It’s the island that time forgot; that nobody really wanted. Ships could reach it, but, because there’s no bay they would have to anchor off shore.
People who wanted to set foot on the island would have to climb down rope ladders into small boats that were able to ride the heavy swell to land.
Now, when a few big ocean liners call each year, passengers are carefully put onto lighters to be taken ashore.
But what really put this small 16 kilometres by 8 kilometres outcrop of rock in the middle of the South Atlantic on the map is that one of the most important men the world has ever known was sent into exile here in 1815.
Napoleon Bonaparte, once Emperor of Europe, was defeated by the British at The Battle of Waterloo and sentenced to spend the rest of his life here on St Helena.
History does not record what Napoleon’s words were when he saw the stark sheer shape of the mountains rising from the sea and the bleak barren terrain of one of the smallest and oldest British Overseas Territories but they certainly wouldn’t have been cries of joy.
However, in the last few years the UK Government has provided enough money to build an airport. Because the island has no flat spaces - even Jamestown the tiny capital is in a narrow volcanic valley – eight million cubic meters of rock were moved, a mountain was torn down and a very controversial airport was built.
It’s controversial because the Brits say it’s a waste of money because the island only has 4 500 inhabitants, all of whom are English-speaking descendants of settlers, sailors and slaves who call themselves Saints. The Saints themselves want the airport because they are hoping for a tourist boom.
I touched down in the middle of October on the Inaugural Flight of Airlink – the first ever commercial flight to the island – onto possibly the most scary runway in the world. One wrong move and the plane would plunge into the sea.
We were met by crowds of welcoming Saints and Her Excellency Lisa Phillips The Governor herself, who turned out to be great fun, feisty and outspoken and a seemingly very far cry from the centuries of her starchy, hoity-toity predecessors.
She lives in Plantation House, built in 1792 by the East India Company, an absolutely beautiful Georgian house that looks straight out of the pages of an 18th century English novel.
Lisa told me how proud she was to be the first female Governor in 500 years and advised I must come back to swim with the huge but passive whale sharks which come in great numbers to the clear calm waters around the island in January and February.
The South Atlantic here is a snorkeller’s and diver’s paradise. Over 700 marine species have been recorded so far, 50 of them endemic, and because there are no strong currents in the dark blue waters, you’ll be able to experience the marine life whether you’re a beginner or an advanced diver. The numerous wrecks scattered round the island make for even more fascinating diving.
As soon as you go inland, however, the harsh landscape of the island immediately gives way to lush sub-tropical vegetation. There’s only one steep, narrow road full of hairpin bends and twists and turns – uphill drivers have right of way – and then you’re plunged into vertical fields of lush green pasture with fat cows perched precariously on the slopes, and tethered goats all at a tilt.
Ancient gnarled trees bend over the narrow road and arum lilies are in full flower everywhere. Imagine a kind of cross between Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park.
Flax was once the main export of the island, but because nylon and plastic has now replaced its uses the island’s flax is running wild because it is no longer harvested.
St Helena is unique because of its remoteness. The Governor tells me that measures are being put into place to preserve and conserve both the landscapes and the historical buildings.
One historical moment of my whirlwind trip was a very poignant one. Between 1900 and 1902 over 6 000 Boer prisoners-of-war were sent into exile on the island by the British Government. Many died here.
It was drizzling with rain, overcast and grey when a small group of journalists and island dignitaries climbed down a grassy muddy path to the Boer War cemetery. The weather reinforced the somber mood. A lone bugler played The Last Post after the Governor had laid her wreath at the foot of the memorial and we all stood for a minute’s silence.
Chief Dinizulu and his family from South Africa were also exiled here in 1890 and one of his descendants now a very elderly lady known as Princess, still lives on the island.
But there’s much more than exceptional history to St Helena.
If you’re into adventure activities expect lots of opportunities. The mountains, rolling hills and challenging coastline are great opportunities for exploring on foot and there is a network of paths and trails, some definitely not for the fainthearted.
If you collect ‘firsts’ then shimmy up the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder that starts bang in the middle of the town and be rewarded at the top with spectacular views. Lot’s Wife’s Ponds is a particularly favourite walk. Amble along the coast before descending to the ponds and then you have a refreshing dip in waters teeming with sea life. You can also try your hand at birding, fishing, spotting wildlife, astronomy and photography.
Dr Niall O’Keefe, the charismatic CEO for Economic Development told us that, “We’ve worked hard for 10 years and we’ve done our homework. We want tourists to visit our unique island. This inaugural Airlink flight and the subsequent ones give us the opportunity to make our plans work. We’ve got a long way to go still in terms of international standards but we’re getting there.”
The just-opened Mantis Hotel in the middle of Jamestown’s one main street is certainly up to international standards. Situated in gracious buildings dating back to 1774, it’s a symbol of what the island can achieve in terms of hospitality.
By the way, I got two ‘firsts’ myself. One was a sighting of the ‘Wire Bird’ so-called because of its skinny legs. It’s a not very prepossessing small plover but you’ll find it nowhere else in the world.
My second ‘first’ was being hugged and kissed by Napoleon. Merrick, a Saint, educated abroad but now come home to add his wide experience to St Helena’s bid for tourists, embraced me warmly at Bertrand’s Cottage, once home of Napoleon’s aide-de-camp, now renovated to a three-bedroom en-suite cottage.
Go and see for yourself all the wonders that this enchanted island offers, but maybe go as soon as you can before the rest of the world discovers it.
*Disclaimer: Kate Turkington was hosted by Fly Airlink
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