Caitlin Hennessy reports from St Helena on behalf of Revealed Travel.
Just getting to the remote island of St Helena is all part of the adventure. Situated nearly 2,000 miles from the African coast in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it used to be a six-day journey on the ship RMS St Helena from Cape Town. But since the end of 2017, that has shortened to a mere six-hour flight from Johannesburg.
My first view of the island through wispy cloud cover, was of the airstrip, perched dramatically on a cliff edge, high above the waves. The landing was equally thrilling and we all applauded as our pilot brought the small twin-engine jet smoothly down to terra firma! Just as they used to welcome the arriving passenger ship, now hundreds of locals gather at the airport to watch the plane and its passengers touch down.
Soon we were on a minibus to Jamestown, the island capital, population approximately 700. The bus whisked us first through barren volcanic mountain scenery and then, further inland, into dense and lush vegetation – stunning contrasts. We first glimpsed Jamestown from high up, at the top of a series of hairpin bends, which took us down to this small town, squeezed into the narrowest of valleys, overlooking the sea.
Several members of our group had a particular interest in Napoleon, undeniably still St Helena’s most famous resident, even though two centuries have passed since the defeated emperor’s exile on the island. Our group visited various Napoleonic sites including the house where he spent his last six years in exile, Longwood House.
Upon his death in 1821, Napoleon was buried in a place he chose for himself, a beautiful verdant location called Sane Valley. We visited his now empty tomb, in a quiet spot surrounded by flowers and ferns. In 1840 at the request of the French government, his remains were exhumed and placed at Les Invalides in Paris.
We were lucky enough to have an informative private tour of Longwood House where Napoleon lived until his death, spiced up with fascinating insights into his daily routines. We saw the peepholes in his shutters where he spent his time watching the guards. He began by writing his memoirs, but towards the end of his life he suffered with ill health and complained about being kept on the damp, windy island in two rather small rooms of the house, not to mention the poor diet he was given. At the end of the tour there was plenty of time to go back with a detailed audio-guide and study every aspect of Napoleon’s years here. The house is now a museum with a wealth of Napoleonic artefacts, including Napoleon’s death mask. Many paintings and some of the furniture are originals, whilst some items have been replicated.
No visit would be complete without a visit to Plantation House, the home of St Helena’s governor. Our group was shown around the house by resident manager, Debbie Stroud. She was full of stories about the house, and gave an insight into the lives of some of the former governors too. Our group were lucky enough to attend a delicious high tea with champagne, hosted by the Governor, Lisa Honan, who gave a talk about her role on the island, as one of Britain’s most far-flung but historic overseas territories.
With all due respect to Monsieur Bonaparte, I was personally even more excited to meet its other famous resident, Jonathan the tortoise. At 186 years old, he’s thought to be the oldest land animal on the planet. After the house tour, we entered the paddock and were able to meet him, along with two other Seychelles Giant tortoises. Jonathan can be recognised by a cataract in one eye. I had been slightly anxious that Jonathan would pop his clogs before we got to see him, but there he was, surprising nimble for 186, despite his rheumy eyes and wrinkly skin. He carried on plodding around near us, chomping on grass quite contentedly!
St Helena from the Sea
I like nothing more than being out on the ocean, and a boat trip out from Jamestown is a must! Our boat took the group along the North West coastline where the waters are generally calmer. It can be tricky here to spot whale sharks but there is plenty of other wildlife commonly seen to satisfy the enthusiast. On our tour we spotted flying fish, a small pod of bottle-nose dolphins, and a huge pod (of around 400) pantropical spotted dolphins. What a joy to see them perform their acrobatics around our boat, churning the waves into a frothy cauldron! Closer to shore and around the guano-covered Egg Island, we saw an abundance of sea birds, including delicate fairy terns, black and brown noddies and the majestic red-billed tropicbird.
Apart from wildlife spotting, going out to sea enables you to see the impressive geological make-up of the island – the volcanic layers and glimpses of its verdant interior. There are a multitude of fortifications, including still-visible rusty cannons, at every possible landing point to St Helena, defending the island against potential invasion. Very similar, probably, to the forbidding view that greeted Napoleon when he first arrived.
About the Author
Caitlin Hennessy is an experienced tour guide and travel writer who accompanied the Revealed Travel group tour to St Helena in February 2019.
NB. All Photos, C. Hennessy.