Cast adrift in the South Atlantic, St Helena is an island defined by its isolation. Experience the otherworldly landscapes, exotic wildlife and warm hospitality of Britain’s most far-flung territory
‘There! To starboard!’ shouts Captain Craig, pointing into the choppy Atlantic swell. His passengers don snorkels and drop into the water, and I follow with a splash.
At first, there’s nothing but ocean: endless, hazy with plankton, dazzlingly blue. But then, something materialises from the depths. A mouth. A gigantic mouth. A gaping, cavernous mouth, large enough to swallow a car. A mouth swimming straight towards me.
With a kick of my fins, I swim sideways as the mouth glides past, pursued by a dorsal fin, a white-spotted flank and a mighty tail, snaking from side to side. I’ve just brushed fins with the planet’s biggest fish – a whale shark – but as I haul myself back into the boat, Captain Craigseems unimpressed. Last week, he tells me with a grin, he saw a school of thirty in this very spot, and this time next month, I’d probably find myself swimming face-to-face with a humpback whale.
Quite why the tiny island of St Helena has become a favourite breeding ground for the world’s whale sharks and humpbacks remains a scientific mystery, but it almost certainly has something to do with the island’s astonishing isolation. Apart from the similarly pint-sized islands of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, the nearest landmass of note is Africa, 2000 miles to the east (South America is even more distant, 2500 miles west). Just five miles wide and ten miles long, floating like a piece of flotsam in the middle of the South Atlantic, St Helena isn’t simply a long way from anywhere: it’s one of the remotest places on Planet Earth.
‘You can’t really get more isolated than St Helena,’ admits naturalist Stedson Stroud, as we rumble along the island’s west coast in his battered old Land Rover. ‘But the isolation is what makes the island so fascinating, at least in terms of natural history: we have plants, insects, birds and animals here that you won’t find anywhere else on Earth. We’re an oasis of biodiversity in the middle of the South Atlantic.’
Dressed in khaki fatigues and a floppy safari hat, looking like a South Atlantic Crocodile Dundee, Stedson is an expert on the island’s flora and fauna. He’s taking me on a safari to spot one of St Helena’s rarest creatures: the St Helena plover, or wirebird, the island’s only endemic bird, brought to the edge of extinction by hunting and habitat loss, now gradually recovering thanks to conservation efforts.
With an ominous splutter, the truck shudders to a stop, and we step into a landscape that’s almost lunar in its strangeness. A plain of red rock sprawls around us, speckled with spindly clumps of aloe and bulbous prickly pears. Bubblegum-coloured boulders are strewn around like meteorites. Tangerine hills loom in the distance. A topographical mash-up of desert, mesa, volcano and moonscape, it’s a view not entirely of this world.
‘Bingo!’ whispers Stedson, spying something scurrying between the rocks: a black-banded head, a white breast and a bundle of brown feathers, perched on spindly, matchstick legs. ‘It might not look like much, but for twitchers, that’s pretty much the Holy Grail on St Helena. The wirebird’s on our coat-of-arms, after all!’ Stedson says, as we judder back down the pot-holed track towards his house, watching the sun sink over an Atlantic so blue, it’s almost fluorescent.
As I drive back along the spine of the island, zig-zagging through misty cloud forest, barren plateaus and black volcanic valleys, I’m struck by the utter strangeness of this tiny island’s topography. But there’s something else about St Helena that’s even stranger than its landscape: the fact that it’s British, and has been for the last 360 years. Though it was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, St Helena has been a British territory since 1659, when the East India Company installed the first Governor here; famously, St Helena is also the island where Britain exiled its arch-nemesis, Napoleon Bonaparte, after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1815 (he never left, dying on the island six years later).
Nowadays, St Helenians (or Saints, as they refer to themselves) are British citizens, and the island still follows the UK’s lead in many areas of life, from health and education to the legal system. Touchstones of Britishness are everywhere: in the road-signs, roundabouts, fire engines, post boxes and police cars, in the Union Jacks fluttering from balconies, in the Britishisms that pepper people’s conversations (albeit in an accent that sounds like Bob Marley doing an impression of Blackbeard the Pirate). And with its Georgian houses, greengrocers, pubs and copper-spired Anglican church, the island’s capital, Jamestown, feels bizarrely like an English seaside village circa 1950 – or at least it would do, if it weren’t for the red volcanic cliffs looming above town, the white-tailed tropicbirds fluttering around in the treetops and the bulbous cacti sprouting along the roadsides like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon.
‘Everyone’s proud to be a Saint, of course, but being British is part of our identity too,’ explains businesswoman Tara Wortley over a cup of island coffee near the wharf in Jamestown. As the youngest woman elected to St Helena’s council, she’s had plenty of time to contemplate her island’s complicated cultural identity. ‘We drive on the same side of the road, we use the same currency, even our sense of humour is British. But we have this islander mentality too. That duality is what makes Saints who we are.’
Tara is also one of a new generation of young Saints who’s managed to resist the lure of the motherland; thanks to the advent of the internet, entrepreneurship and educational programmes, and not least the construction of the island’s brand new airport, it’s becoming possible for young Saints to make a life for themselves on the island in ways that simply weren’t possible in the past. Marco Yon is one of them: like many young Saints, he moved to the UK in his twenties, working as a helicopter engineer in the Royal Navy, but recently returned home to guide hikes and bushwalks around the wild island where he grew up.
‘Like most Saints I wanted to see the outside world, but I always knew I wanted to come home one day,’ he says, as he leads me on a dawn trek beneath the slopes of Sugarloaf, a rugged mountain on the island’s north coast. ‘Things have really changed on St Helena since I was a kid. New people are moving here, there’s progress, development, which can be seen as a positive or negative, depending on your point of view. Personally I think it’s a good thing: we need to find our place in the world, and also hold on to what makes this place special, too.’
We pass through a thicket of prickly pears, and Marco shows me how to harvest the fruits, using a rock to brush off the spines, revealing the sweet red flesh inside; it tastes halfway between a lychee and a mango. ‘We call this the tungi,’ he says, splitting another fruit. ‘In the old days sailors planted them on the island so they’d always have a supply of Vitamin C to stave off scurvy.’
We reach the coast and stop on the battlements of an abandoned watchtower, gazing out over the flat blue Atlantic. On one wall, a date has been etched into the stone: 1794. I wonderwho the soldier who carved it was, the epic journey that brought him here, and whether he ever made it home. I’m still thinking about him as I follow Marco down the coast towards the rooftops of Jamestown, listening to the boom of the Atlantic against the island’s black cliffs, and the lonely cackle of fairy terns wheeling in the mist. St Helena may not be quite as faraway as once it was, but it still feels like a long way from home.
St Helena: Make It Happen
There is currently one weekly flight to St Helena’s airport from Johannesburg every Saturday, with a brief stop for refuelling at Windhoek in Namibia. A second mid-week flight on Tuesday was also trialled in early 2019. Flight-time to the island is around six hours, but the airport’s exposed location means that bad weather sometimes causes delays, so be prepared. Return flights from the UK to Johannesburg start at around £1733 with South African Airways (flysaa.com), including an overnight stop in Johannesburg and an onward connection to St Helena with Air Link.
There are several accredited operators offering snorkelling trips to see whale sharks and humpback whales, contact Dive St Helena (00290 61400; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Hiking guides on the island include Marco Yon (00290 61557), Remi Bruneton (00290 67446; email@example.com) and Val Joshua (00290 22235; Val.J@helanta.co.sh)
For 4×4 jeep tours, contact Aaron’s Adventure Tours (00290 61597).
Where to Stay
The island’s only hotel, Mantis St Helena, sits in a prime location in the middle of Jamestown. Converted from three historic merchant’s houses, it offers spacious, comfortable air-conditioned rooms; the best have teak floors and shuttered windows overlooking the town square. There’s also an excellent restaurant (doubles from £175, mantissthelena.com).
There are also several B&Bs around town, including the Townhouse, which offers homely accommodation in a lemon-yellow Georgian house (doubles from £140 per night, townhouseaccommodation.com). Another option is the Blue Lantern, in a modern building located on a backstreet behind Jamestown’s church (doubles from £100, accommodationsthelena.com).
If you prefer to base yourself further out of town, Richards Travel Lodge is amodern bungalow in the island’s main settlement of Half Tree Hollow, with a pleasant garden and cracking views of the coast. Owner Derek Richards also runs island tours (doubles from £90, islandimages.co.sh).
Where to Eat
For traditional island food such as tuna fishcakes, plo (stew) and fish and chips, the preferred locals hangout is Anne’s Place, a breezy island-style bar in Jamestown (00290 22797; mains around £8-10).
Classier French-inspired dining is on offer at Bertrand’s Cottage, housed in a building that once belonged to Napoleon’s aide-de-camp at Longwood (3 courses from around £15; bertrandscottage.com).
The Mantis Hotel also has an excellent fine-dining restaurant, with dishes like tuna spring rolls and swordfish steak (mains from around £14, mantissthelena.com)
Comprehensive information on the island is available from the St Helena Tourist Office (sthelenatourism.com).
Behind the Scenes
A rite-of-passage for every visitor to St Helena (including me), the vertiginous staircase known as Jacob’s Ladder was originally built as a railway to connect Jamestown with Ladder Hill Fort. Its 699 steps, 640 feet of ascent and incline of 44˚ makes it a formidable proposition for even the fittest hiker; the current record ascent is held by Graham Doig, who reached the top in 5 minutes, 16.78 seconds in 2013; it took me a rather less impressive 20 minutes to slog to the top. If you do complete the climb, don’t forget to pick up your congratulatory certificate from the Museum of St Helena in Jamestown.
St Helena’s sub-tropical climate is ideal for coffee-growing, but most islanders grow just enough to supply their own needs, so there are only a couple of commercial plantations. This makes St Helenian coffee, gram-for-gram, among the most expensive in the world. On the island, a bag of 100g retails for around £10; the same bag in Harrod’s costs nine times as much. Tours of Rosemary Gate Coffee can be arranged through the tourist office, or you can buy direct from their café by the harbour in Jamestown (sainthelenaisland.info/coffee.htm)
Napoleon on St Helena
Famously, St Helena’s isolation made it the perfect place to exile Britain’s arch-nemesis, Napoleon Bonaparte, after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1815. He never left, dying on the island six years later; his final home at Longwood is now St Helena’s most visited tourist attraction. You can also visit his tomb, although the Emperor is no longer there; his remains were repatriated to France in 1840.
The Oldest St Helenian
St Helena’s most senior citizen is Jonathan, a giant Seychelles tortoise, who was given as a gift to the Governor in 1882. He was thought to be around fifty when he arrived, which puts him at about 187 now – and makes him, as far as we know, the oldest living land animal on the planet.