Magazine article Geographical

Saints on the March

Magazine article Geographical

Saints on the March

Article excerpt

Deep in the South Atlantic, almost 2,000 kilometres from the coast of Africa, lies Britain's most remote possession. There is, as yet, no airport on the tiny island of St Helena, which is five days' sailing time away from Cape Town. As we approach the island on a misty November morning, aboard the Royal Mail vessel RMS St Helena, imposing cliffs loom 200 metres above us. Then Jamestown, the island's only town comes into view, a thread of white snaking up a narrow valley.

"I can't believe this is really happening," says one St Helenian, returning home after more than 40 years. He wipes away a tear.

St Helena covers is roughly 10 kilometres wide by 17 kilometres long. It has a population of about 5,500 and is one of the very few inhabited places in the world to which one cannot fly. The 6,767-tonne RMS (as the vessel is known) is the only boat to visit the island regularly. Heading south four times a year from Cardiff, she actually visits St Helena six times, via Cape Town, delivering 2,000 tonnes of cargo and carrying up to 128 passengers. Once a year she takes food, mail and medical supplies to Tristan da Cunha, which lies 2,700 kilometres southwest of Cape Town.

St Helena was discovered by Portuguese navigator Jaoa da Nova on 21 May 1502, and named after the Emperor Constantine's mother. It was claimed, by the Dutch in 1633, and colonised by the English East India Company in 1633.

St Helena is perhaps best known as the place to which Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled. He arrived in 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo, and resided on the island until his death in 1821. And during the Boer War, the British incarcerated 6,000 prisoners on St Helena.

Visitors arriving of their own volition include astronomer Edmund Halley, Captain Bligh, Captain Cook and Charles Darwin. In 1834 the island became a Crown Colony and before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, around 1,000 ships a year would stock up with fresh water, fruit and vegetables at St Helena, on their way back from India. Today, only 100 or so yachts and the occasional cruise-liner pass this way in a year

Jamestown has no harbour, only an anchorage in the tee of the cliffs, and we have to be ferried ashore in small boats. Our passports are stamped after we pay E10 for a certificate and landing permit. Arriving at the wharf, some of us jump ashore, on to slippery stone steps, while others are transported in a crane-lifted gondola known as "the box".

St Helena's landscape is one of wind-eroded deserts, dramatic volcanic rock formations, tree-covered hillsides, meadows and valleys, and large areas of prickly pear scrub. It is a beautiful island best observed from local man Colin Corker's 14-seater 1929, open-topped charabanc. St Helena has a 30mph speed limit, which is difficult to exceed, says Colin, on its winding, narrow roads.

Piling into the charabanc on the wharf, we drove through an archway into Jamestown's Main Street with its small, brightly coloured Georgian houses, museum, hardware and grocery shops, post office and philatelic bureau, market building, its few pubs and cafes. There is also a handicraft shop selling banana hats, mats, baskets and embroidery; a prison (big enough to hold 12 people), although serious crime is rare; the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere and two hotels.

Ladder Hill has a 699-step stairway built, together with a railway, in 1829, to transport horse manure out of the town and into the country. The stairway was later used for hauling military stores up to the fort that overlooks the town.

Beyond Jamestown, white Arum lilies flower in the fields, pink hibiscus in the hedgerows, and New Zealand flax with its long tapering shiny leaves, covers the hillsides. The flax trade collapsed in the early 1960s when, coinciding with the introduction of higher wages on St Helena, the Post Office switched to using synthetic fibre. …

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