A Travellerspoint blog

St Helena

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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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)

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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...

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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....

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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...

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

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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)

Erm....

.... 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)

Home is where the insects roam

As I sit here in pitch blackness pondering my surroundings, I make a small mental note: next time, idiot, remember where you left the torch! I had been merrily minding my own business one evening when after a couple of small spikes, the power died. After (eventually) finding the torch with nothing worse than a spilt cup of coffee, a stubbed toe and a loud squige-ing noise as I stepped on something which had previously been alive but now require a clean up operation, I decided to give in and go to the pub.

Chunks of Jamestown were blacked out, but it was very much at random. Some buildings seemed fine whilst others (and some street lights etc) were in complete darkness. Power outages are not, thankfully, a regular occurrence, but they do seem to be afflicted by events that seem trivial: It was reported that the outage had been caused by a bird flying into something it shouldn't have, and some insulation which had been attacked by an unknown animal over the course of few weeks. And with that, the Island descended to darkness.

With everything relying on small systems, slight maintenance can cause larger problems: Radio St. Helena, for example, the government owned of our two radio stations, went off air for 36hours due to 'essential maintenance', though at least we were warned in advance.

I am living in a small rented apartment, close to the centre of town, and perfect for my needs. It is traditionally arranged (for St. Helena) meaning that none of the rooms connect, so I have to go outside to go to the kitchen or bathroom. I have a patio area, and a nice bit of garden which seems a magnet for wildlife.

As well as the inevitable mosquitoes - luckily in fairly small numbers so far at least - I am plagued by surprisingly vicious hordes of ants that I have to evict every couple of days and who seem to use my outside light as their own private death machine, feasting on the moths and other creatures that are attracted to it at night. There are a number of reasonably size cockroach type things that appear in evenings, and if I suddenly turn on my outside light, I can often see (and hear) some scuttling away: One who somehow ended up on his back on my porch was at least 20cm in length, whilst i spent 2 hours one night trying to find and evict a smaller (but still decent sized) one from my bedroom after he scuttled in when I went to the toilet. Fairly large and dopey bluebottles congregate around my kitchen in early evenings, whilst less than an hour ago I went into the bathroom and discovered a large-ish lizard on the wall. I'm not sure which of us was more surprised to see the other, but neither of us was expecting the other, that much is certain. Smaller lizards are also common in the evenings, and I have also been visited by a couple of long millipede type creatures of a type that are fascinating though previously unknown to me.

There are a number of cats around, including one inquisitive kitten that enjoys playing in my garden at night and climbing up to the balcony of the upstairs apartment. I like cats, but must admit to being slightly freaked by this particular one to begin with: late in most evenings i would hear fairly substantial rustlings outside in the garden, but could never see what it was - even if I tried to surprise it by suddenly illuminating the place. I had guessed it was a small mammal, and most likely a cat, but it seemed to be making allot of rustlings and sounded significantly bigger than it was. Whilst I know there are no bears on the island, my wonderful imagination had more or less concluded that the amount of noise made must have been a bear or more likely,a pair of them - or perhaps an angry elephant, who knows? - before I (happily) finally discovered one night that it was a kitten, when he decided to be sociable and pawed on my door a bit meowing to say hello.

During the day I watch the birds come and go, including 3 who I have come to recognise (one is easy, as he has no left foot, whilst one of the other 2 is a definite bully) and are have little enough fear of humans to come within half a metre or so of me, even when I am not being perfectly still. Indeed, they will happily wander into my bedroom or kitchen if i leave the door wide open (as I often do) and are not paying allot of attention. And at dusk there is an hour or so that I have always really liked, of utter mayhem, where you hear a vast cacophony of bird noises right across town as they all retreat back to their trees and nests for the night.

Being at home here is much more interesting here than in Sweden where apart from the damned mozzies, pretty much the only wildlife that would visit were drunk friends, acquaintances and friends of acquaintances, normally between the hours of 1.30 and 4am on Saturdays and Sundays.

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Posted by Gelli 07:46 Archived in St Helena Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Initial impression thing-a-me-jigs

semi-overcast

With apologies for the sudden delays in getting updates up. I have several ready to go, but am experiencing technical issues. Hope to start getting the rest posted soon-ish.

The strangest thing about this, I have realised, is that everybody speaks English. That might sound an odd comment I accept: it even took me a few days to realise it myself and then break it down. But it does actually kind of make sense. I am British, have been living abroad for some time, and have been lucky to spend a vast chunk of my life travelling both extensively and frequently. Yet despite large chunks of the world speaking English, with the exception of assorted trips to Ireland (which as I have always been there from/via the UK, I almost subconsciously class it as not being foreign, as there is no immediate jump) I have never been to any of them. Yes i've been to places where everybody speaks English (heck, I live in Scandinavia), or there are lots of native speakers around (such as travelling through Vietnam), or it's the official language (such as Pakistan), but in all of them there is a large amount of other languages being spoken/on signs that you see to give your senses at least some regular foreign input. Basically, I seem to have discovered that to me at least, subconsciously (yoikes. second time. This is very worrying) at least, travelling anywhere - especially when you have been travelling for two weeks - equals "foreign" and at at least semi exotic, as much as Belgium can ever really be semi exotic! That is not meant to sound a bad thing: I love the generic 'foreign' that I have used here, and have absolutely no plan, desire or wish to ever live in the UK ever again. Yet, for whatever reason, I just wasn't quite ready to travel so far and for so long just to hear everybody speak English. It sounds bizarre, and I really can't explain it, but on one level it has utterly confused me.

Now that I have been here a few days [OK, by the time it's gone online it is almost 4weeks, i'm sorry], and have had time to fully comprehend that, it's probably time for me to offer you some thoughts and observations of this wonderful and wacky island.

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This really is an innocent place!

I really should apologise for the delay in recent updates, for which I can partly blame a small technical issue on my front and then having to do some actual w*rk for a while, but is essentially due to the fact that i've been having far too much fun doing other thing, and meeting so many new relatives that sitting and typing is one of the last things I have been inclined to do.

The first thing that has struck me is just how damned green this place is. On arrival, all you see is the foreboding rocky-ness of James Valley, and these stark valley sides are in part of my normal mental picture of the island: I knew that it was not all like this, but was still stunned by just how lush and green (of numerous different shades) that the island is. Admittedly even the locals say that it is unusually green due to it being a very wet winter, but even so. The Island is also supremely mountainous, with barely a level piece of ground anywhere at all, and again, i'm not sure that I had previously realised just how much up and down there was (as opposed to just ups).

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It really is a green island

Of course getting around island means basically using a car (bicycles are banned from many roads, especially downhill roads and those into Jamestown), and the roads here are fun. Almost all are not only single lane with passing places, but also supremely winding, often virtually enclose by huge plants and trees, and involving constant hairpins and steep inclines, many of which have 15-20%+ gradients. Driving here is fun though not so great for cars: Speed limits are low and the nature of the roads mean that using 3rd is a rarity, and 4th a virtual impossibility, whilst engines face allot of revving and first and second gears and clutches get knackered much quicker than they would anywhere else. The delights of having to reverse uphill in the pitch black of night, around a blind hairpin on a 20% slope and with a sheer drop to one side, in order to try and allow a truck to pass is something I could happily do without again!

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One of the three roads out of Jamestown, though the least well used. You can't really tell from this angle, but the top section - where the car is - is almost a 25% incline, and (below), one of the flatter roads on the Island, heading up out of town from lower Jamestown towards General Hospital and Ladder Hill

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The people are also stunningly friendly: to the casual and short term visitors of course, but once they realise you are one of them (and I haven't come across a single islander yet who isn't friends with at least one of my cousins and knows at least a few more), they open up even more. To somebody more used to European isolation, it is both heart warming and slightly unnerving. If you went up to a stranger on a high street in Europe and just started saying hello to everybody, people would start avoiding you as a weirdo, and chances are, you would be arrested not long afterwards. Here, the opposite is true. If you don't say hello to everybody, they consider you very strange indeed.

Having said all that, despite the fact it being so safe that people routinely leave their front doors unlocked and keys dangling in car ignitions, it is also a slightly dangerous place: Alcoholism is rife, and I have witnessed more fights and scuffles (almost all alcohol related) in my first couple of weeks - in evenings - than I have done in a long time. It is also, depressingly, surprisingly litter strewn. Even half way up mountains you will find litter, including the ubiquitous Namibian beer bottles. In somewhere so small and friendly, I find the constant litter very sad.

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But the Island really, really, really is green. And absolutely stunning.

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Parts of the town also have such an old colonial feel as to make you think you are living in a time warp: In some respects it still kind of feels and looks like the 1950s, whilst such fading memories of half-day Wednesday and Sundays where absolutely everything save churches and a pub are closed. Indeed on Sundays, Jamestown can almost look like a ghost town. The eclectic selections of music on the two local radio stations also work to add to that feeling. Both have announcements which can resemble BBC radio from years past, and include a hugely unpredictable and very odd selection of things, which make you realise just how small and close knit the community is: Would Mrs Smith of Levelwood please photo 1234 before 3pm to arrange to collect her laundry. If anybody is in the neighbourhood, could they tell Mr Jones that one of his goats is currently walking down the road towards St. Paul's. The Chairman would like to remind all [12] members that the annual meting of the association of bee keepers will be held tonight. The Rose & Crow would like to announce that it now has mauve coloured Dulux paint, curly-wurleys and dresses for girls aged 3-7 for sale. And so on. And then there is the music - whilst a surprisingly large range of genres and artists is played, there is also a huge underlying love of country music, especially older stuff, which to many outsiders (and I include myself here) is one of the most baffling things about the St. Helenian lifestyle.

But (ignoring the Country Music, which in such quantities is still a strange thing to me) all those things help make the Island what it is, and I truly love it. And perhaps most importantly - and I have checked this at every possible source - there is no Kiki here, and if for no other reason I will happily put up with all the country music required. So, who fancies some Conway Twitty?

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Above, this is the Castle, home to the St. Helenian government, and open to anybody that wants to wander in, whilst below, Main Street and the town centre on a Sunday, when there is virtually nobody about at all

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For some reason, I doubt you would see a sign similar to this on a shop on most High Streets in England any more. Oh, for more innocent times...

Posted by Gelli 09:34 Archived in St Helena Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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