The island of St. Helena sits in the Atlantic Ocean and from the outside it looks no more than a large, dark, barren rock soaring up from the water. It’s most famous for being the place Napoleon was sent in exile after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 and where he spent his last days. In fact, this rock in the middle of the ocean has hosted many a prisoner but we are pleased to report the current prison hosts no more than 14 local inmates.
Once you travel to the interior of the island via a very steep road all changes and you’d swear you were in delightful parts of Devon, England, with green countryside everywhere. St. Helena is the second British overseas territory we have visited, the other being Chagos in the Indian Ocean. They are certainly poles apart – the latter is uninhabited, flat and covered in palm trees. St. Helena has a population of around 4000 and if you were blindfolded and dropped in and asked which country you were in, you’d look around and say England. Or are we being biased being English and a New Zealander would claim it’s more beautiful than any English countryside and more like the south island of New Zealand? The main town, Jamestown, is certainly like a small town in Cornwall.
The pace is also old English countryside. Shops close Saturday afternoons, Sundays and for half-day Wednesdays. As for the people, known as ‘Saints’, we’ve never seen so much waving. Everyone waves at each other and that includes when you are driving your car. The language is English but we all struggle with the accent, we can’t work out if words are left out or joined together. But everyone is positively lovely and happy to help.
The World ARC fleet were here and having got to know them in Cape Town it was lovely to see them again. Traditionally we have all kept our eyes on where the World ARC fleet is primarily because there can be anything from fifteen to thirty yachts and they can take over a marina or anchorage so we keep well clear. On the positive side, when they are in town, town comes to life and all sorts of activities are laid on. It was no different in St. Helena where the yacht club was open every day, there was a bar set up every night with tasty local food including a Sunday roast to be purchased. It was fabulous and social, this year’s World ARC crews have a real zest for life and everyone runs around cramming in as much as possible.
One of the highlights on the island is an attraction called Jacob’s ladder. This so called ladder consists of 699 steps scaling 600 feet built on the steep valley that connects Jamestown at the bottom of the valley to the top of the island and was historically used to transport various items up and down. With a road in place and cars now being used it remains as a challenge for people to ascend and give the heart and lungs a good work out. The record ascent time is said to be just over five minutes. Some of the World ARC boats are traveling as families and one of the ‘kids’ very nearly broke the record! Everyone was giving it a go including people well into their retirement so we had no choice but to tackle it and huffing and puffing made it to the top in just under thirteen minutes. Our reward was the ‘Belly Buster’ breakfast roll at the local coffee shop with sausage, eggs and bacon! And a cup of St. Helena coffee which we are reliably informed is the third most expensive coffee in the world. The coffee beans have a price to match that status.
Another highlight is whale sharks which can be found here from late January to March. When we arrived people had been out trying to spot them but none were seen. That all changed quickly. They were swimming not far from where all the yachts are moored and we duly joined a tour. Calling them a shark is a certainly harsh as humans tend to have a fear of sharks. They are gentle, majestic giants, many around ten metres long. It was a case of motor out and pick which one you wanted to swim with, there were around ten happily swimming around the day we went. Here they swim right at the surface and their fins are easily seen. When feeding their mouths open wide and if one comes near you, you start to worry about being hoovered up. When feeding they go at a pace you can’t keep up with. The trick is to spot one just taking it’s time and not feeding. Indeed they even seem to like interaction and will swim in slow big circles. Our guide told us they get attracted by all the bubbles that fin kicking and swimming creates. You’re advised to stay a good five metres away from their enormous tails. When they turn and bank there is a sudden flurry of humans swimming as fast as possible for fear of being run over or being caught in there big wide open mouths. A very special experience.
The landing at the wharf here can be tricky and yachts are advised to use the local ferry service run by Johnny. Johnny epitomises the islanders in his friendly outgoing nature. We wanted to snorkel a wreck and he duly informed us he was taking some school kids out to it. Tom quickly found himself being roped in to helping with an underwater camera and entertaining twenty school kids on a morning out. Going past a fishing boat one day Johnny asked if we like what are called ‘snubs’, a local slipper lobster, and duly asks for some from his mate and gives them to us. It’s characters like Johnny who will stay long in the memory, inspiring us as he works hard but also giving back to the community.
Being here just a week we crammed in island tours, a hike and even planted two trees as part of a fascinating conservation project run by the St Helena National Trust here. In between we stocked up grabbing fresh produce whenever it became available. There is a bad drought and a lot of produce is shipped in on the RMS St. Helena, doing runs between Cape Town, St. Helena and Ascension Island. To their credit, the islanders were all aware of yachts visiting and made effort to bring fresh produce into town.
Our visit has been just a week, short but ever so sweet. We wish we could stay longer and do more of the many hikes on offer exploring the vast beauty that this island contains. You can see why some people just love to live here, it’s a life at a more enjoyable pace with a strong community feel.
For us alas we must move on. Our next sail is 710 nautical miles to Ascension Island. We plan to leave St. Helena on Sunday morning and with light winds forecast it will take us around six days. Light winds, steady seas, so hopefully it will be a pleasant sail – fingers crossed.
To the wonderful people of St. Helena, a big thank you for making us feel so welcome on your special island.