St Helena

We arrived in St Helena at midday on Monday the 28th of January. It’s a lump of unremittingly grey rock, no sign of greenery from seaward, and we approached it under a grey sky with a hint of drizzle. Yes, but... from the moment that we called St H Radio to announce our approach, to the time when Port Control guided us to our mooring, to our passage through Customs and Immigration, and on in due course to our departure two days later, everything and everyone was unfailingly friendly and welcoming. Officials, especially, were a pleasant contrast to their counterparts in South Africa. Everybody says hello in the street, big smiles, and drivers wave from their cars!
Problems. Credit cards are not accepted on the island, and the only way to get cash (pounds sterling, of which we had little on board) is to get to the bank with a debit card before closing time at 3 pm. We were lucky, having arrived at 12.30 on a weekday. What you do if you arrive in mid-afternoon on a Friday, I don’t know. There is no phone signal for overseas phones, so we couldn’t phone home. Wi Fi is available at a price at a couple of hotels and restaurants, and is only useable there. There is no place to land from and safely leave a dinghy.
On the plus side. There is an hourly water taxi from the moorings to Jamestown, which is a sleepy but charming little colonial town in the cleft between two steep cliffs, with two roads winding out and up, and the redoubtable Jacob’s Ladder, a long and steep staircase, climbing out on one side.
The town itself consists of stone buildings and is reminiscent of a Port Isaac or a Mevagissey in Cornwall before the trippers arrive. There are a handful of hotels, bars, and restaurants, all thoroughly welcoming and excellent value.
We caught up with the half-dozen boats in the World ARC who have decided to split from the main fleet and sail to Brazil via Ascension Island and the Fernando de Noronha islands. It was lovely to catch up after our spell of independence, and to enjoy congenial company.
As tourists, we had an excellent tour of the island, driven by Keith Yon, one of two entrepreneurial brothers. The tour included a walk to Napoleon’s tomb, swathed in bougainvillea, and a visit to atmospheric Longwood House, where he was interned; a visit to the controversial airport which cost billions of British money, and which is still restricted to specially trained pilots on the weekly mid-sized Embraer aircraft from Pretoria; a drive around the green landscape at the top of the island which allows a little agriculture and farming; and a visit to the Governor’s House to see Jonathan the tortoise, who at 180ish is reputed to be the oldest creature alive.
The undoubted highlight of our stay was the adventure of snorkelling with whale sharks. Yes, whale sharks. These huge creatures, which are not much smaller than Lydia, are harmless, like basking sharks. They feed on plankton. But they are particularly beautiful, light blue with white spots, lithe, with a long tail and a fin that breaks the surface of the sea. They are closely followed by a number of parasite fish. Craig Yon took us in a fast RIB out to the feeding ground, and there chucked us overboard with snorkels into the clear blue water. The experience of putting one’s head under water and seeing one of these beasts a few feet away, coming towards with its mouth wide-open, is one that will live in the memory. Photos follow when we next get wifi.
Mark and I climbed Jacob’s Ladder (Graham had office work to catch up on). My legs hurt for days thereafter.
More problems. There was no fruit to be had, and little veg. Probably the ARC boats had got there before us. We’ll need a fast passage to Brazil in a race against scurvy. And the island was running out of beer, we may have to halve the ration en route. We were able to get some meat and frozen food.
In summary, I thought that this was a delightful two-day visit, at the top of my preference list for ARC stopovers to date.