It’s been a while since we’ve posted, and our first stop crossing the Atlantic was St. Helena, which is a very interesting place with lots that can be said. My high school English teacher 🙂 would suggest that I start with an outline so that I can organize my thoughts, but instead this will be more a stream-of-consciousness ramble.
We left Capetown in mid-November and made our way only about 30 miles north to Dassen Island (don’t tell the officials in Capetown). We spent a night in this delightful anchorage with no towns/people/cars/noises and decompressed from a couple of months in mostly bustling South Africa. The dapper gentlemen below were seen at rush hour on Dassen Island (we’re not allowed ashore – it’s a nature reserve, but it looked like quite a nice beach).
The next morning we jumped off for St. Helena and made the 1600 mile passage in 9 days. It was a very pleasant passage with nice weather the whole way. The first of several nice passages in the Atlantic – which seems a much more ‘civil’ ocean than the Pacific or Indian. Our trip through South Africa was ahead of most of the cruising fleet, but when we pulled into the mooring field at St. Helena we found four other boats recently arrived from Namibia. We had caught up with some other cruising boats that were even further ahead.
At some point in the recent past St. Helena installed about a dozen moorings for those of us who sail in. The story goes that some cruiser tied up to an old local fishing boat mooring, lost his boat, sued the island, and won (say what?). So now there are official mooring bouys. About $3/night, much easier than trying to anchor.
Once we got tied up we got introduced all around the mooring field (Matangi, Eros, Red Herring II, and Irene) and got the cruiser’s scoop on local conditions. Like Niue, going ashore here in your dinghy isn’t the simplest of tasks. It can be done, but the island also runs a ferry service that, at a $1.50/person round trip, is just too convenient. And they seem to like cruisers. That may be because by and large we’re now the only outsiders that come by. The mail ship that used to bring passengers stopped service last year. And the airport project failed during test landings of the big jets required to fly direct from Europe, so you can only catch a little puddlejumper from Jo’burg. Needless to say, tourism is down.
Nevertheless, St. Helena is a fascinating place. Even if you remove Napoleon’s exile and death here you still get lots of interesting history. Along with many of the other cruisers we got a tour from Robert – History on Wheels. He managed to squeeze 9 or 10 of us into his mini pickup truck and took as all around the island. Robert is in his mid-80s, and the roads on St. Helena are steep, narrow, and winding – it was kind of like getting a tour with my mother driving at home.
Our tour started in the main town – Jamestown. This is where we landed from the ferry every morning and the center of commerce on the island. There are a couple of supermarkets, a few restaurants, and an empty hotel with great coffee and freshly-baked pastries. As with most small islands, things go quickly when they show up in the stores. The bread shows up from the bakery about 11 (most days) and the store is shoulder-to-shoulder. By 11:15 there is no bread left. Cabbages and cucumbers were pretty much the same story. Even bananas, although we were able to get a few from the Customs officer who checked us in and has some in the backyard.
Maybe the most famous landmark in Jamestown is Jacob’s Ladder, a 699-step ‘shortcut’ out of the valley and up to the ridge (and fort above). We did meet a couple of commuters who (claim to) use it everyday, but we only made the round trip once. Down is a whole lot faster than up.
No tour of the island would be complete without taking in the Napoleonic sites/sights. He was initially housed in a quite a nice villa above Jamestown while his permanent residence was constructed at a more salubrious elevation nearer the center of the island.
He didn’t like the water at his new home, however, so every day his Chinese manservant would make the 2-mile cross country trek to a special spring to collect drinking water. When Napoleon died he was buried in a pretty little glade near the spring. I’m guessing the manservant was happy to stop the daily water treks.
Of course, a British island is really no fit place to be the home of the remains of such a fine Frenchman, so some years after his death the French came and took his remains back to the mother country, the tomb in the pretty glade is now empty.
Just outside Napoleon’s house is an old parade ground that used to be used by the troops that kept an eye on him. Now it has been turned into a much more interesting playground. Wanting to prove that youth is a state-of-mind rather than a mark on a calendar, Donald, Rob (Matangi), and Graham (Red Herring II) had to put some of the equipment to the test. The bearings really weren’t made for adult bodies, but with careful balancing you could get going fast enough to consider throwing up.
In addition to Robert’s wonderful driving tour we (along with some of the other cruisers) spent a couple of days hiking the valleys and peaks of St. Helena. The island’s whole economy used to be tied (pun intended) to flax. Flax was planted everywhere, including on seemingly impossible slopes. There were processing plants and shipping wharves. All of that is gone now, except for the flax, which continues to thrive anywhere people haven’t decided to cut it down. Every walk and trail seemed to be lined by flax plants.
Of course no island tour would be complete without at least a few churches, so here’s a quite nice little church tucked away in the hills.
And another one in the next valley over.
Since we were there in early December we also got to go to church for the beginning of the Christmas season. Not that we’re regular churchgoers, but in this case it was time for the 6-8 year olds from the Jamestown schools to put on their Nativity pageant. No pictures (although all of the parents seemed to take lots, including live streaming to grandparents who couldn’t be there) but it was fun to be involved in the local celebrations and the kids did a great job of telling the Christmas story.
From St. Helena we made our way to Ascension, but that’s the subject of the next post (when we get to it:))