A Travellerspoint blog

St Helena

You say tomato, I say "where?!!!!"

I will start this tale with a note that despite being aware that it might happen in a way, it is still very disconcerting to enter a new country (effectively), and before you have walked even 5metres, be accosted by some cousin who you have never even heard of before. Hello Faith! I am currently meeting/randomly bumping into cousins, often of whom I have only the vaguest idea who they are, at a rate of about 3 a day...

Your mission, whether you choose to accept it or not, is to eat variety, healthily, and cheaply.

St. Helena is an island of contradictions, and, to me at least, constant sources of amusement, bemusement or down right confusion. I am not, and never have been, a shopper (though admittedly, give me a good book or music store and I can easily lose hours). But in Jamestown at least, it is fast becoming a favourite past time. With few exceptions, shops are, erm, multi-purpose. Which leads to some brilliantly eclectic and often surreal shops. You never really know what will find next: A shelf of tinned fruit might be proceeded by spare car tires/wheels, and followed by shower curtains and weed killer. Even shops that are mostly concerned with a certain type of good, often have some extra bits for no discernible reason: One hardware store also stocks golden syrup, treacle and girls dresses, for example

Naturally, this leads to fun and games, as in addition to the vast variety of things on display, there is also a large aspect of treasure hunt-ing to most shopping. You know that you should be able to find something which fulfils your requirement somewhere even if you will end up using an item for something wildly differing from it's intended purpose. But exactly where to look first (and if you can get it on that day) remain beyond me at this point. For example, it took me a week to find anything vaguely resembling margarine, yet when i did it was almost a full fridge shelf full of Flora. It clearly was not produced on St. Helena, and as the boat hadn't arrived in that time with new supplies, it was obviously here somewhere. But where it came from/why it had been hidden until that point, I have no idea. I haven't seen a Kitchen roll since i've been here, but can buy Tesco reusable shopping bags despite the nearest Tesco being, probably, Bratislava.

I have never previously before been willing to spend a good 45minutes in the search for olive oil, just because I happened to overhear a fraction of a conversation which included news of a third party rumour that somebody had been told that a friend of somebody's brother had seen a cargo manifest which suggested that a small quantity might have just been unpacked somewhere from the last shipment. I mean, that number of people in a rumour is practically half the islands population. You also learn that bread can be got from Spar on Thursdays in vast quantities but then seemingly not again for a week; but from the bakery next door most mornings between 9.30 and 10.15 or 10.30 if you are lucky, and, allegedly on occasions (though never yet seen), in Thorpes.

As for fruit and veg, that's a whole different ball game. Certain items, such as cabbage, cabbage and cabbage seem to be constantly available. Other things such a potatoes and apples are available most days, especially if you are there early enough. Yet other fruit and veg retain a kind of elusive quality that the yeti has: Occasionally you will see something which might suggest that it was once there, but it sure a heck isn't still there now. I had that relationship with Bananas for a while - local bananas are small, absolutely delicious and grow in reasonably large amounts on the other side of the island, yet are elusive b*ggers in shops. I realised early on that the small market was a good chance and took to staking it out. Every morning I would go down and inquire, without success. Twice, I went there and was told i was too early, only to reappear 20 and 30mins later too be told I was too late. Eventually a cousin took pity and gave me a small stash from their own supply. To this day I haven't seen one for sale, despite virtually everybody seemingly having some around. I have thus far managed to acquire only a single tomato (and now wished I had taken a photograph of it as proof) which came a similar way, though I later cracked up the girl in the excellent local sandwich shop (a cousin, naturally) by spying a load chopped up and changing my order to a tomato sandwich with extra tomato.

It was not a cheap sandwich.

I harvest small yet tasty and potent chili's from both my own garden and a public garden down the road, though mushrooms and onions are now just fading memories, and as for fresh milk, that is just a sad tale of EU beaurocracy having (presumably) un-forseen circumstances.

As those more experienced readers (yes, ok, i do mean old) may remember, a good few years ago, the EU brought in rules that said that all milk that was to be sold had to be pasteurised. This was heavily fought by small farmers throughout the UK and France, at least, who argued that the cost of the required equipment was prohibitive and they would be forced to stop producing milk if it was brought in, as indeed happened. St. Helena were not able to get an exemption, and the British government declined to provide a subsidy on the grounds that it would discriminate against other British farmers who could not get such a subsidy for the equipment. The result being that all farmers on the island were forced to stop producing milk, and it is now (that I am aware of, anyway) not possible to purchase fresh milk anywhere on St. Helena.

Having said, contrary to UK law you can still smoke more or less wherever you want, and 'Best Before Dates' are almost entirely there for comedy value. In the UK (and, i'm sure, under EU law), stuff which is close to, or after it's sell by date gets increasingly heavily discounted and thrown away within a few days or week of it passing its date. Here, it's not even particularly hard to buy stuff where the best before was in 2007...

Prices are also interesting, to say the least. Obviously, the island has to either produce or import everything it needs via the single ship that serves the island. And importing stuff by boat obviously adds dramatically to the costs which have to get passed on to the consumer. Stuff coming from South Africa is generally cheaper than stuff which comes from the UK, but not always. Thus, a packet of value spaghetti which in the UK would cost about 20p, costs £1, and a pack of frozen peppers which might cost 99p or £1.50, costs over £4, and i can get two different sizes of cans of cokes, but not a bottle of any size whatsoever. I can get Duracell batteries for maybe half their price of Europe, despite the fact that they have been imported from Europe, whereas a box file that you might get in WHSmith for £1 costs almost £10, and deoderant is much cheaper than Europe. South African eggs, bizarrely, are cheaper than local ones, though I did make the mistake of asking for 8slices of local bacon to subsequently discover they cost me 53p a slice (though admittedly they are big fat juicy rashers). Alcohol is also cheap: A beer in a pub will cost you only 90p-£1.20 the same as in the supermarket, though there is no draught beer on the island (I have heard rumours of a small country bar which does, but think it is just that. A rumour) and variety is distinctly lacking - I can't even find a can of Guinness, which is unusual. A Whiskey or Gin and Tonic in the local pub, using imported British gin, is 90p. In the UK, you pay more than that just for the tonic water.

The whole pricing structure is just bizare and you really have to watch what you pick up in case it accidentally costs you a fortune. And yet despite all that, I can still amble down to the excellent Anne's place near the harbour, where the lovely proprietors, Anne's son Richard and his wife Jane (naturally, more of my cousins) can sell a huge T-bone steak, a mound of chips and a pile of salad for a fiver, and at lunchtime, the same but with 2 or 3 big chunks of Tuna, Marlin or Wahoo for only £3, and still, somehow, make a profit. That same amount fish in the local shop - when available - would cost more than that.

It all just adds to the fun

Posted by Gelli 14:55 Archived in St Helena Tagged food Comments (1)

Home?

Those of you that have the dubious 'privilege' of knowing me personally will probably be aware that i've never been the most 'home' like of people. Home, though meaning many different things, has always been a slightly strange concept to me (as in the 'it's good to be home' or 'I've been too long now, and want to go home' type of home). I seem to have collected the nomadic/itinerant wanderer gene somewhere along the line: For years when people have asked where home is - if i've actually answered - i've always answered my rucksack: the reasoning being that it's the one constant in my life, so the most home-y thing to me. Whilst i'm comfortable in most places, i've never really felt 'at home' or as though I belong, anywhere, and normally only feel anything vaguely home-y-like when i'm on the move. DB (German Railways) night trains feel more like home to me than Kristianstad, for example, even though i've been theoretically living there for lat six years. I've never had a problem with any of that at all, though accept that as I speed through the years, in non 'core' travel circles, that actually does sound increasingly - and quit e possibly is - very sad.

So you might be surprised to hear that I have been referring to St. Helena as home. I first realised it about 4days before we arrived, when i heard myself say to somebody - i forget who, so I have no idea if they were islander or tourist - "don't worry, it's only 4 days til we're home". I remember having an almost out of body experience after where i kind of argued with myself about what I had said. "Home?!!" I kind of shrieked to myself "what the heck do you mean home?!". Eventually i put it down to whiskey, and decided to ignore it.

But I could do that no more when i said something similar a day later, except with the wording 'Only three days and then I'll be home' was much more personal. At that point, i had to stop and think. Home? St.Helena?! Me??! For all the links that i have there, i couldn't for the life of me understand how the heck I was referring to some tiny lump of rock, 3 days away, which I had never even seen before let alone visited, and didn't even really think even existed, as home. It's not even as if i even have strong current links there: True, my grandmother was born there, but she left in 1947 and has never been back. Yes, she has a brother there that i've never met, but then then again we've had very little to do with her other siblings and their families, even though they live in England (and Ireland) so it can't be that. And whilst my parents talk of it with great pleasure, they have only visited once, for 3 weeks, and over 30years ago. They also talk of Cornwall and even Merthyr Tydfil in such terms. And that sure as heck doesn't make it 'home' for me. Or perhaps it does. Who knows? Honestly, I have no idea, except that i seem to be getting old and increasingly senile, and if Kiki finds me here, i really am royally screwed. Perhaps it is home.

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I suppose I have 4 months to work that out.

Posted by Gelli 14:20 Archived in St Helena Comments (1)

It exists!

Arriving at the mythical (well, to me) Island of St. Helena

semi-overcast 23 °C

I have been hearing about St. Helena for all of my life, yet for some reason, i've always kind of felt it was some kind of mythical place. Like Atlantis, Eldorado and Bognor Regis. Somewhere that you always hear of, and sometimes even look for, but never seem to find; somewhere so small and far away that it probably doesn't exist and is just there as a bit of filler for cartographers (yes, i'm a cartographer). And If i'm honest, despite always wanting to, I don't think i actually expected to ever get here. What I expected to happen on the boat, i'm not sure - perhaps the crew would announce that, sorry, they can't find it for some reason, or "it was definitely here last time" and then just continue to Cape Town. I really don't know.

But.

But.

It really, REALLY, does exist!

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Look! Land!

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It's definitely land. I think i've actually made it

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The officers on the bridge guiding us into the Jamestown anchorage

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In true British fashion, the rain and clouds came out to meet us (yes, it is a tropical Island in early summer...)

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This sign painted on the side of a path wall near Mundens Point says it all - our arrival was the first contact/delivery from the outside world that the Island had had for almost six weeks

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Who says there is no air travel on St. Helena...

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The first group of passengers leave the ship

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St. Helena's capital, Jamestown, from the anchorage with Jacob's ladder going up the hill on the right hand side

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Look, 29 years later and I'm actually here!!!

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Bye-Bye RMS St. Helena

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On dry land, the mythical island of St. Helena

Yes, I'm finally home :)

Posted by Gelli 04:30 Archived in St Helena Comments (1)

Almost there now...

It's only 3more days on a boat!

overcast 25 °C
View The boat to St. Helena - Part 2 on Gelli's travel map.

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The Bridge radar scan when anchored in Georgetown Bay

It's a bit strange. Leaving Ascension, the mood aboard is very different. Though we only gained a few new passengers, the balance seems to suddenly be very different. The sky is mostly semi-overcast, and though still hot, we've seen very little sun for a couple of days now. The general feeling is now almost one of almost anger that we are so close yet so far, and people are becoming withdrawn. Everybody knows it's only just a couple of days more, but instead of anticipation, we seem to have more frustration that we aren't there yet. It's very odd.

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Loading luggage onboard from the pontoons; Georgetown, Ascension Islands capital city; the pontoons departing having done the job, and the piranha-like blackfish. Not tasty for humans, but hungry and lots of the blighters

Ascension itself is an interesting if strange place. Effectively it is one big transit lounge, and added to the status and types of people that live there, it just doesn't seem quite right. It also fulfills a number of very special roles: It's a major hub in the transatlantic and South Africa to Europe communication cable networks, once of crucial significance. It's a major repeater station for the BBC world service, and is one of the base stations for the worlds GPS system, and has also been a NASA tracking station amongst much else. Having said that, even though i had barely an hour ashore in daylight, it looks varied and in places beautiful, and certainly some areas would be worthy of more time and exploration, particularly Green Mountain. I kind of doubt that I will ever go back, but it certainly wouldn't be the end of the world if i was to one day get stuck there for a couple of days.

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Watching Ascension disappear into the background, some of the Geology and strata of the North east coast around Boatswain Bird Island, and this happy fellow who flew alongside us - with the Dolphins again coming out to play as we departed - for some time before getting bored

I am spending my last couple of days as I have most of the rest. Some reading, some talking, and a chunk of just milling around and watching the sea slide by. There were however, a couple of new diversions: First up, a tour of the engine rooms and ships belly - despite obviously being huge, I was surprised at how small the diesels actually are, whilst my abiding memory is one of amazement at just how many pipes and electrical cables there are down below. I also tried, unsuccessfully to solve some of the little mysteries that the ship had given me, such as 'What happened to the clock above the pool which suddenly disappeared?' (it's in pieces being fixed) and why does the lift show a maximum of 8psg and 600kgs on the top floor, but 8psg and 630kgs on the other 2 floors?? (gravity? stupidity? It remains entirely unknown - none of the ship's staff had ever noticed it before. At least I have the satisfaction that it will now annoy certain other people, and not just myself!)

Slightly bizarrely, we were also given a full rollcall and lifeboat drill. Now, call me picky, but why the heck you wait for the last 24hours of a 16day trip to hold such a drill was a little beyond me. Whilst i freely accept that we had been joined by some new passengers (15) at Ascension, that didn't really help the exiting 91 who had been on the ship the whole way and through both much busier sea lanes and choppy seas where there may have been more cause for concern. Oh well. Who am i to tell these people what to do?

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The waters are choppier than they have been, and with Captain Young seemingly in a hurry to get home, we are still barreling along at a great rate of knots without any stabilisers (well, stabiliser, as the other one fell off during a recent dry dock overhaul, and hasn't been re-attached). By all accounts, we will even be a few hours early. As for me and my mood, it's also a bit strange. Some anticipation, some excitement, some relief, some sadness and some anxiety. But regardless of all that, i'm inching relentlessly closer to St. Helena, this almost mythical Island I have been hearing about for so damned long.

Roll on tomorrow.

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Above: Nobody ever explained what this marker mean't (it used to mean plague...) when it suddenly appeared on a cabin door, and below, position plotted. We're finally almost home!

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Posted by Gelli 12:21 Archived in St Helena Tagged boating Comments (1)

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 Comments (7)

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