April 13, 2016

St Helena and a Tortoise's wish

About 20 miles out from St Helena I started scanning with binoculars. The sky was overcast—but suddenly, there it was: harsh lines breaking up the lofty grey clouds. As Charles Darwin put it, “St Helena rises abruptly like a huge black castle from the ocean.” Closer to the coast, when we saw the ancient naval fortifications built into the cliff faces, the impression we were approaching a mid-ocean fortress was reinforced.

For over 500 years, the only way to reach St Helena has been by the sea. Traveling here, we’ve followed in the wakes of Darwin, Cook, Napoleon Bonaparte, Dinzulu and more recently, Prince Andrew. This month that changed, when the first plane landed at the brand-new airport. For the first time tourists won’t risk being doused in the Atlantic swell; the way both governors and commoners alike have famously been baptised when they’ve reached for the swinging ropes at the Jamestown landing and tried to time their first step ashore.

For a place I’ve looked so forward to visiting, I have to admit knowing very little about St Helena. I expected the ropes at the landing—and even the strong arms of the Saints (as locals are called) as they pulled me safely ashore after our nine day passage. I knew that the capital of Jamestown is a traditional English village wedged improbably into a volcanic cleft on a tropical island. I knew Napoleon Bonaparte was the island’s most famous resident. But beyond that…

Of all the places we’ve visited, this is the most wonderful and strange. Caught somewhere between today, and a time that may never have existed, St Helena has a retirement home for the donkeys who have been replaced by cars, just got mobile phone service, has an 18-hole golf course mowed by goat (you play holes 1-9 twice to equal 18) and has a 180-200 year old giant tortoise called Jonathon who, apparently, was just given his first wish.

“What do you think a tortoise wishes for?” Maia asked me, after our guide Robert told us that Jonathon had been given a wish. “People argued,” Robert said, “they said he already had a wish, so this is really his second wish.”

We met Jonathon (and his friends David and Emma) at the Governor’s mansion. Found in the island’s surprisingly bucolic interior (which appears transplanted in its entirety, complete with charming parish churches, from the English countryside) Jonathon is just one of the island’s eclectic highlights which include cows, donkeys, Napoleon’s house and tomb, Halley’s observatory, hills of flax, a former Boer concentration camp and a smidgen of native jungle which was once catalogued by Charles Darwin.

We had heard Jonathon had been given a scrub and polish in advance of a visit from Prince Edward—who is coming for the official opening of the airport. Maybe he had wished for his wash Maia speculated, though she said if she were tortoise she’d aim for more.

We asked Robert to explain Jonathon’s wish. Much of our day with Robert was spent deciphering the Saint’s dialect (Did he say wish? Or fish? Do tortoises eat fish?). Thought to be a linguistic mash-up based on a Cockney accent (thanks to a wave of immigration after the great fire of London in 1666) it took us several tries to understand that Jonathon’s first wish was actually Jonathon’s wash—of which he may have actually had two.

I felt strangely let down to discover that St Helena’s oldest resident hadn’t made a wish about his future, but had instead had a bath, which we already knew. But if he had made a wish I’d like to think he’d ask people from around the world to come visit the Saints as they endeavour to join us in our modern world of airports, mobile phones and two-lane roads. I believe Jonathon might also hope that the islanders retain what ever it is that makes them so remarkably unique as they continue their lives on their castle in the middle of the sea.
somewhere down that ladder is Maia and a friend from a South African kid boat

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