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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 a continuation of Read articles about St Helena, containing older items. Even older St Helena stuff can be found on this blog: Much Older St Helena Stuff{1}.

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The Library, 1961{a}

 

Below: Hope for St HelenaThe Bones of St HelenaThe most extraordinary place on Earth?Irish doctor on a distant islandAntwerp aviation company organises first commercial flight to Saint HelenaRMS St Helena makes final call to the UKThe £250m island airport where jets can’t land because it is too windy (and guess what, your aid money is paying for it)The vet, the tortoise and the airportSt Helena on “From Our Own Correspondent”Where the Saints go diving after workWorld’s Largest Fish and One Tiny Island: Studying Whale Sharks on St Helena IslandUnder starters orders…Saint Helena’s historic isolation continues as airport opening delayedLast Boat to St HelenaRoyal Mail Ship St Helena to RetireHealthy Diet Helps 183-Year-Old Tortoise Feel Young AgainWhy St Helena, One of the World’s Most Remote Islands, May Be Overrun in 2016Top of the LeagueRemote St Helena island welcomes first flightThe allure and attractions of St Helena


Hope for St Helena

By Lord Ashcroft, published on www.conservativehome.com, 17th January 2017{3}{b}

It had been more than 68 years since I last set foot on St Helena, famously the fortress home to Napoleon Bonaparte after his exile, yet I quickly learnt that some things do not change.

Its 4,500 residents are as friendly, fun-loving and relaxed as ever: strangers say a cheery “hello” in the street, drivers wave to you from the open windows of their cars, houses remain unlocked at night because the crime rate is so low and ignition keys get left for days in unlocked, parked vehicles.

St Helena, a volcanic island that first erupted out of the South Atlantic some 15 million years ago, may be one of the remotest places on earth but it is also one of the most welcoming. ‘Saints’, as residents are affectionately known regardless of their diverse ethnic origins, religions or creed, rarely fail to live up to their name.

Before landing at the island’s troubled and underused new airport last week, I filled in an entry form that asked for the purpose of my visit. “Curiosity” was my one-word reply.

Aged two, I had travelled to St Helena by ship with my parents in 1948, when my beloved, late father, Eric, was on the way to his first Colonial Office posting in Africa. As I grew up, my parents’ fond recollections of St Helena gave me an affinity for the island and I have long intended to return.

This time last year the entire island was riding a giant wave of expectation with the airport unveiling scheduled for the next month: February 2016. And then, with economic prosperity seemingly just around the corner, it all went horribly wrong…

As I revealed in my first blog on St Helena in June last year, the official opening of the airport was twice postponed amid major concerns over ‘wind shear’ - dangerous and unpredictable cross-winds caused by the island’s unique topography.

Even when the airport did quietly open for business, it was considered unsafe for use by the two commercial airlines, Comair and Atlantic Star Airlines, which had planned to operate from South Africa and the UK respectively. British national newspapers revelled in highlighting the woes of a hugely expensive airport, paid for from £285 million of taxpayers’ money, where large aircraft could not land.

As I first disclosed eight months ago, the airport, though a remarkable feat of engineering, was in danger of becoming an expensive ‘white elephant’ and a deep embarrassment to the British Government.

Jacob’s Ladder Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
‘Le pond’! Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
‘Le pond’!

St Helena is 47 square miles in size, about a third the size of the Isle of Wight. A British Overseas Territory, it lies some 1,200 miles from the African mainland and 1,800 miles from Brazil. It was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, but later run by the British East India Company which, in turn, eventually handed it over to the Crown.

St Helena has near full employment with the local Government the main employer and others working in agriculture, fishing and various small businesses. However, the average wage is only around £7,000 a year despite high costs for food and other essentials that are a result of the island’s isolation.

In modern times, the island’s lifeline to the rest of the world has been the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) St Helena, which takes five days to sail between Cape Town and St Helena, and operates on a fortnightly cycle. ‘The RMS’, as it is known locally, had been due to be decommissioned last year after reaching the end of its natural life but, while the airport’s future use remains uncertain, it is still in operation.

I am in the fortunate position of having use of a private jet. Eight months ago, I had hoped to become one of the very first non-test flights to land on St Helena but widespread safety concerns scuppered that plan.

However, last week I finally flew from the Namibian capital of Windhoek to St Helena, a journey of some three hours and 17 minutes. With weather conditions favourable, my two pilots elected to approach the island from the south, landing on what is known as ‘Runway 02’: this has the advantage of encountering less wind shear problems but the disadvantage of approaching with a tail wind. Pilots, for safety and performance reasons, always prefer to land and take-off into the wind: however, the tail wind of eight knots was within the plane’s safety limit of ten knots.

The dramatic approach to the airport provides an awesome sight: I found it exhilarating and my only fear was that a sudden deterioration in the weather might prevent us landing. However, we landed on the 1,000 foot-high runway to the south-east of the island on our initial approach and without incident.

One of my first ports of call that afternoon was Jacob’s Ladder (pictured, right) where, in 1948, my father, then recently out of the Army and blessed with both fitness and determination, carried me up its 699 steps, cut into the steep cliffside in 1829.

The next day I also visited Longwood House, where Napoleon lived in exile from 1815 until his death in 1821 (unlike me, the deposed French Emperor was never a fan of the island, once saying its only redeeming feature was its coffee).

In 1948, I had carelessly fallen into Longwood House’s fishpond only to be rapidly scooped out by my parents. Last week, I was delighted to find that, nearly seven decades on, the pond remains in place and this time I managed to negotiate my way around it rather than plunge into its waters for a second time.

My other numerous stop-offs last week included Plantation House, a 35-room Georgian mansion set in 280 acres where I was given a warm welcome, first by Lisa Phillips, the island’s first woman Governor, and then by St Helena’s most famous resident: the giant tortoise Jonathan. He is believed to have been born in around 1832 and stakes a claim to be the world’s oldest living animal. In St Helena, giant tortoises celebrate their birthday on January 1 and so Jonathan is now deemed to be 185 years old.

St Helena has any number of attractions for foreign visitors: while some are enchanted by its unique wildlife, flora and fauna, others marvel at how the vegetation can be green and lush at one moment and then semi-desert a mere two miles down the road. Yet more visitors are captivated by its numerous historical landmarks, everything from ancient churches and an impressive museum to Napoleon’s Tomb and High Knoll Fort, constructed in 1798 as the island’s first major fortification. However, without large, accessible beaches and devoid of a busy nightlife, St Helena is always likely to remain a niche tourist destination for the more adventurous and thoughtful traveller.

One of the primary purposes for my visit was simply to meet as many islanders as possible. I wanted to discover whether, after the airport fiasco, they despair at a missed opportunity or whether they remain hopeful that the island’s best times still lie ahead. In truth, I encountered many islanders with both views: resentment and optimism were equally apparent.

On my first full day on the island, I took an early morning stroll. Within minutes, I had met three new acquaintances, all happy to share their thoughts with me despite the fact that it was little after 7am. My chance meeting with Brian Davies, an island carpenter, was swiftly followed by introductions to Colin Yon, a builder, and Dave Marr, a plumber. All shared a common passion for their island home.

For my stay on the island, I booked into the 18th-century, 18-room Consulate Hotel, which lies in the centre of Jamestown, the island’s coastal capital and its heartbeat.

The hotel is owned and run by Hazel Wilmot, aged 60, who is believed to be the biggest individual inward investor on St Helena, having come alone to the island from Botswana in 2008. Since then, she has spent more than £2 million buying and renovating her hotel, as well as investing in a 17-acre farm to provide meat, eggs and other food for her hotel guests.

Ms Wilmot says her money was only spent with the prospect of a new airport and new prosperity for the island - but now her hotel is largely empty and last year her electricity was (temporarily) cut off because she could not afford to pay an outstanding bill. She says she and others on St Helena are on the verge of bankruptcy with homes, boats and other possessions in danger of being repossessed.

I have been left high and dry by matters beyond my control and I feel angry and frustrated,” Ms Wilmot told me. “I am broke, with some £175,000 worth of debts.

Today Ms Wilmot is a constant thorn in the side of both the Department for International Development (DFID) and the St Helena Government. She insists she and other islanders should receive financial compensation because their financial woes are largely the result of the airport’s failings.

At Jamestown’s dockyard, Johnny Herne, 43, born and bred on the island, is equally unhappy with DFID and the island’s Government. He says that he has borrowed £150,000 to buy a new boat, Emerald Isle, to provide trips for tourists to see the dolphins and whale sharks, and for private fishing trips.

With monthly interest repayments of £2,500, on top of monthly insurance and fuel bills each of £1,000, he says he has a daily battle to avoid bankruptcy now that visitor numbers remain so low. Official predictions were that tourist numbers would leap from around a 1,000 a year at present to 29,000 a year by 2042.

I know I took a risk but I feel very let down. We were promised a busy airport and yet it hasn’t happened,” said Mr Herne, who added that he now has three different jobs and works up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, to keep his head above water.

However, others investors are much more optimistic and appear confident that the airport’s problems will be solved. A January 27th deadline has been set for airlines to put in tenders to run an air service to and from the island.

Lucille Johnson, 43, and her business partner, Patrick Henry, 51, spent £15,000 on two new taxis last year with the intention of launching an airport shuttle on the island. When the passengers failed to arrive, however, they adapted their business, V2 Taxi Partners, to specialise in a 24-hour service for islanders and visitors alike. Within months, they had bought two more taxis at a further cost of £15,000 and are employing two part-time staff.

The failure of the airport has been a disappointment but Saints feel it will be fixed. There will be uproar if it is not sorted,” said Ms Johnson, who like Mr Henry was born and brought up on the island.

One proposed solution to the wind shear issue is to blast away hundreds of tons of volcanic rock, known as King and Queen Rocks, that lie above the airport runway. However, conservative estimates say the work would cost more than £75 million and, inevitably, if the work is authorised but it fails to solve the problem, DFID will come in for further public ridicule.

With airport behind Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

A decision on which company will operate the airlines to and from St Helena is expected in May and regular services should be in operation before the end of the year. Airlines, including the British-based Atlantic Star, are convinced that the wind shear problems can be overcome using the right aircraft and routes.

One suggestion from Atlantic Star is to expand the capacity for civilians to share military flights from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, to Ascension Island - nearly 800 miles north west of St Helena. Atlantic Star Airlines would then use an Avro jet, with a maximum capacity of 60 passengers, to fly to and from St Helena and Ascension twice a week. Atlantic Star Airlines expects competition from a handful of South African and Namibian airlines for the tender.

For all the hard work and positive public comments of Niall O’Keeffe, the Chief Executive for Economic Development, and Christopher Pickard, the Director of Tourism, I have no doubt that an announcement on regular flights is needed before they can achieve their respective aims of bringing significant investment and large number of tourists to St Helena. A permanent solution, rather than a ‘cut and paste’ one, is what islanders crave and deserve.

Basil George, aged 80, used to teach on St Helena before becoming its Director of Education. An astute observer of island life, Mr George speaks for many Saints when he tells me: “We are at a crisis at the moment which is a good time to rethink how this island can progress.

I was flattered that on arriving on the island I was already looked upon as a ‘friend of St Helena’ because, despite my long absence, I have vigorously championed the island’s cause.

During my visit, I gave an interview to Tammy Williams, of Saint FM Community Radio and the St Helena Independent newspaper, that resulted in both two lengthy radio broadcasts and also front-page news. Mike Olsson, a Swede who has lived on the island more than 20 years, owns the newspaper and is a board member of the radio station. In fact, I gave a live radio interview to Mr Olsson, now a councillor, in 2009 when I ‘buzzed’ the island in my plane as a show of support.

I have already posed tough questions relating to DFID and the St Helena Government in terms of what went wrong last year and what the future holds for islanders. They are questions that remain largely unanswered.

I am an unashamed critic of the UK’s policy that results in so much of our annual £12.4 billion foreign aid budget being squandered by corrupt and incompetent regimes.

However, while we still have a commitment to spend 0.7 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on foreign aid, I would much rather see such funds allocated to our Overseas Territories, including deserving causes such as St Helena.

During my visit, I observed a hard-working, enthusiastic, resilient community but one that needs help in improving its infrastructure and its skills if it is to welcome tourists on the ambitious scale that is planned.

Today water and fresh food are scarce, credit card payments are not accepted, the internet service is both slow and expensive and up-market hotel rooms are in short supply (even the new 32-room hotel in Main Street, due to open later this year, is not without controversy since: because it was bought and is being refurbished with £1.5 million of local government funding, private hoteliers resent the subsidised competition).

Although significant improvements have already been made in the past decade, tens of millions of pounds are needed to improve St Helena roads, health service and schools. Even its prison, currently home to 13 miscreants, needs to be brought into the 21st Century. Yet the challenge facing Saints is to modernise the island while still preserving its distinctive charm.

St Helena is run by a DFID-appointed Governor together with a 12-strong elected council and senior civil servants (together they provide the members for both the Executive and Legislative Councils).

Yet, according to senior sources, relations between DFID and the council are at ‘rock bottom’. Councillors feel they have been “kept in the dark” over major plans for St Helena and that too often local wishes are ignored.

DFID does not listen to the people of this island yet we are the ones who know best what can, and cannot, be achieved,” said one senior source. “DFID imposes more and more, and listens less and less,” said a second source, adding: “We need to see more openness, transparency and accountability if we are to work successfully with DFID in future.

The list of grievances from islanders and its council is long but near the top is what they see as dishonesty and incompetence over their airport: first insufficient weather surveys and test flights took place before the island’s runway was chosen and then, once safety concerns were identified two years ago by the Met Office, the relevant parties, including prospective airlines and investors, were not at once made aware of them.

The council and islanders also say that DFID then dithered for too long before making a commitment to continue running the RMS St Helena boat for a least a year ahead while there was no air service. With most hotel reservations made a year in advance, potential visitors had been unwilling to make a holiday booking when they could not guarantee they could get to and from the island when the time came.

At present, St Helena receives nearly £30 million a year in Government subsidies from DFID but the hope remains that, with a vibrant economy based on tourism, the island will eventually be self-sufficient within quarter of a century.

No one will be happier than me if that is achieved but I suspect the reality will be that it may take far longer for St Helena to survive without some kind of subsidy from Britain which, given the island’s remoteness and isolation, is perhaps unsurprising.

As my plane lifted off from south-facing ‘Runway 02’, under blue skies and into a 12-knot headwind at 3.40pm on Wednesday of last week, I took some pride from the fact that I was about to create a small piece of history on the first flight from St Helena to mainland Europe.

After a take-off that was as equally as smooth as my landing two days earlier, I glanced back at the island with nothing but fond memories of my short stay: St Helena and its warm-hearted Saints had lived up to all my expectations and more.

If ever a small community deserve a change of fortune, it is the residents of St Helena, and I will continue to play a small part in making life uncomfortable for those who let them down. One thing is certain: this time it will be closer to seven months, rather than seven decades, before I return to visit my new friends once again.

See also: Fly hereFly Yourself Here

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The Bones of St Helena

By Diane Selkirk, PS Magazine, 10th January 2017{3}

Two cinematographers are capturing the secret history of a South Atlantic island full of the bones of Liberated Africans.

Mount Pleasant and the cloud forest Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Mount Pleasant and the cloud forest

The bones aren’t in pizza boxes, despite what the rumors said - though it was this very rumor that drew filmmakers Joseph Curran and Dominic de Vere of the British film company PT Film to a macabre mystery on the island of St Helena. “The bones are actually in archival boxes, in an old storeroom attached to the prison,” Curran says. But the rest of the story - forgotten corpses excavated from mass graves to make way for an airport, after which the bones languished - is all true.

Best known as the island where Napoleon was exiled and died, St Helena was in the news last year because of the awkward opening of its first-ever airport. (News reports said it was too windy for a lot of planes to land.) What most people still don’t know is that this island, located in the middle of the Atlantic between southern Africa and Brazil, is a physical link to the Middle Passage, the notorious route slavers used to reach the New World with their human cargo.

Between 1840 and 1874, an estimated 30,000 Liberated Africans were released into refugee camps on St Helena. When they died, an estimated 8,000 were buried in three vast graveyards in the shallow volcanic earth in Rupert’s Valley and at the quarantine station in Lemon Valley.

Curran, de Vere, and soundman Oliver Sanders say that, while locals knew about the bones, few knew who they belonged to. These bodies didn’t represent ‘Saints,’ as locals are called - they weren’t seen as part of the island. One resident named Colin Benjamin told the film crew about using a skull and leg bone to play baseball: “I’m sorry about that, but being kids that’s the way we grew up.

Bones sometimes just appear here,” Curran says. We’re walking through an industrial area in Rupert’s Valley, on the northwest of the island. Continuing up the valley, we reach a freshly paved road and the second designated graveyard, which was put into official use after the first burial ground was filled. It’s a scramble down from the road, through dry prickly bush, into the unmarked burial ground. I catch sight of a bone-white fragment and cautiously brush away the earth. It’s a piece of old china. The entire area, which stretches up a dry gully to where it meets graveyard number three, is scattered with rocks and debris.

Curran explains the road was built to bring fuel and supplies to the airport. It was during a geotechnical survey that workers discovered signs of the burials, and, in 2008, archaeologists led by Andrew Pearson, an independent archaeological consultant, excavated the bones of some 325 Liberated Africans.

Dominic de Vere in Butcher’s Grave Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St HelenaButcher’s Grave detail Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Left: Dominic de Vere in Butcher’s Grave, Right: Butcher’s Grave detail

Costal view Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

The archaeologists unearthed a combination of individual, multiple, and mass graves. Most contained children between eight and 12 years old; some were wearing ribbons or beads; in one case, a tiny copper bracelet.

Annina van Neel, chief environmental commitment officer of the airport construction company Basil Read, oversaw later finds. “She told us about finding remains, and the sleepless nights it would cause her,” Curran says. “I cried for the first time when I watched van Neel cry. The humanity of it all just hit me.

Curran says that filming the documentary was like assembling a puzzle; every person they interviewed had a different relationship to the bones and was just a small piece of the story. As their interviews continued and the story took shape, de Vere and Curran began to realize how timely it was: “There were times when the numbers of African refugees almost numbered residents,” he says. The islanders would send word to England to say they needed help - that they were struggling to manage and care for the new arrivals - “and then another ship would show up, and they had to cope.” With an ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and beyond, the bones of St Helena today tell an urgent story.

Slavery and St Helena have been linked almost since the island was discovered, uninhabited, by Portuguese sailors 500 years ago. Five of the island’s earliest inhabitants were escaped enslaved people. By 1723 over half of the island’s 1,100 residents were enslaved. Slavery began its decline in St Helena in 1792, when local laws made it illegal to import new enslaved people. In 1832, slavery was abolished when the East India Company purchased the 614 remaining slaves from their owners for a sum of around £28,067{4} - and, soon after, the role of many Saints shifted from owner to ally.

Oliver Sanders recording at Diana’s Peak Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

One way that the denizens of St Helena helped fight slavery was by sea: De Vere explains that ships like the British HMS Waterwitch formed a blockade off the African coast. When they caught a slave ship, crews boarded it and brought it to St Helena, where the human cargo was released and the ship was broken up. During her years of service, Waterwitch captured around 40 slave ships, liberating thousands of Africans.

In April 1843 Waterwitch captured the Brazilian-flagged ship Conceição de Maria. Some 390 people had been loaded aboard the small boat in Benguela, Angola. After 22 days at sea, 349 captives, 60 percent of whom were children, were liberated in St Helena; 41 had died during the voyage. Many were buried in St Helena’s mass graves.

Beyond the sheer tragedy of the finds on this island, archaeologists say the importance of these lives can’t be underestimated. This is the only known assembly of large numbers of first-generation enslaved Africans in the world. They are thought to be the last trace of the estimated 1.8 million people who perished on the Middle Passage, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

Research opportunities have been limited by local politics, but bone fragments from the graves were part of DNA sequencing and radiogenic isotope analysis in the eurotast project. The project’s goal is to identify the origins of the people who were stolen during the slave trade. Simply put, knowing who is buried in St Helena may answer elusive questions about the people who arrived in the Americas.

St Helena is a magical place. Granite spires rise out of rolling green farmland on one part of the island, while, in other places, multi-hued volcanic cliffs drop abruptly into the sea. These days, the population of 4,000 relies on supplies brought by ship. But in 1850, the island’s farms, fishery, and water supply had to provide for a population nearing 7,000, the hundreds of ships that called each year, and the influx of African refugees.

One sunny afternoon, the island appears more pastoral than imposing. Curran suggests we sail the inviting waters toward the Liberated Africans Depot, the camp set up to house refugees, in Rupert’s Valley. From aboard a 40-foot catamaran, he wants to film the sea route the captured slave ships would have taken before visiting the graveyards by land. Sitting on deck, listening to gentle waves, we’re entertained by swooping black noddies, and soon catch a glimpse of a huge whale shark as we approach the rugged red cliffs.

A section of the road that connects Rupert’s Bay to the airport Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St HelenaRupert’s Bay Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Left: A section of the road that connects Rupert’s Bay to the airport, Right: Rupert’s Bay

Butcher’s Grave on the grounds of Plantation House Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St HelenaThe airport check the runway as part of their daily routine Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St HelenaThe island’s interior Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Left: Butcher’s Grave on the grounds of Plantation House; Middle: The airport check the runway as part of their daily routine; Right: The island’s interior

Even beauty can’t obscure the truth: Experts argue about the true human cost of slavery, but estimates from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database say some 12.5 million people were loaded aboard ships by European slave traders for the journey to the New World, and between 10 and 20 percent died during transport. Records tell us that people were packed into the dank hulls of ships, separated by sex, and kept naked and chained. When the slave ships arrived in St Helena, the captives were often near death thanks to dehydration, dysentery, smallpox, scurvy, and violence.

In the Jamestown library, I come across one account of a ship’s arrival. The paragraph, written by the surveyor and engineer John Mellis in 1861, describes how horrified Mellis was at the brutalities endured by the Africans: “The whole deck … was thickly strewn with the dead, dying and starved bodies of what seemed to me a species of ape which I had never seen before. One’s sensations of horror were certainly lessened by the impossibility of realizing that the miserable, helpless objects being picked up from the deck and handed over the ship’s side, one by one, living, dying and dead alike, were really human beings.

Despite grave odds, for the three decades the Liberated Africans Depot was open, locals nursed thousands of the newly freed back to health. Over the years they offered English lessons, schooling, and church services to survivors. Hundreds of refugees opted to stay on the island. The remainder, speaking multiple languages and originating from far-flung parts of Africa, often couldn’t communicate where they were from, making it impossible to return them. Instead they were sent as indentured servants to places including British Guiana, Jamaica, and Trinidad. Walking through the dusty heat of graveyard number two, I can’t help but compare this dreary place with Sane Valley, the lush grove in the island’s interior where Napoleon was interred. Napoleon, whose body was returned to France in 1840, gets an annual remembrance ceremony. The nameless 8,000 Liberated Africans buried on St Helena don’t have a single memorial plaque or grave marker between them.

Curran explains that a memorial for the Liberated Africans will come - but because the bones are claimed by no one, islanders have argued over how best to commemorate them, and even who should be given a role in the decision. People have offered various ideas: immediate interment; plantings to beautify the area; an art installation; a tomb; or even sending the bones back to Africa. Until a decision is made, the excavated bones sit off-limits in a dilapidated storeroom, and the rugged graveyards remain unmarked, untended, and largely unknown.

I think it might not matter how the bones are memorialized, but simply that they are.

I recall that passage I read - Saints picking up the dying Africans one by one as they carried them to freedom - and about how the island’s small population did all it could to care for and bury the refugees, who just kept coming. I think about how deeply the archaeologists were moved during the excavations; and how the descendants of enslaved Africans may find answers to questions about their history within the DNA. I reflect on how the film crew is so committed to telling this story they simply can’t let it go.

And I wonder if maybe this story can serve to remind us of the value of human kindness and compassion in this new era of mass displacement, with so many souls in peril on the sea.

See also: Slaves and slaveryRupert’s

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The most extraordinary place on Earth?

John Apps published on, Practical Boat Owner, 28th December 2016{3}

PBO reader John Apps sails to St Helena, an island so full of superlatives he has to pinch himself to ensure he didn’t dream his visit

Anchorage and Foreshore from Ladder Hill Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

St Helena, in the middle of the tropical South Atlantic Ocean (16°S 5°W), styles itself as the most extraordinary place on Earth. And for the visiting yachtsperson, it is indeed anything but ordinary.

Technically, it is not the most remote place in the world in distance, being beaten by Easter Island which is 400 miles more distant than its nearest inhabited neighbour (1,100 miles to Pitcairn Island). There are 700 miles between St Helena and its nearest neighbour, Ascension Island, but unlike Easter Island St Helena has no airport.

The RMS St Helena, serving the British territories in the South Atlantic, takes two days to get from St Helena to Ascension with its airport links to the UK and the United States.

If you want to phone someone from your boat as you arrive, or send a text, you’ll find there is no mobile phone signal. So unless you have a satellite phone you’ll need to go ashore to contact loved ones on your arrival at the coin-in-the-slot payphone near the landing dock.

This remoteness and lack of mobile communications or ATMs seems to have created the friendliest people on Earth. It is quite extraordinary the number of times you’re greeted as you walk the streets of Jamestown.

I spent a week on St Helena, and felt that I had a whole community of new friends by the time I left. In some ways it is unfortunate that St Helena is so identified with being Napoleon’s island prison, which takes away from its importance as a great crossroads in the ocean.

Before the opening of the Suez Canal it was a stopping place for almost every ship rounding the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. The list of visitors is really a who’s who of famous sailors and explorers: my personal favourites are James Cook, Joshua Slocum and Thomas Cochrane.

St Helena is very easy to get to when going north in the South Atlantic with either the South East Trades as a following wind or on a broad reach, depending which of the capes you have rounded.

James Bay is the main anchorage and is found on the north-west side of the island directly adjacent to the main town, Jamestown.

Unless you have entered the anchorage previously, a night approach may be difficult. There is one major shipwreck close inshore which is exposed at low tide, and a large number of unlit boats in the main anchorage.

I was fortunate to arrive about two hours before sunset so I found pilotage quite simple. The port authority has provided a large number of oversize moorings which are free for the first night then £2 per night thereafter.

A ferry service is operated between 06:30 and 18:30 each day and costs just £1 each way, which you pay at the end of your stay.

The ferry operator, like everyone on St Helena, is very accommodating. I was invited for drinks at Donny’s Bar after work one day and the ferry operator offered a late pick-up for me to take me back to my boat so that I didn’t have to rush.

Of course you can use your own dinghy to get ashore, but quite a swell runs into the bay: it is much easier to leap from a stable ferry platform than to do so from an inflatable while trying to hang onto a painter.

A place of superlatives

St. James, oldest Anglican Church in the Southern Hemishpere Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

St Helena is said to be Britain’s second-oldest colony, and St. James’ Church lays claim to being the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere. Similarly, the prison is reputedly the oldest working prison south of the equator.

Jonathan, a land tortoise, is thought to be the world’s oldest living land animal (aged 183!), while the wire bird, a species of plover, is claimed to be the rarest of the world’s endangered species.

Wonderful weather

Best of all is the climate. I was there in December, which is summer in the southern tropics, and found the temperature almost perfect. Being the South Atlantic, tropical revolving storms such as hurricanes, cyclones or typhoons are almost unknown.

The only time I found the heat a little warm was mid-afternoon on board my boat, when I would go ashore and use the free tepid shower at the landing place and spend an hour or so in the cool of the castle gardens.

I did climb Jacob’s Ladder early one morning which raised a sweat, as it’s 699 steps up to Ladder Hill Fort.

St Helena is one of those places that makes me have to pinch myself to believe that I have actually been there in my own boat. While I would classify it in my ‘once in a lifetime experiences’, I have a great desire to go back.

Wonderful people, great weather, safe anchorage - what more do you want when you are moored?

Our Comment: Although published in December 2016, this article seems to relate to a visit that took place in December 2015, so a few things have changed: There now is a Mobile Phone service; the Wirebird is no longer ‘Endangered’, though it is still ‘Vulnerable’; and St. James’ Church now has a spire! Apart from that it’s all still correct.

See also: YachtingVisitor Information

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Irish doctor on a distant island

By Paul Cullen, The Irish Times, 8th October 2016{3}

Kevin O’Brien with his wife and daughter Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Kevin O’Brien with his wife Aoife McGough and their daughter Síomha at home in St Helena. About 4,000km east of Brazil and 2,000km west of Africa, St Helena is about as remote as remote gets.{c}

As one of St Helena’s two GPs, Kevin O’Brien continues a tradition of Irish doctors there

To take up his new job, Kevin O’Brien first took a flight from Dublin Airport to Heathrow, then travelled to the RAF base at Brize Norton, where he joined members of the British Antarctic Expedition on a long-haul flight to Ascension Island, a tiny rockfall in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

O’Brien’s travels were far from over; from Ascension, he boarded the last working Royal Mail ship in the world, which steamed for three days before arriving at his ultimate destination, St Helena.

About 4,000km east of Brazil and 2,000km west of Africa, St Helena is about as remote as remote gets. The island, no bigger than Achill and just as mountainous, has been home for the past year to O’Brien, his wife Aoife McGough and their daughter Síomha.

The plan was always to move away,” O’Brien explains down a surprisingly clear WhatsApp connection, given that his five-digit home number on the island was on the blink. “We figured this was a good time in our lives to travel, when we weren’t tied down.

The couple arrived last February, three months after O’Brien answered an online advertisement. “Like many others in my GP class, I was reluctant to commit to general practice in Ireland in the current state of change. And then countries all over the world are crying out for Irish doctors.

But while the medical brain drain has led most Irish doctors to sophisticated health systems in Australia, Canada or the UK, O’Brien finds himself in a British Overseas Territory with a population of 4,500 and a stripped-back medical service to match.

It’s very British but also has a tropical island feel,” he says. “Everyone stops to talk when they pass. You salute every car, and say hi to everyone.

We were worried at first about it being claustrophobic, about not being able to get off the island for a day. But it’s an amazingly beautiful and varied place, and the people have been so welcoming. We felt at home very fast.

The locals are descendants of English settlers, Chinese labourers, Boer prisoners and African slaves; names such as O’Bey and O’Dean hints at an Irish lineage too. The Union Jack is the official flag and English the lingua franca, though spoken with a unique dialect. “Place names such as Half Tree Hollow, The Gates of Chaos and Alarm Forest could have been plucked from Tolkien, and the laid-back pace of life and tropical fruit trees give an almost Caribbean feel.

Island life has its own “nuances”, as O’Brien refers to them. The shops close at 5pm and that’s it for picking up supplies. Fresh fruit arrives on the boat every three weeks, and the best produce sells out fast. When his mobile phone broke recently, it was sent for repair in South Africa and came back two months later.

As one of St Helena’s two GPs, O’Brien is continuing a long tradition of Irish medical presence on the island. Its most famous resident, Napoleon, was attended to during his enforced exile by an Irish doctor, Barry O’Meara.

Then, there was the curious case of Dr James Barry, another Cork medic who performed one of the first caesarean sections in 1826 and lived on St Helena for two years. After his death, it was discovered that Barry was, in fact, a woman.

O’Brien’s life is more prosaic. Clinics are based in the island’s 31-bed hospital, which boasts an operating theatre and other basic facilities. Scans have to be reported remotely from South Africa, while specialist services are provided by visiting doctors. Serious cases have to be sent to Cape Town, where patients can spend months away from home.

In June, O’Brien found himself as the leading doctor in the first ever evacuation from St Helena, involving a sick premature baby who was flown to hospital in Cape Town.

Just as in Ireland, he spends a lot of time dealing with chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. But unlike at home, he can access tests directly. “In Galway, I used to have to send patients to a hospital appointment in order for an ultrasound to be booked. You also realise how much more careful we could be in Ireland with our drug spending when you work somewhere that is more prudent with its drug choices and budget.

When he signed up for the posting, St Helena was on the cusp of great change, with the planned opening of a €300 million airport in the spring. However, the opening of the airport, which was built with a view to opening up the island to tourism, has been postponed indefinitely because of safety concerns over the wind shear. The project, already dubbed Britain’s biggest overseas aid fiasco, risks becoming a white elephant.

So for another while yet, St Helena remains marooned and apart. A round trip visit for two people costs a prohibitive €8,000 from Europe, making it unlikely that the parents of O’Brien and his wife will get to make that hoped-for visit to see their only grandchild.

The other worry we always have is the amount of time it would take to get home in an emergency if needed - a minimum of one week and possibly up to three, depending on where the RMS St Helena is in its schedule.

Our Comment: We included this article not because it contained any radical new insights into our island, but simply because it was the first thing we’ve seen in ages that was not a political jibe at the UK government using our airport as an excuse.

See also: Could you live here?

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Antwerp aviation company organises first commercial flight to Saint Helena

By André Orban, www.luchtzak.be, 19th July 2016{3}

The Aviation Factory brings the first three tourists by plane to the ‘island of Napoleon

Bombardier Challenger 300 Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Bombardier Challenger 300

First airborne tourists Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Our first airborne tourists{5}

Saint Helena is a small island located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, about four hours away from the African continent. Until recently, the island where Napoleon died was only accessible by sea, because there was no airport. The British government decided in 2011 to build an airport on the island. However, few aircraft have the range and the ability to fly to Saint Helena and to land and take off. On July 13th, 2016 the first flight took place bringing three tourists to Saint Helena. This première was awarded to the Antwerp aviation company The Aviation Factory.

Saint Helena is best known as the place where Napoleon spent the last years of his life (after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815). He died there in exile on 5th May 1821. His residence, Longwood House, is now on display as a museum. The commissioning of Saint Helena Airport will boost the tourism and the economy on the island.

The construction of Saint Helena Airport began in 2013 with 2,000 tonnes of sand imported from Namibia. On May 20th, 2016 the first plane landed, but it was not until July 13th before the first passenger flight arrived there. A Bombardier Challenger 300 from ExecuJet brought the first three tourists to the small island. The aircraft with registration ZS-ACT took off at 8.30am in Lome, capital of Togo, and landed four hours later at Saint Helena Airport. The aircraft then departed the next day to Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. Benoit Duvivier, one of the driving forces behind The Aviation Factory, was responsible for organizing the first ever commercial flight.

Saint Helena was discovered in 1502 by Portuguese explorer João da Nova. From 1645 to 1659 the island was claimed by the Dutch Republic. In 1658 the British East India Company founded Jamestown and shortly thereafter took possession of the whole island. In 1673 the Dutch recaptured Saint Helena, but two months later they were again expelled by the British. The island then always remained in English hands. By the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Saint Helena, however, lost its strategic value.

See also: Fly hereFly Yourself Here

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RMS St Helena makes final call to the UK

By Rebecca Moore, Passenger Ship Technology, 9th June 2016{3}

RMS St Helena passes through Tower Bridge on its last UK call Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
RMS St Helena passes through Tower Bridge on its last UK call

RMS Saint Helena has made its final call to the UK, amid news that entities in countries as diverse as Norway, Australia and Guernsey have expressed interest in taking on the vessel once it is decommissioned from its current service.

PST was lucky enough to be invited on board to mark its last UK call and to celebrate the vessel’s 26 years of service to St Helena Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.

The last working Royal Mail ship is retiring from service due to an airport opening on St Helena Island later this year.

PST understands that both Alderney’s Chamber of Commerce and shipping lines in countries including Norway, Sweden and Australia have expressed interest in buying the vessel.

St Helena Line Ltd chairman Matthew Young said to the gathering on board: “It is truly the last working RM ship that actually transports mail and has served the island well for the last 26 years, it has been remarkable in maintaining its schedule over the last 26 years and has performed the service remarkably well… it is very much a living entity as far as the island is concerned and is described as a lifeline, which it really is as without it, the island would have a significant problem.

Looking ahead, he said: “We don’t know what the future holds for it yet but clearly that will be determined in the not too distant future. But I am sure there will be life after the service to the island and it will continue for many years to come to serve some other province.

The 6,767gt ship has capacity for 156 passengers and 56 crew as well as cargo.

The last ship to be built in Aberdeen, it last underwent a major refit seven years ago, when passenger capacity was upgraded from 128 to 156 by adding extra cabins; it also underwent a technical overhaul as it was refitted with new, more fuel economical engines, the ship’s captain Andrew Greentree who started his career on RMS St Helena as a cadet told PST. The refit took place in Cape Town. The ship operates on low sulphur fuel.

Our Comment: There were many articles about the RMS’s visit to the UK; we chose one from a more unusual source.

See also: RMS St HelenaFly here

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The £250m island airport where jets can’t land because it is too windy (and guess what, your aid money is paying for it)

By Vanessa Allen, Daily Mail, 3rd June 2016{3}

  • Jets can’t land at airport built with £250m foreign aid because it’s too windy

  • Royal opening at airport on the island of St Helena postponed indefinitely

  • Landing strip built with UK Department for International Development cash

  • Aim was to boost Britain’s most remote overseas territory in South Atlantic

An airport built with £250million from the ballooning foreign aid budget risks becoming a white elephant because it is too windy to land there safely, it was claimed yesterday.

A royal opening at the airport on the remote island of St Helena has been postponed indefinitely after test flights raised safety concerns.

The cliff-top landing strip was built with £250million from the Department for International Development to help boost the tiny island in the South Atlantic, which is Britain’s most remote overseas territory.

An airport built with £250million from the ballooning foreign aid budget risks becoming a white elephant because it is too windy to land there safely, it was claimed yesterday. It is on the island of St Helena (pictured) Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
An airport built with £250million from the ballooning foreign aid budget risks becoming a white elephant because it is too windy to land there safely, it was claimed yesterday. It is on the island of St Helena (pictured)

Remote: St Helena in the South Atlantic (pictured) has to be supplied by sea. It is home to around 4,000 people Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Remote: St Helena in the South Atlantic (pictured) has to be supplied by sea. It is home to around 4,000 people

It is home to around 4,000 people. It was due to be opened by Prince Edward last month but the start of commercial flights has been delayed after trials with a Boeing 737-800 revealed a problem with turbulence and windshear on the runway approach.

Windshear is a sudden powerful change in wind direction which can destabilise or even flip large aircraft and has been responsible for crashes around the world. Former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft said he was recently forced to abandon a planned visit to the island because of ‘serious concerns that the airport is too dangerous to use’.

Writing on the Conservative Home website, he said: ‘Although aviation experts are working hard to try to find a solution to the windshear problems, there is a real danger that the airport could become a hugely expensive white elephant and a terrible embarrassment to the British Government.’

The airport had been touted as a lifeline for residents and businesses on St Helena, which is about a third of the size of the Isle of Wight and lies in the South Atlantic, some 1,200 miles west from the African mainland and 1,800 miles east from Brazil.

It can currently only be reached by sea, and the ageing Royal Mail ship St Helena is to be retired, leaving the islanders cut off. It was hoped the airport, with a weekly service from Johannesburg and a monthly flight from the UK, would boost tourism and prevent job losses and population decline.

But video of the first test flight by Comair, a British Airways subsidiary in South Africa, shows the 737 lurching from side to side and it was forced to abort its first attempt at landing.

The airport was to be opened by Prince Edward last month but the start of commercial flights has been delayed after trials with a Boeing 737-800 revealed a problem with turbulence and windshear on the runway approach Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The airport was to be opened by Prince Edward last month but the start of commercial flights has been delayed after trials with a Boeing 737-800 revealed a problem with turbulence and windshear on the runway approach

Lord Ashcroft said the pilot of his private jet, Larry Erd, had flown in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan but had warned against trying to fly to St Helena.

The pilot said windshear was one of the biggest causes of fatal air accidents and told Lord Ashcroft: ‘St Helena clearly has a serious problem with windshear.’ A test pilot who had made the landing was said to have described it as ‘hair-raising’.

Plans for the airport were approved by the Labour government but put on hold by Gordon Brown in 2008 after the financial crisis. The Tory-led coalition approved the scheme soon after it came to power and it was funded with £250million from DfID, the largest single investment it has made in any of Britain’s overseas territories.

Officials had hoped encouraging tourism to the island would make it less dependent on aid. It currently receives more than £25million a year under Britain’s obligations to its overseas territories. Work on the airport began in 2012.

Lord Ashcroft said delays to the project had left many of the island’s businesses struggling, and had affected the delivery of food and other vital supplies.

He said one resident, Hazel Wilmot, 60, had invested more than £2million into buying and renovating an 18th century hotel which now lay empty.

The St Helena government said it was taking ‘specific steps’ to combat the problems with turbulence and wind shear. It added: ‘Every effort is being made to start airport operations at the earliest opportunity’ Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The St Helena government said it was taking ‘specific steps’ to combat the problems with turbulence and wind shear. It added: ‘Every effort is being made to start airport operations at the earliest opportunity’

Former British Airways pilot Brian Heywood said he had warned David Cameron and the then International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell about the windshear problem, and said trying to run scheduled flights would be an ‘operational shambles’.

In a letter to a local newspaper, he said: ‘If an airport is built on the edge of a near-vertical 1,000ft cliff, the prevailing wind is bound to cause problems.’

He added: ‘To grumble about windshear at St Helena airport is a bit like grumbling about the heat in a newly built Sahara airfield in the summer. It is entirely predictable.’

The St Helena government said it was taking ‘specific steps’ to combat the problems with turbulence and wind shear. It added: ‘Every effort is being made to start airport operations at the earliest opportunity. However, safety is paramount and we will not commence commercial operations until we are satisfied with every aspect of airport operations.’

Since 2004, Britain’s foreign aid budget has rocketed by 144 per cent to £13.2billion to meet the Government target of 0.7 per cent of GDP. This means that, proportionally, it spends almost twice as much of its national wealth on aid as any other G7 nation.

See also: Building St Helena AirportFly hereFly Yourself HereRMS St Helena

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The vet, the tortoise and the airport

By Joe Hollins, published on BBC Online, 21st May 2016{3}

Joe Hollins with Jonathan Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

Six years ago Joe Hollins became the first permanent vet on the island of St Helena, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Here he looked after the oldest known land animal in the world, a 184-year-old giant tortoise - while at the same time seeing the island enter the modern world with the construction of its first airport.

St Helena is famously the island where Napoleon was exiled after the battle of Waterloo. I imagine he felt little joy on his arrival here, a tiny scrap of volcanic rock thousands of miles from Paris, but for me it was quite the opposite - I chose to come here, signing up for a five-year stint as Senior Veterinary Officer. And although I didn’t know it when I took the job, I would also be witness to the biggest change in St Helena’s history since the abolition of slavery.

The island of St Helena - a mere 67 sq miles of rock right out in the middle of the Atlantic, 1,300 miles from Angola and 2,000 miles from Brazil is now on the brink of joining the rest of the world.

After investment of £250m and five years of frenetic construction, it has an airport - a masterpiece of engineering perched on the cliffs, with a runway that ends in a sheer 300m drop. It’s not open yet, but it will be soon, and then St Helena, which is sometimes described as the second most remote inhabited island in the world, will feel a lot less remote than it does now.

Airport from Diana’s Peak Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

My favourite job, as the first resident vet, has been looking after Jonathan the giant Seychelles tortoise - a 200Kg crusty old reptile that I’m very fond of. There’s no older living land animal on record in the world. We know he arrived in 1882, fully mature, which means he was about 50 then, which would make him about 184 today. He could be even older.

When I first met him he was in quite a poorly state. He was very thin - feeding was a challenge because his beak was blunt and crumbly so he couldn’t cut the grass. He has cataracts and he’s lost his sense of smell so he couldn’t see where the good grass was.

I decided to supplement his diet, so every Sunday I would go down to the paddock in front of the governor’s house, where he lives, to feed him fresh fruit and vegetables - bananas, apples, cucumber, lettuce and cabbage. He has a very fleshy, almost mammalian, tongue and a long reptilian neck, very much like a snake - and he is a prolific belcher.

After a year not only was he putting on weight and being more active, but his beak became razor sharp and I had to wear welder’s gloves to protect my fingers. His libido came back as well, and he’d try to knock David, the perpetually randy younger male, off Emma, one of the three females. Not to any great effect, but it’s a very good sign.

The life expectancy of these tortoises is approximately 150 years of age so Jonathan’s already exceeded that by quite a long way. The ancient reptile has seen off many governors, but whatever he has witnessed in his 134 years on the island, not much has changed around him until now. The pace of change on the island over the past five years has been phenomenal.

Joe Hollins feeding Jonathan Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

Oldest and rarest tortoises:

  • Ships used to stack giant tortoises on board where they would stay alive and provide the crew with fresh food - thus most became extinct

  • There are two families of giant tortoises left in the world: the Pacific family (Galapagos Islands) and the Indian Ocean tortoises (Aldabra Atoll)

  • There are hundreds of thousands of Aldabran giant tortoises but only a few thousand Galapagos tortoises

  • Recently it was discovered that Jonathan is an extremely rare Seychelles giant tortoise of which there are only a few dozen left in the world

In order to prepare for the airport St Helena had to be readied for the modern world in every respect.

The UK government’s investment - equivalent to £60,000 per capita - came with conditions covering everything from taxation to social and medical services, and land ownership. There were big changes in all these areas. Six months ago they even introduced mobile phones, something that had not been possible before because of the challenging terrain of hills and deep gorges. Now everybody walks along talking on their phones, as they do in the rest of the world.

I saw the very first plane land on the island on 15th September 2015 - a historic occasion. As luck would have it I had been called out to see a sick pig on the windward side of the island where the airport is. Quite a few people had gathered to watch as a small light aircraft zoomed across the airport construction site to have a look. Its first attempt at landing was aborted and it climbed steeply away again, above the 300m cliffs at each end of the runway and the massive outcrops of rock beyond them.

To build the runway a gorge called Dry Gut had to be filled with 450,000 truckloads of rock Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
To build the runway a gorge called Dry Gut had to be filled with 450,000 truckloads of rock

On the third attempt it landed and you could hear people cheering everywhere. It was not something the Saints had seen before. There were emotional scenes.

The airport was due to open on 21st May but there are still issues to sort out. Work is still under way to deal with turbulence and wind shear. Landing can be pretty hairy.

Until now the only way on and off the island has been on the last remaining true Royal Mail Ship, the RMS St Helena. She leaves Cape Town every three weeks and takes five or six nights to reach St Helena. When she anchors in the bay passengers have to take a launch to the steps, and clamber ashore with the aid of a rope.

Boatman at the landing steps Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

One of the concerns around the airport is biosecurity. The ship has always acted like a quarantine station - because the journey took so long, if anyone was incubating disease there was a chance they would fall ill on board. But by aeroplane, people can get here within hours. All we need is for somebody to arrive with a new disease and the cat’s out of the bag.

We recently had two workers on the island with malaria. Luckily we do not have the malaria-carrying mosquito, so it could not be passed on. But we do have two other pathogenic species of mosquito, Culex and Aedes, which can carry human diseases like the Zika virus, Chikungunya or Dengue fever. So the disease carriers are here but the diseases aren’t - and we mustn’t introduce them.

The RMS St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

I left, as I arrived, on the RMS St Helena. She’s quite a ship. Only 100m long, with cargo at the front and passengers at the back, she’s been the only means on and off the island forever, but she will be decommissioned as soon as the airport opens for business.

She’s a lifeline. But while she brings families together, she also tears them apart.

There are a lot of tears shed on the wharf every time she departs.

Joe Hollins at work Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

Our Comment: Some video content has been omitted from the above. To see the full article go to www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36302278.

See also: Jonathan the tortoiseBuilding St Helena AirportFly hereRMS St Helena

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St Helena on “From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

On 14th May 2016 BBC Radio 4’s programme From Our Own Correspondent featured an item recorded by BBC journalist Sarah Wheeler, talking about the delay to the opening of St Helena Airport.

Click here to hear this audio file
Right-click to download (1.9Mb)

Click here to listen Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

See also: Building St Helena AirportFly hereFly Yourself Here

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Where the Saints go diving after work

By Diane Selkirk, Dive Magazine, 16th May 2016{3}

St Helena parrotfish, Long Ledge Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
St Helena parrotfish, Long Ledge

It was the size of the ship that astonished me. From the rudder, the big boilers looked miles away. Beyond those, there were bundles of corrugated iron, an engine, anchor windless and somewhere in the distance, the bow. Swimming through a cloud of butterflyfish, I searched for the locker which an old wreck write-up said contained champagne bottles - I never found the champagne but I did come face to face with a crayfish.

Built by Denny W & Bros, Dumbarton for the New Zealand Shipping Company in 1899 the 131m SS Papanui, with 376 passengers and 108 crew, had just steamed past Saint Helena when a persistent fire in a coal bunker forced them back. She made for the harbour at Jamestown and unloaded her passengers and crew on 11th September 1911; a short while later a boiler exploded and fire spread from the bow to stern. The next day she sank in 13m.

There are many things that make diving the Papanui an incredible experience; it’s found in clear, warm water a short distance from shore, the ship’s history is well documented and some of the artefacts that aren’t still on the ship can be found around Jamestown. But the most remarkable aspect of the dive is that - for Saint Helena - it’s not unusual. The SS Papanui is just one of eight protected wreck sites accessible to island divers and her excellent condition is a great example of the island’s strict conservation ethos.

Diver on the Papanui; St Helena shrimp, Wharf Steps and the wreck of the Bedgellett Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Diver on the Papanui; St Helena shrimp, Wharf Steps and the wreck of the Bedgellett

A Seafaring History

For more than 500 years the only way to reach the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena has been by the sea. The uninhabited island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, and was long used as a provisioning stop for ships travelling from the East Indies to Europe. In 1659, the British East India Company took possession of the island and began to fortify it. In the years that followed Captains Cook and Bligh, the astronomer Edmond Halley, Charles Darwin and, of course, Napoleon all found their way to Saint Helena.

Before the Suez Canal opened, more than 1,000 ships a year called at Saint Helena. Gradually though the island became an isolated and forgotten outpost. Over the past 50 years, only the most intrepid travellers have voyaged to her shores. And only a few, such as Jacques Cousteau, whose crew dived the Darkdale - a tanker torpedoed by a German submarine in 1941 - and Robert Stenuit, the marine archaeologist who discovered a 16th Century ship called the Witte Leeuw, whose treasure of Ming porcelain is now housed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, came for the diving.

Dive Magazine Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

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

St Helena has been one of the most isolated British territories and its 4,200 population’s only connection to the outside world has been a five-day trip by ship to Cape Town in South Africa. However, a £250 million airport has been built and weekly flights are promised. The opening of the airport has been delayed twice and the opening ceremony has been postponed after a test flight revealed dangerous wind changes close to the ground. Until that is resolved the only way to access the 122Km² of rock in the South Atlantic remains the regular mail ship.

Once there you will find hiking trails that cut through multi-hued volcanic hills; historic stone fortifications perched high over churning seas; Napoleon’s estate and tomb; huge whale sharks in gin-clear water; and, of course, that spectacular diving.

Speery Island Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Speery Island

Conserving for the Future

Graham Sim, 79, is considered the father of both diving and conservation on Saint Helena. He says the first time he went underwater, wearing a hard-to-come-by mask and snorkel, he was amazed by the profusion of fish life. He and a few friends soon fashioned Hawaiian slings out of broom handles and bicycle inner tubes and began spearing so many fish, Sim says he briefly wondered if fish were blind, they were so effortless to catch.

Other divers soon followed his lead. “No one had ever interfered with the fish before,” Sim told me as we looked out at the blue water over James Bay. “But then I noticed the easy-to-reach areas near the wharf were being destroyed. The fish were gone.

Sim’s realisation was life changing-and it transformed the future of Saint Helena. He formed the Skin Diving Club and then the St Helena Dive Club, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, gave up spear fishing and starting teaching young Saints (as the locals are called) to dive. He also trained as a fisheries officer and began putting the island’s first conservation measures in place.

Hawkfish, near Cat Island Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Hawkfish, near Cat Island

The endemic silver eel, Munden’s Reef Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The endemic silver eel, Munden’s Reef

We protected the areas around the wrecks and in James Bay, Rupert’s Bay and Lemon Valley,” he said. “At first, people were angry with me. But the thing we enjoyed, we were destroying.

Warm Clear Water

It’s easy to love diving in St Helena. Visibility runs to 30m and the water temperatures range from 19C-26°C. Within a fifteen-minute boat ride from the Jamestown landing there’s a choice of wrecks, reefs, arches, islands and caves. In fact, diving is so easy here that it’s a favourite post-work activity for locals; they head out for a dive and catch the sunset on the return voyage.

Anthony Thomas from Sub-Tropic Adventures, one of the island’s two dive companies, had five of us in his boat for one of his regular afternoon dives. As the newest visitors to the island, he asked us what we’d like to see. We settled on a dive that included a wreck, followed by an arch and cave system - a dive that contained such an assembly of life, diversity and clarity; that had we been anywhere else in the world, the dive would have had both a half dozen dive boats jostling for position and a name.

St Helena butterflyfish near Cat Island Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
St Helena butterflyfish near Cat Island

Five of us, including a dive master, descended to the Bedgellett - a salvage vessel that had been used on the Papanui, damaged in a storm and then sunk in 2001. Resting on her keel in 17m she boasted a profusion of fish life as well as colourful algae and sponges. Enchanted with the scene, I started a slow swim around the keel of the boat, trying to take in everything at once. We ascended to the deck level where I followed an endemic, and decidedly faded-looking, St Helena parrotfish sparisoma stringatum (known locally as a rockfish) toward an overhang where I became intrigued by a spooky looking bearded fireworm.

Saint Helena has several endemic species which include 16 fish species and about 40 invertebrates including Thomas’s favourite, the nudibranch. For me, the St Helena butterflyfish chaetodon sanctaehelenae was one of the most mesmerising. Congregating in vast shallow-water schools we swam through our first cloud of them on the Papanui and encountered our second flashy school while swimming from the wreck of the Bedgellett to the arch at Long Ledge.

Moray, Munden’s Point Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Moray, Munden’s Point

The swim to Long Ledge was through a maze-like landscape of huge boulders and overhangs. Lighting the crevices and caves with a torch, we caught sight of a huge moray eel and a big triggerfish. Every so often we’d glance out to the blue - keeping an eye out for the devil rays that are known to swim in the area.

Most of the dive sites are located on the leeward side of the island - where they can experience a bit of surge from the ocean swells but don’t have much in the way of current to contend with. Thomas will take more adventurous divers to the windward side of the island, where the life can be bigger and even more varied when conditions are right. But almost every dive has something to offer both beginners and advanced divers and typically Thomas will split the groups and send each out with their own dive master.

Silver eel, Cavalley Rock Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Silver eel, Cavalley Rock

Much More Than Just fish

As well as reef fish, divers report encounters with a varied assortment of charismatic sea life including, turtles, dolphins, Chilean devil rays and whales sharks. Peak whale shark season runs from December-March when as many as 50 of the enormous creatures are found in large groupings around the island. While intentionally scuba diving with them is prohibited (snorkelling with a guide is legal), Thomas explained divers will often be at a site when the whale sharks show up and then they’re welcome to enjoy the show.

We surfaced after swimming through a long arch and exploring a few big caves. Settling into the boat we watched as the sky turned golden, then red. Two of the divers were giddy with the thrill of a devil ray encounter. One of them, Sam, told me this was her 170th dive on the island, and of all the places she’s been, this is the place that never gets old. “I find something new to see every time.

St Helena sharpnose pufferfish, Billy Mays Revenge Dive Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
St Helena sharpnose pufferfish, Billy Mays Revenge Dive

Graham Sim told me the same thing. For 50 years he’s dived at least once a week. When he started it was with the most basic gear; no wetsuit, no gauges, no buoyancy control, no boat. The island was the most abundant place he’d seen and he was determined to keep her that way. St Helena was lucky, in so many places in the world people don’t even know what a healthy ocean looks like anymore, he explained: “We got to learn from other’s mistakes before the damage was done. It’s still amazing here.

whale shark Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
whale shark

Squirrelfish Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Squirrelfish

NEED TO KNOW

Currently, there are only two dive companies and two dive boats on the island - which means there’s never more than one boat at a site and even the most popular sites are only visited a couple of times a week. As tourism increases, and more boats are added, conservation guidelines will reflect the same high standards.

Into the Blue www.divesainthelena.com Email: Craig Yon Craigiyon@helanta.co.sh

Sub-Tropic Adventures www.stsa.co.sh Email: Anthony Thomas Sub-Tropic.Scuba@helanta.co.sh

St Helena flounder, Wharf Steps, James Bay Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
St Helena flounder, Wharf Steps, James Bay

Slipper Lobster, Papanui wreck Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Slipper Lobster, Papanui wreck

See also: DivingLost Ships

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World’s Largest Fish and One Tiny Island: Studying Whale Sharks on St Helena Island

On voices.nationalgeographic.com, posted by Georgia Aquarium, 11th April 2016{3}

Dr. Alistair Dove, director of research and conservation at Georgia Aquarium recounts his recent expedition to St Helena Island studying the world’s largest fish - whale sharks.

A whale shark swims in the waters off St Helena Island (Photo Credit: Georgia Aquarium) Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
A whale shark swims in the waters off St Helena Island (Photo Credit: Georgia Aquarium)

Approximately 2,500 miles east of Rio de Janeiro and just over 1,900Km west of the African country of Angola, lies St Helena Island: one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. This stark volcanic peak juts up from the vast abyssal plain of the South Atlantic Ocean and covers just 122Km² of rugged rocky terrain, but is home to a multitude of diverse animal, plant, and marine life. It has even been called the Galapagos of the South Atlantic.

This tiny island is over 6,000 miles away from Atlanta, Georgia, where I and a team of researchers from Georgia Aquarium started our journey to study the world’s biggest fish: the enigmatic whale shark. This species lives throughout the tropical and subtropical waters of the world, but encounters are rare and those places where whale sharks gather reliably have become figurative goldmines of scientific discoveries about this extraordinary filter feeding shark.

Just getting to St Helena is a huge challenge; we first flew to Cape Town, South Africa and then boarded the RMS St Helena, which is the only form of regular transportation to the island and one of the last Royal Mail Ships in operation. We were aboard the St Helena for five days as she steadfastly steamed to our destination across a seemingly endless plain of seabirds and flying fish. Talk about remote! St Helena is so remote, in fact, that the island was chosen by the English as the location for Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile in 1815. He died there in 1821 and you can still visit his grave today.

Despite 500 years of this sort of exceptional maritime history, St Helena has only recently come to scientific attention, not only as an important habitat for whale sharks, but as part of the United Kingdom Overseas Territories, a group of islands that is home to more than 90% of the UK’s biodiversity assets. With the help of the Darwin Initiative, Georgia Aquarium’s partners in the St Helena Government, Mote Marine Laboratory, and the Marine Megafauna Foundation, we are so excited and proud to help study our flagship species in this beautiful and breathtaking location.

Georgia Aquarium is the only aquarium in the western hemisphere to display these elusive creatures and having them in this setting is an incredible research opportunity to complement our field research with studies of their growth, behavior, health, and genetics. This helps us improve our interpretation of their behavior seen in the natural setting, but there are still many tantalizing questions about whale sharks that we hope to answer.

We traveled to St Helena once before, in December of 2014, and we ventured back again in December of 2015. We started these expeditions because we think St Helena may play a vital role as a mating ground for whale sharks. The whale sharks of St Helena are an even split of adult males and females, which is different from the other places where whale sharks gather in numbers, where juvenile males dominate. This 50/50 mix of adults is incredibly important, because mating behaviors have never been documented in this species. Our main goal of the 2015-2016 expedition was to characterize these gentle giants in St Helena, how they use the island habitats, and where they go when they leave, and of course to stay ever vigilant for signs of mating behavior. So how do we do all that?

We used a variety of techniques including computer-aided photographic identification, laser calipers to measure their size (and they can get big, over 35ft long), and several different types of tracking tags to help us figure out where they come from and where they go. We also worked with local ‘Saints’ to install an acoustic array, which is a network of underwater hydrophones around the island that listens for tags we put on whale sharks and other species. Over the weeks we spent in St Helena we tagged over 30 whale sharks and photographed dozens more - all these are collected to assist in our understanding of where they go, how they grow, how they reproduce, and how St Helena fits into a global population picture for this species, which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists as ‘Vulnerable’.

Another incredibly satisfying aspect of the expedition to St Helena was working alongside some of our fantastic research partners. We work with members of the Marine Section of the St Helena Government, and Mexican NGO Ch’ooj Ajail AC, in addition to Georgia Aquarium team members and other partners from the Marine Megafauna Foundation and Mote Marine Laboratory who couldn’t join us but materially supported our efforts. It was a demanding scientific agenda, but working with this talented crew made for a great trip. If you can measure the success of an expedition in the amount of data you generate, then we were certainly successful.

Up close with a whale shark in St Helena. (Photo Credit: Georgia Aquarium) Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Up close with a whale shark in St Helena. (Photo Credit: Georgia Aquarium)

We’ve since returned from St Helena and unpacked our gear and washed the salt out of everything, including our ears. What lies ahead is a daunting task of compiling all the data we’ve collected, including terabytes of video and photo data and thousands of laser measurements, so we can begin looking for the answers to the questions we’ve been asking. We still have not documented mating behaviors, but we continue to learn more about their migratory patterns through the tagging studies and to identify new whale sharks through the Wildbook global database of whale shark sightings. With whale sharks, though, the more answers you try to find, the more questions you end up raising! It’s an incredibly exciting time to be studying this extraordinary species, especially in such a special location, and you can join in the excitement. Some of the animals we tagged automatically tweet out their locations in real time, and you can follow along on Twitter™ @Wheres_Domino, and at whalesharkwatch.org. We continue to learn and discover things about this magnificent species and I know there will be even more things to uncover. Anyone who says there isn’t amazing stuff still to discover in nature hasn’t put their head underwater lately, especially in places like St Helena.

See also: DivingDolphin watching

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Under starters orders…

By www.airnewsx.com, 3rd April 2016{3}

If you asked most people about starting up an airline in 2016, in fact since 2008…the chances are they’d laugh you out of the door. They would tell you, you’re up against the ‘big boys’ of low cost or the ‘gentlemen’ of well established. There’s one thing I root for, the plucky Brit. The one who says ‘No, this can work…an I’ll tell you why it can work’. Its the kind of attitude you need in today’s world. Even more so when the airport you’re flying to is St Helena.

I’m now waiting for the steady few of you that are now asking - ‘Where?’ Quick geography lesson for you… St Helena is an island in the Atlantic just off the west coast of Africa. It is a British Overseas Dependent Territory and until May this year, the only way of getting to this small volcanic island was by boat. St Helena Airport is due to open doors in May and for one such airline, this will be its inaugural route.

Atlantic Star Airlines Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

Atlantic Star Airlines, a relative baby in aviation terms, is headed up by current British Airways Captains Richard Brown and Andrew Radford. Both have extensive operational experience on the 777/787/767 with Richard currently a training Captain on the 777/787 and Andrew, 20 years experience flying with our nations flag carrier. Further expertise comes in the form of Aiden Walsh the current ‘La Compagnie’ country director and Shonagh Woods a 20 year veteran of marketing enterprise products. The company is also supplemented by four experienced pilots all of whom have worked for British Airways directly or through its French subsidiary ‘Openskies’.

UIFly (Netherlands) Boeing 737 Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

Having secured all necessary regulatory approval, the company aims to launch her first flight on Sunday 22nd May. Operating from Luton and making a technical stop to re-fuel in Banjul (Gambia) before onwards to St Helena, the flight time is marketed at 12hrs each way. Atlantic Star are working with TUIFly (Netherlands) leasing a Boeing 737-800 for the service.

So daily flights to St Helena…no not exactly. There are a large number of factors at play here. Supply and demand being the name of the game here. ASA is a dipping-of-the-toe-in-the-water-of-lets-see-what-happens. And rightly so. The business idea is sound, test the market to see what kind of demand there is for a permanently established number of flights to the island.

There’s a nichè here and that’s something I quite like, a difference. I hearken back to the beginning of this post where I said ‘Airline startups are generally doomed to failure.’ And yes they usually are, because they follow the same formulaic pattern on the same formulaic routes and go against well established low cost or full service airlines. Here this isn’t the case. There’s a logic at play, a well established and long thought out plan. There is also a beautiful uniqueness to this venture, one that in a couple of years I hope I get to experience.

Smooth winds and plane sailing ASA, a venture I surely will keep an eye on!

See also: Fly here

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Saint Helena’s historic isolation continues as airport opening delayed

By Luke Barber & Simon Calder, The [UK] Independent, 13th February 2016{3}

One of the Government’s most expensive ventures, St Helena’s airport is delayed… again

[Artist’s Impression] A plane waits at the new airport in St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
[Artist’s Impression] A plane waits at the new airport in St Helena

The island of Saint Helena in the middle of the south Atlantic is one of the remotest places on the planet. It gained its main claim to fame - as home to the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte - for that very reason.

Jamestown, capital of St Helena, an island in the mid-Atlantic Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Jamestown, capital of St Helena, an island in the mid-Atlantic

But the historic isolation of the 4,000 inhabitants, or “Saints”, who live on this tiny British territory of just 122Km² was supposed finally to come to an end this year - with the opening of a new £250m airport after a decade-long wait.

Due to start operating this month, the first flights have already been put off until at least May. And frustration on the island is growing, with tickets not yet on sale and talk of “hurdles” still to be overcome.

Announced in 2005, the final decision on the airport was repeatedly delayed until it was agreed by the Coalition in July 2010, with construction work getting under way in November 2011.

It is one of the Government’s most expensive investments, on a per capita basis, at a cost of more than £60,000 for each person.

The island, more than 1,200 miles from the nearest land mass, is currently only accessible by a Royal Mail ship, which sets sail on a five-day journey from Cape Town once every three weeks.

Map Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

In an open letter to islanders, Richard Brown, principal of the British airline Atlantic Star - which is competing with the South African firm Comair to be the first to touch down on the island - tried to sound hopeful, although he admitted there had been “some delays”.

We are in contact with the air access team at St Helena Government and are confident that all the hurdles to certification will be overcome,” he wrote.

However, he added that it would be “premature” to give a date for the airport to be certified for flights, given the “complexity” of the process and “the work still to be done on the airport”.

Therefore we are not yet able to announce the date that ticket sales will start,” Mr Brown said, adding: “We fully appreciate how frustrating this waiting period is for those of you who wish to finalise 2016 travel plans. We share that frustration and naturally we would love [tickets] to be on sale right now.

A pilot on the PPRuNe (Professional Pilots Rumour Network) aviation forum said: “Over a month has now passed since the second round of calibration flights. Still no word if the problems with the navigational aids have been corrected and operations would be safe.

Janet Lawrence, Saint Helena airport’s project director, said the construction of the airport had hit a snag because of the lie of the land. “Due to the unknown nature of building an airport on the island’s uneven terrain, changes in design had to be made to facilitate that,” she said.

St Helena has been under British possession since the East India Company was given permission to govern by Oliver Cromwell in 1657. After his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon, who had escaped from the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, was sent to St Helena to ensure he would never again return to Europe.

See also: Building St Helena AirportFly here

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Last Boat to St Helena

By Matthew Engel, Financial Times, 29th January 2016{3}

One of the remotest islands on earth is getting an airport - and that could change everything

Bamboo Hedge, Sandy Bay Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Bamboo Hedge, Sandy Bay

The oldest and most famous resident of St Helena is called Jonathan. His home is in the grounds of Plantation House, the 35-room Georgian mansion long occupied by the island’s governors.

He moves sluggishly; he has little idea what’s going on; he has been much put upon yet remains placid; his welfare has long been a concern. Jonathan has witnessed the comings and goings of 26 governors sent out by London to take charge of his own and St Helena’s welfare, and treated them all with what looks like good-natured contempt. In all of this, Jonathan might be not just a tourist attraction but the island’s motif.

Well, perhaps not in the matter of size. This is a minuscule island and Jonathan is a Seychelles giant tortoise. He may be the world’s oldest creature: no one knows exactly how old he was in 1882 when he first arrived. The scientists think he was at least 50; his life might even have overlapped with that of St Helena’s most famous former resident, one Napoleon Bonaparte, who died in 1821 having spent the last six years of his life confined here, an experience he endured less phlegmatically than Jonathan.

St Helena was chosen to house the former emperor after his defeat at Waterloo because it was (a) a British possession and (b) a byword for remoteness. Both these facts are still true. Indeed, if anything the island has become more isolated. In the days of sail, up to three ships a day called at St Helena. The vessels would be serviced and victualled, taking on fresh water and fruit and vegetables to stave off scurvy: everything grew in this benign climate, just inside the tropics but cooled by the constant southern trade winds. “An earthly paradise,” said the first Briton to arrive, Captain Thomas Cavendish, in 1588{6}.

The occasional cruise ship and adventurous yachtie still stop by. But in general the only way on and off the island for everyone and everything is by a single ship, the RMS St Helena, which normally calls every 18 days. But not for much longer.

On the far side of the island from the capital, Jamestown (i.e. about 20 minutes’ drive away), St Helena’s international airport is nearing completion, 70 years after the idea was first mooted, 14 years after the islanders said ‘yes’ in a referendum and six years after the British government finally agreed. Now it is happening, some Saint Helenians are enduring a fit of buyers’ remorse. The government insists it will be transformational. What is certain is that a unique, magical, beautiful, troubled place is about to change forever.

Location map Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

St Helena, a microdot of volcanic leftovers in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, is not quite the most remote island on earth: that honour belongs to another of Britain’s South Atlantic islets, Tristan da Cunha. But Tristan only has about 300 people. St Helena has some 4,500, enough to support the world’s most isolated hospital, police station, prison, distillery, cathedral and cricket ground.

The islanders are known as Saints, and they do have some saintly qualities. This could be the friendliest place on earth - passers-by say hello, motorists wave - and the most trusting. It is an isle of unlocked doors and of car keys left in the ignition. The lack of petty crime is partly due to the Saints’ nature. Also, as Napoleon realised, escape is almost impossible.

The journey here from Cape Town currently takes five days on what everyone calls “the RMS”, which then makes a side trip to St Helena’s nearest neighbour, a mere 800 miles away: the British-owned, US Air Force-dominated island of Ascension. (London-bound travellers can, with luck, get there in three or four days via Ascension rather than six via Cape Town.) RMS stands for Royal Mail Ship, a designation that has otherwise all but disappeared, and is increasingly irrelevant. “When I started in 1980 there would be 180 sacks of mail,” recalls the ship’s captain, Rodney Young, a burly Saint who worked his way up from swabbing the decks. “Now there are two or three.

But the RMS still carries all the island’s needs from the outside world somewhere in its hold, from cars to fresh veg to urgent medicine. The islanders order stuff online like the rest of us; the difference is that here “express delivery” means waiting about two months. The ship’s progress is always a major item on Saint FM’s morning news, sometimes the major item, unless an islander has died - that always takes precedence.

world’s oldest creature. His life may even have overlapped with that of Napoleon, who spent the last six years of his life confined here, an experience he endured less phlegmatically Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
world’s oldest creature. His life may even have overlapped with that of Napoleon, who spent the last six years of his life confined here, an experience he endured less phlegmatically

The RMS is intimate - just 7,000 tonnes, a quarter of the size of a cross-Channel ferry, as midget as St Helena itself when seen next to a modern cruise ship. The journey is old-fashioned, sociable. The food is terrific, something rarely said about the island itself. Officers and crew, mostly Saints, either grew up with their passengers or get to know them soon enough. “The ship is part of the island,” says one expat. “When Saints board it, they are already home.” It has the same effect on a newcomer: walking up Main Street in Jamestown, after disembarking, I already feel a sense of belonging.

But the voyage is not a cruise, it is a journey. And the journeys are often linked with sadness: people heading to work overseas because there is nothing for them on the island; exiles coming back to visit sick parents and often failing to make it in time; or residents travelling to Cape Town for urgent operations that St Helena cannot perform, and sometimes failing to make those too - death at sea is not exactly normal but not that rare either. A UK-based Saint or a St Helena-based expat has to take four weeks’ holiday to get two weeks at home.

These are the last drops of an era,” says Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, France’s honorary consul on the island, wearily making his (approx) 120th voyage. “It is not rational for the ship to exist.” Dancoisne-Martineau is the doyen of St Helena’s diplomatic corps (the only member, actually) and the guardian of its Napoleonic heritage. He has been making four journeys a year on the RMS for the past 30 years so, not surprisingly, the joys of deck quoits and shuffleboard have faded. He is not alone. “I’m absolutely sick of it all,” says one worldly young Saint. “I can’t wait for the airport.” Sad though it is to imagine this dear old ship in a breakers’ yard, it seems like a no-brainer. There are, however, other considerations

When the Portuguese first discovered the island on May 21 1502, and named it after the saint of the day, there was no one there. They kept it secret for nearly a century but when the British finally found the place, they became very interested indeed and had the maritime power and tenacity to see off rival claims. In particular, the East India Company saw it as the perfect way station for trading ships sailing home from the Orient. It was granted a charter by London to run the place and, in 1659, installed its own governor.

Napoleon on St Helena, c.1820 Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Napoleon on St Helena, c.1820

Gradually, over the centuries, a people emerged, an extraordinary race with what seem like almost random characteristics, as a variety of humanity turned up and bred: slaves and slave owners; soldiers and sailors; Madagascans and Malays; Indians and Chinese. It would be impossible to pick out a Saint away from home because they really do come in all shades, shapes and sizes. Even the accent has a protean quality, as so many of them spend decades working abroad before coming home to retire.

Emigration came with the territory because St Helena has never been able to pay its way. It was a necessary cost centre for the East India Company, and intended as such. The British government, which took over direct responsibility in 1834, has always been less relaxed on this subject. The island is said to have made a profit only once in its history, in 1951, when the flax industry was at its peak. Flax is the nearest St Helena has ever come to finding a reliable living. Though there has never been a shortage of ideas - whaling, tuna, mackerel-canning, silkworms, lilies, quinine, aloe vera, cochineal, lace-making, wine - they all failed.

Now, the theory goes, tourism will come to the rescue. Not the annual thousand-odd visitors a year who until now have come to enjoy the languid 1951-style charms of both the island and the RMS, but up to 30,000 (according to one often-quoted wild surmise) or at least 4,000 (a more realistic St Helena government guesstimate). The British taxpayer has invested at least £250m in the airport since 2010 and Whitehall wants results.

The island has an annual budget of around £30m, of which nearly £20m is subsidy from the Department for International Development in London, including up to £4m to cover the RMS’s losses. It is one of 14 British Overseas Territories, too small and/or complicated to become independent, including such entities as the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos, which make profits in ways British civil servants might prefer not to know about. Only three require annual grants from the Bank of Mother England: Montserrat, which was devastated by a volcanic eruption in 1995, Pitcairn (population 56), riven by accusations of paedophilia, and St Helena.

The whole purpose of the airport is to set us on the way to prosperity, so we can wash our faces,” says Roy Burke, the island’s British chief secretary. “St Helena has been drip-fed for so long. We were in profit in the flax era but not since. There has been limited entrepreneurial ambition for a long time.

The RMS at anchor in Jamestown Bay, off the Half Tree Hollow suburb and controversial site for the planned new prison Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The RMS at anchor in Jamestown Bay, off the Half Tree Hollow suburb and controversial site for the planned new prison

For the St Helena government, the airport has become an article of faith, a new religion, a god that must not fail: London’s wrath would be too terrible. It has been a grand project for a petite island: eight million metres³ of rock have been shifted to turn a lonely hillside into a plateau in an area called Prosperous Bay, which must have felt like a good omen. The terminal building looks remarkably high-spec. All this for what, at least in the initial stages, is likely to be a service of one weekly flight to and from Johannesburg (a 737-800 that, because of the short runway, will only be allowed to carry 120 passengers rather than the full payload of 162) and an occasional service from London.

Arguments that better value would have been achieved by an updated RMS, fast enough to cut the journey by a third, or a new breakwater in the port are no longer heard. In some ways, however, the airport is likely to make life worse for the Saints: the freighter that will replace the RMS as the source of bulk supplies is expected to arrive every five or six weeks instead of every 18 days; there is some confusion about the Ascension service. Whispered doubts persist: the crosswinds will make for unhappy landings; the Barn, the overhanging rock that dominates the approach path, will be a nightmare for pilots; as will the mist and fog for which St Helena’s highlands are infamous.

This last seems the most convincing. As the RMS approached the island, I was standing by the portside rail next to a well-informed local. “Where’s the airport?” I asked. “Up there.” “So where’s the Barn?” “You can’t see it because of the mist.” “Could you land in this?” “You wouldn’t even leave Joburg.” “Is the weather usually like this?” “Often. I’m not saying any more.” The only alternative landing strip is Ascension, a 90-minute diversion each way.

There is also an existential argument against the airport: for visitors, the voyage and the island’s remoteness are part of the appeal; the kind of rushed rich who might be attracted by a novel addition to the global air map seem unlikely to be enchanted by St Helena’s subtle charms. Tourist infrastructure is close to zero: there is a shortage of almost everything - hotel beds, restaurants, taxis, hire cars, buses, even souvenirs. There are no beaches worth mentioning. Mobiles only arrived in 2015, and there is no roaming facility. The internet is slow, patchy and pricy. When Chris Pickard, an expert in Latin American travel, was interviewed last year for the job of head of tourism, he was asked to name St Helena’s chief attraction to visitors. “Isolation,” he replied. “You’ve just lost it.

Picnicking at Castle Gardens, Jamestown, left; On the 699-step Jacob’s Ladder Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Picnicking at Castle Gardens, Jamestown, left; On the 699-step Jacob’s Ladder

Even so, Pickard got the job and is very upbeat. “You mustn’t make the mistake of thinking this is a mainstream destination,” he says. “Some of the places people build in the Amazon nowadays are amazing and that’s the sort of thing we have to look at. This is primarily about nature and walking; for people who read Wanderlust magazine. And don’t forget the deep-sea fishing and diving markets,” he adds, warming to his subject. “If there isn’t great fishing off this island, where is there? And the Napoleon market is underestimated. Air schedules will allow for a little more flexibility. But we’ll still be remote in the middle of the Atlantic.

Yet this paradise is not a pristine one. In many ways humanity’s discovery of St Helena gave it the worst of both worlds. Man ravaged the indigenous flora and fauna, much of it found nowhere else, without providing a lasting base of either industry or agriculture. While, in theory, this is an island where you can grow almost anything, fresh vegetables are hard to find and fresh fruit even harder.

My grandfather was a ship’s chandler,” says Capt Young. “All his contacts would deliver fresh produce and any type of vegetable the ships wanted.

Whispered doubts persist: the overhanging rock that dominates the approach path will be a nightmare for pilots, as will the mist and fog for which St Helena’s highlands are infamous Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Whispered doubts persist: the overhanging rock that dominates the approach path will be a nightmare for pilots, as will the mist and fog for which St Helena’s highlands are infamous

And now you’ve got a hold full of South African potatoes and onions heading to St Helena,” I say. “That’s mad, isn’t it?” “It is mad.

One of the island’s loveliest corners is called Lemon Tree Valley but it no longer has any lemon trees. “You can still grow anything here but it costs too much,” explains Rebecca Cairns-Wicks, an English biologist married to a Saint and operations director of the St Helena National Trust. “The place is plagued by wilts, blight, fruit fly and soil erosion. We’ve got a legacy of environmental mismanagement. Before man there were no mammals, no reptiles, no amphibians. Now we even have an invasive liverwort which feeds on native mosses.

The ecology of a small island is especially challenging because its species have such a small range, and then St Helena is full of microclimates and micro-ecologies. “The St Helena olive tree went extinct in 2003,” says Cairns-Wicks. “I watched the last one die and I couldn’t save it. It was so horrid. I said at the time I wanted it not to have died in vain, and that it would never happen again.

While two other native trees, the bastard gumwood and the St Helena ebony, are now being nursed back after going down to the last two, 300 of the island’s 400 unique invertebrates are under threat of extinction.

Flax, the imported plant that sustained St Helena’s balance sheet until rope-makers found cheaper artificial alternatives, now runs rampant across the countryside, strangling competitors. For older islanders it does not bring back happy memories. Basil George, just turned 80, had a barefoot childhood before becoming a labourer in South Africa, then returned home to become a policeman, teacher, headmaster, chief education officer, poet, potter and tour guide. “We were poor because the flax industry was paying a pittance. We never actually went without food and we did have shoes, but only for Sundays. Most of us were brought up in a good British tradition. You had to be resourceful, you had to have manners.

Though a Thatcher-era law (repealed in 2002) deprived the Saints of full British citizenship, the poverty eased in the 1980s. The Falklands war created job opportunities working for the garrisons in both the Falklands and Ascension. It remains potentially more lucrative to clean latrines in Port Stanley than aspire to middle management in Jamestown.

From left: the first test flight lands at Prosperous Bay in 2015; the airport fire service; and, the new airport terminal and control tower Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
From left: the first test flight lands at Prosperous Bay in 2015; the airport fire service; and, the new airport terminal and control tower

Some exiles do very well. Remittances from abroad have supported the economy and brought hundreds of new homes, largely self-built with neighbour-labour. “We run a very informal economy in a global free market,” says George. “But 80 per cent of us have our own family homes. That’s an indicator of how far we’ve come. And we have 80 different charitable organisations. That’s a strong civil society.

Nonetheless, the island endures other problems. There are more deaths than births. And, though there is a labour shortage, partly due to the boom created by the airport construction, wages remain terrible: expats on short-term contracts earn two, three, four times more than their local equivalents, depending how you do the calculations.

The tradition of emigration helps explain the lack of entrepreneurs that so frustrates the chief secretary. This also bothers Mandy Peters, now 51, who left school at 15 but has risen to become chief executive of Solomon’s, the livestock to retail conglomerate that dominates much of the island’s business. “We have a very strong senior management team (unusually, almost all home-grown - eight Saints and one Nigerian). But we sometimes struggle to get people to step up. There’s a lack of taking responsibility, of wanting to take responsibility.” Or, as one incomer puts it more bluntly, “The ones with get up and go have got up and gone.

This manifests itself even more starkly in St Helena’s appalling politics. The most-used word on the island is “they”: “they” are doing this; “they” want that. It is never wholly clear who “they” are: some amalgam of the government and the elite - but nearly all of them definitely here-today, gone-tomorrow expats.

There is an elected legislative council that selects an executive, which, according to the St Helena government website, “advises the governor in most areas of government policy”. I looked in on one of its meetings, and the tone was supplicatory, not executive. It is astonishing that a territory with sparky, intelligent people who thrive overseas should be governed as if this were 1890.

Mandy Peters, chief executive of Solomon’s, left, and May Young at her shop in Jamestown Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Mandy Peters, chief executive of Solomon’s, left, and May Young at her shop in Jamestown

Three years ago a plan to have a chief councillor, a role that might have mutated into one of leadership, was heavily defeated in a referendum with a 10 per cent turnout. This feels like a terrible decision. One visiting scientist calls the islanders’ situation “learnt helplessness”, the fate that afflicts wild animals brought up in zoos. “The population are used to following outside orders,” says Dancoisne-Martineau. “The mentality has become deeply rooted.

It is not just the islanders’ fault. “They [that word again] are really into secrecy, even on the most insignificant things,” Dancoisne-Martineau adds. This is a universal opinion and, as a result, distrust of the government is also universal. In such a tight-knit community, rumour spreads like the leftover flax plants, strangling the few truths that exist. The Saints’ deep-rooted belief in God and the royal family is nothing like as strong as their certainty that the airport is primarily intended as a British military base, which makes no sense. Rumour is equally convinced that the airport will not be ready for the opening ceremony, scheduled for May, and that the RMS will have to stay in service beyond its planned farewell in July.

The failings of government in St Helena were exposed last month by the publication of a report into allegations of widespread child abuse, by Sasha Wass QC (who led the successful prosecution case against Rolf Harris). Wass concluded that the stories of depravity were massively exaggerated but also found the St Helena government secretive, and had trouble getting access to the relevant files - she discovered that hers was the 35th outside report into child abuse on St Helena since 1998.

In her report, she criticised the present governor, Governor Mark Capes, quoting local interviewees who called him “a headmaster” and “colonial”, while also accusing him of abnegating responsibility by over-delegating: “The Governor of St Helena’s august title belies the need for a shirt-sleeved manager.

Distrust of the government is universal…The Saints’ deep-rooted faith in God and the royal family is nothing like as strong as their certainty that the airport is primarily intended as a British military base

The word I heard most often to describe Capes was “remote”, like the island itself, though no man can successfully be an island in a community the size of a small English market town. Capes, however, was overseas when I visited, and not available for interview in the UK either. The kindest opinions do give him credit for driving through the airport project.

I was outraged by an incident, recounted in Wass’ report, whereby Capes used a power to dissolve the legislative council because it seemed unlikely to agree to his plan to build a new prison in Jamestown’s main residential suburb, Half Tree Hollow. The present tiny Victorian jail is a slum and needs to move but the new site should obviously be decided by the islanders who must live with it, not some London-appointed satrap who will be gone before 2016 is out. The last native-born governor was appointed in 1873, before even Jonathan arrived.

The relationship with all the governors seems mutually abusive. The Saints I met struggle to remember the names but they do remember their occasional humiliations: the one who suffered a petition against his rule, the one who was locked in his office by protesters and had his tie pulled, and the one who almost fell in the water, plumed hat and all, when greeting Prince Andrew.

You should have the job,” I say, only half-teasingly, to Basil George. “No St Helenian wants to be admiral of a rowing boat,” he replies. “Especially if it has only one oar in the water.

For all that, I found St Helena a magical place. It matches Trinidad or New Orleans for parades. It is also the global capital of nicknaming: older islanders can instantly identify the likes of ‘Pickaxe’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Darlings’, ‘Fishcake’, ‘Tommy Punch’, ‘Teabag’{7}, ‘New Pence’ and ‘Fartegg’.

Two incidents brought home the sense of community. One came on my first - hot - afternoon when, having failed to find tea (nothing open), I walked up the hill to the edge of Jamestown and began to crave an ice-cream. Eventually, I found a small, rather random little shop of the sort lost to Britain in the 1950s. A kindly grey-haired woman was behind the counter. “Do you have any ice-cream, please?” “No, sorry. But Dora might. I’ll phone her.” “No ice-cream, only ice lollies,” she reported back. “That would be lovely.” So she instructed a small girl to lead me across the road to a private house where Dora sold me a 50p lolly from her back door. (Later, I went back and asked the shopkeeper her name. “May Young,” she said. “Any relation to Rodney, the captain?” “I’m his mama!” she replied proudly.)

Something even more telling came when I visited the island production of Cinderella. It was a typical English village-hall pantomime, except for one thing: in the audience were various clients of Shape, St Helena’s charity for the disabled. Some were severely handicapped mentally, and screamed so loudly at the wrong moments that the actors could barely be heard. In England there would have been shushing and dirty looks, and the embarrassed carers would have wheeled their charges out. But, on St Helena, these were not anonymous sad cases, they were all known: somebody’s brother, somebody’s son. They had a right to be there.

The islanders have too many people lost from sight. The boat that took me home was also taking the émigrés back to Ascension after Christmas. The atmosphere on board was far more sombre than on the journey from Cape Town. And the requests on Saint FM that morning included ‘When Will I See You Again?’, ‘Goodbye is the Saddest Word’ and, of course, ‘Sailing’. The tears on the quayside were real and poignant. I heard one teenage boy saying goodbye to his mate: “Jimmy. Have a nice…” he groped for the word “…Life,” he said finally.

Me, I ache to return. And I hope for good news. That would include new industry, though Enterprise St Helena’s impressive brochure for investors does not include my own big idea: it would be the perfect setting in terms of both growing conditions and security for Britain’s first legal marijuana farm. Nor does the brochure mention the obvious site for the much-needed new hotel: Governor Capes’ underused mansion. This is not that radical an idea: it was suggested in 1938 by the island’s historian, Philip Gosse.

My fear, though, is that the airport will not generate enough tourism to make a real difference. And if it did, then St Helena’s fragile human ecology would soon go the way of its natural balance. I do hope for the continued health of Jonathan. The local vet Joe Hollins is certain the giant tortoise is now blind but has repaired his beak to help him graze, and supplemented his diet with fresh fruit, which, ironically, most islanders struggle to get.

What the island needs most of all, however, is a successor to its most famous resident of all. It needs its own home-grown Napoleon - more pacific but equally forceful - to give it the leadership and self-respect it deserves.

Our Comment: This article sets out many challenges for our new Governor, when she takes office in April 2016.

See also: RMS St HelenaNapoleon BonaparteCould you live here?Saint FM Community Radio

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Royal Mail Ship St Helena to Retire

By Wendy Laursen, The Maritime Executive, 20th January 2016{3}

RMS in James Bay (Evening) Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

The RMS St Helena will be missed dearly when she retires this year after 26 years of service.

The RMS St Helena is one of the last three remaining Royal Mail Ships in operation and has been servicing the British Overseas Territory Island of St Helena Island and her dependencies for the past 26 years.

St Helena lies in the South Atlantic Ocean, 4,000 kilometres east of Rio de Janeiro and 1,950 kilometres west of the Kunene River which marks the border between Namibia and Angola in southwestern Africa.

The RMS St Helena first came into service in 1990 and primarily shuttles between the St Helena Island, neighboring Ascension Island and Cape Town.

Other than the sporadic international cruise ship visit over the years, the RMS St Helena has been St Helena’s only constant link with the outside world. It’s a legacy that will come to an end this year as the island will open its first airport.

The current RMS St Helena was built by Hall, Russell & Company in Aberdeen, and is Registered Class 1 passenger/cargo ship. She is British registered, 6,767 gross tons and has berths for a maximum of 156 passengers plus 56 officers and crew.

She is equipped to carry all manner of cargo to meet the needs of the Island’s small 4,000 population. From wind turbines to automotive parts; sheep, goats, and Christmas turkeys to furniture, food and paint, everything has to be carried by ship to the island.

Her industry and freight importance aside she provides St Helenian’s the world over a connection to their home island.

RMS 1990-2016 Poster Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

Resident Emma-Jane Richards has created a commemorative poster to mark the vessel’s retirement. She reminisces:

When I was younger I always hesitated when someone asked me ‘where are you from? I can’t quite pin down your accent’. Not because I am embarrassed of my heritage or the way I sound.

On the contrary I am very proud of where I’m from. No, my hesitation comes solely from explaining, what often is met with bewilderment, that I am from a small isolated, obscure island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. That remote outcrop of volcanic rock is one of a few remaining British Overseas Territories around the world; St Helena Island.

The bewilderment and disbelief quickly changes into pure excitement when people find out just how isolated St Helena is and the logistics of how you get there. Up until now the only way to access the island was via sea. Yes, you read right, in a world where the other side of the world is just 24 hours flight away or you can jet off for a weekend to any major European city in the course of just a few hours, you still have to make an epic journey to reach a place like St Helena.

At its quickest route you fly for some nine hours to the closest land mass, its sister island Ascension Island, where you board one of the last remaining Royal Mail Ships in the world and sail for two to three days. Or alternatively, you fly to Capetown in South Africa and catch the ship there to sail for five full days before the island looms on the horizon. In the course of my life I have made the journey to and from the St Helena many times, four of which were on a long 14 day journey direct between the Island and Portsmouth.

Some journeys have been through record high waves, others on ocean so still and expansive it feels like you’re not even moving. The constant in all those journeys has been a vessel that holds an endearing place in many hearts.

A vital physical link for islanders to the ‘outside’ world, the RMS St Helena has, for generations, been a steady, loyal friend who offered a welcomed break from the isolation island life offers.

To some she is just a boat who simply transports cargo and mail to and from our island home. But to many the RMS St Helena represents far more than that, she has tirelessly served the people of St Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha. Bringing long lost friends and family back home on triumphant returns. She’s been the backdrop to childhood adventures and given Saints everywhere something to be proud off. If you have had the pleasure and privilege of travelling or working on the RMS St Helena you, my friend, have been a part of a beautiful history.

See also: RMS St HelenaFly here

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Healthy Diet Helps 183-Year-Old Tortoise Feel Young Again

By Jason Bittel, National Geographic, 8th January 2016{3}

Jonathan, the world’s oldest known animal, is regaining his health after eating more nutritious foods.

Jonathan’s species, the Aldabra giant tortoise, nearly went extinct in the 18th and 19th centuries as people hunted them for food Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Jonathan’s species, the Aldabra giant tortoise, nearly went extinct in the 18th and 19th centuries as people hunted them for food

What a drag it is getting old,” the Rolling Stones famously sang. And nobody knows that more than Jonathan, the 183-year-old Aldabra giant tortoise that’s thought to be the oldest known living animal on Earth.

Old age has caught up with Jonathan, robbing him of his senses of sight and smell and, until a few years ago, relegating him to an unhealthy diet of twigs on the British island territory of St Helena, off Africa’s western coast.

But in 2014, local veterinarian Joe Hollins noticed Jonathan’s plight and started giving the reptile a more nutritious menu, which includes apples, carrots, cucumbers, bananas, and guava.

A year later, Jonathan is back in the news, and seemingly healthier, according to Hollins’ latest update on a St Helena information website{8}.

The feeding has improved him surprisingly,” Hollins wrote on December 7th.

His once blunt and crumbly beak has become sharp and lethal, so he was probably suffering from microdeficiencies of vitamins, minerals and trace elements.

Colonial Food

Also known as the Seychelles giant tortoise, the Aldabra giant tortoise can grow up to 550 pounds and is native to several islands in the Indian Ocean.

Most island populations of the species went extinct in the 18th and 19th centuries as people hunted them for food. Today, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the tortoises as vulnerable to extinction.

While most of the world’s remaining population of wild Aldabra giant tortoises lives on the Aldabra Atoll, an outer island of the Seychelles near Madagascar, Jonathan has been living on Saint Helena since 1882.

According to the Seychelles News Agency, he was likely a gift to the British governor at the time, and still lives on the grounds of the governor’s Plantation House.

There is a chance that he’ll either drop dead tomorrow or live until he’s 250 and see us all off,” Hollins wrote.

A Tortoise of a Different Color

Many people have never heard of the Aldabra giant tortoise, and might even mistake the species for its cousins found half a world away on the Galápagos Islands. But these tortoises are quite different.

Aldabra giant tortoises “are much more interesting and sociable than most people would expect,” says Justin Gerlach, the scientific coordinator for the Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles. In the wild, they form groups or herds that like to congregate in open grasslands. And “in captivity, if kept well, they will seek out human company,” says Gerlach. Some of the tortoises even like to be stroked, he says.

See also: Jonathan the tortoise

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Why St Helena, One of the World’s Most Remote Islands, May Be Overrun in 2016

By Mary Holland, Conde Naste Traveller, 30th December 2015{3}

Will the site of Napoleon’s exile become a tourist destination in 2016? Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Will the site of Napoleon’s exile become a tourist destination in 2016?

Some 122Km², St Helena is a tiny speck in the Atlantic Ocean with incredible history. It’s been nearly inaccessible - until now.

In the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, some 1,800 miles from the coast of South America and 1,200 miles from the southwest coast of Africa, sits a wildly beautiful volcanic island - a speck, if anything, on the world map. So far out is St Helena that it was chosen as the place of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile and death; so inaccessible is this island, the only way to reach it is by boat. Factually speaking, it is one of the most remote islands in the world.

But for an island that’s only 122Km² and home to around 4,200 inhabitants, one of St Helena’s biggest draws is its hard-to-reach location: You won’t find hordes of tourists swinging their selfie sticks or locals trying to sell you trinkets on every corner. Those hoping to make it to St Helena can board the RMS Saint Helena, a working Royal Mail ship that makes the five-and-a-half day voyage every three weeks from Cape Town, South Africa. This may be a novel experience for tourists, but the inconvenient schedule and long journey make it difficult for the Saints - an affectionate name for the locals - to travel.

Come February 2016, this may all change with the completion of an on-island airport financed by the U.K. government. Comair, a South African company that operates British Airways flights, has already announced that it will be launching one weekly flight from Johannesburg, South Africa, every Saturday morning on a Boeing 737-800 that can carry up to 120 passengers. After an hour of turnaround time, the plane will leave St Helena and make the five-hour journey back to Johannesburg. And while one weekly flight may not seem like a lot, on an island that has never seen a commercial airplane, it’s akin to sending a spaceship to the Saints.

What exactly draws travelers by the boatload to this British colony in the middle of nowhere? Relatively unspoiled landscapes and untouched nature, for one: Beneath the shadow of what amounts to a soaring, ruined cathedral of volcanic rock is a rugged paradise, one of sand dunes and lush green hills and a coastline where dolphins and whales are often spotted. St Helena draws nature lovers and avid birders alike. Diana’s Peak National Park, home to 60 known native species of plants - 45 of which exist nowhere else in the world - is utterly pristine. In addition, the island’s mountains and subtropical climates make for exceptional coffee-growing conditions, and although farms are not abundant, it produces some of the best (and most expensive) coffee in the world. Caffeine consumption and spectacular natural beauty aside, St Helena is heavy on the history: The island is Britain’s second-oldest remaining overseas territory (just behind Bermuda), with vestiges of the East India Company - you dock at Jamestown Bay - and Napoleon’s tenure here (his residences, the Briars and Longwood, and his tomb, though not his final resting place, remain).

Flights between St Helena and South Africa will undoubtedly make it easier for the outside world to come in, as well as provide the Saints with smoother transportation to and from the island. Locals and international companies are already gearing up for the expected surge in tourism, and more hotels are set to open in the foreseeable future: Mantis Collection, whose eco-conscious boutique hotels dot remote landscapes around the world, is reportedly developing a four-star hotel on the island.

With new flights, new technology, and new hotels soon to come, old traditions on St Helena may inevitably be lost: The RMS Saint Helena, which has become part of the fabric of the island, will make her final voyage next year. For many visitors, the journey was half of the adventure, and some may think that allowing more access to the island will result in St Helena losing part of her charm. We’ll see if the Saints go marching out as well.

See also: Fly hereVisitor Information

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Top of the League

Printed in the St Helena Sentinel, 29th October 2015{3}

St Helena in Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Destinations in the World

Lonely Planet, Best in Travel 2016 Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

St Helena has been named one of the top ten places in the world for travellers to visit in 2016. After what Tom Hall from Lonely Planet called “14 million years in glorious geographic isolation” the island is now being recognised as a great place for tourists.

Lonely Planet is the world’s leading travel media company and produces thousands of internationally-recognised guidebooks. This latest award for St Helena is part of their book Best in Travel 2016. The list which St Helena is on includes other destinations such as West Iceland, Transylvania in Romania, Hawaii, and Costa Verde in Brazil.

Enterprise St Helena’s chief executive Niall O’Keeffe said they are “delighted” with the recognition. The Governor claimed that this “underlines how St Helena continues to achieve tremendous success on a global scale with limited resources,” and Councillor Lawson Henry paid tribute to everyone in tourism on St Helena.

There will be a formal award ceremony in London on Sunday. It will be attended by Niall O’Keeffe, Kedell Worboys, Chanelle Marais and a representative from the UK Foreign Office.

More at www.lonelyplanet.com/st-helena.

See also: Visitor Information

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Remote St Helena island welcomes first flight

By Emma Weaver, The Guardian, 17th September 2015{3}

A new era arrives for the south Atlantic island of St Helena, one of the remotest places in the world, as it waves goodbye to the mail ship and welcomes its first flight

Jamestown, the capital of St Helena, viewed from James Bay Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Jamestown, the capital of St Helena, viewed from James Bay

The first plane to land on one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world - so remote even Napoleon Bonaparte could not escape from it - touched down earlier this week.

After taking off from Johannesburg, the Beechcraft King Air 2000 travelled nearly 2,000km north-west to a dark speck of land that rises out of the Atlantic. Nothing but clouds normally pass above St Helena - which measures 17km by 10 and has a population of around 5,000 - but on 15th September a twin-engine plane descended upon the tiny landmass. It was an unusual flight, to an unusual airport, in an unusual place.

St Helena is a British Overseas Territory that until now has been accessible only by the Royal Mail Ship St Helena (which offers journeys of between five days and nearly two months on its voyages between Cape Town, Ascension Island and the UK, among others). The recent test flight precedes the opening of St Helena airport in February 2016, one of the most significant developments in the island’s history.

The Beechcraft King Air 2000 plane lands at St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The Beechcraft King Air 2000 plane lands at St Helena

The company contracted to construct the airport had never worked on a project of this scale, or of this type, before.

The set-up and mobilisation took a whole year,” said Charles Schwarz, human relations manager for the Basil Read St Helena Airport Project. “The isolation of the island and the logistics of getting every nut and bolt transported to the island by ship was challenging.

Transportation of materials was not the only obstacle to the construction. The geology of the island - which, as Charles Darwin put it “rises abruptly like a huge black castle from the ocean” - did not provide an obvious location for a runway, requiring 7.6 million metres³ of mountain to be blasted out and then land-filled in a neighbouring valley.

The RMS St Helena was built in 1989 specifically to supply the island Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The RMS St Helena was built in 1989 specifically to supply the island

Most islanders are excited at the opportunities the airport will bring: quicker access to medical care, and quicker transportation for overseas islanders who take holiday time from work to journey home.

However, there is also disappointment at the loss of their ship, which will be decommissioned when the airport opens. The St Helena is the last working Royal Mail Ship and carries on a maritime tradition the island has had since its discovery in 1502.

Marlene Harris, assistant purser on the ship, has worked on board for 13 years. “This ship is one-of-a-kind and will definitely be a loss to the island,” she said. “For some people, the ship is the holiday. They get on board and they experience St Helena through the workers, and through the food - including ‘Saint’ dishes such as stuffed tuna steaks, goat meat curry, and ‘bread and dance’ (or tomato paste sandwiches). They don’t want to fly; they want to do something special.

View of Half Tree Hollow from High Knoll Fort on St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
View of Half Tree Hollow from High Knoll Fort on St Helena

Pamela Ward Pearce, a St Helenian and recently-elected member of the island’s executive council, said the island has a lot to offer. “The walking here provides some of the most starkly beautiful and spectacular landscapes,” she says. And during certain months it’s possible to swim with whale sharks in the bay.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb - in the Alarm Forest district - and his final residence, Longwood House, offer tours, while the lack of light pollution allows for stunning views of the night sky.

With one flight successfully on the ground, St Helena will now prepare for the airport’s opening - and an expected increase in tourism. A 32-room hotel is planned (at the moment there are just a handful of guesthouses and B&Bs) but no company has been contracted to build it yet.

So far, British Airways Comair is the only airline set to operate the five-hour flight to St Helena from Johannesburg (at an estimated £600 return) on a Boeing 737-800. It will carry about 120 passengers and a small amount of cargo to and from the island every Saturday. In doing so, the little island in the middle of the South Atlantic will become a little less remote.

See also: Fly hereRMS St Helena

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The allure and attractions of St Helena

By Michael Arkus, Lonely Planet, 4th September 2015{3}

It’s hard to think of an isolated speck of land more synonymous with inaccessibility than St Helena. After all, this seemingly lost island in the middle of the South Atlantic was chosen as the place of Napoleon’s final exile. But there is so much more here for the traveller - hike past soaring crags and through alpine meadows, take to the seas by boat, or explore historic villages, chatting with welcoming Saints (locals) at each passing.

The island of St Helena: 1,200 miles from Africa, 1,800 miles from South America Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
The island of St Helena: 1,200 miles from Africa, 1,800 miles from South America

Jamestown and its Georgian houses

Jamestown, the capital of St Helena, is neatly wedged between the Atlantic and the steep sides of a narrow ravine. Founded in 1659 by English colonists, and named after James II while he was still the Duke of York, Jamestown is home to several historic sites and numerous handsome Georgian manses. An informative museum contains artefacts and stories from the island’s long history, including the wooden crates that carted Napoleon’s belongings into exile. Behind the museum and past collection of old cannons is Jacob’s Ladder, a lung-busting set of 699 steep steps that precariously climb straight up the ravine to Half Tree Hollow - if not to heaven as their biblical predecessor, then at least to a heavenly view.

Back in town on a less lofty footing is one of many nods to Napoleon - an effigy of him in full regalia stands on the first-floor balcony of the Consulate Hotel, looking out at a blue mansion named after his nemesis, the Duke of Wellington. But, contrary to myth, the duke didn’t reside here during his visits - he passed his time in the now-demolished (Old) Porteous House.

Another site, one that would not look amiss in rural England, is St. James’ Church - it’s across a moat and through a gate beneath the restored castle fort.

Historic Jamestown, with Jacob’s Ladder climbing up to Half Tree Hollow Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Historic Jamestown, with Jacob’s Ladder climbing up to Half Tree Hollow

Half Tree Hollow and the crags above Jamestown

Visitors who climb Jacob’s Ladder past the wheeling and swooping of red-beaked, long-tailed white tropic birds will find themselves in Half Tree Hollow, St Helena’s largest town (for those of lesser stamina, cars and minibuses switchback up the road from Jamestown). No matter how you arrive, the vistas - over precipitous cliffs to the never-ending blues of the South Atlantic, down to Jamestown and inland to green mountains - are spectacular. Above Half Tree Hollow are the long walls and vast rounded keep of High Knoll Fort, which was built as a stronghold against invasion in 1798.

On the opposite side of the ravine to Half Tree Hollow is a trail (found off Napoleon Street{9} in Jamestown) that climbs diagonally up the rock face to Rupert’s Bay, passing Munden’s Battery and centuries-old cannon emplacements that were built into the cliffs. Behind it, cliffs plunge vertically down to the Atlantic, while in front looms the stark black mass of St Helena’s Sugar Loaf, with its huge square hump crowning its summit.

Jonathan and the Plantation House

Set in a wooded valley a couple of miles from Jamestown is Plantation House, a Georgian mansion built in 1791-92. Its most distinguished resident is arguably not the governor, but Jonathan, a Seychelles tortoise who is more than 180 years old. When not snoozing, he moves across the lawn at a glacial pace in search of a meal. Vegetable allotments dot the slopes nearby, and a narrow cove stretches out to the South Atlantic. A side path from the house leads through thick woods and giant bamboo stands to slave graves from the mid-18th century.

Jonathan (St Helena’s oldest resident) and Plantation House Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Jonathan (St Helena’s oldest resident) and Plantation House

Napoleon’s ‘homes’ away from home

Longwood House, Napoleon’s final abode, is a green-shuttered villa in the island’s emerald uplands. While it afforded the former emperor fine views of Flagstaff and The Barn, a conical emerald hill and massive oblong crag respectively, the temperatures here were not kind (it can be 10 degrees Fahrenheit lower than on the coast). Eleven of the rooms, each painted imperial green, contain much of Napoleon’s original furniture, as well busts of him and his wives. Look out for the two holes in the shutters where he is said to have cut openings for his telescope to spy on his guards.

Down a sloping green tunnel of trees not far from Longwood lies Geranium Valley, a peaceful flowery bower. Here, overlooking Devil’s Punch Bowl ravine, is where Napoleon was buried in 1821. The tomb had no name due to Anglo-French differences on the wording, and his body was eventually repatriated to Paris for a state funeral 19 years later. Prior to life at Longwood House, Napoleon spent seven weeks at Briars Pavilion, a single-roomed chalet in a valley surrounded by wooded hills. Inside, there’s a table and various Napoleonic memorabilia. Longwood and Briars have both been deeded to France, as shown by the French tricolour flying outside each.

Longwood House, the final home of Napoleon Bonparte during his exile Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Longwood House, the final home of Napoleon Bonparte during his exile

Post Box walks

The island’s stunning variance in terrain and petite size - just 10 miles long and no more than six miles wide - make it ideal for hiking. The community has created 20 ‘Post Box’ walks, some easy, some moderate, some very difficult. They are so named because at the end of each is a post box containing an ink stamp and a visitors’ book.

One near Jamestown leads to the impressive Heart Shaped Waterfall. Others, like Diana’s Peak, take visitors to lofty summits inaccessible by 4WD. Some access popular sights such as Sandy Bay Beach, but via starkly beautiful and treacherously precipitous slopes.

Hiker looking down to Sandy Bay, St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena
Hiker looking down to Sandy Bay, St Helena

Rounding the ramparts by sea

A cruise round the island is the best way to experience St Helena’s impregnable natural fortifications. From the sea the massive crags are even more forbidding than from land - stark grey, black, sometimes with a scant dusting of green. There’s also no better way to take in the island’s marine life than from a boat. Three different species of dolphin regularly flirt with the surface, as do humpback whales during the austral winter. St Helena’s well preserved coral ecosystems and their accompanying endemic fish species make diving a welcome addition to any oceangoing foray.

Road tripping around St Helena

Taking to the road by car is a rewarding prospect on St Helena, with the landscape changing at every turn. Wildflowers, coffee plantations (Napoleon did love the brew here), waterfalls, stands of Norfolk pine and Australian eucalyptus, and carpets of New Zealand flax waving in the wind - it is a kaleidoscopic scene on so many levels. Above it all yellow canaries and crimson-bellied red cardinals add flashes of colour.

To the island’s southeast, the road twists precipitously above the brilliant green hill and red roofs of Sandy Bay village, its backdrop a huge green-dusted monolith called Lot and a frozen stormy sea of craggy ridges. Four jagged pinnacles tear at the sky - one of them Lot’s wife. At Sandy Bay Beach, the landscape becomes totally barren, the blue ocean frothing and spraying against dark black volcanic outcrops. The Gates of Chaos, massive crags on the razor sharp ridge above, conjure up a scene worthy of Planet of the Apes.

See also: Visitor InformationJamestownJacob’s LadderHistoric BuildingsJonathan the tortoisePlantation HouseNapoleon BonaparteLongwood HouseWalking St HelenaDriving in St Helena

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More recent items are here. Even older St Helena stuff can be found on this blog: Much Older St Helena Stuff. You could also check out the various sources listed on our Related Sites page.

Closing Humour Image Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena

Laugh at funny readmoreolder humour - LOL Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St Helena


Credits:

{a} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{3}.{10}

{b} Pictures: Lord Ashcroft

{c} Ed Thorpe



Footnotes:

{1} See more blogs.

{2} While technically this might be considered an advertisement (which Saint Helena Island Info does not carry) we actually see this more as a service to anyone wanting to learn more about our extraordinary island.
Saint Helena Island Info receives no income from any sales and takes no responsibility for any commercial arrangements into which you may enter..

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

{4} 

{5} In all the coverage this event inevitably received we cannot find the names of these ground-breaking people!

{6} Thomas Cavendish is usually said to have been the first Englishman to visit St Helena, but actually he wasn’t - it was William Barrett, four years earlier.

{7} Curiously, also the name of Radio St Helena’s station cat.

{8} This one, actually!

{9} We understand that prior to Napoleon’s exile Napoleon Street was known as Cock Street. We do not know exactly when it was renamed. The moonbeamsforall.com: Moonbeams Shop • opens in a new window or tab Saint Helena Island Info Read articles about St HelenaMoonbeams Shop is in Napoleon Street.

{10} The 1962 Film Unit consisted of Charles Frater, Bob Johnston and Esdon Frost who came to the island and made a half hour film called “Island of Saint Helena”, many sound recordings and photographic stills. The full film is available on YouTube™ www.youtube.com/watch?v=YngeIbFUEVw.



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