians, Madagascans, Sri Lankans and Chinese - who have passed through here over the centuries.

What’s it like to live somewhere so isolated? I asked, staring out at the limitless ocean, its hazy lines melding with the sky until it feels as if you’re floating in blue orbit.

I was 18 years old when I saw an escalator for the first time. Ever seen the movie Crocodile Dundee? I was exactly like that! Can you imagine a young boy from Sandy Bay driving through Cape Town at rush hour? I’d never seen traffic lights before. I’d never seen a KFC or a Nando’s - I bought a sweet-chilli twister and went straight back for a second, he giggled, as we kept an eye out for the red flash of a Madagascan fody, a tiny bird.

Now the airport gives me the freedom to travel, without taking too much time away from my business.

Isolation has crafted the island’s charm. The hurricane news cycles we’re exposed to daily don’t swirl here. Nothing is rushed. Clothes ordered online can take months to arrive and mobile phone coverage wasn’t rolled out until September 2015. Life isn’t dominated by screens. In the late afternoons, I would sit in the living room of Farm Lodge, owned by Stephen Biggs and Maureen Jonas, listening to the reassuring chime of the grandfather clock and the clackety-click of Katie the dog’s claws on the polished hardwood floors. Good Housekeeping magazines from 2004 lay spread on the table and I could hear the occasional bleat from their 36 sheep.

Following the introduction of weekly flights to the island, resident St Helenians, known locally as ‘Saints’, are preparing for a potential influx of tourists and investment as well as enjoying the possibilities brought by much faster transport links with South Africa.

Thirty-five after tonight’s dinner, winked Stephen, arriving with a G&T.

Everyone I passed in my rented Ford Focus would wave from behind their steering wheels. Slowly a cloak of calm unclenched my shoulders. Instead of hurtling along the winding lanes between appointments, I would pootle. Fifth gear doesn’t get much action on St Helena. Neither does fourth or third, for that matter. Signposts are merely a suggestion. If you get lost, who cares? The only witnesses are the cows.

From day one, Saints stopped on the streets of Jamestown to ask: How you, lovie? in their smooth lilt. By day two, people I’d never met were greeting me by name in that mellifluous accent.

We sound like a bunch of pigeons when we get together - we talk so fast, chortled Ivy Robinson, owner of Wellington House B&B, as we sat in her lounge. We go ‘up the eel’ - not up the hill! My dad always said I had to ‘talk tidy’ (in proper English), she said, shrugging off the suggestion.

Their nearest neighbour is Africa, 1931 kilometres away, but locals have nothing in common with that continent. Although St Helena is classed as a British Overseas Territory, the Saints aren’t particularly British either. Slaves (from ships redirected here after abolition in 1833), Chinese labourers and Boer War prisoners have all added to the ethnic mix.

Early on Thursday morning, the RMS St Helena steamed into harbour. Local ladies sat under a bench festooned with pink blossoms waiting to eye up the arrivals and soak up the gossip. The atmosphere at the airport is the same, said Stephen, who had turned up there to welcome his new guests.

There are lots of families showing up to greet each other. We’ve mentally carried over the new form of arrival and it’s the place to be seen now on a Saturday lunchtime.

But when the RMS St Helena sails for the last time from Cape Town on January 24, arriving in St Helena on February 18, bidding goodbye will be bittersweet for most islanders.

When she’s taken out of service, you won’t find me there [on the docks]. It’s too emotional. All our lives she’s been there, through good and bad - she helped us survive, said Ivy, her hands twisted nervously in her lap at the thought.

However, even bigger change is snaking its way beneath the ocean. A branch of the South Atlantic Express submarine fibre-optic cable - connecting South Africa to the US East Coast - will arrive in 2020, ending St Helena’s digital isolation. It will have a much bigger effect than the airport, said Helena Bennett, the island’s director of tourism.

Both developments will give younger Saints a shot at a future that doesn’t force them off the island in search of work. Indeed, the new four-star Mantis hotel in Main Street is already providing jobs.

It remains to be seen whether St Helena will be made or marred by the change. Back home, I found myself greeting every car I passed out of habit - but their windscreens were empty of waves.

FEATURES:

The World’s Most Remote…Distillery: Local distiller Paul Hickling puts prickly pear cacti to good use by harvesting them to produce Tungi, the local bush brandy. Saints have been making it since 1881 following a recipe brought by ivory traders from Africa. It won silver at the 2007 and 2009 Bartenders’ Challenge. Also on offer are a Jamestown gin made with Bermuda juniper berries and a rum based on spices from the Orient.

Whale sharks: Clusters of these gentle filter-feeding giants gather off the rocky shores from November to April, peaking in January and February. With visibility sometimes reaching 164ft, divers and snorkellers are guaranteed jaw-dropping photographs. Two operators on the island offer day trips.

Marathon: Held every November as part of the St Helena Festival of Running, the event raises money for the National Amateur Sports Association of St Helena and covers a 26-mile route from Francis Plain, weaving through the four districts of Sandy Bay, Longwood, St Paul’s and Levelwood.

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Unusual Coverage! 

Published in ‘Le Petit Quotidien’, 25th October 2017{1}

You can download and read this article in a French children’s newspaper (1.6Mb) (but NB it is in French - you’ll figure it out!)

Our Comment: We think the cartoon strip pontificates that the weight of the aircraft landing sinks the island. So far we haven’t noticed any evidence of this, but we’ll keep you informed!

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Is world’s oldest tortoise GAY? 

By Fiona Parker, Daily Mail, 19th October 2017{1}

Daily Mail 20171019 Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

Long-term relationships often lead to slowly uncovered secrets about partners, but Jonathan, the world’s oldest tortoise, was in for a shock after 26 years of enjoying a physical relationship with what keepers thought was a female. Elderly Frederica who lives on St Helena with Jonathan is actually Frederic.

Many people who have been in long-term relationships will tell you they slowly uncovered secrets about their partner over the years. But none of them are likely to have been as surprised as Jonathan, the world’s oldest tortoise, when he discovered something ground-breaking about his lover of 26 years.

Jonathan 1990 Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Not a 1900 photo

At 186 years old, Jonathan is the most senior resident of St Helena, a British Overseas Territory 1,200 miles off the coast of southern Africa. He arrived on St Helena in his thirties, as a gift to the governor. He also famously once posed with prisoners held captive on the island during the Boer war.

But late into his eighties, Jonathan became irritable and began knocking over benches and interrupting cricket games between residents on the lawn in front of the governor’s Georgian mansion.

Vets decided he needed a girlfriend and in 1991 he was given a mate. Romance blossomed with Frederica and it wasn’t long before the couple began enjoying regular mating sessions every Sunday morning, The Times reported. But despite their amorous antics, the pair never had any young. Now, almost three decades after the romance began, the reason has been revealed. When vets went to repair a lesion on the tortoise’s shell it was discovered that Frederica was actually a Frederic, putting a whole new spin on the relationship.

The island’s vet Catherine Man said the pair were creatures of habit and ate and slept at set times, living off a healthy diet of vegetable titbits and vitamins. But Jonathan now suffers from cataracts and his sense of smell is gone.

A bill was introduced last year to allow same-sex marriage on the island, which has a population of 4,255, but it was withdrawn after local outrage. Consultations are being held across the island to canvass opinion on whether a bill should be presented to the council before a court case that is set to challenge the current law on discrimination grounds.

Our Comment: This piece is amusing but, typically, full of errors. Frederik[a] could hardly be described as ‘elderly’ Jonathan arrived aged at least 50; the photo was pre-1886 and not with Boer prisoners; and only a few noisy people objected to the Marriage Bill - most Saints treat minorities equally. Still at least they didn’t manage to make yet another dig at our most useless airport

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Napoleon, tourists, divers and flu: flight opens up remote St Helena 

By Ed Cropley, Reuters, 14th October 2017{1}

JAMESTOWN, St Helena (Reuters) - On St Helena, the remote volcanic outcrop in the South Atlantic where Napoleon breathed his last, big changes are afoot - well, big by St Helena standards.

Onlookers peer through windows shortly after the first ever commercial flight landed at St Helena airport near Jamestown October 14 2017 Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Onlookers peer through windows shortly after the first ever commercial flight landed at St Helena airport near Jamestown, October 14, 2017

In the heart of the capital, Jamestown (population 600), Constable Cowie is worried about the Christmas traffic; Craig, the dive-master, is checking his emails twice a day; and Lucille, the local taxi magnate, is introducing 24-hour shifts.

For the 4,500 residents of the island, separated from Africa by nearly 2,000 km (1,240 miles) of ocean, the arrival this past weekend of the first ever commercial flight was cause for celebration and marked another step closer to their inclusion in the 21st century.

Saints, as locals are known, only got mobile phones and the Internet 18 months ago, supplementing the five-day boat trip to Cape Town that represented their only connection with the outside world.

Now, there is a weekly flight from Johannesburg - via Namibia’s Windhoek - to the spectacular St Helena airport, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. Locals are hoping for a steady trickle of aviation thrill-seekers, French history buffs and whale-watchers.

According to Craig Yon, owner of diving company Into the Blue, a group of Swedish divers who had been contemplating a trip to see whale sharks next year booked within minutes of reading online that the inaugural flight had landed safely.

Things are really picking up, he said. Before, I’d only check my emails once a day. Now I have to check them in the morning and the afternoon.

FLU IMPORTS?

There has been talk since the 1930s of an airport on St Helena, the involuntary abode of British colonial adversaries ranging from French emperor Napoleon to the Zulu King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo and 6,000 Afrikaners taken prisoner in the Boer War.

The current site was selected a decade ago after the prime location on the notoriously craggy 16x8 km (10x5 mile) island was ruled out because it was home to an important colony of the endangered wire bird, a type of indigenous plover.

Even after its construction, a mammoth engineering feat involving 8 million cubic metres (yards) of rock and 285 million pounds ($378 million) of British taxpayer money, the airport nearly didn’t happen.

The first test flights were buffeted by vicious cross-winds, making it too dangerous for large aircraft to land and leading to an 18-month delay in its opening, during which time the British press dubbed it the world’s most useless airport.

Saturday’s landing, in a 100-seater Embraer, involved a pre-touch-down briefing about emergency go-around procedures but passed off smoothly, to the cheers and delight of those on board and hundreds of Saints crammed into the glass-fronted terminal.

I was quite happy to see the plane land safely because there have been a lot of problems around that, with the wind shear, said 22-year-old police officer Sophie Cowie, whose beat is managing the traffic on Main St., Jamestown’s one road.

While some in Britain may question the value for money of the airport - more than 60,000 pounds per Saint - for the islanders it has already proved its worth, enabling several emergency medical evacuations, including a newborn child.

However, one possible unintended consequence of more arrivals is the increased spread of disease to an island whose animal and human inhabitants have been protected from many of the world’s germs.

In the past week, the island’s schools have been almost empty due to a bout of flu. Said to have been brought in on the boat from Cape Town, it has laid low 80 percent of pupils.

Our Comment: Mobile ‘phones came 18 months ago; the Internet has been here for 20+ years; and there are two pricipal roads in Jamestown, not one!

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First commercial flight touches down at St Helena 

www.itv.com/news, 14th October 2017{1}

St Helena Airport was built with £285 million of funding from the Department for International Development Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
St Helena Airport was built with £285 million of funding from the Department for International Development

The long-awaited first scheduled airline service to the British overseas territory of St Helena has landed on the remote South Atlantic island.

True to the much-maligned airport’s chequered history, it was late.

The UK taxpayer-funded development saw 78 commercial airline passengers land just before 2pm on Saturday, approximately 45 minutes behind schedule, following their departure from South Africa.

St Helena Airport, built with £285 million of funding from the Department for International Development (Dfid), was due to open last year but the launch of commercial flights was delayed because of dangerous wind conditions.

Further trials were carried out in August and the airport was given the go-ahead to begin operations by South African aviation authorities.

Airlink’s Embraer E190-100IGW aircraft was due to land at 1.15pm local time (2.15pm BST) on Saturday but ended up touching down at 1.58pm (2.58pm BST).

Our Comment: We’d just like to point out that, yes - the plane was 45 minutes late, but that was due to a delay in Namibia. Nothing to do with our ‘much-maligned’ Airport!

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Date set for final voyage of last Aberdeen-built ship 

BBC NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland, 10th October 2017{1}

The RMS St Helena was built in 1989 Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The RMS St Helena was built in 1989

A date has been set for the final voyage of the last ship to be built in Aberdeen.

The RMS St Helena is being retired from service as it will not be needed due to the long-awaited opening of an airport on the remote South Atlantic island it was built to serve.

The final official voyage serving the island of St Helena will be next February.

RMS St Helena is being offered for sale so could operate elsewhere.

The vessel - built at the Hall Russell yard in 1989 - can carry 3,000 tonnes of cargo and more than 150 passengers.

The passenger service to St Helena is being replaced by flights Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The passenger service to St Helena is being replaced by flights

Situated in the middle of the South Atlantic, St Helena is 1,200 miles from the coast of West Africa.

It is just 10 miles (16km) long and six miles (10km) wide.

See also: RMS St HelenaGetting Here

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New Air Link and Luxury Hotel Will Transform Tourism on Tiny, Remote St Helena 

skift.com, 7th October 2017{1}

While it will still be pretty hard to get to (unless you live in Namibia or South Africa), St Helena is likely to see a significant increase in the number of tourists, especially from those keen to go to a place that not many other people have visited.

Jacob’s Ladder Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

One of the remotest islands in the world is about to enter the modern tourist age.

When the British exiled Napoleon Bonaparte to St Helena in 1815, it took the conquered emperor a full 10 weeks to reach the island. Two centuries later, it’s still a five-day trip by mail boat - assuming you happen to be starting from somewhere as close as Cape Town, South Africa.

But on Oct. 14, the tiny British overseas territory will get its first-ever scheduled flights. Two weeks later, St Helena’s first luxury hotel, a 30-room property in a trio of Georgian buildings, will open its doors.

Located about 1,200 miles off the western coast of Africa, St Helena is best known (for those who know it at all) as the place where Napoleon was banished after being defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The house where he lived - complete with the original furnishings - is one of the island’s main tourist attractions.

But it’s not the only draw. The 47-square-mile tropical island offers mountain biking, sportfishing, and scuba diving in waters where visibility is up to 100 feet. St Helena is one of a handful of places in the world where humans can swim with massive (and passive) whale sharks. It’s home to a 185-year-old tortoise named Jonathan, the world’s longest straight staircase, and a double-hole golf course that players go around twice, trying not to hit any goats along the way.

Then there’s St Helena distillery, said to be the world’s most remote. Its specialty is Tungi (TOON-jee), a white spirit made from prickly pear and bottled in a beveled glass flask shaped to evoke the island’s famous (-ish) staircase.

Because of the limited transportation options, only a couple of thousand tourists make it to the island each year. The Royal Mail Ship St Helena, a combination cargo-passenger ship, makes the trip just a few times a month. And until now, the airport was able to accept only private flights.

The world’s most useless airport, as some have called it, cost 285 million British pounds [more than $400 million] and was meant to push St Helena toward economic self-sufficiency. A month before it opened in 2016, test flights revealed dangerous wind conditions, and commercial flights were put on hold. The airport has been taking only private and medical evacuation flights.

But now, South African airline Airlink will run weekly from Johannesburg to Windhoek, Namibia, and on to St Helena.

The Independent reported that Airlink won’t fill its Embraer jets to capacity. To keep the plane light enough to use less of the runway and avoid the spots with most dangerous winds, it will fill only 76 of the 99 seats. It’s hoping to bump that up to 87 in 2018.

Meanwhile, the new hotel by resort developer Mantis, which owns five-star safari lodges in Africa, Explora resorts in Chile, and other high-end properties, promises to be a game-changer. St Helena’s official tourism website lists just two B&Bs and a half-dozen hotels and guest houses, most of which have no websites.

As relatively speedy as the flights may be, this might actually be the perfect time to reserve a berth to St Helena. Not only is the island on its way to changes, but the mail ship will eventually be decommissioned. Book now, or permanently miss the boat.

Our Comment: This is a strange, un-focussed article - it announces the flights and then recommends coming by ship. It also has some noteable errors: there already is a luxury hotel on the island (Farm Lodge); and goats are not loose on the golf course (though they may be tethered nearby). But on the Any publicity is good publicity theory…

The www.nzherald.co.nz on 9th October 2017 reported broadly the same article, but omitting the advice to come by ship.

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St Helena inches closer to commercial air service 

www.breakingtravelnews.com, 12th June 2017{1}

SA Airlink Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

The government of Saint Helena has announced that SA Airlink has been chosen as the preferred bidder for the provision of a scheduled commercial air service to St Helena.

SA Airlink is a privately owned airline registered in South Africa. It is a franchisee to South African Airways. SA Airlink is a member of the International Air Transport Association and as such is IATA Operational Safety Audit accredited. SA Airlink is a well-established airline operating on a scheduled network with domestic and regional passenger and cargo services.

The government will now enter into a period of contractual negotiations with SA Airlink. It is anticipated that a formal announcement will be made in the coming weeks on completion of negotiations and contract signing. It is at this point SHG will be able to confirm details such as the commencement date, frequency, aircraft type, the international hub and connecting airports, explained a statement from the local government. Details on the cost of fares and sales distribution will be released shortly after contract signing.

The news marks the end of a torturous period for aviation on the island, with a newly built airport forced to close shortly after construction last year after safety fears were raised over wind levels.

Our Comment: We’d like to contradict the statement that our airport was not forced to close shortly after construction last year. It has been open all the time and, as at 1st May 2017, had serviced around 50 flights.

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Saint of Heart 

By Diane Selkirk, The Globe And Mail, 30th March 2017{1}

A view from St Helena looking toward the Atlantic Ocean Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
A view from St Helena looking toward the Atlantic Ocean
The island features impressive hiking viewpoints Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The island features impressive hiking viewpoints
Jamestown the capital of St Helena offers scenic vistas Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Jamestown, the capital of St Helena, offers scenic vistas
A 185-year-old giant tortoise called Jonathan who likes his thighs tickled is just one of the many wonders of the island Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
A 185-year-old giant tortoise called Jonathan, who likes his thighs tickled, is just one of the many wonders of the island
The charming island has a silent appeal which will soon change Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The charming island has a silent appeal, which will soon change
Visitors can wander around the island with rescue donkeys Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Visitors can wander around the island with rescue donkeys

Saint Helena, an enchanted little island of 4,500 in the South Atlantic, has wondrous things: a giant, ancient tortoise; a bell boulder; a retirement home for donkeys. But its best quality is its sweetly bizarre nature

I don’t recall the instant I fell in love with St Helena. If I had to pin it down, I’d say it happened on a walk with Dominic the rescue donkey, somewhere on the road between Fairy Land and High Peak, where the views stretch over impossibly green pasture land past granite spires studded with cannons and out to the place where blue sky and blue sea merge.

My family and I had been on the island of 4,500 for a week. Each day we’d encountered a new wonder: a 185-year-old giant tortoise called Jonathan who likes his thighs tickled; a boulder that rings out like a bell when struck; a historic shipwreck in warm, clear water; and the rarest single-origin coffee in the world were just a few highlights. But when Dominic stopped for some juicy grass and I looked out over that singular landscape, St Helena struck me as enchanted.

It felt as if it was a moment from a fairy tale. Remote and uninhabited, the South Atlantic island first appeared to a Portuguese ship on May 23, 1502. St Helena then went on to become a major mid-ocean provisioning stop between South Africa and Brazil (or Europe) and was populated by British, Malay, Indian, African and Chinese settlers and slaves as well some of the greatest figures in seafaring history. Captains Cook, Dampier and Bligh as well as Napoleon, Darwin and Edmond Halley all left their marks here. But then the era of exploration ended and the island faded into obscurity.

Yet here I was, wandering around with a donkey in a place where the locals are called ‘saints.’ I was captivated.

For more than 500 years, the only way to reach the 120-square-kilometre British overseas territory has been by sea. Before the Suez Canal opened, some thousand ships a year called at the East India Co. pier in Jamestown. In the more recent past, the island’s visitors have come from Cape Town on the supply ship RMS St Helena, by cruise ship or on board a handful of intrepid yachts.

The end of St Helena’s isolation was meant to come in May, 2016, when the island’s first airport opened. But like all good fairy tales, the island’s curse (or charm) of isolation wasn’t so easily broken. Unexpected wind sheer delayed the airport’s launch. So the island set out on a quest to find an air-service provider that could make a steeper landing on a shortened runway - while still carrying a full load of passengers. But now the airline bids are in, and 515 years after its discovery, St Helena will end its isolated slumber.

Rising like a rugged castle from the middle of the sea, the island is a place of improbable beauty: both welcoming and imposing. The capital of Jamestown, with its candy-coloured buildings, defines picturesque.

With buildings that date back to 1700, it could be mistaken for a historic film set, complete with friendly saints who stop to chat about the weather, your day’s plans or the hard-to-find bananas and lettuce that are just now available in the Queen Anne{4} (Hurry!).

Meandering out from the town centre is a collection of single-lane roads best suited to donkeys (which is how they were used until not so long ago). Winding through forests and hills of overgrown flax, the roads pass sites which include Halley’s Observatory (where he catalogued the southern sky), Napoleon’s prison home and tomb as well as Plantation House, the Governor’s mansion, where giant tortoises roam the front yard.

Around the island’s perimeter, stone batteries cut into red-hued cliffs protected the bucolic interior from long-ago Dutch and French invaders. But now the defences just make impressive hiking viewpoints, overlooking the vibrant tropical sea.

History feels tangible on St Helena - as though the island is caught between an idealized past and a time that’s not quite today. And perhaps only here is it possible to have a favourite fortification.

Mine was a toss-up.

There was the magnificent High Knoll Fort built in 1790 as a redoubt to hold the island’s entire population, should it be invaded. The fort was restored using traditional techniques and reopened in 2015. Exploring the High Knoll put us in the dreamlike state that becomes so familiar on St Helena. Our daughter claimed there should be dragons flying overhead. And when we passed through a wall she waved her imaginary sword and yelled, For the love of Camelot! before running into the fort’s depths.

Lemon Valley’s fortifications edged ahead as my favourite during our second visit to the spot. It’s hard to deny the rugged beauty of Half Moon Battery on its perch above a sparkling blue-water bay, which comes complete with a tidy defensive wall and historic whitewashed quarantine building. But add a barbecue site at the mouth of a mysterious cave and excellent snorkelling and you have a popular picnic spot.

It was here we first sampled plo. If there’s a dish that represents the rich heritage of the saints, it’s this one-pot curried rice dish. Calling to mind a pilau or paella, fresh tuna, as well as whatever meats and vegetables are currently available, make up the dish.

What makes it distinct is that while no version is the same, each one is declared the best. This good-natured debate occurs in the local, near-incomprehensible dialect - a linguistic mash-up that adds and subtracts syllables and letters, and speeds by at a dizzying rate.

The first time I actually followed this argument (realizing I grasped what was being said), I appreciated that St Helena had cast her spell so surely I became weepy at the thought of leaving.

With our deepening affection for the island, my family grew protective. We wondered how the saints would manage when their isolation ends. While we knew there are positives - new businesses have energized the island and brought the return of younger saints who had gone away for work - we were fearful that outsiders wouldn’t love the island the way we did. Or even worse, that they’d make fun of it.

For all its beauty, St Helena is, as my daughter put it, a sweetly bizarre place. A few weeks in, the oddities had begun to add up. The island is more British than Great Britain and each home sports at least one picture of a monarch. While Queen Elizabeth is a popular choice, King George VI or even Queen Victoria are viable options.

The island also has a retirement home for donkeys that have been replaced by cars, just got mobile phone service in the past couple of years and has a tiny bit of France (literally) in its fertile interior.

It was while visiting this lush bit of France that the tourism director congratulated us on graduating from typical tourist activities to the weirder stuff: a memorial service for Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite the fact Napoleon’s tomb is empty (his remains were returned to France in 1840), islanders hold an annual service for their most famous prisoner.

The Bug-eyed Tuners and Brass Monkeys provided music and sang the English and French anthems as the Girl Guides, Boy Scouts and English and French dignitaries looked on.

While we stood shoulder to shoulder with the saints in that shady grove, I couldn’t help but send up a silent appeal for the enchanted little island. My wish was that its remoteness, which made St Helena so wondrous, gives way gently to change. And I hoped that the magical castle in the middle of the sea never fully finds its way into the modern world.

IF YOU GO

The RMS St Helena will retire after the airport is fully operational, but for those wanting to go by sea, bookings are still being accepted through the end of the year: Rates from Cape Town are £860 ($1,425) return.

Passenger air service to the island from South Africa is expected to be confirmed April or May, 2017.

Several new lodging options are open or are opening on the island including the historic Bertrand’s Cottage and the Mantis St Helena Hotel.

Our Comment: For the record:

  • May 23, 1502 is not actually one of the dates proposed for the discovery of St Helena. 21st May 1502 is the generally accepted date (thought we believe 3rd May 1502 is more likely).

  • The ‘Queen Anne’ is actually the Queen Mary, in Napoleon Street.

  • If you want help understanding our ‘near-incomprehensible dialect’ see our Speak Saint page.

See also: Visitor InformationDonkeysFly hereRMS St HelenaForts and Batteries

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A St Helena Fisherman’s Wish Comes True 

www.bluemarinefoundation.com Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

Published by Blue Marine Foundation, 20thFebruary 2017{1}

Family Photo of Trevor Thomas Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Family Photo of Trevor Thomas

In 1990, a fisherman, Trevor Otto Thomas, dressed himself in St Helena’s flag and led a march down Main Street in Jamestown, the island’s capital, to protest against a decision by his government to sell licences to Japanese industrial vessels which he believed would plunder the island’s waters. His family still have the petition he handed in to the governor.

As skipper of the offshore fishing vessel, the Westerdam, in the 1980s he had made an arrest at sea of a poacher and brought the vessel back to James Bay to show that St Helena’s waters were regularly being invaded. Thomas, who was born in Hout Bay, Cape Town to a St Helenian father and a South African mother, was that remarkable thing, a fisherman conservationist. In a picture of him revered by his family, he stands in fisherman’s dress tending a sick bird. Sadly Thomas did not live to see his wish come true - but his vision survived and became reality. Last autumn the waters of St Helena were declared a marine protected area which will allow sustainable fishing only by local vessels, to protect both the island’s fish stocks and its rich marine diversity. Thomas’s son, Waylon, was in place as chairman of the fishermen’s association, and the decision has become his father’s legacy.

Anyone who loves the sea will find the story of Thomas father and son intensely moving, for it sums up the achievement of this remote island in the south Atlantic in taking a huge decision to restrict fishing to highly selective fishing methods used only by boats from the island.

In a world of declining tuna stocks, the idea resonates. It seems entirely reasonable to believe that it is possible to create a niche product for the island’s yellowfin and skipjack not unlike that which the island’s coffee already enjoys on the shelves of Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. But first a lot of work must be done because right now St Helena’s fishermen sometimes get less than a pound a kilo for their tuna.

I was there on a fact-finding trip to see if Blue and our allies in the GB Oceans coalition could do anything to help the island now it has announced its intention to create a meaningful marine protected area with sustainable fishing, thereby protecting St Helena’s extraordinary marine biodiversity. In theory, an MPA should enable St Helena’s fishermen to create a high-quality, low-volume tuna brand with appeal to markets in London and elsewhere where buyers are willing to pay top prices for tuna with a strong conservation story behind it.

On our trip I quizzed the governor, Lisa Phillips, about the airport, now due to open by June with smaller aircraft than the wide-bodied jets which were shown last year to suffer from wind-shear. The airport is only one of several changes coming to the island. A huge EU-funded £18m project to lay a fibre optical cable from Cape Town should improve the island’s currently expensive and unreliable satellite broadband by 2020 making it easier to conduct business.

There is talk of new tourist developments and some are being built.

An upmarket South African hotel chain is converting three town houses on Jamestown’s lovely Georgian Main Street into a hotel. There is a proposal for a massive golf development - on land where thousands of South African prisoners were encamped during the Boer War - which seems less in tune with what this unique island has to offer. Despite the £30 million a year that Britain spends on St Helena - the overseas territories are meant to have first call on the overseas aid budget - it seems there is little spent on the rich heritage of historic fortifications, some of which are actively falling down. If tourists are to be lured by a marine reserve, and the opportunity to dive with whale sharks just outside the harbour, they are going to want other attractions to be in good shape.

At present the only way to St Helena is via its own now unique Royal Mail Ship, which leaves Cape Town and five days later arrives at the island. It then sails on to Ascension, from where some passengers fly back to England while some return to the Cape. The RMS, as it is called, gives an insight into a former age of ocean liners, with a rigid programme of deck quoits and beef tea at 11, followed by lunch, then a film, a quiz or other entertainments and then a six-course dinner. It is easy to become institutionalised into this pattern of being looked after and enjoyable to spend hours talking to the band of influential locals travelling back to the island. It is also all too easy to put on weight if you do not spend time in the boat’s gym.

When we boarded the ship again for Ascension, it felt extraordinarily like home. At present the plan is for the RMS to be decommissioned next year after the airport opens and when a new cargo ship takes over the freight that it carries. There are few who will see it go without a pang of regret.

The island is full of surprises. Saint Helena’s cliffs seem vertiginous from the sea and the land looks impossibly arid. But after driving up hairpin bends there is a moment when you burst out into the valleys of the interior where everything is green and there are pairs of white fairy terns flying in perfect synchronization above the trees where they make their minimal equivalent of a nest by laying an egg on a bough. In a couple of hours’ tour with Kevin George, our expert guide, we were able to see several endemic and endangered plants - including he cabbage and she cabbage trees and ebony - and the island’s only endemic bird, the wire bird, a kind of plover named after its spindly legs. All will say of the island’s main tourist attractions, the sites associated with Napoleon who died on his final exile there, is that we noticed that these French possessions were pointedly flying the EU flag.

St Helena offers so much that is unique that it would be a shame to compromise it with the ordinary. Its new marine protected area is a way of celebrating that uniqueness and potentially an example to the world. It deserves our recognition and support.

Lush green valleys of St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Lush green valleys of St Helena

The RMS arriving at Jamestown St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The RMS arriving at Jamestown, St Helena

Governor Lisa Phillips with a whale shark Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Governor Lisa Phillips with a whale shark

The Emporium Napoleon St. Jamestown Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The Emporium, Napoleon St, Jamestown

The Market Jamestown St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The Market, Jamestown, St Helena

RMS chefs preparing a barbecue Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
RMS chefs preparing a barbecue

The sun deck of the RMS laid for the barbecue Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The sun deck of the RMS, laid for the barbecue

The picturesque view from the hilltops of St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The picturesque view from the hilltops of St Helena

The wirebird St Helena’s only endemic bird Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The wirebird, St Helena’s only endemic bird

See also: FishingVisitor Information

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Older items are here. You could also check out the various sources listed on our Related Sites page.

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Footnotes:

{1} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

{2} If anyone from SHG (or anywhere else, for that matter) wants to offer us such a grant please contact us.

{3} NB: This is not an advertisement.

{4} Queen Mary, actually, in Napoleon Street.



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