Saving St Helena’s unique cloud forest

Patsy called in this morning bearing gifts of pink sponge fingers. She had heard that Lamingtons were part of the Aussie diet and wanted us to know that St Helenians have an equivalent – different colour and shape but same principle of sponge dipped in icing rolled in grated coconut. St Helenian women are good at baking – there is no cake shop, so it’s the only way they can serve goodies for events.

Like all travellers, we had to commit some time to washing our clothes. We then visited the museum at the base of Jacob’s Ladder, where I photographed a cannon salvaged from the Dutch White Lion, a seventeenth century wreck. It had been preserved because it was covered with peppercorns, which formed part of the cargo.

I bought a certificate for successfully climbing Jacob’s Ladder. Providing such certificates to climbers supplements the museum’s budget. The RMS St Helena is back in Jamestown Harbour, having returned from St Helena. This means that Jamestown is abuzz with visitors, including salvors from two naval ships. We find ourselves giving advice to the newbies re Jacob’s Ladder, the necessity of buying bread early and other essentials of life in this remote outpost.

Jason (he’s the one who showed us High Peak the day before leaving the island) had asked government ranger Mike Jervois to show us St Helena’s unique cloud forest in The Peaks National Park. We drove a different way via Francis Plain, where the Royal Navy were playing cricket against St Helena on the oval at Prince Andrew’s School.

The cloud forest is formed because the leaves of the endemic cabbage trees take in moisture from the clouds which regularly cloak the peaks in the highest part of the island. The Environment Management Division has extended the area of forest by clearing flax and replanting indigenous flora propagated from its adjacent nursery.

  The plant above is black cabbage.  
She cabbage (a different species) is shown above.

 And this is jellico. The leaves are edible and taste a bit like celery.

The cloud forest provides habitat for a diversity of invertebrates, including this blushing snail.

We returned via St Pauls Cathedral, which is near Plantation House. In the dusk it looked quite atmospheric.

As we continued via Half Tree Hollow, the smooth Atlantic Ocean shone like silk beneath the filtered sunlight.

 A a treat we dined with Australian teachers Peter and Bill met on the ship. Five courses included island gammon followed by creme brûlée at Farm Lodge, a fine country house deep in the interior. Marijke and I posed on the chaise lounge used by Napoleon. Hosts Stephen and Maureen’s complemented the gracious setting.


From The Briars to The Briars like Alexander Balcombe

For Marijke and me, Tuesday 13th October was a highlight of our nine-day visit to St Helena. While on the Royal Mail Ship, we had received via the captain, a letter inviting us to a “Presentation”, signed on behalf of the Head of Government, Sean Burns. Back in Australia, the mayor of Mornington Shire, Bev Colomb, had asked us to deliver a picture of The Briars, Mt Martha to the people of St Helena as Alexander Balcombe, who founded The Briars had named his property after his family home of The Briars, St Helena.

After a short speech about the connections between the two properties, Sean presented us with a framed photograph of The Briars Pavillion, St Helena. I in turn said a few words about the Napoleonic collection and natural beauty of The Briars Homestead and Park, Australia and presented him with a framed sketch of the homestead.

 Marijke told people (in French) about her play about Napoleon which starts in The Briars. There was great interest and we are hopeful that it will be performed at Longwood next year.

About 50 people crowded into the Pavillion, including hosts Sean and Marina Burns, (who actually live in the back rooms behind The Briars Pavillion). 

  The French Consul, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, said a few words as guardian of The Briars (which Balcombe family member Dame Mabel Brookes gifted to the French Government in 1957). Other guests included Napoleon’s descendant, Prince d’Essling, the rest of the French visitors, Australian expats on St Helena as well as Briars Pavillion guide Trevor Magellan with his wife Myrtle.

The speeches were followed by a slap-up island morning tea and photos on the steps. We look forward to reporting with Marijke on this event to fellow Briars guides and Mornington Shire Mayor Bev Colomb after we return.

 In the afternoon Marijke and I walked to the Heart-Shaped Falls behind The Briars, which Napoleon is said to have enjoyed viewing during his two months stay there. Surprise, surprise, we met the French returning from the same hike.

Then in the evening we attended a concert with a Napoleonic theme at St James Church, along with most of our new friends from RMS St Helena Napoleon aka Merrill in costume participated in a moving excerpt from a Stanley Kubrick film on Napoleon including his time on St Helena. The English professor who works with the Fondation Napoleon, Peter Hicks did a rousing piano piece of the battle of Marengo. He then had to rush off to a formal dinner on board the HMS Lancaster.

We chatted with others over another generous island supper of home-made goodies. It turns out that the vicar of St James, Father Dale visited The Briars Australia three years ago and put a comment in the visitors’ book. I hope that this is the first of many exchanges with St Helena in years to come.

Conserving the endemic Gumwoods on St Helena

 This morning I visited Jeremy Harris, director of the St Helena National Trust and gave him bundle of info from his Australian counterpart. With over 900 listed sites on the island as well as conservation work and caring for cultural artefacts such as shipwreck salvaged items and finding a fitting way to recognise the remains of hundreds of bodies of slaves who were “freed” on St Helena, only to die of the mistreatment they had received at the hands of people smugglers.

I decided to “purchase” two gumwood trees for the Millenium Forest project to restore some of this lost resource. Three hundred years ago the island had a Great Forest, which was cleared for timber. Much of the island was later invaded by various introduced plants. The ground was rock solid with very little topsoil, but with a scoop of gelatinous wetting agent at the bottom of the hole and generous amounts of “grey water”, we planted our seedlings this afternoon and agreed to come back on Thursday to help the French, who aim to plant 200 for the Napoleonic Bicentenary.

After this physical labour under the guidance of volunteer leader Harry, we photographed the endangered Wirebird running around the golf course before doing another Post Box walk, this time across rugged coastal slopes to Cox’s Battery.

 Just in case I felt the need for more physical exertion, I decided to climb up Jacob’s Ladder and down. The ascent took 20 minutes and the descent a bit less. The Royal Naval vessel Lancaster gleamed in the setting sun. She has just arrived for the celebrations.

We deserved the pasta dinner that Marijke created!


Fair on Longwood Green and climbing Flagstaff Hill

We had no time to sleep in after all the fun of the ball last night, as we had  decided to attend the bilingual service conducted by St Helena’s bishop at St John’s, up Market Street past Patsy’s mother’s shop, Romans. It was a steep climb in our Sunday best. The sermon, readings and all the hymns were in English, with some pointers to give the French the idea of what was going on. We met a Deacon, Catherine who we were to run into later in our stay as she is involved in other Island activities.

We wended our way back home via The Run, the creek that goes down through town to the wharf in a rock sidewall. It was a peaceful retreat with finch like birds flitting about.

 Then into the car and out to Longwood Green, where  a fair was in progress. A sailing ship had been put in place for the children and we had fish burgers with our friends.

The island craft of flax weaving was demonstrated. 

Despite the cloudy and windy conditions, we decided to climb Flagstaff Hill, which is one of St Helena’s 20 Postbox Walks. Down in town it was much warmer and I only had a cheap poncho for protection. We crossed a vast and windy plain where Boer soldiers had been held during the Boer War. It wouldn’t have been a pleasant spot.

This glamour photo shoot is me protecting myself from wind and rain. I needed my hands free for balance, so the bag is round my neck like a chaff-bag on a draught-horse.

The solemn event of the day was wreath laying at Napoleon’s Longwood Tomb, but embarrassingly, we arrived late and only saw the wreaths laid by the VIPs, including the French ambassador, Monsieur Mendelson, Napoleon descendant Prince d’Essling and the St Helenian Governor, His Excellency Mark Capes.

Delighting in the independence of the car, we drove down the new steep road to Rupert’s Harbour, which will be the island’s container terminal.

Even on a Sunday the road was hair-raising. Then drinks at the nearby Standard Hotel with Patsy and Philip and Marijke and leftovers from the ball together, our first and only dinner party at Fowlers Town House. Already we feel at home.

Donkey walking and a Regency Ball

We now have a shiny rental car, which facilitates exploring St Helena independently. Today we took part in weekly donkey walking. Fifty years ago, donkeys were an important part of St Helenian life, used for transporting the island’s flax crop and taking vegetables to market. Today, the flax industry has been replaced by synthetics and trucks transport veggies, so the some of the surviving donkeys are cared for in a sanctuary and taken for walks on a weekly basis. We joined four families to do this.

It  was windy and misty at High Peak, and my donkey, Cheeky Face, took off on a particularly windy corner, but luckily she stopped at the next patch of juicy grass. At the end of the walk, we gave them a carrot and cleaned the mud off their hooves.

 After lunch at Reggies Takeaway near the airport, Dave dropped me off at the top of Jacob’s Ladder and I descended tentatively while he carefully steered the car down, giving way to upcoming traffic. It was windy so I held tight to the hand-rail. It looked a long way down and very steep! I didn’t dare let go to take a photo – not like me at all.

We spent the afternoon glamming up for the Regency Ball, pert of the celebrations for the Napoleonic Bicentenary. The French had gone all out with their costumes and Napoleon put in an appearance. It was an enjoyable evening and gave us the opportunity to meet Marina Burns and her husband, Sean Who is Head of Government. They will be our hosts on Tuesday at the Briars Pavillion.


Written on Friday 9th October and posted now that we have access to wifi.

St Helenian tour in classic Chevvy

After farewelling Jason at the Coffee Shop on the wharf (the scene of many tearful goodbyes), we joined Colin Corker for his renowned charabanc tour of the island in his 1929 Chevrolet. First stop was The Briars Pavillion, which we Aussies were excited to see as Marijke and I are guides at The Briars, Mt Martha Australia.

We found that The Briars Pavillion had a restored attic. We return here on Tuesday for an official ceremony with the Head of Government, but for now we are happy to be guided by Trevor Magellan, who is a mine of information. In Napoleon’s day the Pavillion consisted of only one room, which is now open to the public. His secretary, Count Las Cases slept in the attic with his son, Emmanuel.

This is Trevor Magellan.

We continued to Longwood House, Napoleon’s home and prison until his death in 1821. It also was in beautiful condition for the bicentenary.

The garden featured an endemic ebony rose in flower.  

  The painted hills, seen from the car, are a multi-coloured wonder. 
The island’s highest peak is Diana’s Peak, located between two other peaks, Cuckolds and Acteon, which are topped with Norfolk Island Pines.

After a takeaway lunch near the new airport, we continued to Napoleon’s tomb, in a secluded valley. Th tomb itself is empty – Napoleon’s body was exhumed and taken to Paris in 1840. But it’s a peaceful spot.

 Colin then took us to the governor’s residence at Plantation House, where we met Jonathan, the 180 year-old turtle.

After observing the Castle and St James Church from  The top of Jacob’s Ladder, we negotiated our way down the narrow roadway called Ladder Hill Road back to Jamestown.  
Reaching Jamestown safely called for a cleansing ale at the bar in Mule Yard, by the foreshore, before watching the Fire Engine Pull, an event for Cancer Awareness Week. Everywhere we go we meet people we know from the Mail Ship or another island event. This is the fun of living in a small community.

One could get very fond of Island life, with its mix of community events and natural beauty.

(Written on Friday 9th October and posted when we have access to free wifi).

In the middle of an island….

Today we had a problem. I had arranged to meet Jason from the St Helena National Trust who had kindly agreed to show us the conservation work that he and other volunteers with the St Helena Conservation Trust were doing in the relatively unspoilt High Peak area. The problem was that we were to meet him on site in the middle of St Helena and our rental vehicle arrangements had fallen through. Philip to the rescue. We had met Philip on the RMS and he’d kindly offered to drive us if we were stuck. 

Well…we discovered just how generous this offer was when he picked us up after lunch and started driving up Ladder Hill. The two roads out of Jamestown are horrendously steep and single lane. Down gives way to up, and the speed limit is 20kph. Patsy, Philip’s Saint friend gave instructions as we took our life into our hands and gradually made our way up in low gears. Our housemate, Marijke also came along for the jaunt.

The meeting spot was high on the volcanic peak and Jason and his colleague Mike clambered and skidded down the hillside pointing out the island’s only remaining stand of mature endemic Gumwoods. The photo shows us under a Gumwood beside bamboo rat traps with a little shelter behind.

This is a close up of Gumwood.

Due to its isolation, St Helenian vegetation evolved without terrestrial mammals, but since contact with humans, settlers have introduced many threatening species.The Gumwoods are under attack from both terrestrial and tree rats, which if not eradicated can ringbark them. After Jason left us to finalise his packing, we helped Mike and Shayla by carrying the rat-traps that they laid under trees, adding a few grains of anticoagulant rat poison.

After this conservation work, we returned to Jamestown via Sidepath on the other side of the valley, drove right down to the seafront and shared a cleansing ale with Philip and Patsy at sunset. This, Patsy tells us is the traditional Saints way of returning to town.

Copied out of my diary for Thursday 8 October as the wifi was too expensive to post on St Helena.