St Helena

Mike and Liz Downing
Mon 31 Mar 2014 20:51
We've now had the chance to explore Jamestown. It's a town by name, but more of a quaint village with a population of only around 800. There's a mix of shops and historic buildings and everytime we go ashore we discover something new, a piece of history or a shop that's hidden in what looks like just an ordinary house. As many have said, the island appears to be in a time warp with Georgian architecture that has changed little in time - just the roads are sealed and there are cars rather than carts. The town is steeped in history, having been a key base for the East India Company from 1659. Before the Suez Canal opened all the ships heading east around the Cape of Good Hope would stop here to reprovision. And of course, Napoleon was exiled here in 1815 after the battle of Waterloo, and stayed here until he died 6 years later. 
The valley in which Jamestown is situated is incredibly narrow, with very steep sloping sides and buildings occupy the whole valley floor, tapering out as the valley narrows to nothing 2km from the coast.  The pictures we have do it far more justice than my description, but the Internet connection ashore will  not allow pictures, so it might be a long time (weeks) before we can put the pictures up. The Internet here is only available in a couple of places ashore and is based on a very slow satellite connection. Something that would normally take a few minutes took nearly half an hour when we tried it. It's also expensive at £6 an hour! The currency is the St Helena pound, but it has parity with the UK pound, so effectively it's the same currency as the UK, with all the same coins. They take UK currency or St Helena currency or a mix of the two. There is just one bank here - The Bank of St Helena.
There is no mobile phone service on the Island and to make calls it's back to using telephone booths and buying telephone cards. To call the UK cost 80p a minute, so we won't be doing much of that!
There is no airport on the Island, so everything, no matter what, has to be brought in by ship. And there is just one ship that supplies the Island, the RMS St Helena. It's one of the last two Royal Mail Ships and is primarily a cargo ship, but has around 130 berths to carry people to/from the Island. It runs from Cape Town to St Helena, taking about 5 days (compared with our 12), then goes on to Ascension Island (700 miles to the north), back to St Helena and then back to Cape Town. So any overseas post has to wait for the ship to arrive and be taken back to Cape Town before it gets put on a plane to it's destination. The arrival of the ship is big news here as the shops fill up with supplies and we're told there are long queues outside waiting for the restocked shops to open. The ship arrived today, Monday 31st March, so we shall see for ourselves.
One feature of Jamestown is Jacob's Ladder. It's a very steep set of steps up the cliff face from the town to the fort at the top of the cliff. Due to it's strategic position in the South Atlantic as a reprovisioning base, St Helena was relatively heavily fortified against attack, primarily from the Dutch. Jacob's Ladder was built in 1829 as an inclined plane on either side of the steps so that trucks could be hoisted up by donkey power. There are 699 steps and we counted everyone on the way up and again on the way down, and have a certificate to prove it!
The moorings are in an open roadstead and when the swell is up it finds it's way round the headland and the boat is constantly moving. It's not a problem on the boat, but it makes life interesting when getting on to the small ferry boat that they have here to take people from the moored boats to the quay. There's nowhere to leave a dinghy safely here as the swell is too great, so the officials much prefer that you use the ferry. At £1 each way it's not bad and saves having to unpack and pump the dinghy up, and repack it all again before we leave. Due to the swell, getting ashore at the quay steps can also be 'exciting' and they have ropes hanging down from a framework that you grab to help get on to the quay safely.  
We took an island tour over the weekend with 4 other yachties. It was an open top Ute and the local driver/guide was 78! Being a mountainous island, rising to 2,800ft, there are lots of hairpin bends, but our driver was more than up to the task and was full of information. It gives hope to us all! It is a very beautiful island - very barren looking around the coast with high barren cliffs that hide a green interior of peaks, valleys and pastures - very hobbit-like country. It did reminded us of the North Island of New Zealand (where the Shire and Hobbiton were filmed). As this Island is so difficult to get to, we didn't bump into any other tourists - there are few visitors other than those from passing yachts, but that might change in 2016. That's when the airport they're building is due to be finished. We saw the construction site and they're having to fill in a valley to create a flat space for the runway. It's costing a lot of money, funded by the British Government, but the hope is that the Island will become more self-sufficient in the future with a tourist industry and require less financial support from the Government. The water is warm here, but there are no beaches - the cliffs are too steep to swim from the shore in all but a few places. The attraction is its beauty, the isolation and the flora and fauna. The Island is more remote than the Galapagos and much of the vegetation is endemic. There is only one endemic animal and that's a plover-like bird, called the Wirebird, but not surprisingly there are lots of sea birds. There are Tropic Birds in abundance. We've seen Tropic Birds, which we consider to be the most exotic of birds, in all the oceans, but generally only very occasionally and only ever in pairs. We counted close to 40 flying around the cliffs in front of the moorings and they're there every day. It is an amazing place!