Saint Helena 2018

   July 2018

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Dubai

Friday July 6th 2018

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After my trip to the Falklands in 2012, the even more remote British overseas territories were in my mind as places I definitely wanted to visit. My dream was to take a trip on the RMS St Helena, on one of its occasional voyages all the way from Southampton to Cape Town, via Ascension, Saint Helena and maybe even Tristan da Cunha.

News that they were building an airport on Saint Helena ruined my plans, as the St. Helena would be withdrawn as soon as flights started. They were briefly resuscitated when the airport turned out to have been built in a location with such severe crosswinds that planes could rarely use it. But the plans were ruined again when, instead of frequent large jets arriving from Cape Town, the airport was put to use for weekly small planes coming from Johannesburg.

One Monday afternoon, wanting to go away somewhere for a couple of weeks, my thoughts turned again to Saint Helena. Flying would be less fun than a five day boat journey out into the Atlantic, but the island still looked pretty awesome. And in their midwinter, last minute planning did not seem impossible. I booked flights for the Thursday evening.

Lack of boat did not mean an easy journey. I would fly via Dubai, Johannesburg and Windhoek. Transport to Gatwick was in chaos thanks to a massive signal failure in South London - many trains were cancelled, so I got a bus instead. But the chaos was spilling over onto the roads, and the bus was heavily delayed. I got to the airport at 9.15pm, with takeoff scheduled for 9.45pm. It seemed disastrous. I wouldn't get to Johannesburg in time for the flight to Saint Helena unless I paid £1600 for a direct flight the next day, which would give me just 1h45m to transfer.

But Emirates saved me. They phoned the gate, where the plane was already boarding, and threw me a lifeline. "No guarantees but there's still a chance! Start running and do not stop!", they said, so I set off at speed. They shouted the gate number after me as I ran off.

Airports are stupid. You have to walk through these stupid duty free shops via a stupid snaking path that is infuriating at the best of times, and with the clock ticking down to disaster, I was filled with rage. As I ran, I heard occasional announcements that the flight was closing. I kept up a strong pace all the way to the gate. Half way there, a ground crew person said "Dubai?" I gasped "yes" and ran on, thinking that surely they would have to let me board. It would be very cruel not to. And when I got to the gate, to my massive relief, they did.

So I flew to Dubai and it took me much of the flight time to recover my equilibrium. I had seven hours in the United Arab Emirates, and I got the metro into the city. All the streets were utterly deserted; it was a Friday morning and presumably everyone was in mosques. It was stunningly hot, over 40C, but a thick dusty haze hung over everything. It didn't look like a terribly nice place.

I took in a quick view of the Burj Khalifa, and then headed back to the airport.

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Flight to Saint Helena

Saturday July 7th 2018

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I flew from Dubai to Johannesburg and spent a night there. 7 hours in the UAE and then 12 hours in South Africa were hardly in-depth cultural experiences, but it was still nice to have seen two new countries.

Then I flew to Saint Helena. We stopped to refuel in Namibia, a country I'd long dreamed of visiting, but we were not able to get off the plane. We took off for the next leg of the flight, and soon cleared the coast of Africa. Then it was a thousand miles of clear blue ocean to cover before Saint Helena.

The famous crosswinds seemed mild today. The landing was a little bit bumpy but nothing out of the ordinary. It was a warm sunny day, and I was on one of the most remote islands in the world.

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Southern skies

Saturday July 7th 2018

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I was tired from my journey and didn't do a lot on my first day on the island. I went to where I was staying, met Val the owner who kindly gave me a quick driving tour of the locality to help me get orientated, and then walked to Half Tree Hollow and back, a steep 3km each way, at about a ten percent gradient. By the time I got back it was dark.

It was a clear night, and the skies were stunning. Venus was in the west, Jupiter overhead, the Southern Cross in the south and the Plough in the north. The Milky Way was stunning and bright, and I took some photos of it curving over the house I was staying in.

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Venus and the zodiacal light

Saturday July 7th 2018

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Venus setting in the west was so bright that it lit up the ocean. Rising vertically above it was the pale band of the zodiacal light, sunlight scattering off dusty particles scattered across the inner solar system. Occasionally, cars passed. Otherwise, insects chattering in the warm night were the only noise.

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National forest

Sunday July 8th 2018

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I went for a walk to Plantation House, the residence of the governor of Saint Helena. In its grounds lives a tortoise nearly 200 years old, and supposedly the oldest known animal in the world, but I didn't see him.

I wandered through the forest surrounding the house for a while. It was strange to be on a remote island in the South Atlantic and yet be in a forest that looked, to me, just like England.

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Sunset

Sunday July 8th 2018

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As I walked back down from Plantation House, the sun was setting behind some clouds. Briefly there were the most spectacular sunbeams I think I've ever seen, rays of light poking out of the clouds and playing all over the ocean below. But trees and houses obscured the view, so I hurried to get back to where I was staying, where the view from the veranda was uninterrupted.

By the time I got back, the sunbeams had gone. The sun was fully behind thick cloud. A tiny consolation was that when the sun emerged into a gap between the cloud and the horizon, it looked pretty good.

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Diana's Peak

Monday July 9th 2018

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I went to the highest point on Saint Helena. At 823m above sea level, it's a modest peak, and only a mile from the nearest road. But the road was a challenge. I hardly ever drive so it takes a bit of getting used to whenever I do, and Saint Helena roads are not like anywhere else. Mostly single lane and mostly phenomenally steep, they have hairpins galore as they wind up and down the hills. I got slightly lost a couple of times, and thought I might be driving down someone's driveway for a little while, but eventually reached the trail head.

Then it was a quick walk to the top. The path goes to the three highest peaks on the island, Diana's Peak, Cuckold's Point and Mount Acteon. In about 20 minutes I was at the top.

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View from the top

Monday July 9th 2018

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I had awesome views over the whole island from its peak. It's amazing to see a place like this, so isolated and small that I could see all of it, surrounded by emptiness.

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Airport view

Monday July 9th 2018

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Looking east, I could see the airport, on a large area of flat land that looks like a sensible place to build an airport. But how it could possibly have happened that no-one assessed the wind situation there before they started building, I could not comprehend. The airport was supposed to bring 30,000 tourists a year here, on big jets. But the big jets couldn't use it, and the revised estimate was 3,000 a year on small jets. That would mean 60 tourists on each weekly flight, but there were only about 20 people in total on my flight. Far from tourism being the mainstay of a newly self-sufficient economy, people told me that tourist numbers had actually gone down since the opening of the airport.

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Jacob's Ladder

Monday July 9th 2018

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I went down into Jamestown one evening, kindly invited round for dinner by a local. Rather than navigate a single-lane road winding down the hill into the valley, finding passing spots to give way to drivers coming up, I decided to park at the top and take the short cut down Jacob's Ladder. 699 steps take you down nearly 200m at an angle of up to 40°. How tiring could walking down a long staircase be? Surprisingly so. I watched a beautiful sunset and then set off. Seven minutes later I was at the bottom, knees aching, hand aching from gripping onto the handrail, mentally tired from watching my footing. Tripping on the descent would surely be lethal.

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Milky Way

Monday July 9th 2018

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The good weather continued. Apparently this was unusual for winter in Saint Helena. With the skies stunningly clear again, I did some more astrophotography. I hadn't seen skies like this since I left Chile in 2016.

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Periwinkle

Monday July 9th 2018

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My house for the week, up on a quiet hillside, under the stunning stars, was a good place to be.

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Ladder Hill view

Monday July 9th 2018

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With a population of less than 5,000 in total, there's not a lot of light pollution on Saint Helena. Even the brightest lights of Jamestown don't block many stars.

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Sunset over the ocean

Tuesday July 10th 2018

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My house had a westerly view and the weather was awesome for days. So every evening I had an amazing sunset view.

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Galactic centre

Tuesday July 10th 2018

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The skies stayed awesome. The centre of our galaxy always blows me away when I see it, with all the intricate dust lanes, nebulae and star clusters.

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Half Tree Hollow

Wednesday July 11th 2018

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I drove up to High Knoll Fort, one of the island's many defensive positions, on a cool windy evening. I got there just as the sun was setting, and looked out over the island. Down below I could see Half Tree Hollow, where I was staying. It sits up on a plateau above Jamestown, hidden from view in a deep valley.

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Milky Way and meteor

Wednesday July 11th 2018

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I did some more astrophotography. I left the camera out for half an hour or so, to record the stars trailing, and during that time a pretty bright meteor fell.

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Lot

Thursday July 12th 2018

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I wanted to do a hike. I picked a challenging one in the south of the island which involved an edgy path along some steep cliffs. But then things conspired against me - I needed some fuel in my car so as not to risk being stranded out in the rural parts, but the fuel station was closed, ironically, for refuelling. And a wild wind had sprung up after days of absolute calm, which made me a little bit wary of exposed paths by steep drops.

So I decided to do a shorter drive to a less exposed hike, and went in search of Halley's Mount. I'd seen a sign to it from the trail to Diana's Peak, so I drove back there. On the first part of the trail, there were fantastic views to the south west, past the rock dome of Lot to the barren coast.

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Flagstaff and the Barn

Thursday July 12th 2018

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I found the trail to Halley's Mount. The trail to Diana's Peak was clear and easy, but Halley's Mount was a little bit more challenging. It was pretty much all downhill, but quite overgrown and at times I was chest-deep in foliage. But I made it to the mount, where I found great views of the east of the island.

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Sunbeams

Thursday July 12th 2018

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It was a lot cloudier than it had been, and by the time I got back home, the setting sun was firing bright sunbeams through the clouds onto the ocean.

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Cloudy star trails

Thursday July 12th 2018

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As night fell, the clouds were getting thicker. I made a star trail photo where the stars were alternately hidden then revealed by the passing clouds.

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Rainy morning

Friday July 13th 2018

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I'd had days of absolutely beautiful weather but today I got a taste of a Saint Helena winter - it was grey, cool and windy when I woke up. The clouds broke up a little bit to reveal a beam or two of sunlight but it didn't look too promising for a hike.

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Great Stone Top

Friday July 13th 2018

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It got a little bit better in the afternoon. I drove to the Bellstone, on the west of the island, from where a trail led to Great Stone Top. The skies were dark grey but it didn't rain. I parked up near the Bellstone, a small lump of rock which clangs satisfyingly when you hit it with another rock, and then set off downhill towards Great Stone Top.

The path was easy to miss at times. I didn't spot the branch leading around the side of Little Stone Top, so I climbed that thinking the path went over the top of it. Looking back, I saw where I should have gone so headed back down and around.

Eventually I reached Great Stone Top. I didn't go all the way to its highest point - that was across a vertiginously narrow ridge with a huge drop directly into the ocean, and in strong winds, I didn't entirely fancy it. So I stopped a little short and enjoyed the views back towards Little Stone Top.

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Driving

Friday July 13th 2018

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Saint Helena looks pretty tiny on the map. It is tiny, only ten miles across at its broadest, but it packs a really implausible amount of geography into its 47 square miles. Driving to the Bellstone took half an hour through winding roads, up and down spectacular gradients, past scattered house and tiny settlements. Luckily on the narrowest single track roads, I seemed to be the only car out and did not have to pass anyone.

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Rainy evening

Friday July 13th 2018

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It didn't rain while I was hiking but it was extremely humid and I could see rain falling out to sea. Back at the house, it was drizzling. In late twilight, it cleared a little bit and the ocean looked pretty nice.

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Winter weather

Saturday July 14th 2018

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The weather became very changeable. One morning I watched as bright rainbows appeared out of the mist, then disappeared back in as the rain resumed.

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View from Flagstaff

Saturday July 14th 2018

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Flagstaff is quite a prominent landmark, visible from many places on the island. I decided to check it out. Rain showers were passing through and it was very windy, but the walk to the top is supposed to be easy so I thought I'd try it regardless of the weather.

It was easy - most of the way it could easily be driven in a 4WD. But as I got onto the steeper path, I got caught in a sudden heavy downpour. It was extremely windy and I thought for a moment I would turn back. But I thought it should pass soon, and carried on. The cliffs to the north of me began to reappear from the cloud.

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North view

Saturday July 14th 2018

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The rain passed, and the high wind soon dried me out. I could see the storm clouds moving out to sea as the land came back into view.

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Storm receding

Saturday July 14th 2018

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Briefly, the sun even came out again. The storm moved north, dumping its rain out to sea. I headed back down the hill.

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Jamestown

Monday July 16th 2018

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Rainy weather continued. I drove down to Jamestown and had a look around.

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The bay

Monday July 16th 2018

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Rain showers passed and moved on out to sea. Between them, it was warm and humid in Jamestown and momentarily pleasant. I went down to the sea front, looking for whales which apparently can sometimes be seen. I was out of luck today though.

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Evening storms

Monday July 16th 2018

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I'd wanted to do some more hiking but with all the passing showers, I decided I'd leave that for the next day. Instead I drove back up to Half Tree Hollow and saw the setting sun light up one of the rain storms out at sea.

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High Hill

Tuesday July 17th 2018

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After a rainy morning, the sun came out. I jumped into my car and headed out for a hike. I found my way to High Hill, which only took about ten minutes to climb. From the top, I could see all the way across to Flagstaff. Over the ridge, thick cloud was coming in, so I headed down. I reached my car just as it arrived and rain began falling.

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Blue Hill road

Tuesday July 17th 2018

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I drove back along the ridge, looking for High Peak. I stopped at a layby with an awesome view down to Sandy Bay, but the view quickly disappeared in thick mist. Clouds were forming right on the ridge, billowing down on the other side.

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High Peak

Tuesday July 17th 2018

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I found the High Peak trail. There were two options, a few hundred metres direct to the summit, or a couple of kilometres looping around it to come up from the other side. It was after 5pm, and I thought I should probably be sure of getting back to the car before sunset. So I went up the short trail.

It was very disappointingly short. Within five minutes I was on the peak. I could see where the longer path went, and I was sure I could do it and be back at the car easily before it got dark. So I set off.

But, thick clouds were coming up the valley. Shortly after I left the peak, they were upon me, and they were worse than they looked, bringing heavy rain and winds. A half hour walk in that didn't look like so much fun, so I went back up to the peak and down the way I'd come.

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Gates of Chaos

Wednesday July 18th 2018

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I hiked to Blue Point. My guide book said it was an easy hike - I was avoiding the more challenging ones after the rain. So I thought it probably wouldn't be that awesome. I was very wrong - soon after the trail started, I was high over Sandy Bay, looking down on the coastline known as the Gates of Chaos. I'd seen this part of the island from Diana's Peak when I'd climbed it, and it had looked spectacular from there. Here, it was even more impressive.

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Manati Bay

Wednesday July 18th 2018

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The Gates of Chaos were the eastern view from Blue Point, and to the west was Manati Bay. It started to rain a bit as I hiked back from the point, but in the distance, the sun was shining on South West Point.

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Late sun

Wednesday July 18th 2018

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For my first few days on Saint Helena it had been warm, sunny and clear, but for a week now I'd barely seen the sun. It was struggling to come out now, shining a little bit on some of the distant hills.

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Cox's Battery

Thursday July 19th 2018

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I hiked to Cox's Battery, the ruins of one of the island's defensive positions. It was weird to think of people up here, looking out to sea over the Turk's Cap rock formation, ready to repel invaders.

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Placid day in the south west

Friday July 20th 2018

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It was my last day on Saint Helena and I did one more hike, to South West Point. It was a day of incredible tranquillity, dead calm and softly lit under a blanket of light grey clouds.

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Empty ocean

Friday July 20th 2018

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A couple of days ago, from this part of the island, I'd seen a ship heading towards Africa. It was quite a startling sight when the ocean was normally utterly empty. Today it was back to normal.

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Clifftop

Friday July 20th 2018

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I hiked late, and the light was fading as I headed back up to where I'd parked. But I was in no hurry as the trail was easy to follow. I lingered a while on a grassy hilltop. I'd thought that two weeks on Saint Helena might be ridiculously too much but I'd had no trouble filling my days, and was feeling like I would miss the place a lot when I left in the morning.

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Man and Horse Cliffs

Friday July 20th 2018

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As daylight faded away, I followed the trail back along the cliff tops, and took in the views of the barren and inaccessible coastline. After all the rains I hadn't fancied trying any of the steep trails down to the coast and now I wished I had.

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