South Africa to the Caribbean week 3 – Exploring St Helena
Discovered by the Portuguese in 1502 St Helena became a Dutch and then a British possession first under the East India company then the crown. Situated in the South Atlantic ocean it was a strategically important port of call during the British Empire until the opening of the Suez canal. It is now a British Overseas territory forming a dependency with Ascension island and Tristan da Cunha. The island’s remote location meant it was used as a place of exile for key prisoners including some 6000 Boers, Chief Dinizulu, Bahraini princes and of course Napoleon.
This is the view of the volcanic cliffs behind us.
A volcanic outcrop the island is a 47 sq mile and has sheer barren cliffs that are intersected with deep valleys, which slope steeply from the central ridges.
Jamestown, the capital of St Helena, was founded in 1659 when the English East India company built a fort and established a garrison at the site of James bay naming it after James II. The quintessential Georgian seaport consists of little more than a single street stretching for a mile inland nestling in a deep-sided volcanic valley. It retains a remarkable heritage with the likes of the Duke of Wellington, Captain Bligh, Charles Darwin, Captain Cook, as well as Napoleon, having walked its streets. Main Street has some of the best examples of Georgian architecture in the world. There are also a significant number of fortifications, remains, and historic buildings around the island.
Having arrived safely early on Thursday 2nd February we were keen to go ashore and explore. Once the customs had left us we packed up our bag to go ashore to see immigration. There is a very useful ferry service here to save you taking your dinghy ashore. It’s only £2 return each. As we approached the jetty this is what we were faced with. There’s a lot of swell here and it would be impossible to land our own dinghy but the ferry boat is also quite difficult so to the yachties behind us be ready for this.
As you walk along the sea front you pass this beautifully restored customs building.
We continued towards the entrance to the town over the dry moat and through the arch doorway built in 1832.
The first building in front of you is the beautiful St James church the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere dating from 1774. The steeple was added in 1843 but it looks very new so I think it’s recently been replaced again.
Next door is the prison, which apparently has some dozen or so prisoners. Then there’s the immigration centre where we had to produce our passports for our St Helena stamp and check in.
We had a glimpse of Jacobs ladder through the alley in between the immigration centre and the little museum – but that’s for another day.
Opposite the church are the castle gardens where you will find Anne’s place, a local eatery popular with the locals as well as yachties. It’s one of the three places where it’s possible to get onto the Internet although it isn’t free. £3.30 for half an hour is probably the most expensive Internet we’ve used on our travels and it’s the same price throughout the town. We decided to have burger and chips as it isn’t the sort of food we usually eat on passage.
The fire escape was very quirky; there was a ladder leading back into the gardens on the outside.
Friday we stayed on board sorting out the boat. Bill had some small jobs to do and I wanted to clean through after all the rolling around on passage. We had a heavy shower of rain, which washed all the salt off and saved me washing it.
Saturday we went ashore on the 4pm ferry to have a delicious pig roast at Anne’s place, which at £12 a head with all you can eat plus a doggy bag to take home was good value. It’s only once a month but to our friends behind us this is a great evening. We booked a late ferryboat at 8pm to take us back to the boat.
Sunday morning we decided to go to church, as it was the first C of E church we had seen in a long while. The vicar and the parishioners welcomed us. We had coffee afterwards while looking up at Jacobs ladder. As we didn’t have anything to rush back for we thought we’d attempt it in our Sunday best.
We didn’t race up and did 50 steps then stopped to look at the view, another 50 steps and took a photo, another 50 steps and had a drink and so on until we made it to the top.
The view was magnificent. We had a good view of the supply ship RMS St Helena that had arrived with passengers, containers and supplies.
At the top were the remains of a Napoleonic fort built in 1873.
The old barracks were now derelict but some of the out buildings were being used by the local fire brigade to store their vehicles.
We walked further along and noticed some gun inplacements that were from either WW I or II.
Looking out over the edge gave us a superb view of Camomile in the mooring field. The rocks below us at the bottom of the cliffs didn’t look very friendly. There aren’t any beaches around St Helena.
We walked back to the look out by the steps and the town below looked like a model village but from that height it was possible to see the main street in all its Georgian glory.
Coming back down was harder than walking up because of the pounding your knees get. I was lowering myself down as carefully as I could.
It was a relief to get to the bottom of the 699 steps.
We walked back along the quay to the water ferry. The whole area was a hive of activity with the unloading of the RMS St Helena taking place. Everything but everything on the island arrives on the ship including vehicles. The RMS has her own cranes and can lift her cargo onto a flotilla of flat bed barges, which may their way back and forth to the quay where a local crane is used to unload them.
We watched as a lorry was being unloaded. These set of photos make it look easy but there’s always a metre or two of swell running and the timing is critical.
As the barge dips down with the swell the crane started taking up the slack then as the barge came up the crane lifted the vehicle clear of the barge and kept going up over the sea wall and onto the quay. Very clever.
The highlight of our week was swimming with Whale sharks. We had arranged for Johnny who runs the ferry service to take us out on his big boat. We went with Martin and Elizabeth on Caduceus and a guide and that was it – so lucky. The ferry boat came alongside Camomile picked us up and transferred us to the bigger boat waiting just offshore for us and off we went. Within an hour the call went up there were whale sharks ahead. Two of them were basking on the surface. We had gone in our wetsuits all ready to get in the water.
As soon as we were alongside them we jumped in. The first thing that strikes you is their size, they are enormous at about 12 meters long – bigger than Camomile! Bill and I saw a third whale shark on its own so swam over to get a closer look.
I got an amazing video of Bill swimming underneath it but unfortunately I can’t upload in St Helena maybe in the Caribbean. We watched it for a while then it twisted and dived out of sight. We swam back to the boat to find a forth whale shark swimming nearby at an even bigger 14 metres. Karl the guide got a wonderful clear shot of Bill swimming above it. After about three quarters of an hour we got back on the boat, exhausted with amazement at what we had just seen, totally awesome!
Johnny drove back along the coastline for us to get a good view of the construction of the island. It was possible to see the layers and layers of volcanic activity that took millions of years to form.
There were different colours in some areas. There are also parts of a Napoleonic fort built into the cliffs and we could see a walkway had been carved out of the hill to take the soldiers back to Jamestown all those years ago.