New flights have opened up one of the UK's most distant outposts, so Lyn Hughes visited in search of St Helena's whale sharks, Napoleonic history and unique culture
Blue water, blue water, blue water, black water? “Whale shark!” Captain Anthony and I jumped up in unison, all chat forgotten, as we leapt to the side of the boat, eyes fixed on the huge dark shape under the waves, longer than our vessel.
We were chugging along in Anthony’s boat, following St Helena’s north-west coast back to Jamestown, the island’s capital, and the seas were proving busy.
We watched as St Helena’s resident pod of pantropical spotted dolphins – all 300 to 400 of them – frolicked and porpoised purposefully across the waves. “I was confident they’d be here; they head this way each morning,” said Anthony. “But that’s a smaller pod than we sometimes see; some days we can see seven to eight hundred.”
They were an acrobatic bunch, some breaching high out of the water as they went. “Look at that little guy dancing,” pointed Anthony. A baby dolphin, just a few weeks old, kept leaping vertically out of the sea and exuberantly tail-dancing across the waves. “For some reason they always entertain us,” said Anthony. “It’s a real ‘Look at me!’”
There was no doubt that the whale shark and the dolphins were the highlight of the boat trip, but it would have been fascinating even without them. We had seen turtles, a ray and numerous sea birds – brown noddies, black noddies, masked boobies, sooty terns and fairy terns. But it wasn’t just the wildlife that was holding our attention; this was a good opportunity to see the island from the water and appreciate its rugged and forbidding exterior.
It gradually dawned on me that St Helena was ringed by imposing fortifications. Stone walls, forts and cannons were all clearly visible, with every possible route onto the island having been blocked long ago, to defend it against potential invasion from other nationalities who would appreciate such a strategic position in the Atlantic.
The Brits weren’t the first to spot its potential. The island had originally been discovered in 1502 by the Portuguese, who used it as a replenishment stop. But when English explorer Thomas Cavendish came across St Helena in 1588, he described it as an “earthly paradise” and spread the word back home. By the mid-17th century, the British had taken possession of the island.
“This was a key staging post,” said local guide Basil George when I joined his historical walk of Jamestown, St Helena’s handsome little capital. A twinkly-eyed octogenarian, Basil brought the island, both its history and present, to life for us.
“When St Helena first developed, its connections were to the Indian Ocean – India and Indonesia. From 1655 to the 1800s it was run by the British East India Company. Ships couldn’t stop in Cape Town, as that was owned by the Dutch, but they could resupply here. The East India Company was hugely successful, but would not have been so without St Helena.”
If those were the golden years, St Helena has had its struggles since. By the late 20th century, the island was in a major economic depression. It had fewer transport links to the rest of the world than it had 200 years earlier, and the population was falling because so many Saints – as the people of St Helena call themselves – left to find work. “Those who stayed have had to be adaptable and resourceful,” said Basil. “We have had to do things for ourselves.”
But, after many years of planning and false starts, an airport has now been built and flights implemented from late 2017. Every Saint seems to have their own view on its possible impact: some hopeful for the opportunities it can open up and how it can reverse the island’s fortunes; others apprehensive of change, or sceptical as to whether it really will bring more tourists. They do at least have the peace of mind that they can get off the island quickly now if they have a medical emergency. Yet many are already feeling nostalgic about the RMS St Helena (which completed its final run earlier this year), the ship that was once the island’s lifeline.
I’d had an itch to go to St Helena for years, fascinated even as a child by an island that was best known as Napoleon Bonaparte’s last place of exile. Situated 1,900km from the coast of Angola, 2,500km from Brazil, and measuring a third the size of the Isle of Wight, St Helena really is a speck on the map, and boasts probably the world’s most remote golf course, most remote distillery and most remote marathon. With the arrival of the airport, I was curious to see how life here would change.
Being on St Helena was disorientating at first. The island’s Britishness has a whiff of exoticism about it and reminders of its rich history were everywhere. For example, English may be the main language here but Saints often slip into a dialect that visitors struggle to understand, just as Sunday roasts are popular yet are often accompanied by curry.
The more I explored, the more local flourishes I noticed. Instead of pigeons and crows, the birds flying overhead were beautiful fairy terns, snowy-white in colour. The local currency is the pound but the images on the notes and coins are different: the 10p piece shows the island’s ubiquitous dolphins, while the 5p is emblazoned with St Helena’s most famous resident, Jonathan the giant tortoise, who is believed to be the world’s oldest terrestrial animal at around 186 years old (no one knows for sure) and currently lives a pampered existence at the Governor’s country residence.
But mention the island to anyone and it’s a notorious former resident who they always reference: “Isn’t that the place where Napoleon was imprisoned?” Yes, having previously escaped from Elba (off the coast of Italy), it was clear that somewhere much more remote and fortified was needed after his final defeat at Waterloo. St Helena became the ‘Cursed Rock’ where the French Emperor was exiled in 1815 and lived until his death from stomach cancer in 1821.
“There was no way the British were going to let him escape,” said guide Aaron Legg when I joined his day tour. “You had to know the day’s password just to pass through here,” he explained as we drove through a former gateway in the direction of Longwood, the house where Napoleon spent the majority of his internment.
Billed as a 4WD adventure, Aaron’s trip was the perfect introduction to the diverse landscapes of St Helena. On paper the island is diminutive, but its topography makes it feel much larger, no matter whether exploring on foot or by car. We drove through microclimate after microclimate, sometimes within a few metres of each other, experiencing everything from an arid plain of cacti, to lush cattle-grazed pastures, shaded lanes and riots of tropical vegetation all inside a few short minutes. With such contrasts crammed into a small area, I could see why the island is often described as a walker’s paradise.
En route, I was learning more than anticipated about history, flora, fauna, and just about everything. We had already had good sightings of St Helena’s endemic bird, a plover known locally as the wire bird – supposedly because of its skinny legs. Once critically endangered, a local conservation programme has been successful and its numbers are increasing again. They are easily spied on windswept Deadwood Plain (a former Boer prisoner of war camp), a view that Napoleon would once have looked down on from the grounds around Longwood.
We stopped for a picnic lunch at a viewpoint in the Millennium Forest, although I was initially surprised at how low the trees were. When first discovered, the island was rich in endemic species, including St Helena ebony, but overexploitation and the introduction of goats and other plants and animals resulted in many of the island’s native species going extinct. It was thought by 1850 that there was no St Helena ebony left here, but in November 1980 a single specimen was discovered on a cliff by a botanist, and today the species is thriving again in the forest and is the national flower of the island.
Flax grows abundantly in some valleys, forming the hedgerows that line the road in places. It was an important crop here during the two World Wars but lost money outside of that period, ultimately proving to be too uneconomical to farm. Today, it grows wild and free as a potent reminder of yet another false dawn for the island.
That search for financial independence still continues, and yet you get the impression that anything could grow here, given the sun, rain and variety of altitudes. On another day I visited a coffee plantation where Bill and Jill Bolton grow one of the purest and rarest coffees in the world, first introduced from Yemen in 1732 and now available in Harrods as well as their own café in Jamestown.
At the most remote distillery in the world, run by Paul Hickling, I sampled a coffee liqueur and a prickly pear drink called Tungi, both made from local produce. I also tasted Jamestown Gin, flavoured with one of the rarest juniper berries in the world – this is the only place outside its native Bermuda where this eponymous juniper grows. Paul also showed me a special brandy he had produced to commemorate the bicentenary of Napoleon’s exile, and which sold for £200 a bottle.
The continuing fascination with Napoleon is, of course, one draw to visit the island. Longwood is a modest house, furnished with much of the original furniture dating from when he died. Wandering its rooms, you soon get a keen sense of the man. The window blinds near the entrance have telescope-sized holes cut into them from when he used to keep an eye out for anyone approaching. Elsewhere, much of the furniture is as you’d expect; he had the fancy bed that he was given chopped up for firewood after complaining constantly of the damp and the cold. Instead, he slept in the same simple camp bed that he used on his campaigns – a soldier to the last.
Napoleon’s former tomb is in a beautiful spot that he picked himself, having come across it when visiting the first house of General Henri Bertrand (who followed him into exile). At that time, it may well have had a view over a valley, but now it is a tranquil place in a grove of trees, with a soundtrack of birdsong. His body was exhumed and returned to France in 1840, but it was easy to imagine him still lying there as a pair of fairy terns wheeled overhead.
The island’s history isn’t just about Napoleon, but layers and layers of other tales. The list of visitors over the years is distinguished, ranging from Captain Cook to Charles Darwin. And then there’s the locals. St Helena’s Boer prisoner of war camps were basically open prisons, with inmates relatively free to work and start businesses. While slaves were once found here, the island also played its part in fighting the slave trade once it was abolished, and ships were stationed on St Helena to intercept the slaving boats.
Down a little street in Jamestown, I had come across a doorway with floral tributes outside. A Saint explained that it held the remains of some slaves that had recently been found. Basil’s son, Kevin, showed me the place where the original large burial site was discovered. He was clearly moved as he told me: “They had either died on ship, or they were very weak and died of dehydration and malnutrition when they arrived. A lot of them were youngsters, just 12 to 15 years old.”
While most of the liberated slaves went on to the West Indies as free men, around 50 stayed on the island. With such mixed ancestry, it is no wonder that the Saints are hard to place when you first meet them. Today, the island retains the feel of an English village. Unlike London, where people avoid each other’s eyes, here I had to readjust to saying hello to everyone I met walking down the main street.
For my last evening, I headed out onto the water again, along with some Saints. It was a balmy evening of golden light and gentle breezes, the sun setting over the sight of St Helena’s resident dolphins putting on another splendid display. As we approached Egg Rock, Madeiran storm petrels flew overhead, recently identified as an endemic sub-species for St Helena. The boat turned and we headed back in the dark, gazing in awe at the blanket of stars twinkling above.
“It’s just perfect, isn’t it?” one of my companions asked softly. “Has the island been what you expected?”
“Oh yes, and more,” I replied, thinking back to my childhood dreams. “I don’t know what Napoleon was complaining about.”
The author travelled courtesy of the St Helena Tourism Board, and stayed at the Mantis St Helena. A number of UK tour operators offer trips to the island, including Discover the World, Island Holidays and Revealed Travel.
Set within three Georgian buildings on Jamestown’s main street, the highly recommended Mantis St Helena is a lovely luxury hotel. Its 30 rooms include heritage suites.
Bertrand’s Cottage (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) is the restored home of General Bertrand, who followed Napoleon into exile. Situated over the road from Longwood House, this is currently a hospitality training venue. It’s a little-publicised gem, so you may be the only guest.
The Consulate Hotel is an atmospheric stay in Jamestown, gradually being refurbished by its owner.
Farm Lodge Country House Hotel (email: email@example.com) is set in a charming 17th-century rural idyll.
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