December 29th to January 5th
The days between Christmas and New Year were leisurely with no normal work timetable and no more babies expected until mid-January. I assessed that, from the pattern of the previous months, I was unlikely to have any emergency call-in’s to work so could risk joining Alan on one of his post box walks, with my colleagues’ agreement obtained first. Val, our landlady, had been in touch too to ask about joining Alan on one of the post-box walks. St Helena Tourism, together with St Helena National Trust, has a series of 21 walks of varying lengths, terrain and difficulty all with a stamp in a post box at the furthest point. Alan’s aim had been to complete all the walks; by 29th December he had only two still to do. The first was to Cox’s Battery, an old military look-out and munitions store on a north-east cliff top reached from Deadwood Plain between Prosperous Plain (where the airport is being built) and a large rocky edifice known as The Barn. It is one of the shorter walks, though no less spectacular despite this. Walking with Val always adds to the experience as she shares her rich and detailed knowledge of the flora and fauna we discover along the way. For the first time, we were able to taste ‘sour figs’, the fruity swelling of a Livingstone Daisy like plant after the flower has died. We also learned that there are two types of prickly pear growing on St Helena, only one of which is used for making Tungji, the locally distilled ‘raki’. At one point, we could hear numerous bees around the other type of prickly pear, but seeing them was another matter as they were all busy collecting the nectar from down inside the deep flowers. Alan managed to take a couple of photographs as one or two emerged ‘nectar drunk’ and slow to buzz away. St Helena honey is uniquely flavoured and prized, also very difficult to get hold of as we had discovered not having found one pot to buy in all our time on the island.
“The Paint Box” feature on the way to Cox’s Battery
“The Barn” with “The Haystack” just visible on the top
Alan and Val at the post box on Cox’s Battery
Looking north east from Cox’s Battery
“Turk’s Cap” and a prickly pear cactus on Cox’s Battery
New Year’s Eve arrived with no plans for how we would celebrate Hogmanay. Then Lauren phoned, inviting us to join them at a party at Bertrand’s Cottage where Rachel and Ross live. Rachel is the island’s ‘junior economist’. She had not long returned from attending a friend’s wedding in Scotland, where, co-incidentally, my sister, Ruth was also among the guests. Bertrand Cottage is one of the oldest buildings still inhabited and is named after General Bertrand who was one of Napoleon’s companions during his captivity in Longwood House, two minutes’ walk away. There were around thirty guests, including children, most of them now familiar, friendly faces to us. Midnight came; the moment confirmed by listening to Big Ben’s chimes on the BBC World Service. Fireworks were let off – a very special treat – and toasts were drunk to bring in 2014 in very amiable circumstances. I found myself wondering how the five New Years had been marked by Napoleon, the Bertrand family, his other companions and his officer captors in that very same place almost three centuries ago.
Bertrand’s Cottage (photo from the Napoleonic Society website)
We were home and in bed by one as we had a big day ahead. Alan had just one post box walk left to complete and I had permission to join him again. This walk, to Lot’s Wife’s Ponds, was a much bigger challenge than the Cox’s Battery walk. It was the walk that I remembered hearing about during my month on island in 2011; a walk I had hoped I could finally do on this trip. Now it was happening, not only on a special day but also bringing to a close a substantial achievement for Alan as he completed all 21 post box walks. We drove to Sandy Bay, on the south of the island. It was not far in miles but took more than 45 minutes to get there as we had to go by the hospital to collect a radio just in case I was needed. Then the road is tortuous and steep heading down into Sandy Bay, keeping the speed down to an average of less than 10 miles an hour. Past Shape headquarters, Andy’s pub, Solomon’s pig farm, Sandy Bay Baptist Chapel, Lot (a steep stony pillar) and over the almost dry yam filled stream bed running down the valley to the parking place for the start of the walk. The day was overcast but warm. We were well equipped with water and had swim wear packed up too as, provided the sea was not too rough, it is possible to swim in the large rock-surrounded sea ponds. The walk was wonderful, even though the terrain is dry and rocky underfoot there were always new colours and sights to catch the eye: different flowering plants (a succulent called babies’ toes being the most unusual), contrasting shadings in the rocks, the sea patterns, and the masked boobies allowing us to come so close to their nesting sites before taking off to circle around overhead. The ponds are accessed by descending down two 10 metre knotted ropes from the end of the path where the post box is situated. Then it is an easy walk over crab covered rocks to the four ponds, all offering a different swimming experience due to varying depths, temperatures and sea life within. We were careful to avoid the black sea urchins with their fragile spines that break off so easily after penetrating the skins that we have experienced before on the Dalmation coast in Croatia. Once in the water, we could stand still and look down at hundreds of different coloured fish swimming around the new ‘water features’ in their ‘gardens’ without appearing to be at all bothered.
The walk back was more arduous and very hot despite the lack of sun as the cliffs were radiating heat with little breeze in the more sheltered spots. We were glad to arrive back at the car to head home for showers, although this brought the unwelcome discovery that we had both got rather sunburned despite the overcast weather…
Following the signs to Lot’s Wife’s Ponds. Has Lois been there before? No – but it seems another Lolo has!
A closer look at a masked booby, just visible at the back of the photo above
In front of Lot’s wife – and glad not to be a pillar of salt or stone!
Why it is rather a challenging walk in places..
“Babies’ toes” or Hyrdodea cryptantha – a St Helena endemic plant
Variety on the way
First sight of the ponds
Setting off down the rope – still smiling!
Having to concentrate harder at this stage!
The local merman!
Walking along the horizontal part of the rock seam
There were thousands of crabs scuttling around
The afternoon ended with a pleasant couple of hours at Steve and Maureen’s lovely home, Tranquillity, in Alarm Forest, enjoying afternoon tea with them and their other guests. Steve had been the island’s dentist back in the 60’s, with the couple returning to live on the island following his retirement. They are members of the St Helena Baptist church and fellow singers also, so we have met on a number of occasions. We learned all kinds of interesting facts about how life on St Helena used to be. The funniest story I recall Steve telling us was about the after-dinner tradition that the guests at Plantation House, the Governor’s residence during the 1960’s had to follow. All the ladies would, on finishing dinner, leave the dining room first to queue to use the one toilet in the building. The men would remain at the dinner table, drinking port and smoking cigars until the governor announced that it was time for them to go and ‘inspect the Southern Cross’, at which point they would all go outside and line up to wee in the garden!Normal work resumed on January 2nd with busy clinics and clinical meetings. On Friday afternoon, however, I was able to finish early to join Alan, Lewis, Lauren and Jack on a prearranged visit to the island’s only distillery (more info at http://www.strengthandflavour.com/st-helena-distillery/) where the Tungji spirit is made, along with a coffee liqueur (Midnight Mist), local gin (Jamestown Gin) and rum (White Lion rum – named after a ship that was wrecked off the island). In the fragrant setting of the distillery, an annexe of Paul and Sally’s home, and with the rain pouring down outside on to the misty covered slopes of Alarm Forest, we learned about the process of producing the spirit (rum or prickly pear) in the beautiful copper still Paul has imported from Germany. We also got to taste his new lemon liqueur based on limoncello, called Lemon Valley Liqueur. Lemon Valley used to be full of lemon trees until it was eventually stripped of every last citrus tree by generations of passing sailors who, in wanting to prevent scurvy, tore down fruit-laden branches to take on board.
Paul Hickling explains the distillation process to Alan and Lewis
While Lauren and Jack keep busy checking the books under the bottle-filled shelves
The weekend then continued in the Evans’ company as we ate curry together and played games at Periwinkle that night then, on the Sunday, went on a kayaking adventure with them. On the Saturday evening, between ‘Evans’ engagements’, we went to Teeny and Joe’s for dinner preceded by a musical soiree with Teeny and I playing violin duets and violin/piano together. It’s many years since I picked up a violin, and I was surprised I could still find the notes, though the bowing arm was rather out of practice! Teeny was very gracious about my efforts and it was fun to make music together. Over dinner, Joe told us more about some of the conditions and bugs he’s come across on St Helena, while Teeny kindly wrote them down so that I can talk to Dad about them, who will be most interested as once a veterinary parasitologist always one is my observation!
On Sunday (5th Jan), for two pounds a person, we were able to hire kayaks from the New Horizon’s youth centre close to the water front in Jamestown. The water was comparatively calm on the way out to Lemon Valley (the same valley that the liqueur we had sampled is named after), though climbing in to the two man kayaks still entailed getting rather soggy as the waves had to be negotiated first before jumping aboard. Our picnics and cameras/phones etc were all well wrapped in plastic; though sadly my IPod and phone were not well enough wrapped and got sufficiently wet that both stopped working (and this has remained the case to date L ). Bessie the dog came too, though Jack stayed on dry land. Out at Lemon’s Valley, the bottom of the cliffs to one side has been built up to make a wide path and picnic area with a small ‘jetty’ out into the sea. From there we swam and snorkelled before eating lunch and exploring rock pools. Getting going for the three mile homeward paddle was a much trickier business. Lewis and Lauren got us loaded up first as we were the ‘novices’. We paddled out from the breaking waves to wait for them to get afloat. This ended up being quite a drama as the waves and wind were strengthening. At one point, both Lauren and Bessie were tossed out of the kayak before Lewis had managed to climb in. Lauren lost her glasses and hat, while Bessie got out of the water as quick as she could and curled up on the shore as if to say ‘don’t put me back in that boat!’. Thankfully, Lewis managed to find both the glasses and hat before he collected Bessie and walked her out to us (we had come as close to shore as we dared not wishing to have the same experience as Lauren) throwing her aboard in between waves. Finally, we were all afloat again and headed for home in much choppier conditions than we had set out in. It was an eventful day, but a brilliant outing and lovely company; a very special way to finish the holiday season.
On the jetty at Lemon Valley
Heading for home with a bedraggled, flat-eared and unhappy Bessie on board
Lewis and Lauren now safely underway with Bessie looking much happier to be back with her family