Last weekend was the highlight of our stay on St Helena thus far. It may well be the highlight of the whole visit too as it will be hard to beat.
On Friday afternoon, Alan collected me from work just after five and asked if we should go and eat dinner in Jamestown. Unbeknown to him I had already booked dinner at “2onMain” training restaurant, so I told him I preferred to go home for a cup of tea before deciding what we would do. We returned down the hill, but instead of eating at Ann’s Place (good as it is), I surprised Alan by walking him into 2onMain, to a lovely reception from the trainee waiting staff. At first we were the only people there so were able to have a good look around at the décor of the lovely Georgian room. The walls are covered with large paintings of St Helenian ebony on black backgrounds framed on wood made to look like old packing cases. They are on loan through the artist, the French consul, Michel Martineau who created them to decorate his kitchen walls. An image of one of the paintings can be seen here: http://johntyrrell.blogspot.com/2010/09/artist-of-st-helena.html – as well as lots of other information and observations on St Helena. On the large old wooden shelf unit next to our table, large papier-mâché bowls were on display. I have since discovered that these are made at SHAPE, an island enterprise offering employment and work experience for adults with disabilities. Some of their products can be viewed at http://www.shape.co.sh/gallery.html. I’m hoping we can make a visit to the centre while we are here.
Shortly after we sat down, a lady unknown to us arrived and greeted the staff. After ten minutes, the rest of her party entered and consisted of Derek and Linda, who had brought us up to Periwinkle, as well as their little granddaughter, Jordan, who I’d met when borrowing a blender and mixing bowls from their house. Then the penny dropped, the lady was Val, the owner of Periwinkle, who had just returned from several months away in the UK. We introduced ourselves and had a chat about how things were going in Periwinkle, arranging that she would come up to see us at some point.
Then – came the food.. We started with homemade focaccia, rolls and sourdough bread in a basket alongside chicken liver pate and a mixed salad. This was followed by fresh grouper in sauce vierge accompanied by all kinds of vegetables. Fresh fish AND island grown veggies – what a treat. It was delicious as well as beautifully presented. We drank wine from a bottle we had brought ourselves – a baby-sitting gift from Lewis and Lauren. For dessert, I had red fruit trifle and Alan had home-made strawberry yoghurt ice cream in a brandy snap basket. St Helena has a bright future when it comes to catering if the standards we enjoyed are to be disseminated across the island as the trainees graduate and launch their own businesses to cater for the increase in tourists when the airport starts to function.
With pleasantly full stomachs, we ended the evening back in Periwinkle watching another episode of Spiral.
Saturday dawned with a blue sky for once and my hopes were raised that this was going to be a good day for the prearranged 4×4 tour across the island. Again, Alan had no idea and it was hard to chivvy him to eat his breakfast when he was supposed to be having a leisurely birthday morning! At 9.25, our chauffeur for the day arrived. We were still eating as well as having a chat with Mum and Dad. Alan could not work out why Keith, who our car is rented from, was standing on our garden path – so I told him what the plans were. While we finished getting ready, Keith waited down on the roadside looking out to sea. He was watching a school of dolphins playing in the water off the end of Young’s Valley. I ran back to fetch the binoculars. For the first time this trip I was able to watch these amazing creatures appear and disappear – popping up all over the place. There can be up to 400 dolphins gathered at any one time making it easy to spot them, though without Keith’s keen eyes, I would not have seen them at all. The distance and height meant that they are still just like small black lines surfacing and disappearing within a second or so.
Soon we were on the road with the first stop being the Donkey Home. This time, the donkeys were gathered by the shelter as people were waiting to take them out walking. The walking on the hard road surfaces helps to keep their hooves worn down and healthier. The baby donkey, called Wonkey, was down close to the fence meaning that I could have a good stroke of his soft, thick and fluffy coat. He is used to being petted and stood nicely still for me.
We travelled on out to the south-west of the island. The next surprise was at St Helena of the Cross church where a farmer was sitting by the side of the road. Keith stopped to greet him. I thought – I know that laugh! “Have we met before?” I asked, thinking I’d perhaps seen him at the hospital. We had met, but not at the hospital. He, Terry, and Lorrian, his wife, were dinnertable companions on the RMS St Helena. The seating for dinner is pre-arranged, meaning that you get to know the other people on your table quite well over the five evenings of shared meals. He was preparing to castrate the bullock calf in the field just behind where he was sitting. Lorrian was close too, up by the church. He called her over and we enjoyed a few moments’ reunion before heading on.
As I am always on call here, I needed to regularly check in to the hospital reception. Keith took us to the last house before we would be out of range for over an hour. The house owner kindly let me use his phone inside. Entering the living room of the long single story bungalow, was like stepping back in time with furniture, furnishings and pictures on the wall typical of the nineteen fifties. The only items that brought one back to this century were the ‘William and Kate’ wedding souvenir shopping back hanging on a chair and the computer, printer and modem sitting in the far corner.
Back on the road, we took a short detour to ‘Jerusalem’ – a brown, sandy and rocky area with little growing but at high altitude with sweeping views over to the rocky outcrops known as Lot and Lot’s wife, then down to Sandy Bay beach. We could not see the highest point of the island, Diana’s Peak due to the cloud cover. It was not warm up there, with a cold wind and damp air seeping through our clothes.
We quickly moved on, carrying on to South West Point. This involved a 2 mile off road section to the end of the track above ‘Man and Horse Cliffs’ that peter out above Manati Bay. There is a Post Box* walk down to Manati Bay, but not to sea level as the waves have cut a hollow into the cliffs up to 20m above sea level and crossing this hollow risks being trapped by the incoming tide, a fate that several people have met even in recent years.
Driving along the rough tracks past terrain covered with plants specific to this part of the island, we were treated to numerous sightings of wire birds, the St Helena national bird. This little plover has wiry little legs (hence its name), a long thin beak and bright eyes. It never flies very high off the ground where it also nests making it very susceptible to predators, in particular the rats and feral cats that are rife on the island. Still, last time I only saw 1 wire bird and this time we must have seen around ten, including babies. We also saw partridges and chicks here as well as lots of rabbits, for who the St Helena terrain must seem like bunny heaven.
All the time, the views were spectacular and up-lifting, especially as were enjoying the best weather we’ve had on the island as the clouds had lifted leaving blue sky and warm sunshine.
Keith spotted a boat far, far down close to Speery Island which he told us was being used by crayfish fishers. Crayfish, or rock lobsters, are abundant in the waters around the island, but very difficult to get ones’ hands on to eat. There are strict regulations about fishing for them, and Keith knew these people were not abiding by the rules as they were using tanks to dive.. He knew that because he knows like the back of his hand the St Helenian coastal waters as well as the island itself. Indeed, he was the fisherman who I went out with in 2011, along his son and the Shropshire teachers, on a fishing expedition. I only realised this well into the day. Keith still remembers that I was rather seasick on that occasion!
Keith is also a sheep farmer and owns a flock that grazes out towards South West Point on land rented from the government by a syndicate of owners. He got a bit perplexed when he saw a ewe with one colour ear tag and its lamb with another. Something went wrong in the identification process obviously, and he was going to report back to the respective owners.
We headed back along the same road, continuing then down to Sandy Bay, past the SHAPE Centre. Sandy Bay settlement starts high up the valley, with coffee plantations, bamboo and banana groves in abundance.
The Sandy Bay pub is run by one of Keith’s relatives. We called in there for a drink and to use the telephone for another hospital call. All remained quiet there so we could carry on down the very steep and windy road looking over the island’s piggery at one point, then past the Baptist Church, the smallest church in the Southern Hemisphere, greeting friends or family of Keith’s as went down.
The road continued to be even steeper with hairpin bends that took two goes to negotiate before levelling out at the valley bottom with undeveloped or abandoned agricultural land to both sides of the road. The valley stream is hard to see in places due to the large leafed yam plants that grow all along its lower run.
The water becomes visible right at the valley end, at Sandy Bay Beach, a black sanded proper beach with significant and recently restored fortifications bounding it at the land side on either edge. In the middle, there are around ten or more rusting canons symbolically laid out on the sparse grassy area above the sand limit.
We ate lunch at one of the picnic tables, then strolled along the beach enjoying being at wave level, a rare treat on St Helena. There was a lot of detritus around, sadly, all washed up from the ocean – plastic, wood and metal. Some of the wood already had significant populations of mussels or other shell fish which were doomed so far up the sands. Keith through one large piece of pallet back into the water but it appeared stubbornly determined to beach itself again. The sands are steep here, making swimming a risky business due to undercurrents. The waves, however, are dramatic even on a still day. It would be amazing to see them when there is a big swell on the ocean. At the previous high tide line, we came across a collection of bright blue large sea shells that had been left stranded, thrown up by a previous strong sea surge. They are called periwinkles. We collected five of the cleaner, undamaged and less smelly shells to bring back to Periwinkle Cottage.
Now it was truly onwards and upwards as we wended our way back up to the middle of the island, turning north east and on to Longwood, where Napoleon was imprisoned until his death (a visit for us another day), then further on past Deadwood plain, which used to be an extensive gum, cabbage (black, he and she cabbage trees, seriously!) and ebony tree forest called ‘The Great Wood’ before being decimated by mankind. It was more recently used as the site of one of the island’s Boer prisoner of war camps; but now, in place of the eroded, cracked and bare plain, the Millennium Forest is well on the way to living up to its name. This re-foresting venture is an activity of the St Helena National Trust supported by many of the Saints. See http://www.nationaltrust.org.sh/shnt-conservation-programmes/natural-heritage/millennium-forest/the-millennium-forest-today/ for an update and great pictures too. Alan had been there a couple of weeks previously when, along with Alasdair, they planted a tree each for a small fee and a lovely certificate. It was lovely to see the little tree-ling planted in our names. I hope we can return one day to find it well established, though we know there are still many survival challenges ahead of it.
At the end of this northeast track with the island’s landfill site on the left we got out of the jeep to look straight ahead out to the ocean above ‘Turk’s cap’ rocky fez like peak where fisherman take their lives into their hands descending from the high point where we were standing on a path that is almost invisible before it can be made out again clinging to the edge of Turk’s Cap passing ever down and round out of sight to a point where they can fish directly into the water.
To the right of us, as we looked over Millennium Forest to King and Queen Rocks behind the Prosperous Plain we could see dusty clouds coming up from the valley, or ‘gut’, that is being filled in to form part of the runway of the airport. There are celebrations at the moment as it has been estimated that 50% of the filling in has been completed. This has taken well over a year to achieve and there is still 1,700 Olympic size swimming pools’ worth to go. The target is still to have the airport up and running by 2016.
Prosperous Plain used to be the preferred breeding ground of the wire bird and there was understandable anxiety that the airport development would threaten the fragile population numbers even more. It was reassuring to hear and see for ourselves that the clever little birds have flown southwest and the numbers are holding up well.
This was the end of our official tour. Keith dropped us back at Periwinkle after seven hours of extensive exploration and commentary. Alan agreed that it was an excellent way to spend a birthday, which made me feel very happy as I’d been rather anxious about my lack of preparedness for the occasion, as well as the risk I may have been taking being a bit further away from the hospital than I felt comfortable with. In the end – a contented husband and no worries at the hospital made for a relaxed evening.
Sunday was Remembrance Day, a big event for the island with a march by the Salvation Army band, the Scout band and Scouts, Guides, Brownies, Cubs and other islands notables down the Main Street, across the Parade Ground between the Castle and St James Church, under the bridge and onto the seafront to gather at the Cenotaph along with a good number of spectators.
The service, led by the Bishop, involved hymns, readings and prayers along with the laying of wreaths, all made from fresh flowers. It was a moving event, held in bright sunshine and a stiff breeze with the sound of the ocean waves a constant background.
The reveille echoed around the high cliffs. As we sang ‘Praise my soul the King of Heaven’ a fairy tern in the trees behind the microphone sang brightly and the song was relayed through the speakers as a fitting accompaniment to the words.
We met there with Lauren, Lewis and Jack as prearranged then, together with Rachel, the island’s radiographer, and David her husband, went up to Ann’s Place at the back of Castle Gardens to eat Sunday lunch together.
Lauren and Lewis’s white colonial house can be seen from Ann’s Place peeking out above the cliffs above Jacob’s Ladder. We finished the birthday festivities up there after being invited for a game of Canasta, our first since the RMS St Helena afternoons. Lauren and I also ran through a duet we are practicing as a party piece – just in case there are any requests over the Christmas season..
The weekend ended with more Spiral episodes and Alan’s first taste of Tungji – the prickly pear liqueur I bought him as part of a souvenir set of liqueurs from the island’s only distillery. The other three bottles are of ‘Jamestown Gin’, ‘Midnight Mist’ (a coffee flavoured liqueur) and ‘White Lion’ spiced rum. A good end to a great weekend.