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The Where and The Why

On May 21st, 1502, a Portuguese admiral named Joao da Nova was returning home after winning a battle off the West coast of India, when he got slightly lost and stumbled across a hither unto unknown rock. Said rock is less than 50square miles in size, the top of an extinct volcano, and thus certainly not flat. There were no sandy beaches, and it had a a foreboding look to it. But it was new, and land, and thus exciting. Kind of. After exploring the Island, he discovered it uninhabited, but full of wildlife and vegetation, and he swiftly realised that he had found a strategically important new location, as a source of fresh water, meat, fruit and vegetables. Improbably and also impressively, the Portuguese made extensive use of it for the next 80years, whilst keeping it's existence completely secret from the rest of the world. The Island, in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, had been discovered on the anniversary of the Mother of Emperor Constantine, St. Helena, and was thus named in her honour.

Most people who have heard of St. Helena know if it as the place where Napoleon was finally imprisoned and died. After his escape from Elba and his recapture, he was brought to St. Helena in 1815, the idea being that it was so remote and so hard to get to, that there would be no way he could ever escape again, and he died on the island in 1821. Even today, and with modern transport, St. Helena is remote.

The nearest land of any description is another tiny Island in the same group, Ascension Island which is over 1200km North and home to a military air strip. Angola, to the East is 2000km away and Brazil in the West almost 3000km. The nearest city of any relevance and help to the people of St. Helena is Cape Town, is 3200km away. As there is no airport or airstrip, you must travel by ship. For over 5days.

And, excepting occasional cruise ships which call, but which cannot be used to get to/from the island, there is just a single ship. The RMS St. Helena, the last British Mail Ship in existence, which supplies the island with everything: Post, Food, Booze, Cement, Vehicles and Pogo Sticks. You name it, it comes on a solitary ship. The boat calls an average of twice a month, running to and from Cape Town, shuttles to Ascension, occasional trips to Namibia, and twice a year to England. The longest gap between calls is 6weeks. That's six weeks with no supplies from the outside world, and this can be longer if the boat has mechanical trouble...

So now you have worked out where I am going, and how, the question which most people have is “Are you mad?”. To which the answer is, obviously, yes. The other question is “why?”. In a way, the answer is because it seemed a good idea at the time, though there is a little more to it than that. After the Portuguese secret was discovered, the island changed hands, with the English, Dutch and East India Company all getting involved before it became a British possession in 1833 which it remains to this day. At one point, and before the Suez canal opened, over 1000ships a year used to call to resupply, or to leave sick crew, and so it became a fairly cosmopolitan place. Somewhere along the line, two ancestors of mine arrived, and stayed on the island long enough for roots to be put down, and my paternal grandmother was born there.

Nowadays, the island is a tiny British possession, relying mostly on British government support, increasingly forgotten since the opening of the Suez canal, and general drop in maritime transport, and with no airstrip, now struggles along with a population of under 4000 and contact with the outside world every 2weeks. But it is one where I am related to a large proportion of the population (yeah, yeah, I'm an inbred), and thus I have long had the urge to visit to find out more about my ancestry, and what it is like to live somewhere so remote. For 4 months. And yes, that suddenly seems like a frickin long time to be stuck somewhere, unable to leave, especially when it is so small. In the last 10years or so, I've not spent more than 3months in any one country, let alone what is essentially a fairly spread out volcanic village. This could get interesting.

Thus in 18hours, I will be sailing from Portland (the UK one, not the one in Oregon) and 16ish days later, hurricanes and storms not withstanding, will arrive on St. Helena, from where this tale will recommence. I hope.

Posted by Gelli 10:18 Archived in St Helena Tagged preparation

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Hooked already.

Happily sailing.

by Serge78

Sorry, should have been Happy Sailing, not what appeared above.

Can't even blame this russian keyboard for that either.

by Serge78

Best of luck Rich, shame we didn't manage to catch up before you left. I'm looking forward to tales from St. Helena!

by scots_jon

Yeah, this could indeed be interesting. I'm expecting lots of updates to the Saint Helena guide! ;)

I once spent almost 3 months on a remote island with no way of getting off. I managed to read War and Peace, if that says something.

by Peter

Ah, sounds like an awesome adventure!

by dr.pepper

I have Kerguelen Island as my "neeeeever gonna happen" dream destination, but man, St. Helena is almost as awesome. We demand photos beyond count!

I hope when you hit the stir crazy phase, it doesn't last too long. Best of luck, and looking forward to the updates! :)

by Sander

Oddly enough, i've read War & Peace three times, and actually quite enjoy it (if you ignore the self indulgent bullsh1t section of 400pages or so he puts in the middle), but it did give me a problem a to what my reading challenge should be for this voyage, I must admit! Kerguelen, eh? that's another on my list, and a slightly trickier one. Photos there will be - I just have to find a quick way of uploading/tagging them all.

by Gelli

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