Touring St Helena

Jamestown, St Helena

Jamestown, St Helena

St Helena is a unique volcanic island located in the South Atlantic about 2000 km west of Angola, Africa and 3500 km east of Brazil. The nearest land is actually the similarly isolated island of Ascension. Both islands are part of the UK. But, St Helena is unique as it is one of the few left in the world with its only contact being by sea. As a result, the culture has been more isolated and somewhat slower to adopt modern conveniences than most. However, all that is about to change since a commercial airport is in advanced stages of construction and should be completed by 2016. The island is most famous for being the place where Napoleon was incarcerated up until his death.

St Helena Cliffs

St Helena Cliffs

When approaching the island, we mostly saw just huge steep rocky cliffs and mountains with a rugged shoreline showing no signs of beaches. We saw little sign of vegetation from our mooring area. The main town of the island, Jamestown, is in a narrow canyon that reaches down near the sea and a wharf protects the land from erosion and lines the shoreline. The wharf also provides access for small vessels and barges to load supplies via cranes from visiting ships, and a landing area for people to get ashore in calm conditions. The town has trees and even a park with flowers and grass. Later we discovered much of the mountain areas at higher altitude are covered with lush vegetation and forests of trees, and there are farms and pastures with cows, goats, and other herds of animals.

Longwood - Napoleon's House

Longwood – Napoleon’s House

We took a tour of the island with a popular guide named Robert – who gives interesting personal perspectives on his tours. His route treated us to spectacular views from the mountain road above James Town, as well as other parts of the island. Our tour included a visit to the house where Napoleon lived and died – called the Longwood House. It has been mostly restored, and beautiful gardens surround the location as well as the original stone fence that surrounded the property – now it is a tourist destination. Inside we were told about his life by local experts, and shown momentos of his life there. Many of the original furniture peices were sent back to France a few years ago for restoration and for an exhibit at the 200th anniversary of his being incarcerated which will be held in 2016 in Paris. We later visited the tomb of Napoleon – where he was first laid to rest until the French government exhumed his coffin and moved him back to his beloved country of France 20 years later. His tomb’s location is still marked in its original form and is located in a beautiful wooded area. The tomb was unmarked because of a dispute between the British and French over whether he would be called “President” or “Emperor”.

Unique bottles

Unique bottles

During our tour we visited a distillery located in a local resident’s garage that makes and sells some excellent rum and liquors. They claim they are the “most remote distillery in the world” and sell their goods locally as well as exported to other countries. We bought a couple of bottles which are shaped with stair steps on the side in reference to the famous Jacob’s Ladder found in Jamestown. They apparently will be collector items as the owner can’t find a supplier to make a new supply at a reasonable cost.

Our guide took us to see an overlook of the airport being built. It has been a huge project taking dozens of dump trucks running every day for over two years to move the earth required to build a flat enough area for a runway suitable for smaller commercial jets. The new airport won’t be a major military airport (like the one at Ascension) since the runway is too short, but the locals feel some military presence will be located here at some point.

Our guide showed us the mountain top where Halley (of Halley’s comet) came as a young man to study the southern night sky. He then drove us to the west side of the island and we stopped at an overlook to Sandy Bay which has a stupendous view including the famous Lot’s Wife – a huge rock sticking out along the side of a mountain. We also saw ample evidence of the vegetation called “Flax” which was once a staple of business here at St Helena before cotton and nylon became the favorite source for clothing and rope fibers.

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder

As we headed back down towards the town, our guide stopped at the top of Jacob’s ladder for us to see the view from the top. Jacob’s Ladder was built as a method for getting supplies up to the military who were stationed at the top of the mountain close to Jamestown over a century ago. They had rails at one point with burros used to haul up goods up the track. Now it is 699 steps of concrete stairs which go nearly vertically from the base of Jamestown to the top 632 feet above. One day, I took on the challenge and climbed the steps and took pictures along the way – completing the climb in about 17 minutes, and getting back down in 5 minutes without stopping. I used a technique of leaning back with some weight on my hands on the rails and rapidly walking down to increase my speed. Someone developed a way to slide down the rail, but I wasn’t going to try that!

The tour gave us a taste of the beauty of the island. Later we explored more of the island, and I took an amazing hike with some other yachties one day. In addition to local fishing boats and support vessels in the harbor, the monthly ship which brings supplies and people from Cape Town, and also supports the island of Ascension, was here. And, the sailing tall ship Picton Castle was here with its crew of young people from many places around the world. We had first seen Picton Castle in it’s home base at the Cook Islands in 2010. We got some great views of this beautiful tall ship while it was here and pictures are in the album below.

I’ll share more about the hiking experience and photos in a later post. For now, please have a look at a sample of the beauty of the island and what we experienced in the photo album below, including photos of the harbor and vessels.

Here is the location of St Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic:

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