Before the recent arrival of St Helena’s game-changing flight connecting them to Johannesburg, my previous visit had been by its old royal mail ship. After five days crossing the South Atlantic from South Africa, I was greeted by a storm-lashed volcanic rock just 47 square miles in dimension. With the ship not due to return to collect me for another eight days, I briefly wondered ‘what on earth am I going to do here for all that time?’
As it turns out, from the minute I stepped ashore in the charming little capital of Jamestown I was literally running around St Helena trying to fit in its historic and natural wonders. With a legacy touched by the presence of historical greats like Napoleon and Charles Darwin, and a wild volcanic beauty that has fashioned thrilling coastal hikes, it’s hard to condense the St Helenian experience into just seven highlights.
Nonetheless the islanders’ voted in a poll back in 2018 to declare St Helena’s very own ‘Seven Wonders’. This is far from a definitive list of pleasures awaiting hardy travellers arriving here (for instance, my favourite hike through a lunar-like landscape to Lot’s Wife Ponds did not make the seven, though it was one of the top favourites). Even so, it’s a useful signpost to just how much there is to see and do on this island. Do bring some good running shoes…
After four days at sea my legs craved exercise. So what better way to stretch them than with a blast up St Helena’s most iconic ‘wonder’ — Jacob’s Ladder. Yet halfway up this stone staircase — 699 steps that soar steeply some 900ft up the valley flanks of Jamestown — I was gulping in salty South Atlantic air and perspiring heavily. But this is a fantastic introduction to the island and demands to be attempted (perhaps at a more leisurely pace) to enjoy stellar views across picturesque Jamestown and its harbour of bobbing yachts.
The ladder’s construction commenced around 1828-9; built to run alongside a funicular railway to transfer supplies (including manure) from Jamestown to a troop’s barracks that can still be explored by those who make it to the top. This transportation method, however, was short-lived and the rails were ripped up by the 1830s. Yet the steeply inclined steps remain. So grab a bottle of water and take the challenge. The record ascent is a little over four minutes. Probably better to amble up slowly, admire the burgeoning view, then collect a certificate from Jamestown’s museum to say you’ve conquered the ladder.
It would be feasible to believe a lovesick prankster has taken a large chisel and sculpted a near perfect heart out of bedrock over which flows a 295ft waterfall. I first discovered the aptly-named Heart-Shaped Waterfall during a short hike out of Jamestown to the Briars Pavilion, where Napoleon first resided in exile. Thereafter a track through woodland maintained by the St Helena National Trust arrives at the falls. There wasn’t much water when I first saw it: the wetter periods during March to September will yield the most impressive flow. But still I had to pinch myself at just how inconceivable it seemed nature could sculpt a landform that captures the heart both metaphysically and in physical reality.
There’s nothing better than to say you’ve ascended a country’s (or island’s) highest point. In the case of St Helena, it is Diana’s Peak, a moderately straightforward hike to 823ft. The peak is reached via a luxurious fertile ridge of cabbage-trees and tree-ferns within a small national park chockfull of endemic little critters like spiky yellow woodlice.
What is truly memorable about this walk is the swirling mists that leave sparkling dew dripping off the vegetation. The mist occasionally parts like curtains to offer snatched views of the island’s geologically crumpled interior. Reaching Diana’s Peak takes you over the less elevated Actaeon’s Peak: so named after the unfortunate huntsman transformed into a deer by the enraged goddess Diana. The moody atmosphere created by the shimmering liquid sunshine truly felt like a fitting abode for any Roman goddess.
It won’t take more than a quick-march for military history buffs to realise that during its British colonial heyday St Helena was fortified to the hilt. And no structure is more imperious in its ambition than High Knoll Fort.
This colossal citadel was started around 1798 and is open free-of-charge all year round. The journey up to the fort, which sits high above Jamestown, is worth the hike or a taxi-ride for magnificent birds-eye views around St Helena. The fort never actually defended the enemy attack it was built for but as you circumnavigate the outer walls the stones tell their own stories of St Helena’s turbulent past. Mutineers were hung here in 1811. Freed slaves dwelt here in the 1850s, while the most troublesome South African Boer prisoners were sent to its secure confine around 1900.
Nobody is exactly sure how old Jonathon is. Or indeed how a giant Aldabra tortoise from the Seychelles ended up in the South Atlantic around 1882 and gifted to the Governor at the time. What is certain is with an estimated age between 170-200 years, he is comfortably the oldest ‘Saint’ on the island. There’s even a photograph of him in the flush of youth taken back in 1902.
Jonathon resides on the formal lawn of Her Majesty’s Governor’s Residence, Plantation House. This Georgian property dates from 1792 and weekly tours currently on Tuesdays and Thursdays allows visitors to soak in an opulent British heritage. But Jonathon is the star attraction. He will be found on the lawn with three other giant tortoise so he is never alone.
When I first entered Longwood House, I could palpably feel the presence of ‘Boney’. France’s most iconic character, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, was exiled here by the British in 1815 after defeat at Waterloo. He eventually ended up at the purposely converted Longwood House until his death in 1821. Inside I could imagine him letting out an audible sigh as he peeped through a spyhole he cut in his shutters to view the overkill British military presence outside on Deadwood Plain guarding him.
The house dates from 1742. A French tricolour flutters above the whitewashed wooden exterior. An audio-tour is now available to self-guide, but do ask the room attendants questions as they have some rich anecdotes, such as whether the British added cyanide to his wallpaper to poison him…
Whatever your appreciation of French history you will feel his presence in the drawing room where he laid maps out on the billiards table; in his suite where a replica of his greatcoat is draped on a chaise-longue; or in a deep copper bathtub where it’s said this historical tour-de-force sank increasingly into reclusiveness as his denouement approached.
The surrounding ocean was inky-blue and boisterous when I achieved a long held marine quest of swimming with nature’s most colossal fish. It was near the backend of the season to swim with them (January-March) but Keith Yon, my skipper, remained optimistic. On one recent trip he’d seen 19 in a single sighting.
We traced the island’s volcanically warped coast to a brooding black cliff known as Barn Cap. It’s there Keith sighted a whale-shark. The crystal transparency of the ocean, even despite a lively swell, made the experience like snorkelling in an aquarium. I floated transfixed over a single slow-moving whale-shark for 20minutes. I watched her turn with a flip of her crescent tail and counted the dots down her broad flank. At one stage she turned to face me filter feeding on plankton. Only my eyes were wider than her great gaping mouth in a never-to-be-forgotten moment.