St Helena: The island that time forgot

2017-11-24 10:35
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Jamestown - Coin-operated telephone boxes, a capital without a cash machine and a local shop with a wooden floor: St Helena is Britain of yesteryear, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

A secluded island

"I don't think I would fit in the outside world," says Ivy Robinson, who runs the Wellington House bed and breakfast, complete with a pale blue Georgian facade, in the village-sized capital Jamestown. The accommodation, attentively run by the fifty-something proprietor, has no internet connection just like all but one of her competitors.

Robinson makes do with a fixed-line telephone to communicate abroad and with the island's other 4 500 people. She has not yet got a mobile phone despite St Helena, which lies roughly halfway between Angola and Brazil, getting a mobile network two years ago.

SEE: St Helena tourism cleared for take-off as airport opens

"As the rest of the world looks chained to their iPads, we continue to watch the horizon for passing ships," says Jeremy Harris, the local director of the National Trust conservation charity.

The boats that occasionally call at the territory set the pace of life on the island, supplying the islanders' every need.

From fuel to food, furniture to medication, clothes to vehicles, the arrival of fresh cargo aboard the territory's maritime link to the outside world via Cape Town was always much anticipated.

SEE: Saint Helena: The island in the middle of nowhere

"When you hear the signal that the Royal Mail Ship is leaving, you think 'oh my goodness': I am in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, just thousands of miles from anywhere - what if?" says Lisa Phillips, the island's governor.

The sense of isolation is compounded by the dearth of information about official matters on the island - all of its elected councillors take a vow of silence to not divulge their discussions in the name of confidentiality.

But times are changing.

The island now boasts an international airport with a weekly air link to South Africa, and the governor decided in August to relax the councillors' code of conduct.

Thanks to the new air service, 69-year-old Teddy Fowler was able to return from Britain in time for his mother's funeral on the island. But his children, who emigrated to Britain, did not make the journey - the flights were too expensive.

SEE: St Helena chooses SA Airlink to service the island

"Even with the plane, it will always be the same for us - the Saints," he says, using the name for the islanders. "We will still be isolated."

The airport promises to be a game changer for those who fall ill, permitting aerial medical evacuations for the first time. Some patients have died aboard the postal ship, which takes six days to reach Cape Town.

The life of a newborn has already been saved thanks to the airport, according to the governor.

But keeping the island supplied with essentials still depends on ocean-bound cargo - as well as patience, planning and a "make do and mend" attitude.

One young "Saint" had to borrow a wedding dress for her big day after the RMS St Helena broke down.

Craig Yon, a diving instructor, waited two and a half months for a spare part for his boat.


'Embrace the slow pace' 

In October, St Helena suffered a shortage of flour - affecting the supply of everyday staples.

"When you want to cook something, and you can't find all the ingredients, you just have to cook something else," says Phillips.

Food production on the island, where exposed rockfaces are punctuated by lush forests and meadows, is mainly limited to salad, tomatoes, cucumber, pork and tuna.

"We embrace the slow place. That's the key to life on St Helena," says Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, the curator of the French historical sites on the island where Napoleon was exiled until his death in 1821. Two centuries on, the defeated emperor is enjoying something of a revival.

SEE: Bones of freed slaves 'haunt' St Helena

Britain's one-time arch-nemesis has become the island's foremost draw for history buffs.

"Whether we like it or not, Napoleon came here, he died here, he is part of our history now. That is a tourist attraction," says Lawson Henry, a local councillor. Napoleon's Longwood home, where he lived behind permanently closed shutters to torment the soldiers assigned to guard him, is now open to visitors.

St Helena is still associated with exile - albeit for the islanders who call it home.

With no industry and underdeveloped agriculture, St Helena's economy is struggling, with an average annual salary of just 8 080 euros (R133 457 @R16.52 /euro).

More than half of the population work abroad at any one time - often with the armed forces on the Falkland Islands or "nearby" Ascension Island which is 1 100 kilometres away. 

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