A mysterious phenomenon occurs when circumnavigators sail across their longitudinal track …. they go back in time, as well as home!
We realised what had happened the moment we stepped ashore on Saint Helena, a 47 square mile, sub-tropical British Overseas Territory in the middle of the South Atlantic.
As we strolled through Jamestown, Saint Helena’s quintessential Atlantic port, something was different. But what was it?
The town’s Main Street boasts some of the best examples of listed Georgian architecture in the world. But it wasn’t that.
It’s steeped in a rich history, with fortifications and historic buildings at every turn. But but it wasn’t that either.
And then we realised. No-one was glued to a mobile phone. In fact, during our two week stay we didn’t see a single mobile phone zombie. The locals, called Saints, look you in the eye, smile, say hello and chat.
The four thousand people who live here have a great life.
Everything shuts on Wednesday afternoons and Sundays, when the only sounds in town at 9am are birdsong and hymn singing.
Saints use landlines, phone boxes or word of mouth. It’s a small, safe island, where everyone seems to know everyone.
In fact, every Saint seems to know someone from the UK, or has visited the UK at some point. The south coast and Swindon are popular Saint destinations. We even met a barmaid called Sally, who came from Portsmouth and had a brother in the Royal Navy!
There are wifi hotspots (aka time travel worm holes) and for £3 we enjoyed a half-hour blast of planetary connection every couple of days.
Of note are two video libraries … with DVD’s and one launderette (a steep £16 for a wash and dry service).
With no 4G on the boat, the local FM radio station provided daily amusement. Amongst the eclectic music offerings were road warnings of cattle crossings, the solemn reading of entire cafe menus, and news of a broken sausage maker for sale.
Saint Helena’s birthday coincided with our visit. This special day was our chance to meet the community celebrating their gorgeous island. With parade floats, stalls and talented musicians it was quite a party!
Food shopping was a hunting expedition amongst a handful of small independent grocery stores.
We found no eggs for sale; possibly linked to a recent salmonella poisoning incident. Fresh bread was available at 10.30am and we learnt to join the local scrum for it.
Living rooms with shop signs opened up off alleyways. One was selling a vast selection of spices in old sweet jars, 12 bananas for £1 and a large marrow for £2.
Finding marmite was a particular highlight. Unavailable throughout South Africa, we’d been without it since Australia.
Locally grown fresh produce – lettuce, cucumber, peppers, tomatoes, parsley, marrow, aubergine – were top quality, but randomly available, in small quantities, in different stores, at a premium price.
How much would you pay for a medium sized, tight, fresh white cabbage? £5? Well, that’s the going rate here. But we were grateful; apparently Falkland Islanders pay £10 for a cabbage.
One morning we were handed a great hunk of Yellow Fin tuna from our Falkland Island cruising neighbours. They’d been out fishing with the locals and had more than they knew what to do with.
Though I prefer fish frolicking in the sea, on this occasion it would have been churlis to refuse nature’s bounty. That tuna served us two dinners, a breakfast and lunch. And it was mouth watering delicious.
You need a licence to fish here, but with no commercial scale fishing it’s a fish paradise. We saw Bonito tuna under the boat every day and local fishermen caught just enough to feed the island. Though there is talk of a tuna canning factory being able to produce a million cans of tuna a year.
Talking of fish, we took the plunge with a couple of guided scenic and wreck dives. Sadly independent diving is forbidden here … something to do with bad yachties taking lobsters and currents.
The stark underwater volcanic terrain was compensated by the water writhing with fish of every size, moray eels and lobsters. And we lost ourselves in a mesmerising fish ball the size of a double-decker bus.
The wreck dive was the Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Darkdale, torpedoed during WWII by a German U-boat. Practically intact it sits at 43m, 30m to the deck. We did not want to come up! The visibility was over 15 metres, it was cloaked in fish and, being a war grave, deeply atmospheric.
Around the island
Jonathan, a Seychelles Giant Tortoise, clearly enjoys the benefits of suspended time here.
He’s the oldest known land vertebrate in the world at over 190 (ish) years old and lives in the grounds of Plantation House, the home of Saint Helena’s governor.
Jonathan arrived on the island in 1882 as a mature adult. He was easily spotted and we were privy to a private audience, possibly his only visitors that day.
He told us he had met many members of the Royal Family, including King George VI and the Queen, who he fondly recalls fed him a banana.
We can report that he seemed to be in excellent health and spirits and even demonstrated a little shuffle for us.
Incidentally, he’s an exemplar of the benefits of a vegetarian diet, thriving on hand fed veggies grown from his own private garden. And there’s still enough spring in his step, once a year, to go looking for his partner, Myrtle, who sadly passed away in 2016.
Saint walking and wildlife
Armed with a hire car, book of walks and map we explored the heart and coastland of this ancient land.
The single lane roads carved into the mountain sides, with hair pin bends and sheer cliff drops, outdid any Top Gear programme we’d ever seen.
Forbidding 300 metre high cliffs protect the island from the unpredictable Atlantic swell.
Impenetrable junglesque hillsides were strewn with flowers.
Molten hued volcanic mountains had hair raising, steep, narrow tracks with loose surfaces. Great protection for the eight breeding species of seabird including Masked Boobies, Noddies, Petrels and Terns.
An occasional dwelling, empty church or small shelter added to the islands mystery and bewitching charm.
Evocative place names hailed from a bygone era … Fairyland, Horse Pasture, Donkey Plain, Cow Path, The Gates of Chaos and Devils Garden.
And the island’s isolation, since it’s emergence from the sea over 14 million years ago, has resulted in a unique range of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.
The island holds a whopping 30% of the UK and British Overseas Territories endemic species.
The endemic Wirebird (St Helena Plover) is critically endangered and we were lucky to spot 10 of the reported 500.
From the tiny Blushing Snail, to the Spikey Yellow Woodlouse, to the angelic Fairy Terns, we were entranced.
Charles Darwin, Captain James Cook, Duke of Wellington, Captain Bligh … they’ve all been here!
Saint Helena was first discovered in 1502 by Portuguese navigator Joao da Nova. It’s Britains second oldest colony and for centuries was important to ships sailing to Europe, to and from the Far East – to take on stores, or leave sick crew members.
It was a refuge for liberated African slaves, a place of exile for over 6,000 Boer Prisoners of War and the setting and backdrop for the final chapter of Napoleon’s life.
Napoleon spent his final years at stately Longwood House, till his death, aged fifty-two in 1821.
His burial tomb is also here, though it was ‘closed to visitors’ when we visited; and his body isn’t there anyway.
His remains were exhumed nineteen years later and he was returned, with full honours, to France.
In other news
One morning we woke to see a stately Tall Ship anchored and rolling in Jamestown harbour.
For hundreds of years Saint Helena has been a vital staging post for ships travelling the world and this old, stately windjammer looked quite at home.
Bark Europa was sailing the same route as us – up to Ascension Island, then on to the Azores.
Bark Europa’s arrival was big news!
The local radio station, issued a report on the crews Covid testing status and talked about the Tall Ships Races. And we both enjoyed a moment of pride at having played a part in the Races rich heritage.
So, what now?
We’re reluctantly leaving Saint Helena on Monday 23 May. It’s been a very special place to visit and we’d return in a heart beat.
But onwards we must sail. We’re following in the wake of Bark Europa and sailing 700 miles to UK flagged Ascension Island, a six day passage up the South Atlantic.
It’s reportedly so shark infested there we’ve been emailed directly and told that all diving and swimming is forbidden. To get ashore we must launch the dinghy and we’ve been told the swell and surf are rough. Ah well, feel the fear and do it anyway!
Yellow Brick will ping our position every six hours and our next blog will be from shark island 🦈