St Helena farewell

We seven band of brothers gathered for the last time for our last cup of St Helenian coffee outside the Coffee Shop on the wharf. The five Aussies leaving and the Saint and adoptive Saint staying on another month were all sad. We had gradually bonded over the five days at sea, and that had strengthened as we discovered and rediscovered St Helena.

Even Napoleon came down to see us, the French and other passengers off.

The French were grieving for their Emperor’s exile and carried a wreath which they cast into the sea when they sailed out of the harbour.

As we passed through emigration, we farewelled Patsy and Philip one last time through the gate. Perhaps we’ll catch up with them in London one day – who knows?

From the RMS St Helena the daunting cliffs faded gradually and we rounded the Island. 

This time, as we rounded the island, we recognised the features, which have become familiar: Half Tree Hollow, Lot, Lots Wife, Diana’s Peak, the airport. Then Atlantic Ocean, two kilometres of it below us and one or two thousands of kilometres around. Yet emotionally we are still on St Helenian territory. The crew are mostly Saints and we have five days of Island discussions in two languages to look forward to.

Coffee with blogger – virtual world becomes reality

For a year I have been following Two years in the Atlantic, a blog by Paul Tyson. This morning he stepped out of the screen and met us for St Helenian coffee at the wharf, as usual, when the RMS is in port, the place was buzzing. We enjoyed a good chat and arranged to catch up that evening at Tasty Bites restaurant up on Half Tree Hollow.

Naval officers were wandering in white garb, having returned from a service at Napoleon’s Tomb. Disappointly, a naval march through town had been cancelled. Something to do with the scouts being unavailable. Everybody seemed to know except us. The bush telegraph works well on St Helena but you need to keep updating info by talking to locals.

As this is our last full day on St Helena, David and I climbed Jacob’s Ladder. If we were stiff the next day it wouldn’t matter as we could rest on the ship. The day was still and we had good views of the two naval ships and RMS St Helena anchored offshore. I carefully (it’s so steep) sat on a step halfway up to take a photo and on the way down, even dared to bend down to retrieve a beer bottle that someone had left behind the night before. I put it in my little backpack and put it in the bin at the bottom.

We then drove up Ladder Hill for some more sightseeing at High Knoll Fort, one of the many historic defence set-ups on the island, perched high on the hilltop.

I wanted to buy a commemorative T-shirt from Longwood House, so we dropped by. The French were hanging out on the back terrace but the gift shop was shut. Michel saw me and miraculously, Angela, the shop manager appeared and opened specially. 

We bought take-away hamburgers at Reggies and proceeded to Millenium Forest to meet Harry from the National Trust. We had agreed to help dig holes as the French were going to plant 200 endemic gumwoods for the Bicentenary. We managed quite a lot of holes and worked up a good sweat, when who should arrive but two minibuses of sailors from the naval ships to lend a hand. We retired to the visitors centre for a well-earned cuppa and the navy had almost finished planting by the time the French arrived!


That evening, Peter collected us as we’d returned the car, and drove us up Ladder Hill one last time. The gang of seven gathered for one last meal on the island. We met Paul Tyson and his family who were just leaving and had a cheery meal of island fish and chips.Peter and Bill left for the long drive to Farm Lodge and Philip drove we three from Fowlers plus Patsy back to his apartment, The Forge, where we chatted over coffee, sitting out on his verandah over.ooking a pretty moonlit garden where impatiens flourished.

Philip and Patsy walked us home as Philip does his emails after midnight at Patsy’s mother’s house. The internet is free after midnight for those with an account. It was the end of a good evening.

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.