Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Island of St. Helena

Monday 25th April

On Sunday night, the ship's clocks were retarded by one hour for the second time so that we were on GMT. The extra hour was compensation for the fact that we had to arise earlier Monday morning. Only a continental breakfast was available from 7.00 a.m. for we were scheduled to arrive at Jamestown around 8.00 a.m.

I went on deck about 5.45 a.m. and there were already a few early birds on lookout. The dark silhouette of a rugged island was just visible ahead and, with the dawn, this became larger and clearer as we continued the approach. A number of dolphins appeared in the sea alongside, keeping station with us and intermittently arcing out of the water, which remained remarkably placid. We approached the island from SSE. Still on autopilot, a series of waypoints led the ship around the island in a series of 'dog's legs' coming round the east of the island towards our destination, Jamestown, on the northern coast. The final approach was carried out under manual command by Captain Greentree. There are a number of wrecks close inshore but the cliffs to our starboard have two 'day marks' - large white triangles which, when vertically in line, indicate that the ship is aligned on a safe approach. In fact, we were told, we would stay a little to port of the marked course because of a more recent wreck. When we were a few hundred yards off shore, the starboard anchor was dropped, the main engines stopped and we came to rest with our bows pointing towards Jamestown. Perhaps two dozen small boats and yachts were moored in the bay and some of these started to move towards us. There were a number of ungainly looking 'motorised pontoons' and the first of these moored on our starboard side and the ship's gangway was lowered onto this platform. A handsome motor launch tied up to this pontoon and a number of people came aboard. A second 'motorised pontoon' attached itself ahead of the first pontoon, adjacent to the containers loaded on the foredeck and one of our electro-hydraulic 12.5-ton capacity cranes started to perform.

For the passengers, however, it was the start of a frustrating period of waiting. It had been explained that immigration officers would set up in part of the main lounge to process each arrival. We each needed passport, completed immigration form, proof of medical insurance, onwards travel arrangements, proof of sufficient funds and the cash entry fee (12 pounds for a 4-day stay, more for longer stays). Two lady immigration officers slowly processed the passengers, stamping passports and issuing a numbered, re-usable pass card.

The cargo unloading made a faster start and soon a couple of 'motorised pontoons' were engaged in a shuttle service, each taking one or two containers to the jetty where two large cranes hauled them onto the dock. It was as well that the Atlantic was still like the proverbial millpond, as the pontoons seemed to list badly when loaded. After a while, the crane lifted a large cargo netting which was secured in position to protect the side of the ship. A large open basket had been filled with some of our luggage and this, of course, was the cue for rain. After a few minutes, a large tarpaulin appeared and was pulled over the luggage which was then lowered to the waiting 'motorised pontoon' for the journey ashore. At the stern, the hatches had been opened and more luggage was lifted onto another pontoon by the smaller Stores Crane on the aft deck. All this activity only increased the frustration of the passengers waiting to be processed.

An empty, large basket was swung onto the foredeck from a pontoon and it was announced that infirm passengers for the 'Air Taxi' would be the first to disembark. This was apparently a reference to the large basket which would be used to transfer these passengers off the ship. I didn't actually see this process as, by now, I was standing in the queue for interview. I passed muster and was issued with a numbered, reusable pass numbered '63'. Presenting this to the crew, I was told to return to the main lounge and wait for my number to be called. Instead, I watched the unloading. An American WWII landing craft had appeared and this was loaded with a mysterious piece of industrial equipment under a large blue sheet. I never did find out what it was.

Eventually my 'number was up'. Before boarding the launch, we were each equipped with a simpler form of lifejacket. Another immigration official collected our passes at the head of the gangway. The short trip ashore gave us the first look at the entire ship which had brought us safely from Cape Town. Looking ahead, the features of Jamestown were clearer. The town nestles in a deep valley running at right angles to the sea. There's a short, curving promenade which, to our left became the dock with various buildings, mobile cranes and cargo containers. Considerable works had been carried out to the steep hills on either side of the town - it was clear that these hills were none-too-stable and strong fences and wire mesh curtains had been erected to protect the town below.

The signs of the military origins of Jamestown were all around. On our left, there were abandoned lookout stations and batteries clinging to the cliffs. A wall and moat blocked entrance to the town from the sea and the Castle buildings were visible behind the protecting wall. To our right, the cliffs rose up over 600 feet, topped by an impressive-looking fort called Ladder Hill Fort. The 'Ladder' referred to is the famous 'Jacob's Ladder', a vertiginous flight of 699 steps linking the town to the fort. We clambered ashore and were directed to a bus. When everybody from our launch was aboard, we were driven past the cargo unloading activity to the Customs Shed. Hand baggage was passed through the familiar X-ray machine and then we were directed to a collection of luggage from which we could select our cases. Two policemen with an Alsatian sniffer dog circulated amongst us but neither police nor dog showed any interest in the writer. Fortunately, I managed to avoid my normal greeting of 'What a good dog!'. Customs officers were arrayed behind inspection tables but my Customs Form was collected, briefly read through and I was waved outside. About 50 yards further on, temporary barriers had been erected to hold back the crowd of islanders and various passenger names were being displayed. I quickly found my name being displayed by Colin Yon, manager of Susan's B&B where I was to spend my two nights on the island. After collecting a couple from Bath I'd met on the ship, we were driven through the town to our destination. After settling into the room and having a cup of tea with our hosts, I though I'd better explore Jamestown,

The B&B was only a few minutes walk from the single main street. It's amazing how little change there has been since the town was built. Elegant Georgian facades are everywhere although many of the buildings are rather shabby. The effect remains entrancing, particularly since islanders greet each person they pass, friend or stranger. Being Bank Holiday Monday, most premises were closed but the various public houses seemed to be doing a good trade!

I readily found the foot of Jacob's Ladder and thought I'd better see about climbing it. Each step is quite deep and there's a lot of them, so I found it a tiring climb. I started off going 50 steps and then resting and taking in the view but later I could only manage 25 steps before a pause was required. But I made it to the top and explored what's left of Ladder Hill Fort. I later discovered that a number of passengers from the ship had noted my ascent (some using binoculars). I suspect it would be difficult to keep any secret for long on this island of about 4,000 residents. Although the conventional wisdom is that it's harder to go down such steps, I had no problems and descended with only brief pauses for photographic purposes. However, going down you are very aware of how easily you could lose your balance so it's not recommended to people who suffer from vertigo. Breathless but pleased with my achievement I arrived safely at the bottom and continued my exploration of the town before joining the first tour I'd booked.

The first tour was a Historical Town Walk organised by 'Magma Way Tours', actually a charming and well-informed resident called Basil, founder member and past Chairman of the local Heritage Society. In addition to walking around the town, we made a close inspection inside St. James' Church (which is always open) and inside the Court House (which Basil arranged to open). The old building has been completely modernised inside. We finished up at a historical hotel for tea or coffee and more questions to Basil. It was a very enjoyable and informative tour.

Tuesday 26th April

I made an early morning walk out of the town with thoughts of visiting Rupert's Bay but it was clear I'd not have sufficient time before 8.00 a.m. breakfast at Susan's B&B so I turned round and made better time than I expected coming back because a local driver gave me a lift into town.

I'd booked the Charabanc Tour to the Napoleonic Sites. Corker's Tours operate a 1929 export model (right hand drive) open-top Chevrolet which was great fun. The island is full of very steep hills and narrow roads but motorists appear relaxed and courteous. We first went to the Pavlion at Briars where Napoleon spent his first 7 weeks of exile on the island, whilst his later residence, Longwood, was being prepared. We then went on to Longwood house where a number of rooms are open to the public. Fascinating glimpses of a strange period in the island's history where a garrison of 8,000 troops were dedicated to keeping Napoleon in captivity. Plantation House is the Governor's Residence in a marvellous spot looking out to sea. We didn't visit the house but did visit the large field in front of the house (called The Lawn) where a number of elderly tortoises roam. We returned to Jamestown along the western coast of the island where a large spacious estate of modern houses has been built, most with sea views. Convenient, no doubt, but not to my taste. We stopped briefly at the top of Jacob's Ladder for photography and then descended to the town via the long, zig-zagging road. It was about 3.00 p.m. by the time we arrived back at Jamestown so I immediately went to the Museum, at the foot of Jacob's Ladder. It's a small, friendly museum with a fascinating array of exhibits nicely laid out.

I then took the cliff path around the headland on the eastern side of the docks to reach the next bay - Rupert's. The path was built to serve various batteries and look-out stations but has now fallen into disrepair. I made it to Rupert's Bay, with views of the oil storage installation (fuel periodically arrives by tanker). There's a single road across the valley bottom past a few industrial initiatives and the noise of the diesel-engined power station became audible. There's a small village there and I would think the noise of the power station is troublesome. The road out of the valley climbs very steeply and I had good aerial views of the power station. By then, I was becoming rather tired and the last few hundred yards to the summit left me winded. I managed the downhill stretch into town and, as arranged, met up with some of my new friends. I took dinner in the pleasant dining room of the Consulate Hotel with two other passengers.

Wednesday 27th April.

Today, the Corker's Scenic Tour is arranged but the morning started with heavy rain. In the afternoon, I embark for Ascension. More when possible.

My St. Helena Island pictures.

All my pictures from the trip are here.