A Travellerspoint blog

February 2009

Cut off from the world


St. Helena is a local place and out of the way of the world. It doesn't always care so much – or, perhaps more accurately, notice – what the rest of the world does.

Weather forecasting, for example, is not a hi-tech long range global analysis, but rather a wonderfully local and personalised service: You go out in the morning, and if you get wet it's raining; If you are squinting, then it's bright and sunny; and if you fall over it's either a windy day or you are still drunk from the night before - possibly both. If you need a proper long distance forecast, you phone a friend/family member on the other side of the Island and ask them what is happening there...

Whilst obviously the global 'Credit Crunch' – and i'm only now not mentally thinking that it is a breakfast cereal – has affected St. Helena and will continue to do so, in practical terms it hasn't really reached here at all. The islands bank (singular) has had no exposure to daft American style mortgages, chiefly because there are virtually no homes bought/sold on the Island. Houses are inherited/passed on through families, or new ones built on family land. Indeed, in practical terms St. Helena is doing well out of the world crisis, as the prices of one of the most expensive imports – fuel – has been cut by almost 20%, and a whopping 46% for fishermen. In the short term at least, we're up on the deal.

In fact, the Island probably wouldn't really notice the global credit crunch at all, until the RMS St. Helena suddenly fails to appear (breakdowns excepted).

Which brings us to the airport project.

An airstrip was first pondered as early as 1942, when the Americans expressed interest in building one for use as a military staging post between Ascension Island and Cape Town/Southern Africa. In the 1950's, BOAC (who eventually became prt of British Airways) even offered to fund the building an airport, with the idea of using it as a refuelling point for flights between London and Australia via the South Pole. In more modern terms, discussions started in the 1990's with the UK government looking at the finances required to replace the RMS St. Helena after the end of it's scheduled life in 2010, and concluding that an airport would be better value for money than a new ship & it's running costs. That's when the fun started.

A private company offered to finance and build a fairly small airport, but the British government, in their wisdom, said no and put out to tender for a larger airport. I have not the time, space or inclination to go into the subsequent 15years or so of farce, but suffice to say that much of it could have come from Yes Minister and that basically no money has been spent on anything else since (everything is awaiting the go-ahead and beginning of construction of the airport). As of December 2008, the project is now officially “paused”, and with less than a year before the ship is due to be retired – and suffering from increasing reliability issues – absolutely nothing is currently happening on the ground.

A simple breakwater or wharf which has long been required and requested (and a proper one desired – after all, it's not as if ships arriving at St. Helena is an unknown occurrence...) to make it safer for passengers and easier for moving freight remains a pipe-dream. This lack of breakwater mean't that when the cruise ship Aurora (with 2600 people on board, including crew) arrived a few weeks ago for what should have been the biggest business/financial day of the year, not a single passenger could come ashore due to the choppy January seas. Which for the island would basically be like shutting all shops for December and January (eg: Christmas shopping and Jan sales) without any notice or chance to buy something anywhere else. It is a financial disaster of huge proportions. And this is not the first time it has happened.

The cruise ship Aurora in James Bay, but unable to let any of her 2600ish inhabitants on shore due to choppy seas

The airport project itself is notable in that 2 small hills need to be removed and a large gorge filled in, in order to give a long enough space for a runway, which even then will have a 250m drop over sheer cliffs to the sea at each end: This is not a runway where overshooting the runway would be a good idea... Add to that strong prevailing crosswinds (into mountains), an area which is regularly covered in fog, and absolutely no alternative airfields nearby in case of weather or technical problems and life gets increasingly interesting. Indeed, the airport needs to be able to handle larger planes than really required, just so they can have enough fuel to return to the Namibian coast, in case of aborted landings. Which of course means a longer runway. Even better, due to – ahem – issues with Ascension (a really long story, just as messed up as this one), it means that Saints won't actually be able to fly direct to any of the 3 places which are of relevance/interest to them: The UK, Falklands and Ascension, currently forcing Saints working on the Falklands, for example, to fly via London and Cape Town to reach St. Helena. For those on Ascension, the trip to St. Helena will actually take longer and cost several times more (although all fares for Ascension employees and their family get paid as part of their work contracts): Their current 700mile boat trip being converted into a 3plane-12,000+ mile extravaganza.

And the airport probably isn't even the biggest part of the project: Arguably a larger problem is getting the stuff to build it on to St. Helena: A new freight port is envisaged, together with a haul road across the island (in a valley where no road currently exists due to it's geography) which needs to be built before the materials to build the accommodation that the people who will be building the airport will live in can be imported and put in place. And don't even ask about the fancy new hotels, golf courses, power stations, water supplies et al that 50,000 new rich tourists a year will be requesting.

Like the mythical Crossrail project (first proposed in 1897), this is one project that nobody has distinguished themselves with.

Not the best of photos to help explain this, but basically the airstrip would start to the right of the picture. Planes come through the mist (to the right of, and trying to avoid, Great Stone Top – that big lump of rock sticking up) just past the lower rocky mountain visable, and start landing just the other side of the gorge of which the top bit is visible in the photo – and which i had just staggered out of – which will be filled. It then hits the brakes like heck and everybody prays that plane doesn't slide of the approaching cliff and into the sea, 300m below. Welcome to St. Helena!

Posted by Gelli 12:50 Archived in St Helena Tagged air_travel Comments (1)

A fort, a fort, and batteries of the non-Duracel variety

One thing that continues to surprise me about St. Helena is it's fortifications. For somewhere so small and remote, and more or less entirely peaceful through it's 500+ year history, there are a heck of allot of fortifications and batteries doted around the Island. St. Helena has been peaceful except for a short period in 1673 when the Dutch captured the Island bloodlessly, before surrendering it back to the British barely a couple of months later. It is also interesting because the fortifications date from lots of different periods: It wasn't as if they were all built at the same time and for the same reason (eg: to prevent Napoleon from escaping).

The where's and why's (and, in many cases, the who's) have long been lost to history, but what it does mean is an extraordinary number of small fortifications. Every cliff, headland, hilltop, bay and conceivable landing place has been fortified. Even after 4months of regularly tramping around the island, i still occasionally stumble on old forts that i'd never even known about before, let alone seen or visited.

Sadly, almost all of them – including the huge High Knoll Fort overlooking Jamestown, and which would be a great tourist attraction and possibly even a hotel – have now fallen into disrepair at the best, or almost total ruin in the worse case due to lack of repair and general neglect over the years. Many have been built in fairly precarious positions and would have required serious skill and man power to build. If in good condition, some would make great little cafe's, pubs or museums, and some would make great little homes.

But if nothing else, it adds to the sense of isolation that St. Helena has (eg: we don't welcome visitors and like being here alone) and allows the imagination to drift and pluck out mental images of how St. Helena must have been at it's peak, and it is with definite regret that I can't see it how it was 150 years ago, for example.


Mundens Battery

Sandy Bay Battery: From a distance it looks ok, but from behind it is crumbling at a horrible rate



High Knoll Fort

Remains of the back of Bank's Battery, once a significant coastal defensive structure

Battery at Repulse point


Buttermilk point batteries


Hidden lookout point at Crown point




Views over Sampsons and Saddle Batteries

Posted by Gelli 09:30 Archived in St Helena Comments (1)

Musical matters (this time, without ABBA references)

For any of the more mentally challenged amongst you - EG: those of you who may have been unfortunate to read the blog of the my previous long trip in 2005 and 2006 – you may remember that my previousMP3 player was very possibly possessed, and at best had an utterly wicked sense of humour.

Though sad that my old MP3 player longer accompanies me sometimes needs must, and a few months before I departed this time, I bought a replacement. Not used huge amounts initially, I have now been using it long enough and often enough around the Island that I can happily inform you all that it is indeed a worthy successor. Though certainly not possessing the same brilliantly sharp – and, indeed, freaky – sense of humour as my old one, it nonetheless seems to have the unerring habit of choosing at random just the right track for a given moment.

Which is just as well, really.

A friend of mine, Sergio, who also blogs his current trip here on TP when he remembers – which, admittedly, is not often - is an East London lad and he wrote a couple of months back about the Ridiculous-ness (i like that word even though I probably just made it up) hearing an East 17 track on a bus in Siberia and how such tunes and moments get ingrained in your memory. In an odd circular twist to this tale which isn't really a tale, he left on his trip the same day as I left on mine and we met briefly – though deliberately – in Paris that first morning to celebrate our common escape and toast upcoming happy travels. He is also a colleague of David, he who made his surprise appearance on St. Helena either a couple of weeks ago or couple of blog entries back, depending on your point of reference in the Time/Space Continuum.

I agree with Sergio. Music has long been at the core of my travelling memories. Partly, I just love sounds and input, and so constantly bombarding my senses with music. Whilst my memory of dates is pretty much, well, what is the technical term? Horrific? I can associate certain songs to certain days or events or even flash back style moments which when i now hear them I invariably remember, often with a smile. In fact virtually none of these events or moments would be memorable in the slightest if I didn't have the musical memory. And although many of these specific moments in time (to take a few at random: Jamelia's Superstar, for a specific night in Rome in June 2004; a certain section of Tubular Bells II for being sat in a carriage on an old style virgin XC train in pitch black, shooting through Heyford station at speed on the last train to Oxford; the opening to LL Cool J's “I need love” and walking through Birmingham; US3 for drinking coffee in a small shop in Huangzhou, China with 3 friends; A large section from Santana's Ultimate Collection for travelling repeatedly and slowly across Belgium in the cool summer evening breeze; Xi Shua Shua for sitting drinking home made Chilli-Vodka in Sa Pa, Vietnam) occurred in moments before – or without – my MP3 player, many more have occurred since, or at the very least I have subsequently got hold of those tracks and added them to my MP3 player's collection. It also helps explain the increasingly large proportion of songs and albums that I have in languages I don't fully (or at all) understand.

Going back a couple of paragraphs, the reason it is just as well, is that St. Helena plays what can only be described as an eclectic variety of music. The two radio stations do a pretty good job of catering to all tastes, and there is a surprising abundance of live music. Whilst both of those are excellent things to have, it also causing me a problem. With only days to go, I have picked up not a single specific musical memory of St. Helena. What is more worrying is that the few tracks that I have heard repeatedly and I may come to associate with St. Helena are either horrific (Barbie Girl has come up with alarming frequency) or, almost as bad, from possibly the only musical genre that I actively try and avoid: Country.

Now I don't have any huge problem with Country per se, and am quite happy to listen to the odd track here and there. Just not all the time. The problem is that Country music is almost obscenely popular here. Sundays are basically country day, so the radio now stays off and even if I am not out walking, my MP3 player provides a musical background to the days occurrences. There are country shows on both stations throughout the week, and every week the papers advertise upcoming C+W nights and line dances. And whilst I have heard about enough C+W to last me until the worlds economy is happy again, not one track or artist has in any way stuck with me.

And for that, I am forever grateful.

Posted by Gelli 05:02 Archived in St Helena Comments (0)

Diana's Peak

overcast 25 °C

For all it's mountainous and lumpy outlook, the highest point of St. Helena is not actually all that high: Indeed it is lower than those on Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. Diana's Peak stands at 818m and in it's own national park, home to a large number of endemic plants, fauna and insects. Helpfully, it also stands right in the middle of the island, and is easily accessibly car, and even by foot. From the car parking area at the bottom, it is but a fairly simply walk along well laid out paths: sure when wet it can be a bit muddy and slippery, and it does involve some uphill walking, but by Islands standards, it's a doddle, and in the SHCG ranking (as mentioned previously), it is a measly 3.

Diana's peak is the middle of 3 peaks, the outer 2 of which – Mt Actaeon and Cuckold Point – are slightly shorter, but each have a Norfolk Pine on their summit instead. I have been up Diana's peak several times. It is a nice relaxing walk, and the views are apparently absolutely glorious. The problem is that every time I have gone up, regardless of the weather down below, I have gone around a corner at the bottom of the peaks to discover a blanket of mist and cloud blocking my way, enabling me to see only small glimpses of the island. Seeing the view in all it's glory from the top of Diana's peak, has rapidly become my overriding goal for the last few weeks of my stay.

But in case I don't actually get to see it on a good day, here are a couple of not entirely clear pics of it:






If it transpires that I don't get to see it on a clear day before I depart, i will beg, steal or borrow some pics of the view to put up.

Posted by Gelli 12:59 Archived in St Helena Tagged foot Comments (1)

Of coincidence and unplanned meetings

sunny 30 °C

By now, I really should be used to it. And in a way I am, but I can never quite get used to just how small the world really is, and how many odd coincidences and meetings occur, almost entirely at random. Over the years i have got used to bumping into old friends or people I know, or people that know somebody I do (and in a short conversation actually realise it) or have some link or something canily in common. In fact, in regular wanderings mostly in Europe if i don't bump into somebody every 3 or 4weeks it's actually unusual.

Some of my favourite such moments including walking into a hostel in an obscure Turkish town after missing a connection and discovering that I knew every other guest in the hostel (whilst none of them knew any of the others), *that* incident in Tajikistan and being told stories by an unknown Aussie at the end of my last trip which were all about me without him realising.

But St. Helena? surely, I figured I should be reasonably safe.

And then things started going slightly strange. Two days before I got on the boat, the car I was in broke down. After being picked up by the repair man and going through the normal small talk, I discovered that his normal work partner is from St. Helena. Well, i thought, at least somebody has heard of St. Helena.

Then on the boat trip down here, i then discovered 3 cousins on the ship (none of whom i'd previously heard of). But, they were all Saints and the ship being the Islands life line, that's no big deal. Then a few days later I was talking to a fascinating Saint–British couple, and within literally 5minutes we had discovered that they have good friends in Kristianstad - the small and fairly obscure town in Sweden that I live in - who I know slightly. But these things happen.

After i'd been on St. Helena for a month or so, i received an email out of the blue from some woman in Istanbul that i've never heard of. “I hear you are on St. Helena” she says. “I'm trying to track a friend of mine who works there. Can you see if you can find her for me?”. Never one to turn down odd little challenges, I found the friend and passed on the email address, to huge joy and surprise. And only a few days ago, using the new option for people to comment on blogs without being TP members, I got a message from a Saint who had somehow come across one of my recent blog entries and wanted to say thanks. I have since discovered that she is very good friends with one of my cousins here. But even that is nothing, really. Just a few bored people using a computer and getting lucky.

The one that really got me was last month. Walking back home from the harbour after seeing some friends off onto the boat, I was hailed from the balcony of the Consulate, the islands main hotel. With a mixture of surprise, confusion, dread and indeed amusement, I discovered one of my customers grinning down at me. Just off the boat that morning and on holiday with a friend. I must have dropped a crate of mirrors somewhere in a previous life! I honestly doubt if any other non-Saint that I know will ever visit here in their entire life, and yet here on an Island which receives less than 1000 tourists a year (excluding Cruise ships and yachts) and due to the shipping schedules a maximum of maybe 200 of whom will be here during my stay – I somehow still manage to co-ordinate my stay to the one time that somebody I know (and a customer as well: I'm on holiday/St. Helena to try and hide from work!) happens to also be here.

Ian Baker, a geologist and author who has been visiting St. Helena for over 40years and came down on the ship down when i did, explains some of the Geology of the Sandy Bay area to my real-world customer David (left) and his friend Neil

Sigh. You just know that there has to be a Kiki twist to this story, don't you?

Posted by Gelli 02:58 Archived in St Helena Comments (0)

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