Sitting almost 2000km off the southwest coast of Africa, St Helena is a tiny island paradise – for the moment. With a new airport opening in March 2016, it could be all change for this volcanic island. Go now, for a true sense of isolation and relaxation, says Tricia Hayne, before the planes and people move in.
“This is the Officer of the Watch speaking…” The voice is calm but commanding. Mentally, I stand to attention, but the royal-blue sunlounger on the deck of the RMS St Helena is far too comfortable for further effort.
Below me, says the voice, is 2703m of water, and we’re several hundred miles from the nearest land. For a moment, the ship feels decidedly small in the wide Southern Atlantic.
By the time we reach St Helena, we’ve had five whole days since Cape Town to get used to this 158-berth vessel. Five days to adapt to a slower pace of life, the gentle courtesy of the St Helenians who look after our every need, their unexpectedly competitive streak at quoits, or deck cricket.
We’ve had five days in which to come to terms with the increasing isolation. So when Jamestown looms into view on day six, it’s with a sense of relaxed anticipation that we make our way down the wobbly gangplank onto the even wobblier pontoon and thence on to the tender that takes us ashore. They don’t do things the easy way on St Helena. Yet.
For the RMS is on the way out. By August next year, its 27-year tenure will be no more than a memory, confined to the ‘that was then’ world before the airport opened. Since St Helena was discovered in 1502, every single visitor has approached by sea.
For most – bar the occasional invading army – first footfall on the island has been at Jamestown, a tiny, well-preserved Georgian town at the foot of towering cliffs that is the island’s capital. Like us, they’ve walked along the harbourfront, crossed the moat and passed through the town gates onto the Grand Parade – where centuries of British soldiers have mustered for duty.
The sense of history may be palpable, but it’s all very low key. Far more obvious is the welcome. Passing strangers smile and say hello. Women in the St Helena Coffee Shop sit and chat. Car drivers wave as we pass on the scarily steep and narrow roads heading out of Jamestown – for the only way is up.
Up into the aftermath of a turbulent volcanic past that gave birth to this extraordinary rock, where every corner turned is another scene revealed. And so we explore – from the bare, forbidding cliffs that, fortress like, ring the island to the high peaks clothed in green plants found nowhere else on Earth.
We head into the verdant Sane Valley where Napoleon was entombed nearly 200 years ago. Past wavy rocks painted in every hue of brown, cream and deep red. Beneath jagged outcrops – King and Queen, Lot, the Gorilla’s Head – that gaze down on the waters crashing far below.
There are walks across rolling meadows to the sea, punctuated by the unique but rather unprepossessing wirebird as it picks its way across the fields. We climb up steep hills through pinewoods rich with the scent of resin and scramble down vertiginous valleys to otherwise inaccessible coves.
Aided by ropes, we make our way across barren rocks to sea ponds watched over by Lot’s Wife, where the crystal-clear water reveals brilliant green and silver fish darting around as we swim.
Beneath the waves the world feels more ordered, for – despite its size – it’s easy to get lost on St Helena. Snorkelling off the wharf, we’re enfolded by pretty gold-fringed cunningfish, which seem to find us as attractive as the fishermen’s spoils.
More of them accompany us at Lemon Valley Bay, where we’ve kayaked for a swim, while diving deeper, we spot turtles, spiny lobsters and moray eels among the jumble of rocks and colourful ledges.
Out in the bay, scores of pan-tropical spotted dolphins practise their acrobatics, oblivious to the oohs and aahs and clicks of our camera shutters. In winter, humpback whales make their way to these shores, and in summer there are whale sharks – though we’re told they’ve moved on.
So it’s with pulses racing that we watch the large black dorsal fin heading our way, signalling the arrival of the world’s largest fish. Fleetingly, the eight-metre giant surfaces alongside our fishing boat with scarcely a ripple; we slip into the water, but then – with never a backward glance at our feeble attempts to keep up – it’s gone.
We get to keep our catch, though – tuna and dorado and wahoo that our landlady kindly serves up in ‘plo’, a slightly sloppy pilau that, along with fishcakes, is the island staple.
We learn to make those fish cakes, too, accompanied by a glass of chilled South African white that was brought in, like almost everything else, on the RMS.
In the world that is to come, when flights from Johannesburg will be a weekly norm, no-one yet knows how supplies will be delivered to feed the new breed of tourists. But that’s almost a year away – and there are still berths on the ship, if you hurry.