Farewell to the saints
Barry and Margaret Wilmshurst
Wed 8 May 2013 11:33
We are under way again, heading for Ascension, 700 miles from St Helena as the crow flies. Unfortunately JJ Moon does not fly like a crow dead down wind so we are zig-zagging rather frustratingly. Still, mustn’t grumble; at least the trade winds are pushing us through the water at a good speed.
We left the Jamestown anchorage at 1500 Sunday. It should have been a little earlier but our mooring lines had become tangled and wrapped tightly round the beautiful yellow buoy and we had to call upon our friends on Sunflower, who had their dinghy in the water, to help shake us free - a rather ignominious departure.
Our stay on St Helena was another of those interesting, even joyful, cruising experiences whose memory we are going to cherish for years. Apart from Longwood House, Napoleon’s home and The Briars, where he stayed as a guest for a month, there is not a great deal to see on the island but it is an interesting, historic place that until the coming of steamships played a vital part in the Empire’s trade with Africa and the Far East – 600 or 700 ships called there each year. Although no longer important as a re-victualling stop it is not primitive and is a fairly sophisticated part of the first world. But it is on the edge, the pace of life is slow; the people have time to talk to one another, even to stand and stare. Even senior officials have time to welcome visitors and exchange news and views.
We took an all-day excursion with Robert, a taxi driver. At 77 he is well past retirement age but enjoys his work among the yachties and others and has many an interesting tale to tell. When first married he and his wife were in service in a Stately Home of England. His second employer bought him a car for the better performance of his duties so that when two children had been born and the family returned to St Helena he was well qualified to drive a school bus, which he did for 27 years interrupted by a session as barman at the American air base on Ascension. There is not a person on the island he has not driven. The great value of the day was in listening to Robert talk about life on the island. Additionally we considered ourselves fortunate to see a rare Wirebird strutting on a fairway of one of the worst golf courses in the world but we probably missed Jonathon, reputedly the world’s oldest tortoise at 175 years. As befits his age and status he lives with the Governor at Plantation House but visitors are discouraged from getting too close – a pity because tortoises are curious creatures who appear to enjoy human company.
Apart from that it was a question of pottering about, talking to people and enjoying the atmosphere. At the beginning and end of each day there was a minor adventure in leaping on to and off the ferry. The “harbour” has no protective breakwater, there is always some swell and timing is important. It sharpened up the reflexes each morning. On Thursday Sunflower arrived from Cape Town and we eagerly took on the role of know-it-all old hands. Then the whole island was galvanised by the arrival of the airport contractor’s supply boat on Friday followed by the RMS St Helena on Saturday. Everybody in Jamestown had a spring in their step and the airwaves hummed with greetings from old friends and important messages as containers were un-shipped and the people prepared for full shelves in the shops in the next few days.
The big thing that is happening on the island is the airport, due for completion in 2016. A South African contractor is working 24 hours a day filling in and leveling a small valley. Most people are in favour of the development but all are concerned about the inevitable changes. Already there are some benefits; every able-bodied person who wants to work can now find a job. Later there will be new eco-tourist hotels and up to 30,000 passenger movements a year. But much that is good will be threatened and nobody knows quite in what ways. We cannot help the rather selfish thought that we are glad we were able to visit before these major changes took place. We wish the saints well.