Scott Bennett very reluctantly explores St Helena upon the insistence of Raf Jah. When he finally gets there, he is not so quietly amazed. Read about the reluctant adventurer below.
Images and words: Scott Bennett unless otherwise noted.
From my lofty vantage point, a world in miniature spread out, a rugged coastline encompassing a landscape of mountains, forests, grassland and semi-desert. With place names like Longwood, Half Tree Hollow, Deadwood Plain, and the Gates of Chaos, it was easy to envision I had been transported to Middle Earth. However, this was not New Zealand; the right hemisphere but the wrong ocean. This was the island of St. Helena.
Sitting in the South Atlantic 1900km west of Southern Africa and 2900km east of South America, St. Helena is the epitome of isolation. A mere 16 km long and just under 10 km wide, the island ascends 4000m from the ocean floor to its highest point at 820m above sea level. First discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century, it remained uninhabited until the British East India Company arrived in 1659. Today, the island remains Britain’s second oldest territory after Bermuda.
For centuries, the only way there was by sea. In recent years, the RMS St. Helena made the 5-day journey from Cape Town every 3 weeks and was the island’s sole connection to the outside world. That all changed in Nov. 2017, with the opening of the airport. Although finished in 2016, problems arose due to excessive wind shear. It was another year before the first commercial flight landed, and a five-day trip was now only 6 hours from Johannesburg.
Friends Raf and Cisca Jah from the African and Oriental Travel Company had brought the first diving tour group by plane and their trip drew raves. They insisted I come, but initially, I wasn’t keen; the trip would be long and expensive and what was there to see? Then again, past experiences have taught that the unexpected places prove to be the best surprises. Five months later, I met up with Raf, Cisca, Özkan Köysüren and Mike Eggers in Johannesburg for a journey to the most remote place I’d ever been.
However, the flight filled me with anxiety. Before departing, I read an article that claimed it to be the most terrifying landing the author had ever experienced. During the re-fueling stop at Windhoek, Cisca showed me a phone app entitled “St. Helena Airport”, where the player attempts to land a plane on a 3-d graphic representation of the island. Based on her success record, I was grateful she wasn’t our pilot. Happily, our arrival was smooth with nary a bump. The bus ride between the terminal and plane at Johannesburg airport was more nerve wracking.
Right away, the island way of doing things became apparent. Considering we were the only flight for three days with only 76 passengers aboard, it took a full hour to clear immigration and retrieve our luggage. At the carousel, a stern-looking woman approached with some questions, specifically whether I was bringing in food. “I have a chocolate bar; is that ok,” I queried.” That depends on whether I’m hungry,” she responded before breaking into a wide grin. “Welcome to Saint Helena!”
Luggage retrieved, we ventured outside to find our transport waiting. On hand was Matt Joshua, manager of the Mantis Hotel and Anthony Thomas, owner of Sub-Tropic Adventures. We soon arrived at the Mantis Hotel, our home for the following week. The island’s most upscale accommodation, it occupies a row of former officers’ quarters dating from the 18th century. The elegantly appointed rooms featured a much sought-after commodity; free and reliable wi-fi.
With a free afternoon ahead, I set out to do some exploration. Wedged between sheer cliffs, Jamestown is steeped in history, with over 100 listed buildings. Main Street is renowned for its pristine Georgian architecture, with many buildings constructed from the local volcanic rock. Boasting an impressive façade, the century-old Consulate Hotel featured a life-sized figure of Napoleon on the upper terrace. Dating from 1772, St James’ Church is the oldest Anglican church in the Southern Hemisphere.
However, Jamestown’s most iconic structure isn’t a building. Constructed in 1829, Jacob’s Ladder is a 699-step staircase linking Jamestown with Ladder Hill Fort. I had seen photos, but none did justice to its sheer scale. Merely looking up the vertiginous ascent is enough to induce vertigo. For the intrepid able to conquer it, a certificate is available at the museum. “Not today”, I mumbled to myself……
And yes, the inhabitants really do call themselves Saints. The language is English (sort of) spoken with a curious usage of English words takes some getting get used to. One friend referred to it as a cross between Cornwall and Australia, but I could detect Kiwi and Irish inflections. The locals tone it down for tourists, but once they converse in full-on patois, subtitles are required. A phrasebook entitled “Speaking Saint” is available at the local gift shops; essential for a night at a local pub!
Venturing to the waterfront, I followed the road as it passed the old Customs House leading to the wharf. Above, swathes of netting encased the vertiginous cliffs to prevent rockfalls. I found soon Sub-Tropic Adventures and beyond that, “The Steps” our embarkation spot for the next day’s diving. Especially poignant were signs painted on bare rock high above the harbour: “Welcome RMS Saint Helena” with the newer Farewell RMS St. Helena 2017” right beside it.
The next morning, everyone gathered at 9:00 to assemble their gear. Two groups were going in two zodiacs, downright chaotic by St. Helena standards! Joining our group were Danny and Sally Wright from the UK. Getting aboard proved tricky, stepping down to the zodiac as it pitched in the relentless surf. Fortunately, numerous helping hands insured divers and gear boarded safely. With Anthony’s dad Larry at the helm, we set out for our first dive site at Lighter Rock, a 20-min boat ride east of James Bay.
An outcrop where only the tip protrudes above the waterline, it connects to the mainland at Cat Island via a shallow ledge averaging 10m. Plunging in revealed dramatic seascapes echoing the craggy terrain above, with huge boulders and sheer rock faces honeycombed with caves, archways and overhangs. The visibility was exceptional, at times approaching nearly 50m, no doubt due to the lack of sediment from runoff. The water temperature was a comfortable 25 degrees Celsius and the 5mm suit provided ample warmth.
Although reef-building corals were absent, an abundance of tunicates, algae and sponges shrouded the rock faces. Endemic orange cup corals added a splash of colour along with harpoon weed (a red algae), tiny anemones and various species of hydroid.
What was really astonishing was the volume of fish life. Isolated islands are magnets for undersea life and St. Helena is no exception. Here, the Benguela Current meets the cool waters of the South Atlantic Gyre, resulting in a fusion of both Western and Eastern Atlantic and circumtropical species.
The island’s isolation has resulted in a variety of endemic species. Most prolific was the St. Helena butterflyfish, whose numbers were simply astonishing. Schools were so dense as to engulf divers
Reviewing my photos later, what appeared to be strobe backscatter was actually near-infinite numbers of fish! Parrotfish were also common, but what appears to be two species is actually one. The strigate parrotfish features two colour phases. It is theorized the smaller yellow versions are females while the larger dull purple-grey individuals are the males.
Bearded fireworms scuttled across rock faces while large spotted scorpionfish were nearly imperceptible, something I discovered when I nearly put my hand on one! Squirrelfish and blackbar soldierfish mingled under ledges and overhangs as spotted morays peered with mouths agape.
More elusive were hedgehog butterflyfish, distinctively patterned with a chocolate brown head and lower half and white above. Both green and hawksbill turtles are present, although there have been no records of successful nesting on the island.
A short boat ride away was our second dive site, the Bedgellet. One of 8 diveable wrecks to be found around the island, it was brought from the UK to salvage another wreck, the Papa Nui. However, it broke loose from moorings during a storm, causing damage to both itself and other boats. In 2001 the St. Helena Government sunk it as an artificial reef near Long Ledge on the South coast
Resting upright on a barren expanse at 18m, the vessel was a magnet for fish life. Schools of butterflyfish swarmed upper decks encrusted with growth. Below, glasseye snappers and island hogfish flashed crimson as they pulsed throughout the numerous openings. On a nearby reef, Sergeant-majors and ocean surgeonfish foraged together amongst the nooks and crannies in a billowing mass. It was hard to believe there were the only ones there!
The remainder of the week was spent exploring the area’s excellent dive sites, the majority of which were situated along the island’s northwest coast. As conditions roughened, we missed out on some of the shallower sites and wrecks closer to shore, but there was still plenty to discover, with the majority of sites no deeper than 20m. Especially striking was Long Ledge, a steep series of natural formations like the steps of a colossal undersea temple.
Another favourite was the Frontier Wreck, a fishing trawler confiscated by the government after a large amount of cannabis was discovered aboard. The vessel was sunk in 1994 to form an artificial reef and rests in 27m of water. Part of the vessel has toppled on its side, its corroding frame resembling the ribs of a long- dead whale. Along with the ubiquitous butterflyfish, St. Helena white seabream swarmed in abundance abundant along with St. Helena sharpnose puffers, island cowfish and St. Helena wrasse. Nudibranchs and spiny lobsters are commonly observed here, but I was so engrossed in the big picture I forgot to look!
Another day, we headed for the west coast to dive a pair of sites. Both located near the airport Sugar Loaf and Barn Cap featured astounding visibility in excess of 40m. Amalco jacks were especially curious, frequently approaching divers, while large ocean triggerfish proved more wary. Smaller cousins of the manta, Chilean devil rays cruised the open water. Although common, we didn’t see any for the first three days in one day seven appeared! Other sites included Egg Rock, Billy Mayes Revenge and Torm Ledge, each revealing amazing fish life and superb visibility.
Divers will want to pick up a copy of “Marine Life of St. Helena” by Judith Brown, a comprehensive guide to the island’s marine life and wrecks, available at local gift shops. Despite everything we saw, I was surprised by just how much more there was!
A favourite stop after diving was the St. Helena Coffee Shop. Grown at only two plantations, the locally grown coffee was excellent and amongst the world’s most expensive. Bags are available at the shop for 15£ but can fetch 90£ at Harrods in London!
Although I had come for the diving, the island’s topside attractions proved equally enticing. Another afternoon, I took a short tour with Wayne Crowie, who had driven us from the airport on the first day. From town, it appears Jacob’s Ladder is the high point, but past Halftree Hollow, the road ascended further to High Knoll Fort at 584 m. The current structure dates from 1874 and is the largest of the island’s military installations. Its lofty perch commanded spectacular vistas over the island.
Our final stop was Plantation House, the Governors official residence. Nestled amongst forested grounds, the stately building was erected in 1792 by the East India Company. It is also home to the Island’s most famous resident: Johnathon the tortoise. At 188 years old, he is believed to be the planet’s oldest living creature and shares his outdoor compound with several other tortoises. His advanced years don’t stop him from chasing the females. Well, chasing may be an exaggeration …….
With visiting hours over, I had to settle for a walk along a fenced pathway. I could just discern Johnathon hiding under a cluster of low trees. Overhead, white birds wheeled in abundance and I asked Wayne what they were. “White birds,” he replied. That really is their local name, but in actuality are fairy terns. The island’s early residents weren’t especially creative in the naming department.
Our trip was planned to coincide with the arrival of some very big visitors. Between November to March, whale sharks congregate around the island in large numbers. Although they can be observed while scuba diving, whale shark excursions are done by snorkeling, and encounters with individual sharks are limited to 45 minutes Guidelines are strict; participants must remain 3m away from the sharks and no touching is allowed. However, I soon discovered the sharks are unaware of the rules.
One day after diving, myself, Mike, Danny and Sally signed up for an excursion. Setting out from James Bay, it didn’t take long to find a shark. Plunging in, I promptly spotted our quarry, an 8-m individual swimming at the surface, some 15m away. Suddenly, it made an abrupt turn and headed in my direction. It was the first time I’d ever seen a whale shark front on and was utterly spellbound. Photographing happily, I was unaware of just how close it was. Looking up, I was alarmed to see it to be an arm’s length away and frantically maneuvered to avoid it. “It wasn’t my fault; I wasn’t even moving”, I protested to Anthony, who had watched the entire episode from the boat. “Don’t worry about it”, he chuckled.
We spent the next 40 minutes with the shark, which proved to be exceedingly tolerant. Despite some surface chop, the water was gin clear. During encounters in other countries, the sharks vanished when I entered the water, but not so here. Even If they did swim away, pursuit wasn’t necessary, as they inevitably returned for another look. As the sharks here aren’t harassed by fleets of boats, I suspect snorkellers are a curiosity rather than an annoyance.
The experience was so captivating, everyone decided to go again two days later and proved to be even better. This time, a massive 10m individual arrived that was even more curious. This time, however, I got out of its way well in advance. Sally wasn’t so lucky; the shark was really intent on a close encounter and she had trouble keeping away from it!
For our last day, Cisca, Mike and explored the island with Aaron Legg of Aaron’s Adventure Tours.
Despite its compact size, the island boasts an extraordinary range of topography, from grassy plains and semi- desert to lush forest-clad peaks. It’s also extremely rugged, so driving anywhere takes a lot longer than one would expect. A four-wheel drive proved essential, as Aaron took us on some bone-rattling roads.
Aaron soon proved to be a treasure trove of island history. With such a storied history, many famous people have visited, including the Duke of Wellington, Captains Cook and Bligh, Edmond Halley, and Charles Darwin. However there is one man to which the island is inexorably linked: Napoleon Bonaparte, exiled to the island by the British after his surrender at the Battle of Waterloo.
After stopping for a view of Jamestown, we set off for Napoleon’s Tomb, situated in Sane Valley. An easy 1km return walk, the setting was quite beautiful, surrounded by gardens and shaded by tall trees. The only thing missing was Napoleon himself. He was only interred here from 1821-1840, when he was exhumed and taken back to in Paris for burial.
Our next stop was Longwood House, Napoleon’s residence in exile. Arriving in October 1815, he initially resided at the Briars pavilion until the completion of Longwood House in December 1815. A guided tour proved very interesting, the house still looking as it did during Napoleon’s time. Napoleon died on 5 May 1821 and conspiracy theories abound regarding his death. The official cause was stomach cancer, but many claim the British poisoned him. Our guide believed he succumbed to long term exposure of toxins in the wallpaper.
The history didn’t stop there. In an expanse of grassland, a sign indicted the site of a Boer internment camp, where over 6,000 Boer prisoners were held during the Boer War between 1900-1901. A detour to the coast revealed dramatic cliffs with stunning views of Turk’s Cap and the Barn, formations we’d seen on our diving excursions. Enroute, we kept a lookout for wirebirds, the island’s national bird and sole indigenous bird species. Deadwood Plain’s open expanse is a favoured nesting area and we observed many, with several right by the roadside. From less than 200 birds in 2006, numbers have rebounded to over 500.
For our packed lunch, we stopped at the Millennium forest, once home to the Great Wood, an extensive forest of indigenous gumwood trees. With no native land mammals, the flora and fauna were soon decimated by introduced livestock, cats, rabbits and rats. In 2002 the Millennium Forest project was initiated to replant part of the lost forest. Gumwood is slow-growing, so it will take time to regain its past grandeur. In the meantime, if you get lost, just stand up….
After lunch, other stops included the semi desert terrain overlooking the airport and Bell Rock (which really does sound like a bell when struck). At the island’s north end, the vegetation became more fertile. Forests of eucalyptus dominated the landscape, while higher still, tree ferns shrouded Diana’s Peak, the island’s highest point at 818m.
Passing banana and coffee plantations, the landscape transformed yet again, the greenery reverting back to an arid landscape. Dramatic formations abounded, including twin pillars of rock called Lot and Lot’s Wife. Passing a tiny Baptist church with Lot’s Wife in the background, I was amused by the irony! Nearer the coast, date palms appeared, and I felt like I’d ventured from Hawaii to the Middle East in mere minutes.
Arriving at Sandy Bay revealed a St. Helena first: an actual beach, the black sand a testament to the island’s volcanic origins. At one time, a stone wall separated the shore from the valley, as it was a favoured spot for smugglers to come ashore. Today, only a small section of wall remains. After a stroll along the beach, it was time to head back to Jamestown. Even after 7 hours, didn’t even come close to seeing everything.
Back at the Mantis, it was BBQ night and the hotel laid out a sumptuous spread of grilled delicacies and salads. After piling my plate, I returned to the table to find a surprise. While we were on our land tour, Özkan had managed to arrange a fishing trip and one of the chefs had cooked up the wahoo he caught. Even though it was only part of the fish, our entire group couldn’t finish it off!
ST HELENA- KNOW AND GO:
By Scott, edited by Raf
Travelling to St. Helena does present a few challenges. Wherever one is based, it is a long trip. Even from the UK, which is in the same time zone, it is 17 hours of flying plus an overnight stop in Johannesburg. (Raf and the others flew Turkish Airlines to Johannesburg and then went on a short Safari in Zambia and Zimbabwe. )I thoroughly recommend a safari but I would do my safari after St Helena, not before. This is because a safari involves an awful lot of downtime and relaxation, and there is so much to do in St Helena, that my feet barely touched the ground. After a night in Johannesburg, we flew to the airfield at “Spider Hill” St Helena. This flight is operated by SA Airlink, but the sales are done through South African Airways. the Embraer E190-100IGW seats 98 passengers but numbers are limited to 76, in case a tailwind landing is required during challenging weather. (this will change to 95 pax when the stopover airport is changed to Walvis Bay). Baggage is limited 20kg limit, but fortunately, an extra 15kg is allowed for diving equipment. At the time of booking, you must inform Airlink and they may add it to your booking notes.
WHERE TO SAY
There are three main options for staying in St Helena. You can stay in the world class Mantis hotel, which has everything from air conditioning to wifi included. (Would you believe its the only place on the island that does). The restaurant and bar serve lunch and dinner with many choices at reasonable prices. Then there is the Consulate Hotel in Jamestown which has so much charm. This is the original historic hotel in Jamestown, but the wifi is paid for from the local sure hotspot. This is £20 for two hours. Breakfasts are impressive, but at the time of writing there is no lunch or dinner offered, and evening eateries in Jamestown are not always open. There are delightful self catering flats in town which are very convenient for divers and very reasonably priced. Or if you prefer a breezy location, you can stay up the mountain in alarm forest, or farm lodge. The issue with this for divers, is that you have to hire a car to get to the dive boat. There are other options of course, but these were the reliable professionally run properties that deal with the AOTC.
BOOK A PACKAGE OR RISK MISSING OUT!
Make sure you organise your safari in advance through a reputable company. (A theme I keep coming back to). St Helena is a funny place, and it is new to tourism. There is no elasticity in the system at all. It is crucial to book a package with the diving included. Island culture has its own pace and priorities, which can sometimes be at odds with modern tourist sensibilities. Showing up and trying to arrange diving will likely result in disappointment. There are only 2 operators on the island and dive trips aren’t guaranteed daily. It’s a long way to come to be disappointed, so it’s best to have everything confirmed with an experienced tour company before leaving home. Raf and Cisca (of the African and Oriental Travel Company) know the island well.
The African and Oriental Package starts at £2195 and includes: Return Flights from, Johannesburg to Jamestown, 7 nights accommodation Bed and Breakfast in the world class Mantis Hotel, 5 days of 2 tank morning dives with SubTropic Scuba, 2 whale shark snorkels With SubTropic Scuba, 1 full day island tour with Aaron’s adventure tours, Return airport transfers in St Helena (By the Mantis Hotel), 1 night in a Johannesburg airport hotel prior to departure
MANDATORY TRAVEL INSURANCE
Visitors MUST have travel insurance which includes medical evacuation. Bring a copy of your medical insurance policy with the number, as immigration officials will ask for it. No insurance – no entry. When returning home, ensure you have an international ticket from Johannesburg that can be changed at minimal cost, or you have at least 36 hours to spare before your connecting flight in case the St Helena – Johannesburg flight is weather delayed. (another reason to add a safari). A good travel agent will advise you of all of these issues.
These considerations aside, the question remains: is it worth it? The answer is a resounding yes! A remarkable destination, the island is a curious cross between a 1970’s time warp and a parallel universe. Make no mistake; this is no criticism. In our madcap era of hyper-connectivity, St. Helena was a wonderful breath of fresh air, harkening back to simpler times. With so many dive locations worldwide being loved to death, it is a journey worth taking.