5. Saint Helena


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Mar 12th, 2011
5. Saint Helena

Today (Saturday 12 March) the ship will reach St. Helena around lunchtime. Frustratingly, there is just one afternoon allowed for visiting the island. It won’t possibly be enough.

They tell us the Melody will anchor offshore and tender boats (these turn out to be the ship’s lifeboats) will ferry us in relays to the shore. To avoid a complete stampede and undignified fighting the ship’s organisers have devised a ticket system where passengers get a number corresponding to their boat and a set departure time. We draw the 2:30pm boat. There is thus time to watch the island appear over the horizon and to have lunch.

St. Helena: Panorama from edge to edge (click to enlarge)

On TV there are more horrifying pictures of the Japanese tsunami. Now the town’s nuclear reactor has been damaged – it just gets worse and worse. But why build nuclear power plants in a well known earthquake zone…?  In Libya, Ghaddafi’s troops including mercenaries are shooting civilians and re-taking rebel towns while the world’s media attention is fixed on Japan. This is the clown who wanted to be president for life of the AU and has endorsed the organisation’s declaration of human rights.

Suddenly there is St Helena, abruptly shooting straight up out of the empty blue sea – huge cliffs and steep ravines encrusted with tiny houses like jetsam. There are rain squalls over the opposite side of the island. We are on the top deck but only one or two drops reach us. The main harbour side of the island seems to be in a rain shadow, the four or five steep hills that we can see are formed of folded volcanic rock and are bare of greenery. The town – Jamestown – is in a deep kloof, the little wharf drawing a line at water level in front.

Closer in, we spot a little Union Jack flying above the small castle (fort?) near the main wharf. The crew of the Melody winch down a couple of the covered lifeboats and chug around a bit, possibly to check the engines and get a quick refresher in how to drive a lifeboat. I chafe with impatience on deck, and can smell the land. The sea is calm, the sun is coming out and some seabirds have flown out to investigate the ship. There are many small fishing boats and a couple of large yachts moored in the harbour. One of our lifeboats goes up to the harbour steps and the crew can be observed  setting up a gazebo and some MSC flags. Still we wait.

I so wish Liz was here to enjoy this too…… she has always wanted to visit St Helena especially. We pass the time examining what can be seen of the town through binoculars. Dug into the formidable cliffs there are several old fortifications with gun emplacements, built to defend the town and island in the old days. The towering cliff face on the left has been entirely covered in steel netting, obviously to prevent rock falls onto the town below. The cliff face to the right drops perpendicularly down into the sea. Waves break over huge jagged rocks at its foot.

The lunch buffet features a mutton curry which would have done credit to a Durban curry palace. The cook must have Indian tendencies.

At last we are summoned to our debarkation and find a seat in the gently rocking lifeboat, which is built to take 50 people. The short diesel-fumed ride brings us to broad stone steps. The water is shallow and as clear as glass; we can see the stony bottom and tufts of seaweed. Thus it is revealed that there is no harbour as such in St. Helena; rather it is a sheltered bay in the lee of the prevailing wind and Atlantic storms. Ships of any size have to anchor offshore.

Walk along the sea wall into Jamestown

A short walk under the steel-netted cliff and along the sea wall. A table has been set up, manned by some St Helena residents to welcome us to the island and they hand out a small brochure saying ‘welcome Melody’, a map and other info. We pass an old Ford (a real rusting Capetown-style skidonk) with the number plate 76. We laugh but realise that of course, there can’t be many vehicles on this small an island.

To our surprise, a British bobby is on ‘traffic’ duty. He greets us chattily and waves us over a bridge – which spans a dry moat – and through the stone gates into the town. The very first building inside the walls is the old stone fort, adorned with the Union Jack.

Going over the moat into the fortified town

The rest of the town is a continuous long street leading up the kloof between two massive hills. On the right are the famous stairs that start on the main street and go straight up the side of the hill to a second, larger fort at the top. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ as it is called, is 699 thigh-torturing steps long. Some of the visitors from the cruise ship immediately start going up. We choose the Museum at the foot of the stairway instead.

Jacob's Ladder... we do the museum instead

Here we learn that the islanders call themselves ‘Saints’, and that they are practically all of mixed race, having been populated over the centuries by various sets of prisoners from all over the British empire, depending on which continent the Brits were at war with at the time. Napoleon was the most famous of these prisoners, and probably did a bit of populating himself; but there is also a Boer War cemetery inland, and several Zulu chiefs spent their last days here. (Parlez-vous Zulu, menheer?).

Apparently, the fishing was so rich and the lifestyle so laid-back that many prisoners and freed slaves decided to stay. They planted crops including flax, from which linen is made, and of course grapes and, surprisingly, coffee. What would life be without coffee and wine? The island is now a self-governing British territory.

The famous Dr. Barry (female surgeon disguised as a man, and who lived in SA during British colony days) spent some time on St Helena practising on the prisoners. The museum contains a lot of shipwreck and naval battle memorabilia, coins from all over the world, and flax-making equipment. They don’t grow the flax much anymore. Some local handicraft survives – incredibly intricate crochet and lace work. Another source of revenue for the island is the sale of postage stamps to philatelists, from an imposing stone-built post office on the main street.

There is a sad little section of how the indigenous giant earwig is thought to be extinct (the specimen in the case is larger than a cat – frikkin’ 50cm LONG! I think I might have bashed them on sight, as well, eeuw..) and how various other endemic plants and animals have fallen prey to exotic species. The usual story.

The currency is St. Helena pounds which are equal to £ sterling, and the locals all speak English with a peculiar accent. The quaint little shops almost all have hand-written price tags on goods in the window. Quaint is really the only word to describe the town.

Some quaint vehicles, too. Owner chats to a tourist.

A short way up the street from the museum is the church – the oldest Anglican church in the S. hemisphere, we are told. Dear little ladies from the church are serving tea and homemade cakes in the vestibule, to all comers. What a welcome.

Napoleon Hotel, just the place for a local beer

The Saints all seem very chatty and easygoing; they tell us that this is the first cruise ship to stop over here for many years. They wish there would be more, as it has brought 1000 shoppers to the island which otherwise is a sleepy hollow in every sense. Apparently the pirates off the coast of Somalia are the reason that the Melody has taken this western route. So they hope there will be more cruise ships stopping by now. They are isolated enough for things periodically run out – for example there are no potatoes to be had at present, or fresh milk. Of course there is long-life carton milk and frozen chips in the little grocery stores, but it’s not the same, love, is it. The last dairy on St. Helena has closed down, the last cow having died a while back. Getting new cows is problematic as they have to come by sea.  Business opportunity, someone?

James and I, having sampled a local beer (pretty good), and having explored up and down the main street, are ready to see more. The length and height of Jacob’s Ladder makes climbing up the hill out of the question, we hail a taxi. Four quid each to take us to the fort at the top of the stairs and back. We invite a passing couple from the ship (we cruisers are everywhere and stick out like – well, tourists) and they share the taxi. A terrifying ride it is. The narrow road has been chiselled out of the cliff face and at the corners you have to slow down in case another vehicle is coming down… there is barely space to scrape past. A sheer plummet down on one side, and the retaining wall looks really low…

The tourist shot: ...wish you were here! That's our ship behind us.

At the top is a magnificent view of the town in the kloof, and a dizzy drop down to the sea, with our ship like a matchbox floating on the bay. Not much to be seen in and around the crumbling fort. But in days gone by, the cannon and shot and other military necessities were all hauled up the slope on ropes and sleds, by donkeys turning a winch. The stairs were a later addition. The locals say that the stairs ‘break your heart on the way up and break your neck on the way down’. One man shows us how to get down fast – he hooks his heels over one railing and his armpits over the other and just slides …. to the shrieks of the tourists.

A long way down! (click to enlarge)

On the skyline opposite this abyss, we spot a few wind turbines slowly turning in the breeze. No nuclear plants here, thank goodness. There is a whole green side to the island that we don’t get to see, as it’s too far to walk in one afternoon, and the special tour of the Governor’s Estate and the other little villages and farms, was too pricey.

We return to the town with Bernard and Terry, the Irish couple, in the same taxi – the cheerful lady driver chatting nonchalantly. An even more frightening descent, as going down we are on the cliff side of the road. After that, we ask to be dropped at the nearest pub. It is Saturday afternoon and the locals in the White Horse Inn are noisily welcoming. Some are playing dominoes – this involves banging the tiles down on the table really loudly. Getting with the Saturday afternoon vibe, I see in my brochure that there is a distillery at the far end of the wharf. We have to start moving back towards the ship (all must be aboard by 6:30pm) so we decide to check this out as a last touch in St. Helena.

Jamestown Distillery (and sports bar)

The distillery (“The Most Remote Distillery in the World’) makes coffee liqueur from Saint-grown coffee, a concoction called Tsungi, which is prickly pear spirit, and White Lion, which is spiced rum. We are not allowed to take booze onto the ship (the company might lose out on bar sales to its captive customers), so we just taste. The premises has a lovely stone terrace right by the sea. Inside, a crowd of Saffas (South Africans) from the ship have discovered a satellite TV station showing the SA vs India cricket game – in its  final overs – and the bar is pumping, to the glee of the owners.

Too soon, too soon, we queue at the sea steps to board our lifeboat back to the mother ship. Farewell St Helena – one day I would like to return…

So tired are we after our day on shore, we miss the ‘Elvis Special’ on offer at this evening’s show.




  • Connie

    08 Apr 2011

    What a fascinating spot – brought alive by your writing …more please!

  • Allen.

    08 Apr 2011

    Is Napoleon’s house still there?

    • Jan

      08 Apr 2011

      Yes - the dictator died there and his tomb was built nearby; however the French dug him up and took him back to Paris. The house is still there to this day, officially French soil (like an embassy).

  • Cousin Steve

    08 Apr 2011

    Hi Janet. Connie just sent me the link to your blog. Really enjoyed reading it and seeing your photos, tho’ not enough of them. Mum will be fascinated. Not that I remember, but our house was at the top of Jacob’s ladder and Dad used to go up and down it every day to work. I guess he would have done so at lunch time too, but he can’t have had long to eat! I must go back some time. Hope to see you in England? Steve xxx

    • Jan

      09 Apr 2011

      HI Coz! Yes I did wonder, and would love to have known where your house was - I would have taken a pic. There is a little airport there now so you could take Auntie Sue back down memory lane, it would be such fun...?

  • Sharon

    08 Apr 2011

    Oh what a great adventure you’re having! I can’t wait for the next installment. So when is your ETA Mud Island? Will be great to see you guys again xxx

    • Jan

      09 Apr 2011

      ETA British soil in June some time - but no specific dates yet. Will have better idea later, we aren't on any particular schedule after France in May.

  • Gillian

    10 Apr 2011

    oh, what fun!!! I’m loving your blog – can almost feel as if I’m experiencing it myself! Even more so as the Melody was the cruise ship R&I were on for the trip to Egypt – on the ‘other’ side of Africa – before the pirates got too busy :)

    And I see you’ve gone blonde! While I’ve gone the opposite direction :) Sorry to have missed seeing you while you were in CT.

    On to the next episode …
    lots love to you both xxx

  • Peter

    20 Apr 2011

    Super travel diary Jan ! You should sell it to Lonely Planet or whoever.
    When we called in at St Helena as kids in 196something (61 ? 62?) it wasn’t calm at all, there was a 6ft swell so the passengers were yanked out of the ship’s boats by pairs of brawny sailors on the dockside every time the boat rose to dock level…
    We didn’t get as high up as you did (no taxi ?) but I can remember us climbing some way up the Jacob’s Ladder before giving up !

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