May 26, 2016

Saint Helena to Ascension


Moored under the cliffs at St Helena

We knew it would be tough to leave St Helena. It always stuck me as an enchanted place. It suddenly appeared to a Portuguese ship on May 23, 1502, was populated by some of the greatest figures in history and then faded into obscurity—like a fairytale. My fear was that when we left we’d never find it again.
 
Donkey walking with the Governor
So we stayed. We met the Governor while walking donkeys (!) and our hour-long chat led to an invitation to Plantation House. The house had been off-limits to locals during the last Governor’s tenure, but Lisa (we’re on first names now) was eager to open it back up. We saw the chandelier that once hung in Napoleon’s Longwood Estate, and understood the inside joke of a previous Governor who decided to hang a portrait of Napoleon directly across from a portrait of his jailor, Sir Hudson Lowe—so they could scowl at each other through eternity.


our hike to Sandy Bay Barn

followed by dinner at Long Reach

Sailing with friends

We also savoured the days with the friends we’d made. Dom and Jo walked us through Rupert’s Valley. It was here that tens of thousands of liberated Africans were released from slave ships and began the process of recovering from captivity. Many didn’t survive and huge mass graves containing thousands of people were located during the construction of the road to the airport.
 
Picnicing with Crystal Blues on our island tour
Jo, Dom and Oli are making a documentary about the bones—and as we walked through the desolate sites, stumbled over rocks and ruts (uneasy and keeping an eye out for bones), we understood their passionate need to make sure these people, who were stolen from their homelands under horrific circumstance, weren’t forgotten.



We left on St Helena day. But before that we squeezed in another sail, a picnic, dinner at the Old School House (where some of the liberated Africans took English classes and the film crew now lives) and a final group dinner. We had planned to leave before St Helena day—because what if it let us down? But when Maia and I saw the coloured lights being strung along the waterfront, we knew nothing about St Helena could ever disappoint us.



So we had a new plan—we’d enjoy the day, see the parade and leave at dusk saying a tearful goodbye to new, but very dear, friends. We’d watch for the fireworks as we sailed away.

The moon, as it rose over the island, with our friends on Crystal Blues raising their sails in the foreground was a final gift.


St Helena was a reminder about all that is wonderful about cruising. Remote and unknown, it was hard won. Coming with our own transportation—we were flexible about how long we’d stay. Our happy days on the island weren’t the result of the island entertaining us though—it’s not a Disneyland that’s created to amuse. We had to be our best selves. We reached out and met local people and learnt the rhythms of the island. We maintained our sense of wonder. We laughed an awful lot.


When fireworks lit up a wee but very special portion of the sky we were already ten miles away from St Helena. We’ve since added 700 more miles.

The sail was a gentle one: soft tropical breezes from astern, easy seas and a moon each night. Neither Charlie nor I got seasick—so we enjoyed meals with our fresh St Helena produce, seasoned with spices from Comoros, Madagascar and Indonesia. We stayed in VHF contact with Crystal Blues—so had a friendly voice to chat with each day to while away the pleasant miles.


The best selves we found in St Helena came along for the ride, marvelling at the site of Ascension when her multi-hued volcanic hills came into view—topped by Green Mountain; Darwin’s experiment. The once barren hill was planted with tropical plants from Kew Gardens to create a man-made cloud forest which altered the geography and climate of the island.


We’re pretty sure we won’t spend six weeks here—though Immigration suggested we extend our permits, just in case (we have to leave within 72 hours after June 1 – or apply and pay for new permits…). We’ll see how the days go.

For more on St Helena I wrote two stories which are already up:

http://divemagazine.co.uk/go/7404-st-helena
http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160512-the-island-ready-to-welcome-the-world

And apparently I have a story in June’s Cruising World about the Indian Ocean








May 21, 2016

Goodbye St Helena

The tears fell, the moon Rose, fireworks set the sky ablaze and we're off to Ascension island.

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May 3, 2016

Teaching an Island to Fly



St Helena airport

At the airport, the line through security was one of the longest I’ve seen. The lady in front of me had packed large sewing scissors and a bottle of body lotion in her hand luggage. The guy behind me made all sorts of alarms go off. Behind us the line, which snaked out of the security area and back toward the check-in desk, was filled with giddy Saints, many who’ve never flown before.



We’ve made steady progress through the normal tourism opportunities on St Helena. We went on a wreck dive with Anthony from Sub-Tropic Adventures, which was spectacular and convinced us to explore the Papanui, a snorkel-depth wreck a few hundred metres from our boat. A dolphin trip with Johnny from Enchanted Isle didn’t yield up dolphins, but did take us to Lemon Valley Bay—which we later returned to by dinghy so we could snorkel and explore the quarantine station and fortifications.


A day or so later we were invited by our friend Louise to join her for dinner with her friend Rodney aboard the RMS St Helena. Rodney turned out to be the captain of the RMS (it helps to be befriended by the former Governor’s daughter). Beyond getting us into amazing places and introducing us to wonderful people, spending time with Louise means seeing the island through the eyes of someone who loves it dearly—which is always a gift.
Captain Rodney and Louise
We even made it up (and back down) the 699 step Jacob’s Ladder.

With those things covered, it was time to check out how the locals and expats spend their time. The first opportunity came shortly after the rather devastating news that the airport opening is going to be delayed while a significant turbulence and wind shear issue is sorted out. The imposing King and Queen rock formation to seaward of the head of the runway creates an unpredictable wind pattern.


Even though there’s no plane, there’s still an airport and everyone needs to be trained to use it and I headed to the first training day. After checking in, browsing through the gift shop and going through security we were offered sandwiches and cake. Then it was time to catch our imaginary plane and leave and arrive in St Helena. Customs and immigration went quickly and the sniffer dog licked my feet (which I think means I passed). I picked up my tourist map from the tourism office and got a tip on the next big event: a memorial service for Napoleon Bonaparte.

When in France…which you are when at the Napoleon sites, you might as well as go with the program and do what the tourism director, Chris calls the weirder stuff.


Our awesome new friends

The Bug-eyed Tuners and the Brass Monkeys provided the music and sang the English and French anthems (happily they did La Marseillaise in French—it sounds friendlier that way).
Arise, children of the Fatherland
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny
The bloody banner is raised               
Do you hear, in the countryside,                                            
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They're coming right into your arms                          
To cut the throats of your sons and women!


Then wreathes were laid on the empty and unmarked grave

April 27, 2016

St Helena Out of Exile




St Helena is a place of robust friendliness—where sharing a boat ride turns into being included in a local named Patsy’s 60th birthday celebration and then a contact for our next stop in Ascension. Though it has your standard social problems, it also has an old-world virtuousness that we’ve taken an almost comic delight in. The biggest crime we’ve heard of since being here was the theft of a mirror from a hairpin turn. We also heard of some ‘rough boys’ who offended local sensibility when they didn’t wave at passing cars while they were driving down Ladder Hill (waving while passing other cars is more than good manners here—it’s an inborn reflex).

It takes a while to adjust to the level of friendly openness here. It’s a bit like watching a movie, waiting for the sinister plot twist, only to have the bad guys invite the good guys to a party where they supply music, fish cakes and juicy gossip.


And the gossip is juicy. Currently the swirling rumours are about the new airport: it was built wrong; it’s too dangerous; a full plane load of passengers will be too heavy for the cross-wind… Happily, the rumour about ticket prices being set at more than a thousand pounds (out of range of your typical Saint) was unfounded. A return trip to Jo’berg is 583 pounds—about the same as a one-way ticket on the RMS. But the rumour that the airport won’t open as planned? Sadly, that’s true

We’re lucky to be here at such a significant time. After watching the first ever commercial flight land at the airport, we watched the RMS St Helena pull into harbour on one of her last voyages. Aboard was the first female Governor, who will also be the last Governor to arrive by sea.


Governor Lisa Phillips’ inauguration was a quirky mash-up of colonial charm and modern politicking. She openly acknowledged the raw deal Saints get; they are paid woefully low wages to do the same jobs that expats from the UK are given cushy remuneration packages for, meanwhile their kids seek life elsewhere because of the lack of opportunity on the island. But she also seems to understand just what a strong draw an island can have over her people and is eager to help them find a way to stay home through ‘the sensible development of tourism’.


see that tall spier in the background--that's me hiking around it

Maybe only other islanders can understand what it’s like to truly love island life. People who get island fever seem to see the edges, where earth meets the sea, as a hard border. But islanders see the sea as a continuation of home—a link to every other place.

But home is still home. Every Saint and Expat we’ve met seems to love St Helena with such affectionate warmth that in only two weeks we’ve found it easy to dig below the highlights and tourist attractions and catch glimpses of the St Helena people want to both share and preserve.


our private audience with Jonathon--turns out he was telling us to tickle his thighs

This is a place of unsubtle beauty. We’ve hiked across multi-hued volcanic hills, explored ancient fortifications, discovered underwater ship wrecks in gin-clear warm water, found mystifying gravestones that will forever haunt my imagination and wandered through lush gardens. We watched kids spearfish, bringing up a prize with every dive as well as had tea in a room full of discarded and rescued antiques with one of the island’s main business owners. We’ve listened to stories, told our own, and laughed and laughed.


I am a little envious of every person who gets to find this place after I leave. It hurts my heart a bit to imagine saying goodbye. But not yet, we still have so much to do.

April 19, 2016

St Helena--first Comair flight




The urge to point and yell 'da plane! da plane!' was huge.



Today we had the very cool opportunity to see history made—when the first passenger plane arrived in St Helena. Of course it was a bit late. After several test flights into St Helena by a smaller jet, the Comair 737 operated by British Airways made its first landing in advance of the official airport opening on May 21st




The plane took two passes before wheels down. When it taxied to the terminal it flew South African and St Helena flags from the cockpit windows.