RMS St Helena to make last voyage
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Recalling a bygone era of stately passenger liners and quaint colonial traditions, the RMS St Helena is making its last journeys before weekly flights to the far-flung South Atlantic island are introduced.
A day on board the five-day cruise to rugged Saint Helena, one of the world's most remote inhabited islands, is marked by aristocratic pastimes alien to modern travellers accustomed to no-frills long-haul journeys.
It's a taste of luxury that won't be around for much longer, on board a nearly seven gross tonne ship built in 1989 to carry passengers and goods across the ocean.
A final chance to experience a slower way of life has spiked interest in the RMS St Helena, says John Hamilton, the cheerful purser who organises activities on board, from card games to on-deck cricket matches.
“The ship is coming to the end, so more people want to travel before she stops working,” Hamilton said.
The shipping company has added a dozen cabins to meet demand before the ship cuts back on its trips when 4.5-hour flights from Johannesburg begin in February 2016.
The RMS Saint Helena - the only passenger ship serving the British island - makes the journey from the South African city of Cape Town every three weeks.
The boat travels 3 100 kilometres in five days at 15 knots, before heading to Ascension, another British island.
The ship's website describes the vessel as a lifeline for island residents, carrying everything from “wind turbines to automotive parts; sheep, goats, and Christmas turkeys to furniture, food and paint”.
Passengers sip tea or coffee served by staff in their cabins before breakfast. They play traditional games such as deck quoits and shuffle board, and then share a heartwarming beef tea - or Bovril - at 11am.
After lunch, entertainment includes documentary film screenings and a quiz game similar to Trivial Pursuit.
Passengers spend time reading or swimming in the small pool on deck, knitting or working on puzzles, as their ship cuts through the sparkling blue waters.
The activities aren't mandatory, yet they do allow for fast-forming friendships.
It's good to form bonds on board, as passengers will inevitably cross paths with each other in Jamestown, the tiny capital of St Helena with a population of around 850.
“What is amazing is that you meet people onboard and make friends. You become like family - almost,” said Manuela Patterson, a tourist from Cape Town.
“It's going to be different in that aspect once the airport is here.”
Built in Aberdeen, Scotland, the ship can accommodate 150 passengers. It is one of the world's two surviving Royal Mail Ships - abbreviated to RMS.
As one might expect on such a ship, there are some eclectic travellers on board.
The cast of characters runs from the “Saints” - the local name for Saint Helena citizens - to South African tourists, Thai workers heading to build the new airport, and a retired British vice-admiral recounting his grisly stories from the Falklands War.
“I will miss the journey to the island,” said Sandra Isaac, an island native who has lived in England for the past 25 years.
Still, Isaac said she is looking forward to the flights, as she won't have to request extra leave from her employer to cover the 10-day journey when she goes on holiday.
Prices for a one-way ticket range from 430 pounds (about R8 000) to 2 070 pounds - and much more if you don't want to share your cabin.
The RMS St Helena schedule will run until April 2016, two months after the airport opens.
Then what? There is talk of a cruise, perhaps northwards to England, before the ship is most probably sent for scrap.
ST HELENA: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Saint Helena's major claim to fame is as the place where the fallen French emperor Napoleon died in exile, but now the destiny of the tiny island is about to change with the opening of its first airport next year.
Framed by craggy volcanic cliffs soaring 800 metres (2,600 feet) above sea level, the South Atlantic island measures just 122 square kilometres - smaller than central Paris.
Uninhabited when it was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, Saint Helena was founded under British rule in 1659.
It now has 4 200 inhabitants, about 850 living in the small capital of Jamestown, the only port, located on the island's northwestern coast.
Despite being close to the equator with a latitude of 15 degrees South, St Helena has a varied climate, with a cactus-studded dry coast and humid interior lush with eucalyptus trees and Ireland-like pastures.
Its closest neighbour is Ascension Island, another British territory 1 200 kilometres to the northwest. Angola is nearly 2 000 kilometres to the east, the Brazilian coast 2 900 kilometres to the west.
With its steep cliffs and rocky outcrops close to the shore, the island is particularly perilous.
Its isolation and hostile terrain - the fort-like cliffs make defending the island easy - have long made St Helena a prized possession of the British who have sent their most reviled and dangerous enemies to perish there.
In 1815, Napoleon was banished to the island until his death in 1821. After him, the Zulu chief Dinizulu kaCetshwayo was sent there in 1890. A decade later, some 6 000 prisoners of the Boer war followed.
The colonial policy of island exile continued as recently as 1957, when three Bahraini princes opposing British policy in the Middle East were sent to St Helena.
Currently, the only way to get to the island is by boat - usually a five-day journey from Cape Town.
But that will change in February 2016, when St Helena starts a weekly flight service to Johannesburg.
St Helena, an overseas British territory, has its own pound notes and coins featuring images of the Queen. The currency is fixed at parity with the British pound sterling.
The island issues stamps - one of its few sources of income - and is set to introduce cell phone service by the end of 2015.
St Helenians, or “Saints” as they are known, enjoy British nationality. That privilege was revoked in 1983 by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher but restored in 2002.
The country elects an assembly of 12 members, five of who sit on local government, chaired by a governor sent from London.
Living mostly on British grants and expat income, St Helena imports almost everything it needs from Britain and South Africa.
Its exports include fish, mostly tuna, and some coffee. Yet many hope the new airport will turn tourism into a major source of revenue.