Article Words : Mark Stratton | 22 May

St Helena: Last chance to see?

This south-Atlantic isle can only be reached by ship. But with an airport opening in 2016, it’s time to visit before it changes forever...

Bobbies on the beat, Ford Escorts, Country ’n’ Western on the radio, crisps priced 38p a packet... I’d been at sea for five days, and crossed two international time-zones, but stepping ashore on St Helena felt more like a time warp back to the 1970s.

The modern world had all but vanished the moment I boarded the RMS St Helena in Cape Town. One of a dying breed of working Royal Mail Ships, its epic 3,100km voyage across the South Atlantic to one of the world’s most remote islands reignites a bygone era of travel, on a ship that is an anachronism itself.

I’d never been on a cruise-style boat before, nor wanted to, yet this is a voyage with genuine purpose. The RMS is St Helena’s sole link to the outside world, transporting both ‘Saints’ (St Helenians) and essential cargo such as food. The voyage is highly sociable and quaintly old-fashioned as crew in crisp white-linen uniforms make sterling efforts to help those aboard wile away the days. There was little else to do but surrender to deck quoits and shuffleboard tournaments, cocktail parties and casino nights, officers-vs-passengers cricket matches, quizzes and beetle drives.

All the while, the shimmering Atlantic slipped relentlessly by. There was not another ship or rock in sight – just the occasional breeching whale and albatrosses ruffled like flags over the stern.

However, the days of this great high-seas adventure are numbered. Work is underway to build St Helena’s first airport, funded by a £250 million British government subsidy. Due to open in 2016, the airport’s brief is to substantially increase tourism to stimulate St Helena’s woefully stagnant economy, which is currently reliant on UK funding plus remittances from a scattered diaspora. The Royal Mail Ship runs at a loss of several million pounds per year so will no longer be subsidised alongside the airport. I arrived on the island, wanting to experience the adventure and nostalgia of this sea journey now, to fully comprehend St Helena’s historic isolation and to visit the island before the airport’s arrival changes its slow-paced lifestyle forever.

Yet I confess to a sinking feeling upon finally reaching 15°56’S 5°45’W – some 1,900km west of Africa and 2,900km east of Brazil. A foggy squall squatted over a stark rocky coastline that shone like jet-black coal as Atlantic rollers slammed into forebodingly perpendicular cliffs. Circling around St Helena, which is the tip of an extinct 5km-deep submarine volcano, there wasn’t a tree or beach in sight.

But first impressions are misleading. This brooding exterior would prove to be the inedible skin of a juicy fruit that, when peeled, revealed something succulent inside. When the cliff-line broke to reveal Jamestown, it was hard to imagine a quainter capital.

One quarter of St Helena’s hardy souls shoehorn into Jamestown’s dramatically steep-sided V-shaped valley. I stepped ashore, by a fluttering Union Jack, into what resembled a film-set for a period drama. There was a high street of multicoloured Georgian townhouses, mauve jacaranda trees, mounted cannons, a pocket-sized 17th-century castle, and a tiny prison (whose recalcitrant inmates pop to the place next door to hire DVDs).

I soon discovered that shops here are simple home-run emporiums, with scarcely a fresh vegetable in sight, and that there are as many takeaways serving everything-tuna as there are sit-down restaurants. In spit-and-sawdust pubs, locals greet each other by amusing nicknames (I met Ration Book, Polar Bear and Water Rat but never did become acquainted with Judas or Jesus). Everybody waves hello and mobile phones aren’t due until 2014! OMG!

Horrible histories

“Settlers, soldiers, slaves… we have an awful history,” proclaimed Basil George, a local guide offering new arrivals an orientation tour of Jamestown. His short historical tour is a distillation of his own distinctive genetic montage, a story of British settlers, African slaves, Boer War prisoners and indentured Chinese labourers. It’s a society forged from 500 years of endurance against isolation and abandonment.

The Portuguese discovered St Helena in 1502; Britain formally purloined it in 1659, leasing it to the East India Company. Thus began several centuries of prosperity as the island serviced 1,000 ships each year as they passed en route to India. It achieved fleeting global fame in 1815, when Napoleon was exiled here. However, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 – which created a shortcut to the East – precipitated St Helena’s slow drift towards obscurity. Today this British Overseas Territory remains overseen by a governor who lives in a plantation house where Jonathan, a 180-year-old giant tortoise, mows the lawn.

“We’re a 4,000-strong nation,” said Basil. “We have a parliament that makes laws yet in the UK we’d be little more than a village.”

With just 10km by 17km to explore, I’d wondered how I might fill my days – the minimum time for which passengers become marooned, while the RMS sails off to service St Helena’s nearest neighbour, the Ascension Isles, 1,125km away. Yet my week flew by.

I took a series of daytrips into the island’s cataclysmically formed interior. Here, volcanic upheavals have scrunched lava flows into blocky broken hills that tumble away into angular ‘guts’ (valleys), where roads corkscrew until you’re giddy. Yet it’s something of a Garden of Eden, smothered by unbridled greenery: endemic semi-tropical forests, pastureland, flax-plants-gone-wild (remnants of a long-failed weaving industry), fruit trees and coffee plantations.

Hiking is a fine way to experience this landscape’s intimacy. I attempted several of St Helena’s Post Box Walks – similar to letterboxing on Dartmoor, whereby walkers locate hidden ink-stamps as proof of completing trails.

The most magnificent coastal yomp departs from Sandy Bay, where rusting cannons oversee a black-sand beach amid a lunar landscape dragged direct from the bowels of the earth. The hike to Lot’s Wife’s Ponds followed a rough track through a volcanic complex, the result of an eruption seven million years ago. From a ridge called Gates of Chaos, I passed masked boobies nesting fearlessly trackside and looked towards freestanding shards of vertical lava. The track ended with a fixed-rope scramble down to a coastal shelf that was engraved by unnaturally rectangular rock-pools, created by crisscrossed volcanic flows.

Another day, I ascended Diana’s Peak (823m), the highest point on St Helena. Its luxuriant cloak of stunted cloudforest is said to resemble a ten-million-year-old tropical African ecosystem. The peak harbours some of the island’s 500-plus endemic species such as tree-ferns and gum-trees, which provide refuge for the spiky yellow woodlouse and golden spiders.

However, the most scintillating natural history jaunt was with former fisherman Johnny Herne, on his Sunday morning whale- and dolphin-watching cruise. Within ten minutes of setting sail down the west coast, pods of tropical spotted dolphins (300 to 400 in number) raced alongside our boat, riding the bow waves and arching out of the ocean in choreographed formations – completely upstaging the humpback whales.

Bonaparte bonanza

When Charles Darwin called by on the Beagle in 1836, he called St Helena ‘a little world, within itself, which excites our curiosity’. He was just one of a stellar cast of visiting historical heavyweights won over by St Helena’s charms. Throughout my week I stood where the great astronomer Edmond Halley observed the stars back in 1677. I slept at an 18th-century hotel where Wellington had flung off his boots come bedtime. I even traced Captain Cook’s footsteps.

Yet the man who has most defined the island’s historical legacy is Napoleon Bonaparte, who was exiled here in 1815 after his defeat at Waterloo. St Helena’s must-do tour is of the three Napoleonic sites, now officially ceded to the French government.

I did this trip with taxi driver Robert ‘Water Rat’ Peters, who acquired his nickname (rather obliquely) when his father saw a rat jump out of the water. “These names get passed down the generations,” he explained, in the island’s distinctive mid-Atlantic drawl. “My kids are known as ‘Water Mice’.”

From the moment Napoleon arrived on 17th October 1815 he loathed St Helena and the British for dumping him there. Our first stop was Briars, the small Georgian pavilion where Napoleon spent his first six weeks in exile while a longer-term larger residence was being readied. That residence, Longwood House, 8km away, was our next stop.

The spreadeagled wooden building, hosting the finest collection of Napoleonic memorabilia in existence, is set amid gardens filled with poinsettias and lilies, designed and originally planted by Napoleon himself. But the Emperor detested Longwood’s inclement climate – and it was patently obvious why: when I arrived the house’s French Tricolor was being blasted by a fierce wind as drizzle whooshed in across the featureless Deadwood Plain.

“The British thought this exposed location would be a good place to keep an eye on him,” said Jo, Longwood’s steward. “They wanted no repeat of his previous Elba abscondment so they flooded St Helena with troops. If you look carefully in the Billiards Room, you can see the eyeholes that Napoleon cut into the wooden shutters so he could secretly observe the British infantrymen encamped on his doorstep.”

For the first few years Bonaparte was fully engaged with producing his memoirs. But his mood soured after 1816, and he made endless complaints about his health and terms of captivity; he also had a fiery relationship with his gaoler, an obsessive stickler for rules known as Sir Hudson Lowe.

Longwood remains furnished near exactly as it was during Napoleon’s exile. There is a replica of his deathbed, the deep bath where he’d soak for hours each day, a dining-room with portraits of his loved ones (including ‘not tonight’ Josephine), and his death mask and a fragment of his burial shroud.

Napoleon died here in 1821 leading to (now discredited) conspiracy theories that the British had poisoned him. He was buried in one of the prettiest spots on the island, the final stop on Water Rat’s tour – the pine-forested Geranium Valley. His now-empty tomb rests within a flowery woodland dell where his body was encased inside four coffins like a matryoshka doll.

When he was exhumed 19 years later to be taken back to Paris for reburial, the airtight nature of these coffins was said to have preserved his body perfectly.

Bon voyage… and adieu?

That evening I took a taxi to Farm Lodge, where owners Steve and Maureen cook hearty evening meals, finished with coffee they cultivate themselves. The island’s green-tipped bourbon Arabica coffee is one of the world’s most rare and sought after, and was said to have been enjoyed by Napoleon himself. As I sipped this silky brew, Steve mentioned casually, “You’re sitting on Napoleon’s chaise longue; it was bought from his house many years ago.” In any other part of the world, an item that once supported Napoleon’s ample derriere would be a priceless museum piece. On St Helena it was simply part of the furniture.

And that’s how St Helena left me feeling by the time the RMS returned for the voyage back to Cape Town – part of the furniture. Within Jamestown’s tight-nit social goldfish bowl, I’d struck up quick friendships with Saints who have countless tales, groans and gossip about island life. These were related to me over tuna and chips and the Friday disco down at Donny’s on the waterfront; during the frivolity of the annual carnival on my final weekend; and over a Sunday lunch with Patsy Flagg and her family at her Half-Tree Hollow home.

“I love the tranquillity of the island and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” Patsy told me, as I helped myself to seconds of her moreish tuna curry.

So how did she feel about the coming of the airport and government plans to triple tourism within ten years?

“I’ve mixed feelings,” she started. “I can see the positives of better communications, particularly for medical reasons. We can all see the need but wonder how much it’s going to change our quiet little island?”

This is the ongoing debate here right now: how will the change be managed and what sort of island will St Helena become after 2016? For now it remains a unique throwback to a bygone British society. And, fortunately, several years remain to see it aboard the Royal Mail Ship before that first airplane touches down – and the 21st century comes hammering at the door.

Local views on the airport:

Mark Capes, Governor

“The airport will open up the economy and provide opportunities for St Helena. We want Saints to stop leaving and to attract them back home.”

Kimberly Young-Roberts, news reporter

“I’m a supporter. We need it for when people are sick. It’s a step in the right direction for St Helena as we’ve not been improving or developing.”