Travel writer and tour leader Caitlin Hennessy recently led a group tour to St Helena on behalf of Revealed Travel. In this blog she recounts her impressions of this remote island.
Just getting to the remote island of St Helena is all part of the adventure. Situated nearly 2,000 miles from the African coast in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it used to be a six-day journey on the ship RMS St Helena from Cape Town. But since the end of 2017, that has shortened to a mere six-hour flight from Johannesburg.
My first view of the island through wispy cloud cover, was of the airstrip, perched dramatically on a cliff edge, high above the waves. The landing was equally thrilling and we all applauded as our pilot brought the small twin-engine jet smoothly down to terra firma! Just as they used to welcome the arriving passenger ship, now hundreds of locals gather at the airport to watch the plane and its passengers touch down.
Soon we were on a minibus to Jamestown, the island capital, population approximately 700. The bus whisked us first through barren volcanic mountain scenery and then, further inland, into dense and lush vegetation – stunning contrasts. We first glimpsed Jamestown from high up, at the top of a series of hairpin bends, which took us down to this small town, squeezed into the narrowest of valleys, overlooking the sea.
Several members of our group had a particular interest in Napoleon, undeniably still St Helena’s most famous resident, even though two centuries have passed since the defeated emperor’s exile on the island. Our group visited various Napoleonic sites including the house where he spent his last six years in exile, Longwood House.
Upon his death in 1821, Napoleon was buried in a place he chose for himself, a beautiful verdant location called Sane Valley. We visited his now empty tomb, in a quiet spot surrounded by flowers and ferns. In 1840 at the request of the French government, his remains were exhumed and placed at Les Invalides in Paris.
We were lucky enough to have an informative private tour of Longwood House where Napoleon lived until his death, spiced up with fascinating insights into his daily routines. We saw the peepholes in his shutters where he spent his time watching the guards. He began by writing his memoirs, but towards the end of his life he suffered with ill health and complained about being kept on the damp, windy island in two rather small rooms of the house, not to mention the poor diet he was given. At the end of the tour there was plenty of time to go back with a detailed audio-guide and study every aspect of Napoleon’s years here. The house is now a museum with a wealth of Napoleonic artefacts, including Napoleon’s death mask. Many paintings and some of the furniture are originals, whilst some items have been replicated.
No visit would be complete without a visit to Plantation House, the home of St Helena’s governor. Our group was shown around the house by resident manager, Debbie Stroud. She was full of stories about the house, and gave an insight into the lives of some of the former governors too.
Our group were lucky enough to attend a delicious high tea with champagne, hosted by the Governor, Lisa Honan, who gave a talk about her role on the island, as one of Britain’s most far-flung but historic overseas territories.
With all due respect to Monsieur Bonaparte, I was personally even more excited to meet its other famous resident, Jonathan the tortoise. At 186 years old, he’s thought to be the oldest land animal on the planet. After the house tour, we entered the paddock and were able to meet him, along with two other Seychelles Giant tortoises. Jonathan can be recognised by a cataract in one eye. I had been slightly anxious that Jonathan would pop his clogs before we got to see him, but there he was, surprising nimble for 186, despite his rheumy eyes and wrinkly skin. He carried on plodding around near us, chomping on grass quite contentedly!
I like nothing more than being out on the ocean, and a boat trip out from Jamestown is a must! Our boat took the group along the North West coastline where the waters are generally calmer. It can be tricky here to spot whale sharks but there is plenty of other wildlife commonly seen to satisfy the enthusiast. On our tour we spotted flying fish, a small pod of bottle-nose dolphins, and a huge pod (of around 400) pantropical spotted dolphins. What a joy to see them perform their acrobatics around our boat, churning the waves into a frothy cauldron! Closer to shore and around the guano-covered Egg Island, we saw an abundance of sea birds, including delicate fairy terns, black and brown noddies and the majestic red-billed tropicbird.
Apart from wildlife spotting, going out to sea enables you to see the impressive geological make-up of the island – the volcanic layers and glimpses of its verdant interior. There are a multitude of fortifications, including still-visible rusty cannons, at every possible landing point to St Helena, defending the island against potential invasion. Very similar, probably, to the forbidding view that greeted Napoleon when he first arrived.
Despite its small size (47 square miles, less than a third of the Isle of Wight), St Helena has a wealth of trails, for both the seasoned hiker and the more casual stroller.
You can buy a book describing the 21 Post Box walks, some of which contain hair-raising drops and cross almost vertical rock faces.
Revealed Travel’s group opted for the Diana’s Peak walk which is located within the Diana’s Peak National Park. At 823m the peak is the highest point on the island and the walk is known for its stunning views. Rated 5/10 for difficulty, the walking was initially gently uphill however, near to the Peak, there are steps which can get slippery in wet weather.
Unfortunately for us, this was our one drizzly day of the week, so views were limited. On the plus side, the low cloud meant we focused instead on the plant life, much of which is endemic to St Helena. Our guide pointed out species such as the endangered Tree Fern, Dogwood, the “He-cabbage” and the “She-cabbage tree”. We were lucky to see the charmingly named blushing snail, also endemic, which clearly loved the damp conditions of the day. The mist laden sub-tropical vegetation had its own beauty. On our way up, we visited a small nursery, where endemic plants are being propagated in a programme of replantation. Native species are disappearing and some are facing extinction as invading plants (especially the ubiquitous New Zealand flax) have over-run this tree fern thicket, and are now covering vast areas of the island. Replanting the endemic species once more provides a habitat for, amongst others, the fragile golden sail spider and the spikey yellow woodlouse.
If you are interested in nature, you’ll love the Wire Bird Tour, led for us by local Saints, Basil George and his son Kevin. Their extensive historical knowledge and humorous anecdotes about the island proved a winning combination.
The wire bird is featured on St Helena’s coat of arms and shield and is held in great affection by locals.
There are only approximately 450 to 500 wire birds left on the island leaving them on the brink of extinction. We spent quite a while trying to locate the birds, which live in the drier flat lands of St Helena. Once our sharp-eyed guide had spotted one, we gradually focussed in on them, and were able to see several flying around.
Just as we were leaving in our Jeep, we were delighted to spot a wire bird nesting fairly near the road. It darted back and forth, giving us superb close-up views. It nests on the ground in very well camouflaged nests, so you have to be careful where you step.
The Millennium forest is managed by St Helena’s National Trust. The project began in the year 2000, when the first official planting took place. As we arrived, we were able to choose and plant our pre-purchased trees. The two varieties are currently gumwood and ebony, both of which are endemic and extremely rare.
It felt good to be planting something on barren, eroded wasteland, helping to re-establish native woodland. This is a great project for protecting St Helena’s future and also an excellent idea for the visitor to be able to give something back to the island.
There’s no need to fear the Whale Shark. Despite a gaping mouth up to 1.5m wide, and being as long as a bus, they’re not interested in human flesh. Instead they filter feed on plankton and occasionally small fish. Fortunately for those not wanting to snorkel in what can be rather choppy waters, the whale sharks generally feed on the surface, meaning that visitors on boat trips have an excellent chance of spotting them from above.
The season for whale sharks is roughly January to March, which coincides with the hottest months on St Helena. So our trip in early February looked like ideal timing.
Sailing out of Jamestown for 40 minutes, our yacht skipper James soon found the feeding area, where the whale sharks frequently congregate. James said we should not miss the opportunity of swimming with these enormous creatures. While the more sensible members of our group declined his advice, I was the only mad soul prepared to take the plunge into decidedly choppy waters. Encouraged by James’ 14-year-old son who dived in first, I pulled on my snorkel and mask and jumped into the surprisingly warm water. At first, I couldn’t see a thing and I struggled with water getting into my snorkel. I panicked a little, in the rough sea, spluttered a lot and returned to the safety of the yacht. My inner daredevil shamed me into having another go, after all, this was likely to be a once in a lifetime experience. I decided this time to hold on to the bottom rung of the yacht ladder, and just dip my masked head into the water. At that very moment a huge spotted whale shark swam in front of me, hardly 4 metres away.
Despite knowing it is harmless to humans, I couldn’t help feeling alarmed by its sheer size. That fleeting glimpse of the whale shark’s massive grey-spotted form cutting through the water, is a sight I shall never forget.
NB. Photo courtesy of St Helena Tourist Board.
The far-flung location of St Helena means its tourism industry is still in its infancy. We certainly felt as if we were amongst the first wave of tourists to discover its treasures, and felt privileged to have been able to explore the island with all its natural beauty.
l-r: Meet the Saints: Kevin, Basil and Brian, local guides and drivers.
A trip to St Helena is a bit like going back in time, to Britain in the 1950s, but (much) more exotic. The pace is unhurried and the sooner you slow down accordingly, the sooner you’ll start to enjoy the island’s way of life. The smiley friendliness of the locals really makes this a special place.
They have a saying here: “Arrive as strangers, leave as friends”, and I, for one, felt as if I’d come away with some very good friends.