A Travellerspoint blog

St Helena

Of coincidence and unplanned meetings

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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.

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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)

A little light excercise

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For somebody like myself who loves the outdoors, St. Helena is a damned good place to be. True, it is a small island, but it is also a marvellously diverse one. Even better, it is one riddled with paths, ranging from well marked, used and nice and relaxed, to almost entirely unmarked and involving literally clinging to the sides of cliff faces and trying not to think of the several hundred metre drop below. As well as the numerous 'normal' trails and paths (generally, those that actually go somewhere), the St. Helena Conservation Group has produced a set of 27 postbox walks EG: At the end of each walk is a postbox, with a book to sign, and an ink stamp to prove you've been there. When i first arrived, I resolved to walk as many as possible, and, ideally, all of them.

The walks are ranked into 1-10. Very roughly, 1 is easy, and 10 is almost death defying. However walking on St. Helena often involves tricky sections, and lots of the group is quite loose and potentially dangerous, and perhaps more relevantly, the original ranking system seems to have been undertaken by a mountain goat. As a consequence the Tourist office won't even admit that they have any information for walks ranked 6 or higher, and will only give such info out if you can prove that you have been there with a reliable local guide first. That might sounds like overkill, especially if you are a proficient walker. But on an island with no mobile phone or radios, and no helicopter to help search for you, if you get into trouble or have an accident, just finding you can be very hard work.

Though I have got out as much as possible, I have already realised that I won't actually make it down all the walks, just because of time considerations: Lacking regular transport to get to the starting points of some of the walks is an issue, but there is simply too much else to do, to many family to visit and some of the walks have become favourites which I have done more than once instead of branching out.

One such walk – up the Barnes Road - is not even a postbox walk, but is instead an often overgrown back way out town past the Heart Shaped waterfall, and used only by a small handful of people (or, as we are known to the locals, idiots) and is an old road, that wouldn't really actually require that much effort to rebuilt and make passable by vehicles, although parts have fallen away (currently requiring one interesting balancing act to avoid falling into a ravine) and large chunks of the top are heavily overgrown. I also discovered, heading down it late one afternoon just before the sun went down, that there are some huuuuge rats that live along there.

Moving swiftly on.

So here, in mostly pictoral form, are some of my favourite walks:

Shark's Valley

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Heading down to the top of the valley

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Passing down into the forest at the top of the valley. Despite how it looks, there is a kind of a path there

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Looking down Shark's Valley

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The path down the side of Shark's Valley

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Passing through more vegetation. Again, there is a path but this one has a cunningly hidden river crossing it...

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A waterfall on the way down

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Looking back up Shark's Valley from the coast

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Another waterfall (we passed at least 4) this one right near the coast

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The final cairn marking the path, this one with a slight nautical twist

Lot's Wife's Pond

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Looking down towards Sandy Bay Beach, with Lot on the centre right

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Sandy Bay Beach

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Looking down to Sandy Bay Beach from the path to Lot's Wife's Pond

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A view over from the Gorilla's Head with Lot's Wife on the right

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The Gorilla's Head and the Asses Ears

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The St. Helena Public Solicitor standing on the ridge halfway along the path

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Looking down over Lot's Wife's Ponds

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Climbing down towards the Ponds

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The second rope climb down to the base and the ponds

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The sea crashing over the ponds

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One of the Ponds

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The stack at Lot's Wife's Pond

Blue Point

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Looking over Lot's Wife and down over Sandy Bay Beach

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View from Blue Point across to South West Point

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Speery Island

Gill Point
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Donkey waiting for his fisherman owner to return, at Dry Gut on the way to Gill Point

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View from Gill Point towards King and Queen rocks

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Great Stone Top

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Shore Island and George Island hiding in the mist. 10minutes later we were covered in mist and clouds, and it was raining - so we had to sit in the rain for 2hours waiting for the visibility to improve enough so we could see the path well enough to leave without falling off the side of a 500m sheer cliff...

Posted by Gelli 12:55 Archived in St Helena Tagged foot Comments (1)

The worlds oldest living animal. Maybe.

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This is Jonathan.

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Jonathan is a giant tortoise. For Islanders, he is a large, quiet and reasonably unremarkable local institution and a faithful old friend, if one of surprising libido for one one his age. Exactly how old he is is unknown. Some people believe he was here when Napoleon was imprisoned here, although most think that he arrived in the 1880's. He is believed to be at least 150years old, and almost certainly over 175.

Much to our surprise, in December Jonathan suddenly became a world superstar. Of sorts. For some reason vortually every British paper - and many others - all announced on the same day that he was now suspected of being the worlds oldest living animal . How they all suddenly came across one of our 5 giant tortoises on the same day (it must have been a very slow news day), we haven't the faintest idea. Though it can't be proved one way or another, what IS certain is that less than 2 days later Jonathan was happily, erm, enjoying the company of one of his 4 girlfriends. Even if he is as young as 150, if i am still chasing just one women around my home at that age, i'll be doing extremely well.

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Posted by Gelli 14:49 Archived in St Helena Tagged animal Comments (4)

So famous even ABBA sung about him

The trail of Napoleon Bonaparte

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When I was originally booking my trip to St. Helena, perhaps unsurprisingly most people kind of looked at me a bit blankly and had never heard of it, before having to have St. Helena's location and status explained to them. The few that had heard about it, basically knew because of a foreign guy who has been dead almost 200years. Although it is understandable, I still always find it a bit strange that such a person can hold that level of fascination for people even now. But then Napoleon Bonaparte was no ordinary foreign gent.

Napoleon had a fairly busy life, though we won't go into too much detail here. Suffice to say that after fighting the Napoleonic Wars (during which amongst much much else, he introduced the Metric system, re-introduced slavery, sold Louisiana, lost the Battle of Trafalgar and established Switzerland) and almost taking over the whole of Europe, surrendering and being exiled to Elba (where he was not as a prisoner as such, but was given sovereignty over the Island), deciding to escape, re-stablishing himself as French emperor and losing the Battle of Waterloo, he eventually choose to surrender to the British. Who promptly stuffed him on a ship and exiled him to St. Helena.

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Portrait of Napoleon

Napoleon was not, necessarily, the happiest of campers by this turn of events. Upon arrival at St. Helena on 15 October 1815, he said “It is not an attractive place: I should have done better to remain in Egypt”. As the world knows, despite occasional rumoured plans by his supporters (including use of a submarine, at times when submarines were rudimentary at best, and certainly not capable of reaching St. Helena) the British were not going to let him escape from St. Helena bringing around 2000 troops – plus warships – to guard him, and event putting garison on Ascension and Tristan da Cunha islands to prevent their use as a staging post by supporters. He thus died on St. Helena 6years later on 5 May 1821.

I couldn't really come all this way and for so long without taking in some of the Napoleonic sites. His arrival has been in such a hurry, that the house being converted for his imprisonment was nowhere near ready. So, on arrival, he spent his first night in Jamestown in Porteous House (allegedly in the same bed as used a few years earlier by the Duke of Wellington, of Battle of Trafalgar fame, though it probably wasn't) before managing to convince a landowner, William Balcombe, to let him move into a residence at the Briars, roughly 2km out of Jamestown, and where he became very friendly with Williams 13year old daughter Betsy. Apparently they were the happiest 2months of his imprisonment. These days, the Briars Pavilion where he lived is owned by the French and open to tourists by appointment. And, it must be said, it is a very nicely sighted house.

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The Briars Pavilion, and from the side with the Heart Shaped Waterfall behind. Below, Longwood House, Napoleon's final home and place of death

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Longwood House, by contrast, was originally a cow shed before being turned into a 5room house, and extended to a sixth for Napoleon and his party. 20 people lived there, plus any number of large rats, and even now it is not exactly ideally located: Longwood plain alternates at random between misty and wet, and scorchingly hot. Nowadays, it is also owned by the French government, and has been preserved with many original items (such as his famous bathtub where he used to spend hours) and filled out with replica pieces. Walking around it now, it seems very pleasant and imagining how damp and miserable it must have been is slightly tricky, especially on a lovely sunny day. But there is still some sort of strange feeling that you get when you walk through the door, that is hard to explain. It seems almost irrelevant that the gardens are very picturesque until you discover that Napoleon took up gardening, and remodelled the grounds himself. Things were very different in those days, and somehow i can't imagine Hitler, for example, becoming the Alan Titchmarsh of his day.

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Napoleon's favoured place of relaxation, his bathtub, and the Gardens at Longwood House

Napoleon died of stomach cancer in 1821. His tomb, in Sane Valley, is actually in a gorgeous little grotto that again somehow imparts a feeling of quiet awe being there. The fact that the grave is both massive and entirely unmarked somehow adds to the depth of seriousness: The grave is unmarked due to a political squable as Governor at the time, Hudson Lowe, insisted that it should be marked as “Napoleon Bonaparte” whereas the his remaining French entourage insisted on just Napoleon, as was customary for royalty. They never agreed, and so it remains nameless.

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Napoleon's unmarked grave

Napoleon was also of such importance and esteem as a figurehead for the French, that even after his death he was closely guarded until his body was removed and passed over to the now more friendly French. Even now, 170years after his body was removed to France, the guardhouse remains. For anybody that happens to remember Ripping Yarns, I have visions of the British guards worried that Napoleon might attempt one last escape, as per Escape from Stalag Luft 112B...

Of course, the other reason for doing the Napoleon tour with a group instead of trying to arrange it personally, was the transport. Basil Corker transports guests in his 1929 Chevrolet Charabanc, and whilst it may not be the most practical of vehicles for the island (on the many steep uphill sections, it actually is quicker to get out and walk) it's still great fun.

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The Charabanc

Posted by Gelli 14:45 Archived in St Helena Tagged tourist_sites Comments (4)

Modern technology is great

For a small and very isolated community, St. Helena has a pretty good media service. Television arrived on the island in 1995, and offers 3 channels, though as yet no local programs. There are also 2 radio stations, which both broadcast 24/7 (though at night, Saint FM has no presenters and just uses plays a random selection of tunes whilst Radio St. Helena broadcasts the BBC World service). There are also two local newspapers, both produced weekly and published on Fridays, which are attached to the radio stations. Whilst the St. Helena Herald is pretty good, it can be a bit “safe” in its reporting, and - plus the fact I know the papers owner - so i prefer to read the Independent.

With a population of 4000, which obviously includes many family groups and people of all ages, the independent prints a staggering 1100copies a week. Put differently, if a paper in the UK printed as many papers, it would be about 17million, over five times the print run of the Sun, the UKs biggest current seller, and it would be the worlds largest circulation newspaper by a considerable of a good couple of million. In addition, both newspapers are available online, and the independent is free to download (except for Islanders in the first 3days) anywhere in the world.

Thus it was that whilst reading the 9th January issue and you can read it yourself if you so wish, i came across this ¼ page notice:

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And, really, in a way, that sums up St. Helena nicely. It's 2009 and somebody is looking for a Betamax player.

St. Helena is not the worlds most modern destination. It's isolation, and time and cost required to import anything mean that the latest fashions, crazes and technologies can be slow to reach the island. That isn't too say that everybody still uses cassette decks and betamax: DVD players (and rentals) are quite common, and there are a surprising number of MP3 players around, especially amongst the younger people.

But it means that older technologies survive in large chunks, and perhaps more significantly, there is not the “disposable” mind-frame that now exists throughout the West. Items which would have been thrown away years ago, happily survive here, often after having had numerous DIY fixes over time. Saints are, out of necessity, incredibly resourceful people who can come up with any number of imaginative ways of extending the lifespan of items, or new uses for otherwise redundant goods.

And though it can initially be very strange, it is very much like living in a time warp. But you rarely actually miss any of the “so called” modern-conveniences and technologies, and certainly have no need for them. Sure, some of the islanders – and, especially, expats – would like to feel they were more up to date, but they don't actually need them and St. Helena is brilliant for it. I really hope it stays that way. If for no other reason than that mobile phones are still entirely unknown, and for me now just a distant memory (or, occasionally, a glorified watch). This truly is a place worth visiting.

((and I will again apologise for the lack of updates in the last couple of months. I have been very busy, and also trying not to spend much time online when there is so much else to see and do here. I hope to have a few entries in the next week or two to catch up))

Posted by Gelli 11:36 Archived in St Helena Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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