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St Helena

  
  - darkometer rating:  3 -
   
A relatively small isolated island in the middle of the South Atlantic, some 1200 miles from the nearest mainland (Africa). Having been a British Overseas Territory for most of its history, it played a rather important role as a stopover on the trade routes to the south-east and also in the transatlantic slave trade.
   
Yet it is best known as a place of exile, and the most important person ever to be banished here was Napoleon Bonaparte from France. He died on the island too. But there were other exiles as well, even into the 1960s. So there's enough (dark) history to make the island interesting for the dark tourist.
 
It is also an eminently beautiful and incredibly friendly place, making it worthwhile to undertake the long journey and spend time discovering this “Secret of the South Atlantic” (as the local tourism office slogan goes). And now that the airport has finally opened, St Helena has become more accessible than ever. It's still very remote, though, and pre-planning ahead is essential.   
More background info: Geologically, St Helena is of volcanic origin, being located on a (former) hotspot on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (see also Tristan da Cunha, Cape Verde, Iceland). It was actually two volcanoes that formed the rock that makes up today's island. It rises from a depth of some three miles (5 km) from the ocean floor to the surface of the sea. Today it is some 47 square miles (122 square kilometres) in size.
   
The highest peaks today are a bit over 2,500 feet (800 m) high. Volcanic activity ceased over 7 million years ago, so there's been a lot of erosion since, but the island's volcanic origins are still clearly visible especially in the basalt stacks of Speery Island or Lot and Lot's Wife as well as in the multicoloured moonscape along the coast west of Sandy Bay or in the east of the island, into which the airport has been set.
   
The inland scenery is actually quite lush and green, in keeping with the tropical latitude of the island. In contrast, most of the coast is steep and rocky and barren, with only a few valley floors reaching the sea and thus forming potential landing sites, including what was to become the location of the island's capital and main settlement.
   
History:
The island was first discovered by the Portuguese, and the year was 1502 … yet whether it really was on 21 May, as most accounts claim, and whether the island was named St Helena because it was the Saint's Day of St Helena of Constantinople on that day, is not undisputed. Could well be that the island celebrates the anniversaries of its discovery on the wrong date. But never mind.
   
Anyway, the Portuguese found a lush and fertile inland of dense forest but no indigenous population. They proceeded to use St Helena as a convenient point to stock up on fresh fruit (to help fight scurvy) en route on their voyages back from Asia or South-East Africa. They also built a chapel in the valley where Jamestown now is, but they did not establish a settlement as such. So apart from the odd people stranded or left on the island for punishment (i.e. technically the first exiles), the island remained uninhabited. Except that the Portuguese also brought goats, pigs and chickens to provide meat supplies later (and rats probably made it ashore with them too), and these “alien invaders” multiplied and proceeded to wreak havoc to St Helena's indigenous flora & fauna.    
  
Towards the end of the 16th century, the English began to take an interest in St Helena, leading to conflict with the Portuguese. But the latter decided not to maintain any territorial claims on the island, let alone a military presence, and instead began to avoid St Helena for fear of getting drawn into battles with the English. However, the Dutch entered the scene and even made a claim on the island (though the details are sketchy).
   
In the second half of the 17th century, the British East India Company took over the island, and the first British governor was installed on St Helena on 5 May 1659. A first fort was built and a campaign to settle the island started. In 1660, the new settlement was named Jamestown, the valley it sits in was called James' Valley and the bay became James' Bay – all named after the Duke of York, later King James II.
   
There was a short interlude when the Dutch invaded the island to take it over in 1672. Yet by May the next year the Royal Navy managed to throw the Dutch out again and restore British rule. The same year the East India Company was granted a new charter and since then St Helena has been firmly in British hands right up to the present day. Unlike with the Falkland Islands, nobody else has since made any claim on St Helena.
   
So St Helena was fortified and established itself as an important stopover for trading ships on the routes from Asia and Madagascar and East Africa. Along with this also came the slave trade – cf. International Slavery Museum, Liverpool, and Museum of St Helena. Towards the end of the 18th century almost half of the population on St Helena were actually slaves.
   
Probably the most momentous period of history on St Helena came with its most famous exile: Napoleon – see the separate Napoleonic sites chapter for more details. His presence on the island from 1815 to 1821, and that of all those extra military personnel guarding him, brought an unprecedented boost to the local economy too, but after the ex-Emperor's demise and the withdrawal of the associated troops, the economy began to decline again.
   
Not long after, the East India Company's rule of the island ended when in 1834 St Helena was made a Crown Colony.
   
Change also came to the slave trade. This had been ended within the British Empire in 1807, but slavery as such was not abolished until 1834. A few years later the Royal Navy was actively hunting down other nations' (i.e. especially Portuguese) slave ships. And freed slaves were brought to St Helena from 1840 until about the mid- 1860s in their thousands. Many were already on the brink of death when they were freed. So for quite a proportion, liberation came too late.
   
Those still living and brought to St Helena were mostly landed and housed in Ruperts's Bay, though Lemon Valley was also used as a quarantine station for freed slaves suffering from contagious diseases. Of the ca. 24,500 slaves brought to St Helena in total, some 5,000 died there. The rest were moved on, but a few hundred stayed behind and mixed in with the population, which in part explains the Creole-like ethnic cocktail displayed by the St Helena population to this day.
   
The days of slavery and of camps for the freed slaves were almost forgotten until in 2006, during the construction of a new road for transporting building materials to the future airport, large burial grounds of slaves were discovered and subsequently a thorough archaeological survey was conducted. Some 350 bodies were recovered and examined. For those interested in the details: you can find the results of this here (external link, opens in a new window)! See also the photos in the gallery below that are courtesy of the archaeological team. The St Helena Museum has some of the items recovered from the burial sites on display.
   
While St Helena proved a safe haven for freed slaves – and an equally secure exile – one type of invader managed to wreak more havoc than any malicious humans ever did: termites. They came with one of the intercepted slave ships from Brazil, whose broken up timbers were stored in Jamestown. From there the termites spread out. And these little critters, locally known as white ants, set about eating away furniture, the timbers of houses, the sleepers of Jacob's Ladder (see under Jamestown!) and even the contents of the library and churches. Many of the island's houses had to be rebuilt because of that, now relying on steel girders rather than timber.
   
Meanwhile, after the Suez Canal opened in 1869, St Helena lost much of the significance it used to enjoy owing to its once strategic location. Now the shipping routes could bypass the need of going through the South Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope, and soon fewer and fewer ships arrived at St Helena.
   
To counter the loss of maritime trade as a source of income, the islanders turned to the flax industry. Flax was used to produce plant fibres for ropes, for instance, but the topography of the island was not especially well suited for processing flax, so it wasn't a long-term solution. With the help of subsidies the industry was artificially kept alive until the 1960s, before being terminated for good. Still, wide swathes of this invasive plant species cover many hillsides on St Helena, testament to this story of economic failure (and environmental impact – see also below).
   
However, the island came back into its own as a place well suited for exiles. In 1890, following the Zulu Wars, Chief Dinizulu and his family were banished here. And during the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, thousands of captured Boers were housed in large camps on the island – see Boer POW camps and cemetery.
   
During WW1 and WW2 St Helena hardly played any role at all (but see under Jamestown and fortifications). And the economy declined further in the post-war years. Yet another group of exiles, three Bahraini nationalists, became the last political prisoners on St Helena from 1957 to 1961 – see under Munden's.
   
Meanwhile many St Helenians sought jobs on “neighbouring” Ascension Island (well, 700 miles away but administratively a dependency of St Helena) where the RAF, and later USAF and NASA, established bases. It is believed that working for or with Americans is probably the reason for the otherwise inexplicable love St Helenians (or “Saints” as they call themselves) have for country & western music – cf. Jamestown and Munden's.
   
As fewer and fewer ships stopped at St Helena, getting supplies to the island became a problem. In 1977/1978 the British government established the Royal Mail service for which it purchased an already ten years old vessel, which was dutifully renamed “RMS St Helena”. Compared to the ship traffic the island used to have two centuries earlier, this wasn't much, but at least it provided a lifeline.
   
This lifeline was cut off for a while during the Falklands War in 1982, when the “RMS St Helena” was requisitioned by the Navy as a minesweeper support vessel – see under Museum of St Helena.
   
A particular blow to the status of the islanders came in 1983, when all citizens of British Overseas Territories were stripped of their automatic right to full British citizenship. But after a long campaign this was re-established in 2002, just in time for the island celebrating the 500th anniversary of its first discovery (see above). You can see a plaque commemorating this inside St James' Church in Jamestown. While this was generally (and proudly) welcomed by the islanders, it also had the effect of a brain drain. Many hundreds, possibly over a thousand, islanders took advantage of their reinstated citizenship and left for Britain. 
  
This is still an issue: in particular young people wanting to study beyond secondary- school level leave the island to go to university elsewhere – and few return to try and find jobs on the island. Currently the population of St Helena stands at about 4500 (down from well over 6000 in 1817).
  
These days there's simply too little perspective for the young. I was told by a Saint guide that out of his graduation year at St Helena's only secondary school, a mere small handful of people out of well over a hundred stayed on the island or returned after their studies abroad. For most staying would have meant “economic suicide”, as he put it.
   
A disproportionate number of jobs are in government (almost half of overall employment), there are no real industries, except a modest amount of fishing and fish processing, and too little agriculture. Another side effect of the latter is also that the islanders rely on imports far more than they'd otherwise need to.
   
In 1990 the old “RMS St Helena” was decommissioned and replaced by a more modern and more suitable vessel. And the once-a-month arrivals of “The RMS”, as it is still affectionately known on the island, were a major event every time, when more or less the whole town turned out to greet it (and the people and wares it brought). It very much formed an integral part of island life and identity. Yet this too was threatened.
   
In the 2000s, the idea of building an airport – which had been floated before – was revived by the British government. This was to make St Helena independent of the long sea voyages from Cape Town by this Royal Mail line. For one thing this brought work and money to the island, not just for the construction of the airport itself but also for the development of Rupert's with a permanent wharf and new road, dubbed the “haul road” for the transport of building materials to the airport site.
   
The construction of the airport sparked both fears and hopes. On the one hand, it would mean a change of the character of the island – and of what little tourism it saw. Others saw the airport opening up opportunities for boosting the tourism industry and thus the economy.
   
Yet the airport project was fraught with problems, changes of investors and ultimately delays. When it was finally finished in 2016 and scheduled to open, it turned out that the runway was unsuitable for the anticipated service with a passenger jet of the B-737 type. Apparently the so-called wind-shear effect made the airport too dangerous for such a plane to use. And so the actual air service was delayed further.
   
Eventually, the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer came to the rescue with their 190 model that's apparently specially built for difficult wind situations. In fact, the company used footage from their test flights for a promotional video that doubles up as the most beautifully filmed promo video for St Helena that I am aware of, and everybody I talked to about this on the island seemed to agree (see here – external link, opens in a new window).
   
Regular scheduled flights finally commenced in October 2017 (see details below). The “RMS St Helena” last called at its namesake island in February 2018, after which the service was terminated, and subsequently the vessel was sold on and renamed.
   
Up until the opening of the airport, going on the “RMS St Helena” was the only way of getting there, and that took time! The voyage from Cape Town took almost a week, the “RMS” would then go on to Ascension Island for another week, and then pick up passengers for the voyage back to South Africa. So the minimum time needed for a one-week visit to this remote island was about three weeks – plus time for getting to Cape Town, of course. And it wasn't cheap either.
   
The new airport cuts that time dramatically, but cheap it still isn't. That's partly because the much smaller plane now in use can't even fly at full loading capacity due to the great distance – and it has to be refuelled in Windhoek, Namibia, en route to make sure it has enough fuel for a return flight without landing on St Helena should severe weather prevent that (and it does happen!).
   
So the air connection is now finally up and running. What about the anticipated tourism boom? Well, it hasn't materialized … not yet, at least. Apparently some islanders had placed too much hope in this, over-invested and now struggle to stay in business. See under Jamestown for more.
   
I'm personally in two minds about this. On the one hand, I'm sorry for the people who had these hopes, and I'm sorry that the much wanted boost to the local economy failed to arrive. Yet, on the other hand, it means that the character of St Helena wasn't so affected by the arrival of the air service as some had feared, me included.
   
Anyway, finally making it to St Helena in August 2018 was for me the fulfilment of a childhood dream! When I was about ten or twelve or so I would often pore over my parents' atlas seeking out all those remote specks in the world's oceans and developed a veritable fascination with them. I'd then turn to books and encyclopedia entries about those islands to learn more (I'm showing my age here – all this was of course well before the advent of the Internet era). Most of those islands are still virtually inaccessible to visitors, but St Helena with its boat service had a realistic allure and remained a distant dream of mine all my life. Yet the time it took, and the costs, deterred me. Then I learned about the airport project and my fascination with St Helena was rekindled. (Incidentally, unlike with most people, this had not been triggered by the Napoleon connection – I learned about that only much later, long after my fascination with the island had begun).
   
And apart from this achievement at long last of making the pilgrimage to St Helena, it was an immensely gratifying trip. I had been told about how friendly a place it is before, but was still charmed by it when I got there. There is something about remote British islands that tends to make its inhabitants naturally friendly, much more so than on the British Isles, and I had experienced this on Montserrat and the Falklands before, but I think St Helena beats even those two fantastic places on that front. I was quickly smitten with St Helena even more so than I had already expected anyway. What a magical place!
   
By the way, for those who want to know more detail than is provided on this website about all aspects of St Helena, this specialist website is a highly valuable resource (external link, opens in a new window).
   
   
What there is to see: The most important sites on the island, from a dark-tourism perspective, are all given their separate chapters here:
   
  
   
  
  
  
   
Beyond those sites, the legacy of slavery can be seen in traces such as the back houses of Jamestown, as well as the cellars, which would have been the slave quarters back in the 18th century. The two trees outside the tourism office, too, are relics of those times. It was here that the slave market was held (see Jamestown).
   
More recently, some finds of mass burial grounds of slaves at Rupert's sparked an archaeology project – photos courtesy of the project's head scientist below. Various relics dug up there are on display at the Museum of St Helena, which also collaborated with the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool on a special exhibition about St Helena and slavery. The dig site at Rupert's itself is not commodified for tourism, though. But you can see the long stone building which dates back to those times of the intercepting of slave ships. This used to be the hospital of the camp for freed slaves at Rupert's.
   
Other dark episodes in St Helena's history haven't left any sights to see today – such as the executions at Ladder Hill Fort, when the executed were left swinging in the wind from the gallows so that everybody down in Jamestown could see them. The gallows are no more. Nor are there any relics from the only battles ever fought on St Helena against a foreign, invading nation, in this case the Dutch – back in 1672/3 (see above).
   
Given its long maritime history, it's not surprising that this too had its darker aspects in the form of shipwrecks. And indeed at least divers can explore quite a host of these around St Helena, some even right outside Jamestown in James Bay. One bit of wreck is even visible, without getting in the water, from the Jamestown seafront: it's a bit poking out of the water that belongs to the wreck of the SS Papanui, which burned out and sank in 1911. You can also get a closer look without having to go full-on scuba diving. Just snorkelling over the wreck can give you a decent view.
   
Those with a penchant for atmospheric cemeteries, can find such with ease on land, no special aquatic skills required, especially at St Paul's Cathedral, or at St Matthew's in the central inland.
   
Otherwise, it's only the volcanic scenery, with its otherworldly, multicoloured barrenness that has something dark about it. The best bits are to be seen on the hike between Sandy Bay and Lot's Wife's Ponds (see below).
   
All in all, St Helena may not boast a particularly vast range of dark sites, and none in the top league of darkness, but what's there should be enough to entice a dedicated dark tourist to contemplate a trip to St Helena … and after all, the extreme remoteness alone is a singular attraction in itself (in the middle of nowhere category).
  
   
Location: in the middle of the South Atlantic, some 1,200 miles (2,000 km) from the African mainland to the east (the border between Namibia and Angola is the closest) and ca. 1,800 miles (2,900 km) from the coast of Brazil to the west. The closest other larger island is Ascension Island, ca. 700 miles (1,130 km) to the north-west.
   
Google maps locators:
   
Jamestown: [-15.925, -5.718]
   
Airport: [-15.962, -5.646]
  
Plantation House (& Jonathan!): [-15.9555, -5.7208]
  
St Paul's Cathedral: [-15.9569, -5.7202]
   
Rupert's Valley: [-15.921, -5.712]
   
Former quarantine station, Lemon Valley: [-15.9414, -5.7413]
      
Sandy Bay: [-16.004, -5.715]
  
Lot's Wife's Ponds: [-16.015, -5.729]  
  
Speery Island: [-16.0297, -5.7541]
   
   
Access and costs: very remote, but now reachable once a week by plane; quite expensive overall.
   
Details: Gone are the days when getting to St Helena meant a long sea voyage from Cape Town. Since the opening of the airport in October 2017, there have been regular scheduled commercial flights from Johannesburg, provided by SA Airlink (a subsidy of South African Airways). Still, there's currently only one flight a week, on Saturdays (every second weekend a month the return flight is on Sunday). Delays, sometimes by whole days, are not unheard of, so a bit of flexibility is required and tight layovers should be avoided. But normally there is now this quick connection (relatively speaking: it's a good six hours flight) and it gives visitors a whole week on the island.
   
Flight fares are, unfortunately, not cheap. On the contrary. I paid significantly more for my St Helena flights than I did for my flights from Vienna to Johannesburg (via Dubai). Expect to pay about a thousand Euros for the Johannesburg-St-Helena flights.
   
Note that you have to have proof of comprehensive travel insurance (and a return ticket), otherwise they won't let you in at immigration (or even won't let you board the flight in the first place). You also have to pre-arrange accommodation, tours and transport. Given the limited tourism infrastructure on the island you can't leave those things to when you arrive.
   
Arrivals and departures at St Helena airport are different to the usual airport experience. For starters there's only that one flight, so no possible confusion about gates etc.; moreover, it's more like a multiple family gathering. Most passengers are not tourists or business people, but islanders. So the airport is crowded with loads of locals either welcoming back or sending off family members and friends. It makes for an almost surreal convivial atmosphere, with disembarking passengers hugging security guards, long communal goodbyes at departures and the upstairs viewing deck packed with people waving. (See photo gallery).
   
On the island, getting around is either by guided tour and/or independently by hire car – or both. I opted for a mix of both modes, doing a few escorted tours first, then hiring a car for the second half of my stay. Jamestown is walkable, and a few sights outside it may be reachable on foot, but for many other places you will need transport. And public transport is limited to taxis and a few bus services for local commuters, not really for visitors.
   
In terms of guided tours I used Aaron Legg's Adventure Tours for three separate days: first an introductory 4x4 tour (partly indeed off road), a historical sites tour (including Plantation House, St Paul's and High Knoll Fort) and a hike from Sandy Bay to Lot's Wife's Ponds (see below). In addition I did a walking tour of Jamestown with Basil George (of “Magma Way”) as well as a whale & dolphin watching cruise aboard the “Enchanted Isle”.
   
I found car hire refreshingly informal. The vehicle is unlikely to be new and mine already came with plenty of scratches, so there's none of that checking for the tiniest of blemishes and noting them on a form, as is customary in Europe. On delivery of the car to my hotel I basically just signed the rental agreement and off I went.
   
Driving on St Helena is on the one hand relaxed and slow – there's an island-wide maximum speed of 30 mph, and in many places it's only 20 or 15 mph, so it's never hectic. Yet some roads can be a challenge, though. There's hardly any flat ground on St Helena so roads can be steep and very winding. So be careful. Driving is on the left, as in Britain, but most roads are single track anyway, so it only comes up when passing other traffic. Note that descending cars have to give way to ascending ones. The main thing, though, is: never forget to do that little greeting gesture as you pass another vehicle. It's compulsory! (But really it's just part of the general friendliness on the island.)
   
For accommodation, there is one upscale country house hotel in the island interior, and a few options for self-catering accommodation, but most others, and the best options in practical terms, are all in Jamestown. So see that chapter. Also for options for food & drink.
   
Until recently, St Helena was one of the last few spots on the planet still untouched by the era of mobile phones and the Internet – but both have now arrived … although both remain very expensive (via satellites) and unreliable/slow. Old-school telephone booths are therefore still a very common site here!
   
Prices in general aren't the lowest on St Helena, as you can imagine, given the island's remoteness and dependence on imports. But I was pleasantly surprised that at least for food & drink they were not astronomical at all. (Probably thanks to British subsidies.) So while it's not a budget destination, daily costs beyond accommodation and tours aren't so significant. Getting there is still the largest chunk of money required for a St Helena holiday.
   
Specialities to try while on the island include St Helena fishcakes – though I never found them to be as spicy as I had been led to expect. And I had them in three different places! Fish is generally a focus of St Helena cuisine, but otherwise it's a bit of a cross between good old British and South African, Indian, Creole influences. Hence curries and a biryani-like rice dish called “plo” are popular.
   
St Helena famously also produces the world's rarest and most expensive coffee. I'm not a coffee connoisseur, but I enjoyed it when I tried it and everybody back home who's had a taste praised it too. I had brought a packet home from the duty free shop at St Helena Airport – it cost £15 for 125 grammes!
   
Another liquid local speciality is “Tungi” – a spirit made from prickly pears (cactus fruit) at the St Helena Distillery – the most remote such facility in the world. They also make Tungi-derived spiced rum, gin and a St Helena coffee liqueur.
   
   
Time required: Unless you're looking for a long-term stay, the period of visiting St Helena has long been pretty much pre-given: one week. The new commercial air connection to Johannesburg, South Africa, is once a week, on Saturdays. Only on the second weekend each month the flight continues to Ascension Island and returns on Sunday and then flies back to Johannesburg, so that if you come in on the first flight a month your stay will be eight days. That's what I did. Of course, connections are somewhat weather-dependent, and so flights can get delayed, sometimes by days (or even be cancelled altogether – as happened to the flight a week after my departure from St Helena! So I was lucky.)
  
   
Combinations with other dark destinations: Administratively two other remote Atlantic islands belong to the same Overseas Territory as St Helena, namely Ascension Island to the north-west and Tristan da Cunha to the south. Yet while the former can be reached from St Helena on once-a-month commercial flights, Tristan da Cunha remains hyper-remote to this day, only accessible by supply ships on an irregular basis. So logistically speaking, St Helena only really combines well with South Africa, where the weekly flights depart from, namely from Johannesburg, with connections also to Cape Town.
  
For anything other than that you'd need a boat – and indeed quite a few yachts (see Jamestown) use St Helena as an intermediate stop on their journeys between Africa and South America, including Brazil, Argentina, French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana.
   
   
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Much of what's so attractive on St Helena is actually not of a dark nature at all. Least so the people – who I found to be the most naturally friendly people I've ever encountered anywhere (except perhaps Montserrat – another British Overseas Territory). Everybody greets everybody, total strangers included, and the general laid-back atmosphere permeates everything. I quickly left my big city habits behind and settled into the relaxed island rhythm of things.
   
Of the actual tourist attractions other than those already mentioned above, a few still have to be pointed out here. Historic sites beyond the ones associated with Napoleon include: Plantation House, the official seat of the St Helena Governor. And the one in office at the time I was there (the first female governor the island's ever had, by the way,) had decided to open the house to the public on guided tours (ca. one hour, taking place on Tuesdays at 11 a.m., £10). It was quite interesting and full of intriguing insights.
   
The highlight of a visit of Plantation House, however, waits outside the house, on the lawns surrounding the tennis court: this is where Jonathan lives, a Seychelles tortoise who was brought here in 1882 as an adult estimated to be 50 years old then. So in 2018, when I met him, he was 186 years old! That makes him the oldest known land animal on the planet! And he's still going strong, despite a cataract in his right eye. He has three other giant tortoises for company, all much younger, and apparently Jonathan is still regularly “at it” with one of the females …   
  
Much of the original flora & fauna on St Helena severely suffered from the arrival of human settlers. One survivor is an indigenous species that is the “national bird” of the island, the fabled wirebird (a kind of plover – quite a pretty little thing, but hardly a spectacular looker). Non-indigenous but quite entertaining are the omnipresent fairy terns. These white acrobats of the air are quite inquisitive and often fly up to you to take a good look, while hovering in the wind.
   
In contrast to the national bird, the 'national flower' used to be an invasive species, the Arum Lily, but because of that it was recently changed to a rediscovered native plant, the St Helena Ebony (not related to the timber). Yet this is an endangered species, while the invasive predecessor can be seen growing wild everywhere. And the most invasive plant of them all and to be seen en masse on St Helena is flax (see above for its history) – some hills are completely covered by it.
   
Wirebirds aside, St Helena wildlife watching is focused more on the waters around the island. I went on a whale & dolphin watching cruise, saw a few humpback whales in the distance and a lively pod of local dolphins. The latter are actually resident all year round, whereas whales migrate. Humpbacks are there only in the winter months (i.e. summer in the northern hemisphere). In the summer (northern winter) on the other hand, migrating whale sharks go past St Helena, and for divers this is one of the best opportunities in the world to see and get close to these gentle giants.
   
Non-divers and all those who'd rather stay on dry land anyway, have to make do with the island scenery and hiking. And what spectacular scenery there is to be seen! No wonder hiking is a national pastime here. There are several so-called 'postbox walks' – official trails at the end of which you can take a little book out of a tube (rather than actually a box), write a note and use the stamp provided to leave your mark. I went on only three of those hikes, ranging from the comparatively easy and short climb to Flagstaff Hill in the north, to the seriously strenuous and often quite dicey hike from Sandy Bay to Lot's Wife's Ponds. The ground is often gravelly and crumbly (thanks to its volcanic origin), so you have to take great care, as the route often goes along steep cliffs/hills and at some points you even have to use ropes. Walks like this should therefore only be attempted in the company of a local guide (see above).
   
This particular walk, hard as it is, is however worth the effort, for the exceptional scenery alone. The highlight is the so-called “Gorilla Head” rock, a gigantic volcanic outcrop that is indeed quite reminiscent of a gorilla … although one Saint guide told me that in the past it used to be called “Nigger's Head”. But of course contemporary political correctness necessitated a name change. The new name is also much more descriptively apt. Also on this hike you can spot masked boobies (relatives of gannets) who nest on the crests of the barren ridges. And a peculiar rare plant called “babies' toes” can be seen in relative abundance here (see photos).
   
All in all, it's the scenery that is the principal non-dark thing on St Helena. Those expecting a tropical beach holiday would be in the wrong place here, however. There are only very few safe places for a swim in the sea, and the only bit of white sand on St Helena is to be found not at beaches but as a geological relic high up on a ridge en route to Lot's Wife's Ponds. Those ponds, however, would in theory have been a safe place for a splash – but when I was there the winds were so strong that the swell of the Atlantic ruled it out. See the breakers washing over the ponds in image 17 in the gallery below! You wouldn't want to be caught in one of those ...
 
   
   
   
  • 01 - St Helena flag01 - St Helena flag
  • 02 - British overseas territory02 - British overseas territory
  • 03 - airport03 - airport
  • 04 - airport with filled in valley for the runway04 - airport with filled in valley for the runway
  • 05 - Model of the retired RMS St Helena05 - Model of the retired RMS St Helena
  • 06 - old greeting and recent farewell to the RMS06 - old greeting and recent farewell to the RMS
  • 07 - Ruperts with old chimney built by Boer POWs and new harbour facilities07 - Ruperts with old chimney built by Boer POWs and new harbour facilities
  • 08 - former slave caves08 - former slave caves
  • 09 - former quarantine station09 - former quarantine station
  • 10 - view down to Sandy Bay beach10 - view down to Sandy Bay beach
  • 11 - Sandy Bay with rusty cannon11 - Sandy Bay with rusty cannon
  • 12 - danger12 - danger
  • 13 - Lot and Lots Wife13 - Lot and Lots Wife
  • 14 - dramatic volcanic landscape14 - dramatic volcanic landscape
  • 15 - Gorilla Head rock15 - Gorilla Head rock
  • 16 - coastal Ponds16 - coastal Ponds
  • 17 - Atlantic swell17 - Atlantic swell
  • 18 - coastal view18 - coastal view
  • 19 - view over Turks Cap and The Barn19 - view over Turks Cap and The Barn
  • 20 - Speery Island off-shore20 - Speery Island off-shore
  • 21 - Speery Island close up from a boat21 - Speery Island close up from a boat
  • 22 - Black Rocks and Asses Ears22 - Black Rocks and Asses Ears
  • 23 - The Eyes23 - The Eyes
  • 24 - rugged coast but lush inland24 - rugged coast but lush inland
  • 25 - living on the ridge25 - living on the ridge
  • 26 - driving on the ridge26 - driving on the ridge
  • 27 - rural telephone booth27 - rural telephone booth
  • 28 - St Pauls Cathedral28 - St Pauls Cathedral
  • 29 - cemetery outside29 - cemetery outside
  • 30 - remote cemetery near Halleys Mount30 - remote cemetery near Halleys Mount
  • 30a - slave graves discovery - photo courtesy of Andrew Pearson of the Ruperts Valley Archaeological Project30a - slave graves discovery - photo courtesy of Andrew Pearson of the Ruperts Valley Archaeological Project
  • 30b - double slave grave - photo courtesy of Andrew Pearson of Ruperts Valley Archaeological Project30b - double slave grave - photo courtesy of Andrew Pearson of Ruperts Valley Archaeological Project
  • 30c - Building No 1 at former freed slave camp - photo courtesy of Andrew Pearson of the Ruperts Valley Archaeological Project30c - Building No 1 at former freed slave camp - photo courtesy of Andrew Pearson of the Ruperts Valley Archaeological Project
  • 31 - Plantation House31 - Plantation House
  • 32 - library with Churchill on the wall32 - library with Churchill on the wall
  • 33 - Jonathan33 - Jonathan
  • 34 - heart-shaped waterfall34 - heart-shaped waterfall
  • 35 - St Helena coffee35 - St Helena coffee
  • 36 - St Helena fishcakes36 - St Helena fishcakes
  • 37 - wirebird37 - wirebird
  • 38 - donkey home38 - donkey home
  • 39 - sheep at South-West Point39 - sheep at South-West Point
  • 40 - cows with a view40 - cows with a view
  • 41 - dolphins41 - dolphins
  • 42 - masked booby in flight42 - masked booby in flight
  • 43 - inquisitive fairy tern43 - inquisitive fairy tern
  • 44 - baby toes44 - baby toes
  • 45 - ex-national flower, actually an invasive species45 - ex-national flower, actually an invasive species
  • 46 - invasive flax46 - invasive flax
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
 

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