ONE of the saddest lines I’ve read in a while was this one in my colleague, Brian Ingpen’s Port Pourri column on Wednesday: “The popular passenger service to St Helena Island will end when the island’s airport is commissioned in 2016, leaving no passenger-carrying freighter on the South African trade.”
I’ve been privileged to journey to St Helena twice on the wonderful, romantic, RMS St Helena. St Helena is one of the most extraordinarily beautiful places to which I have ever travelled. The geography is completely absurd and off the planet.
It is the most remote inhabited place on earth. North-west is the closest land: the flyspeck island of Ascension, 1 125km away. The nearest continental landfall is Tombua, Angola, 1 920km away. Due west is the Brazilian hamlet of Porto Seguro, some 2 880km of Atlantic Ocean away. St Helena is the piece of land on earth that is furthest away from any other piece of land than any other piece of land on earth.
“We be very careful fishin’,” fisherman Leroy Caswell told me in the almost Dickensian English of the island.
“We usually fish’n aboot two miles offshore, we never go more than 20 miles away, and we always be keeping the island in sight. You musn’t be fallin’ overboard, because the closest land be Angola or, if the currents be wrong, Brazeel. But I be safe, my father, he be a very cunning man in the sea.”
It took me a while to tune into the local English, which gets more and more Dickensian the deeper you get into the country. I asked an islander if they had a problem with bush fires, given that the island is heavily forested and the summers can be hot and dry. “Yaaas and the noo,” he said, “naaa boosh feers, boot I be thinking a big prow-blem is people’s coos ceetching feer.”
“Coos?” I said, “People’s cows catch fire?”, visions of Monty Pythonesque detonating cows on the mountainside (“Ooh look, Ethel, Mrs Thomas’ Molly has just exploded.”) “Coos,” he said, exasperated, “C-A-R-S, coos.”
St Helena is one of the most beautiful places on earth, with an astonishing diversity of landscapes within its tiny (about 11km by 13km) shores, and the people are some of the friendliest, most caring and honest people on earth. So long as you don’t fall off a cliff, it is probably also the safest place on earth. There is virtually no flat land whatsoever and what flat land there is, ends in vertiginous rock faces.
From the sea, and walking around Jamestown (the only town), the island has the aspect of a formidable island fortress. Jagged, sheer cliffs plunge into the sea, there is only one narrow little valley that accesses the coast with any degree of ease, and that’s the one in which Jamestown lies.
This is one of the stories they tell in Jamestown: “So there wuzz this creeckett match up by Francis Plain and the batter done hit a big one and the outfielder wuzz runnin’ to tekk a ketch and he run hisself off the end of the cliff.
“Broke his neck, he did. So theys put him in the score book uzz ‘retired, dead’.”
I never found out if the story was true, but everybody on St Helena tells it, so it must be true. I was nearly “retired, dead” a few times when I trod too close to the precipices that end off nearly every path on St Helena. The names of various places on the island are enough to warn you of the danger of trying to jog too fast without knowing what’s over the next rise: names like Breakneck Valley, Devil’s Hole, The Devil’s Punch Bowl, The Gates of Chaos, Fairyland, Frenchies Gut, Holdfast Tom, and, most ominous of all, Pleasant Valley.
The other bizarre thing (well, one of many other bizarre things) is that there is virtually no crime. In the real sense of the word, that is. Headline news in the crime report in the weekly newspaper: “Hose Pipe Stolen At Longwood”. Shock, horror. The most prevalent crime they have on the island is that of drunk and disorderly. They have 300 cases a year. The same six men are responsible each time.
When we were there, there had been two murders on the island in 100 years. The police had recently held an auction of unclaimed lost property. One of the items handed in was half a packet of cigarettes.
St Helena is one of the most beguiling places on earth. And the voyage there on the RMS St Helena is a journey back in time. If you’re a nostalgic old Luddite like me, grab one of the few remaining sea passages on board the old lady before she is retired. Head across the Atlantic and take a stroll in paradise.
Just be careful you don’t fall off a cliff, retired, dead.