A Travellerspoint blog

December 2008

The wonders of Island transportation

Despite what literature you may read, St. Helena DOES have a regularly scheduled air service, at roughly 3pm every Sunday. Obviously, however, with no airport on the Island, South African airways flight 223 from Sao Paolo to Johannesburg passes several thousands of feet over the island and is thus of no real use to islanders except as a weekly source of a strange sound which until you have worked out (or been told) what it is, serves to confuse you.

None of this incomprehensible 7digit number plate rubbish here. Just nice simple numbers!

I have no idea if Henry Ford's descendants have ever heard of St. Helena, but to my mind they could do much worse than advertise St. Helena as an ad-hoc ford museum. There are a surprising number of cars on St. Helena, the majority imported from the UK with some from South Africa. Whilst there is a surprisingly large variety of makes and models, by far the largest proportion are Fords, and all known hire cars, seem to be Ford as well. Being so isolated, logically it does make sense for certain makes/models to proliferate, as it means that spare parts can be kept in stock and the garages know how to maintain them. A one off may be fine, but if it requires a special part you can then be left with a wait of 2months+ before it arrives. And due to the high import charges, vehicles often last for many years, and so it is not unusual to see fairly old cars wandering around and this has led to things like Mark I cortina's and other such classics still in good condition and regular usage. At the very least, ford could produce a 'through the ages' advert here.


Henry Ford would be proud of the dedication of Islanders to his company

There are a surprising number of roads around the Island, most of which are tarred/sealed and i reasonably good condition. Indeed, whilst potholes do exists, I haven't seen any which compare those that you can find reasonably easy in the average Europe town or countryside. It is also not uncommon to come across workmen cutting away the vegetation on the verges or filling small gaps or clearing loose rocks away. Having said that, roads are not always all that big, and even some of the main roads can look like small tracks

Above: Yes, this really is a main road, and one of the Islands main arteries.... Below: Another main road winds it's way through the overgrowing flax, and (bottom) the road snaking round beneath The Briars



Road signs and village names, do exist in good supply and are all seem so friendly. Even the names themselves almost all sound welcoming - Levelwood, Half Tree Hollow, Sandy Bay and Alarm Forest, for example - and there are none of the terse or dodgy sounding names that tend to appear elsewhere.




Top, a typical town sign and below, a sad but typical signs for a cyclist: No Cycling. Especially with all that downhill to go... (note the traditional National Trust style 'pointing' road sign as well)


Transport on the island is pretty much cars alone. As previously sadly noted, bikes are forbidden on many of the Islands roads (especially downhill sections), in general for their own safety a much a anything else. However there is a limited bus service, despite the fact that there is no commuting traffic: The major island and town employers, Thorpe and Soloman and Son (who between them are involved with or own virtually every enterprise on the Island), as well as the Government lay on free employee minibuses to and from work. Buses are at best infrequent on almost all routes, and are generally aimed at helping those out in the country get into town for half a day or so. Besides, everybody knows the drivers and can just call ahead to let them know they are coming...

Bus stops even exist in certain places, though they function as refuges and resting stops as much as bus stops

Apart from that, at this stage at least, public transport means the RMS St. Helena, the Island's lifeline. When she arrives, there is excitement, but when she leaves, just sadness and isolation.



The RMS St. Helena arriving in James Bay after a shuttle service to Ascension; Sadly departing again, and (bottom), bye-bye RMS: We are now cut off from the world again for 2weeks

Posted by Gelli 16:08 Archived in St Helena Tagged transportation Comments (3)

So THAT's where Led Zeppelin got the idea from!


The official public record is slightly over 5minutes, and held, at that, by a slightly crazed German extreme sport lover who came all the way to the St.Helena solely to climb the ladder. The unofficial record is a shade under 5minutes, whilst the unofficial all comers record held by a passing crewman of an American warship is around 4.50. Personally, I was simply trying not to die.

Originally it had tracks down either side, and donkeys at the top walked around in the style of old wells pulling up and down cargo's of manure and ammunition. Obviously the former was the more important. Despite vague ideas of reinstating them, these days the rails have long gone, leaving just the staircase, with smooth concrete on either side and the rocky cliffs to either side. Completed in 1829, Jacobs Ladder remains a slightly foreboding an fearsome sight, it's 699 steps (the 700th is now covered over) ascending over 600 feet - or 180 odd metres for those of you who happen top prefer metric bits - at a varying angle of 39-44degrees, with deep steps.



Coming in on the old side path, and looking up, whilst (bottom) these steps are not nice and friendly and shallow!

There is no respite, no easy place to break or to stop and sit/rest/recover/die on the way up or down. Just a straight ladder, and what is according to some people at least, the longest continual staircase in the world (eg without any breaks, bends or flat bits). If you suffer from vertigo, it's probably not a great option. Especially coming down, even with handrails on either side, you are accutely aware that there is nothing to break your fall or prevent you plummeting to your death on the concrete below if you happen to loose your balance or footing.

Yet although it is not used so much these days due to the shear number of cars on the island, for those on foot it is still much quicker than the alternative route, and anybody climbing reasonably quickly ill still beat cars from the bottom. Coming down, it is even better - though technically illegal these days, due to wonderfully evil streak in some long since forgotten official, until fairly recently children in Jamestown went to school at the top of the ladder. And whilst the thought (and event) of being forced to climb up every day is one which provokes looks of panic even now, people still fondly remember sliding all the way down again, with the more proficient and foolhardy achieving some quite scary speeds and times of well under a minute.


Top - Basil George, a local historian and tour guide demonstrating the technique to slide down, whilst below, at night it really does look like the stairway to heaven. Lit on both sides, it traverses steep black cliffs with no refection, and if the sole inhabitant (Ken, the Attorney General) at the very top is not at home, there are no lights at the top at all. It really does look like a ladder to nowhere.

I can see the part of the top of the ladder from my apartment, and like many people in town watching people (idiots) struggle (climb) up the ladder has become a small hobby, especially if a new load of tourists ha just arrived on the boat, or a cruise ship is in town. Though you don't like it, and you *KNOW* it's going to hurt (just wait until 2 days later...) it is something that you really have to do at some point....

A disheartening sign as you struggle up. Surely i must have climbed more than 350 steps...?

And whilst I had cunningly chosen accommodation in the town close to all amenities and thus avoiding the ladder for routine events, the discovery that most of my family lives scattered around the hills on top of the ladder came as a sad realisation that I would be forced to climb it with greater frequency than perhaps one would like....

I took my time on the first attempt, stopping a few times for a wll needed breather or (yes, ok, not really or...) to take in the fabulous view. The ladder is slightly misleading in that the first third or so is reasonably OK. An old foot path coming in that looks half way up from below is a chunk under halfway, and It is only after that point where you start to tireand loose momentum that the angle changes, and not for the better. the top 150 or to steps being the worse because they are even deeper and steeper than the rest. Roughly 2/3rds of the way up, you suddenly become very aware of the crosswind that is whistling doen the valley and now doing its best to put you off balance, and by the time you reach the top, you are pausing every 10-20steps and trying not to look down in case your jellied legs decide to quit there and then, sending you plumeting to the bottom. Brilliantly with a twist of sick humour, the bench at the top 9scene of many a person half passed out or lying down in pain) has been donated by the disabled society...

The view directly from the top, and roughly 2/3 of the way up, using a photo stop as an excuse for a breather...

I have now had the dubious pleasure of climbing it six times, and after an initial time of a respectable-ish 12mins (i did stop several times to just sit and admire the glorious view) I now average about 7.5-8minutes per climb. Before I leave, I will to climb it non-stop, and also as fast as possible, but both can wait for now... Perversely, I find it harder to walk down than up: a number of my limbs and bones have been bruised and broken over the years and are not up to as much as they once were, and though it is obviously more effort to go up, my body aches much more coming down. Whichever way you go, you need to ensure you walk it off sufficiently afterwards, or else your body will, erm object, the following morning or often, the day after.

Oddly, whilst i no longer mind climbing the ladder, I try and avoid it. Not because of the ladder, but the bit afterwards. Mentally, you count the ladder as being at the top, and for the casual tourist, it is. For me, however, it is less than halfway and so to visit anybody i have to continue walking up through Half Tree Hollow, and that is the killer. The road goes up at a horrible angle, and walking up steep concrete (instead of steps) I find to be pure evil - more or less - especially for my lower back and shins and I have since found a significantly longer, but much pleasanter alternative route which I generally now use,


Looking up the valley into Upper Jamestown from the top of Jacobs Ladder

More photos from the top and of the views will come the next time i can be bothered to climb the damned thing again!

Posted by Gelli 15:54 Archived in St Helena Comments (3)


.... just an apology as to the sheer lack of updates of late.

Hopefully this will be rectified in the next week or so.

Posted by Gelli 05:38 Archived in St Helena Comments (0)

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