A geographic absurdity

A view of St Helena’s tropical landscape. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
A view of St Helena’s tropical landscape. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Big fish, cloud forests and spectacular food make the wildly remote St Helena worth the journey, writes Mike MacEacheran.

Something  is circling our boat in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. We are off the coast of Flagstaff Bay, sailing in slow motion on glassy-calm water, and a frenzy of dorsals and dual-lobbed fins have appeared as if in pursuit.

It's quite something to see a whale shark the size of a school bus in the water and quite another to see a dozen of them, then put on a snorkel and plunge straight in as if you are bait.

"Don't forget to breathe,'' says Keith Yon, our boat captain for the day. "They're so much bigger and scarier when you're in the water. In a nice way, of course.''

Admittedly, shark-infested waters are not for everyone. But the comings and goings off St Helena's shores make it a Shangri-La for nature lovers. This season, Keith has chalked up a few hundred sightings, including an intense encounter with 27 whoppers. Indeed, when it comes to raw spectacle, the far-flung British territory soundly beats the Galapagos and the Maldives, plus you won't find the vulgar chaos of tourist boats crowding the water here. The dark blue sea is so empty - so vast and infinite - you sense it is cloaked in something almost magical.

Swimming with whale sharks is not for everyone.
Swimming with whale sharks is not for everyone.
Unsurprisingly, visitor numbers are on the rise in St Helena, and the island is on the cusp of becoming more popular. New connecting flights to the island from Cape Town launch in December (in addition to those from Johannesburg) making it increasingly accessible for travellers. The island's nearest neighbours are 2400km away to the south in Tristan da Cunha, and beyond that is the Antarctic. Living this far from anywhere makes the inhabitants - or "Saints'' - friendly and familiar.

If one place sums up the geographic absurdity of St Helena, it's Jamestown, the island's economic and social nexus. The town is caught in a tight embrace at the bottom of a steep-sided valley, surrounded by layers of volcanic ash and a rugged fringe of sun-seared coastline. There are pastel-toned houses, towering palm trees and colonial relics - stark reminders of imperialist ideals and slavery. All are echoes of the East India Company, which settled the island in 1659.

Go into any of the island's satellite towns and there's plenty more history to discover: from time-stopped 19th-century Longwood House, where Napoleon was exiled after Waterloo, to Plantation House, the residence of the governor and home to Jonathan, the 187-year-old giant tortoise who tootles about on the front lawn. You can also appreciate Edmund Halley, who built an observatory among the wispy flax grass of Diana's Peak, St Helena's sugar loaf mountain, and applaud Charles Darwin, who came to catalogue endemic birds and insects.

I'm staying at the Consulate Hotel, in a scruffily chic room.

Jamestown, the capital of St Helena, is situated in a steep valley on the island’s western side.
Jamestown, the capital of St Helena, is situated in a steep valley on the island’s western side.
The hotel is ideally placed for exploring the island's easily accessible nooks and crannies. At its southwest tip, there is the black sand curve of Sandy Bay, while a bumpy Land Rover hunt for the endemic wire bird at Cox's Battery reveals a mix of cloud forests and farmland that wouldn't look out of place in Norfolk. Every so often, there is a sense of the familiar, but also fleeting volcanic panoramas that could make it the Congo. If you need any indication of how St Helena is changing, then you can visit Welsh expat Paul Hickling for a £5 ($NZ9.60) tasting at the world's remotest distillery, discreetly tacked on to the back of his house. After a quick nose around, I'm game to try his White Lion rum, nicknamed "gunpowder in a glass'', followed by a shot of prickly pear "tungi'' spirit, a teeth-scraping moonshine.

Elsewhere, the food is just as intensely memorable. Inside the former stables of Anne's Place in Jamestown - all shipwreck chic and masthead flags - the specials are wedges of wahoo and tuna, battered golden or grilled, for £8 ($15.50). On a nearby hilltop house, after a cooking lesson with Derek and Linda Richards at their homestay, I gorge on a lifetime's-best platter of fishcakes made with squidgy tuna belly and thick cuts of red chilli.

The food is a triumphant if curious blend of British, Creole and African, and what accompanies it is a sweet black pudding, stuffed with rice rather than grain, followed by exquisite homegrown coffee made with green-tipped Bourbon arabica. As if to emphasise this wildly remote island of extremes, I take a final boat trip on my last morning and within five minutes the ocean swarms with hundreds of pantropical dolphins. They bask in our wake, then begin popping out one by one like corks.

Along with its stunning wildlife, the allure of St Helena is its scale - you can see all the sights on this island very easily, and still have time to kick back, relax and experience life at a different pace on this wildly remote gem at the end of the world. - Guardian News and Media


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