St Helena: A journey for the senses
Sophia van Taak travelled as a guest of St Helena Tourism to see what the island has to offer.
Ask most South Africans about St Helena and they might tell you that it’s home to a volcano and that prisoners were sent there during the Anglo-Boer War. Very few people will consider it a holiday destination.
After all, until recently the only way to get there was aboard the RMS St Helena, which took five days there and five days back.So why should you visit the island?
After spending a week on St Helena, I can give a long list of reasons!
It’s only a flight away
South African Airways is the only airline in the world that offers a weekly flight to St Helena from Johannesburg. You can board the plane on a Saturday morning and be in Jamestown by lunchtime.
It’s not the cheapest flight (from RR13 577 per person return), but it will save you lots of time if St Helena is on your bucket list. Where you once had to take three weeks’ leave to spend a week on the island, you can now put in five days’ leave.
The new airport has drawn some criticism.
St Helena is a British Overseas Territory and the UK government forked out a hefty £285 million for its construction. Despite this, the airstrip faces the wrong way and the crosswinds make for an exciting landing.
I must admit: There were some sweaty palms on board when we saw the platform on the slopes of a volcano, with the landing strip stretching from one cliff to another!
But don’t fret: It’s no worse than touching down in a Gauteng thunderstorm.
Everything is easy and oddly familiar
Even though the local dialect on the island is incomprehensible, visitors are addressed in Oxford English. The island is about half the size of Bloemfontein and the roughly 4 500 residents know it like the back of their hand – you can ask anyone for directions.
The tourism office and museum are well equipped with brochures and maps – you’ll have to work hard to get lost. Even though St Helena is a British Overseas Territory, you only need a short-term visa. And with your South African driving licence you can hire a vehicle to explore the island on your own (about R280 per day).
Three traffic rules to keep in mind: The speed limit is 50 km/h; you drive on the left (like we do) and it’s advisable to hoot when you go around a corner. There are also taxis and buses on certain routes.
The roads are narrow and steep, but the Saints are friendly, approachable people and they make sure visitors experience the best and most scenic parts of their island.
The Boer prisoners of war were welcomed with open arms and modern-day visitors are treated the same. No one will mind reversing their vehicle a little so you can pass.
On the street you will be greeted with a friendly, “Hiya!” The island is safe. People don’t bother locking their cars (or even taking the key out of the ignition) and you can wander around Jamestown at night without looking over your shoulder. Many shops sell South African products – I even had a Steri Stumpie!
The best fish, chips and coffee
The ocean around St Helena is home to tuna, wahoo, eel, dorado, barracuda, bigeye and grouper. There aren’t many restaurants on the island, but all of them serve fish and the Saints are renowned for their delicious fish cakes.
The island also has a few small coffee plantations. You can visit Bill and Jill Bolton’s Rosemary Gate farm to see how their single-origin coffee is grown and processed.
Stop by their coffee shop in the harbour for a cuppa while you watch yachts and fishing vessels sail in and out.
Fair weather, good times
Despite the fact that you can bake in the sun in the Jamestown harbour, drive through a drizzle in the mountains half an hour later and hit a thick bank of fog on the western side of the island all in one day, the temperature generally hovers around the T-shirt-and-flip-flops mark.
This means you can play outside all day and there are lots of options to keep you busy. There are about 21 “Postbox Walks” that criss-cross the island. Each of these features a postbox with a unique ink stamp that you can add to your diary to remember the outing.
St Helena has no wild animals or snakes so you can walk without worry.You can also do an ocean excursion and swim with whale sharks, cast a line with local fishermen or snorkel at one of the eight shipwrecks on the western side of the island.
It’s a subtropical region so the water is warm and the mountain slopes are covered in dense vegetation.
No shortage of sights to see
Someone has invested a lot of money to preserve Longwood House where Napoleon spent the last few years of his life in exile.
The collection of original furniture, documents and personal items creates the illusion that Napoleon is still here and will arrive soon to offer you a glass of sweet Vin de Constance.
Plantation House, the official residence of the governor of the island, is also worth a visit. It’s open to the public and you can meet some Aldabra giant tortoises.
Then there’s High Knoll Fort, the Boer cemetery, the castle, the museum and many old churches… The list goes on! And don’t forget to climb the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder.
You’ll feel like an explorer
When I saw the island from the aeroplane, I couldn’t imagine how the first sailors who stepped ashore here must have felt. From a distance, it’s just a jumble of rugged, inhospitable gorges.
You can head inland to those gorges and St Helena quickly becomes one of the most scenic places you’ll ever see. The vegetation is so green! And the sky is so blue!
Large swathes of the island are still pristine and you’ll gasp every time you crest a hill and see a new view. The landscapes are dramatic and the textures are overwhelming, from the crumbling stone buildings and old window shutters in Jamestown to the bamboo thickets and butterflies of the forests.
I wanted to take a photo of everything! Once, after I made sure there was no one around, I twirled through a grass field like Julie Andrews, singing “The hills are alive, with the sound of music!”
Maybe I was just high on the fresh air.It’s the secluded, pristine scenery – you can drive around all afternoon without seeing a soul – that makes you feel like you’re the first human to set foot here.
It’s just you, the tree ferns and the clicking sound of invisible frogs.A week feels too short to take in everything St Helena has to offer. It’s been a while since a place launched such an assault on my senses.
When I landed back in Joburg, I shed a tear or two. Weeks later, my heart is still sitting on a mountain slope 3 000 km north-west of here, taking in the endless views.
Sophia travelled as a guest of St Helena Tourism (sthelenatourism.com). For more about her adventure on the island, keep an eye on the next few issues of go!.