Walking St Helena – Diana’s Peak

After six months on the Island, I finally had the opportunity to climb to the highest point for thousands of miles, the summit of Diana’s Peak, 823m above sea level. With a dive club outing cancelled due to rough seas, we hastily arranged a group to do the walk, in the knowledge that groups of people help to distract Charlie from his exertion and inevitable subsequent moaning.

We started a little later than planned due to the late night partying of some of our walking companions, but once all gathered at the entrance gate on Cabbage Tree Road we were under way.

High Knoll Fort, the view from our car before we even started walking.

High Knoll Fort, the view from our car before we even started walking.

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Mandy, Harriot and the boys at the start of the walk. Im not sure who enjoyed who's company more but the four of them were thick as thieves!

Mandy, Harriot and the boys at the start of the walk. Im not sure who enjoyed who’s company more but the four of them were thick as thieves!

The path initially rose steeply, through a well cut track surrounded by thick growths of flax either side of us. As the fitter members of the group charged ahead, it took a shout out to remind them of the four year old who’s pace would dictate that of the walk, and who was already starting to tire up the steep rise.

We regrouped at the top of this zig zagged slope and I spotted my first glimpse of the alien world we were about to encounter, the odd isolated Tree Fern pushing their way through the flax and invasive ground level ferns. Diana’s peak is the central and highest of three peaks that form the Diana’s Peak National Park, one of the most rare, unique and precious landscapes on the planet.  A home to endemic plants, daisy’s that grow as trees, ferns with woody stalks rising 4 meters high, their bark blanketed in thick water retaining mosses. These rare plants, found nowhere else on earth provide homes for even rarer animals, 200 species of endemic insects from, Golden Sail Spiders, blushing snails and perhaps the rarest animal on earth, the Spikey Yellow Woodlouse make St Helena’s central peaks their home, some of which survive only on one species of plant. They are extremely fragile, precious and clinging onto existence. This 50 acre site contains more endemic species than any European country, 48% of the species found in this tiny area, are found no-where else on earth other than on this special Island. I was aware of the precious nature of this national park, and now I was genuinely excited to be taking my first footsteps into it.

The views start to open up as we look back towards High Peak

The views start to open up as we look back towards High Peak

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Looking back towards High Knoll Fort

Looking back towards High Knoll Fort

The path levelled off as we reached the ridge that forms the central peaks, and with Charlie finding fresh legs we moved on as the view opened up around us. I have seen some spectacular views on St Helena, but the walk across the central peaks is simply breath-taking, gobsmackingly beautiful. Rows of Tree ferns interspersed by ancient Black Cabbage trees (I told you these plants were strange) marked our path as we ascended the first of the three peaks. At this point I would like to tell you that this was Cuckholds Peak, but perhaps it was Actaeon, truth is, no-one is quite sure. We are fairly certain that the central and highest peak is Diana’s peak, but maps stretching back to the early 1800’s show the names of the two sister peaks swapping with great regularity and as such no one is completely certain which is which, the map at the entrance to the park suggests Cuckholds Peak comes first, this is good enough for me.

Arriving on the summit of what we established was Cuckholds peak the view is 360 degree and staggering. Looking west takes your eye along the central ridge, the lush green slopes of High Peak, with dense flax providing a velvet green carpet to its steep slopes. To the East we look out over prosperous bay Plain, a barren desert landscape, volcanic rock and ash layered to form the jagged rocks of King and Queen rocks, Turks Cap and the Barn as well the site of the new airport, clouded in huge plumes of dust swept high into the sky by the stiff Atlantic winds. Turn South and the spectacular natural amphitheatre of Sandy Bay is laid before us, red and purple rocks, with white lines of guano marking the knife edged ridges of the volcanic ravines. A spin round North reveals High Knoll fort, James Valley, Rupert’s Bay and the Basil Read supply ship, NP Glory 4 sat in the bay waiting for the right sea conditions to dock. The central peaks can be seen from almost anywhere on the Island, and although not particularly high by mountain standards sitting as they do in the centre of an Island they are literally the highest point for thousands of miles, they dominate the landscape the create the amazing climate that exists on the Island and they help structure and shape the history and ecology of St Helena.

Oliver and Charlie descend from the first summit.

Oliver and Charlie descend from the first summit.

Descending Cuckolds peak the path becomes more challenging, a thin track cut through the now dense cloud forest, a moist landscape where water is trapped and retained by dense carpets of moss. The floor becomes slippy and boggy, breaks in the ferns show glimpses of the steep drops either side of us, enough to make you take care of your footing, and enough to make one of our younger members of the group  have something of a mild panic attack at the vertigo inducing rise to the summit of our next stop, Diana’s peak.

The central peaks of St Helena are shrouded in almost constant cloud, this moisture gives rise to the unique vegetation here. But our walk thus far had been incredibly clear, with views for mile upon mile in high definition Technicolor glory. However, true to form as we summited the highest point of St Helena the mists rolled in. The environment took on a new form, a prehistoric land. It felt entirely appropriate given our surroundings that the leaves of the ferns and gumwoods should now drip with moisture. Looking back towards Cuckhold’s peak the ridge had disappeared into the cloud, giving an air of mystery.

Oliver and Charlie on the Sumiit of Dianas PEak, Highest Summit on St Helena,

Oliver and Charlie on the Sumiit of Dianas PEak, Highest Summit on St Helena,

We pressed on to our final peak, Actaeon, stopped for a drink and bite to eat before turning Tree Ferns and Black Cabbage Treesback into the cloud and descending the Northern flank of the peaks. We disappeared under the canopy, no longer walking a ridge we were now in the undergrowth of this ancient woodland. Despite being very accessible, after all our Charlie at four years old coped admirably, the otherworldly nature of the surrounding trees and the mists hanging in the air give a sense of foreboding, a feeling of remoteness as though we have been transported to a time before civilisation. It would not have surprised me one bit if a dinosaur had roared in the distance, and some giant dragon fly had flitted between the ferns.

We emerge from the cloud forest, and as we find ourselves lower on the slopes, our path ahead dissects the landscape, rich, diverse natural cloud forest above us, and thick, relentless stands of flax below. Flax was introduced in the 1870s and provided a booming trade for the Island at a time where the economy had little else to support it. But time moves on, the industry died here many many years ago, and the flax has taken over huge swaths of St Helena’s landscape. Flax is incredibly invasive, fast growing, and forms thick blankets, ensuring that sunlight cannot penetrate to the soils below such that nothing else can grow. It provides habitat for rats, mice and little else and is one of the contributing factors that resulted in almost all of St Helena’s natural forests disappearing many decades ago. However the battle is not lost. I talk with Jill Key, St Helena’s Biosecurity Officer, who first ventured to the Island some fifteen years ago. She explains that at that time the slopes and ridges of the high peaks were covered in flax to the summits, and only tiny rudimentary fragments of tree fern habitat remained. Concerted conservation and habitat restoration efforts were underway and now, fifteen years on, Jill is astonished and overjoyed at the progress that has been made. The Diana’s Peak National Park is a huge success story in habitat restoration. Tree ferns and Black Cabbage Trees now dominate the landscape here, forming their own sunlight blocking canopy and preventing the re-establishment of flax on these slopes. In turn, these provide the niche microclimates for lichens and mosses, ground level ferns and other endemic shrubs and flowers as well of course as the hundreds of insect species.

The path clearly shows the area of rich restored habitat above, and the flax below the path.

The path clearly shows the area of rich restored habitat above, and the flax below the path.

The path clearly shows the area of rich restored habitat above, and the flax below the path.

The path clearly shows the area of rich restored habitat above, and the flax below the path.

The difference is striking, the path marking the limit of the current work, below our path a uniform green of flax, a desert devoid of all biodiversity. Above the path, a stunning patchwork of colour of tones and textures, a diverse habitat of rare and wonderful plants and animals. The results here are a testament to the many people who have worked on this landscape and as we left the national park, and re-entered the fields of flax I felt hope for St Helena and other rare and endangered habitats in this world. There is a great deal of trouble in the World for its precious wild places, but if a tiny out post of the old British Empire can achieve such results, maybe all is not lost.

Nothing to Write About

So this blog entry was going to be about Jamestown, part of a series of blog entries showing the various districts of St Helena. After all, I had nothing else to write about, after my last blog, I really wasn’t sure what was coming next, sure our day-to-day life was continuing, but the Whale Sharks have left the area, my diving is complete, and I had no pretty photos to show you. What was I to do to continue to write with any regularity? So I thought a series of articles would be a nice way of filling up the pages.

That was of course, until a little time had passed, and within a week of me thinking of the Jamestown plan, and having taken some photos in readiness, that article is on hold, as I tell you about the extraordinary time the extraordinary island continues to provide.

I have been helping out a local charity, the St Helena Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, designing a new logo and working on some new campaign ideas. In return I was granted access to the World’s oldest Land Vertebrate, Jonathan, the Giant Tortoise, the photos of which featured in my last blog and an invite to the SPCA annual fund-raising event, Last Night of the Proms at Plantation house!!

We had been promised an evening of live classical music from local musicians, a few drink in the interval (the appealing bit) followed by, yes that’s right, a sing along, to a video of the last night of the proms. In all honesty, I couldn’t think of anything worse, and neither could Bev. We deliberated as to the fruits of our attendance for some time and the merit of using up a valuable babysitter token. Eventually deciding that an invite from the Governor’s wife should not be ignored I in my suit and Bev in a stunning dress featuring the customary Red White and Blue colours headed to Plantation House.

Seeing many familiar faces lightened our mood and we took our seats as the music and acts began. Some classical pieces gave way to big band, and harmony vocals and even some Eric Clapton. The talent on show was impressive to say the least, and I still cannot get over the enjoyment I gleaned from listening to a local Bishop, reading aloud an extract from a story. Had I been told that the music would be interrupted for a Bishop to read a story to me Id of put the nail in the coffin myself and stayed at home, but such was his manner and skill as an orator that he had us all laughing out loud, as much, I think, at the situation as to the story itself. After some wonderful performances the group moved to the outside marquee for refreshments. The late start had evidently led to many people having not had dinner, as shown in the speed at which the food tables were cleared, there was no holding back.

Our mood by this point was considerably lighter than when we had arrived, helped by some good music, free beer and cocktail sausages, and I was now all up for a bit of a sing-song. This mood was, it seems matched, by the considerable crowd as we all took to a verse of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Those of you who are aware of my propensity for a spot of Karaoke will probably also be aware that I am, at this point in the proceedings, in my element, and thoroughly enjoying every minute. Sadly, we had to leave early so missed the grand finale, but as the status on my Facebook page read, it was the “most weirdly British eccentric night at Plantation House (Governors Residents)…. an evening of…..music, singing and flag waving, very surreal, and utterly brilliant. I loved it!

Bev and friends Mandy and Caroline both in full flow. What a night! Photo courtesy of SAMS Media services.  https://www.facebook.com/320819601295027/photos/a.362713837105603.85060.320819601295027/866941620016153/?type=1&fref=nf

Bev and friends Mandy and Caroline both in full flow. What a night!
Photo courtesy of SAMS Media services.
SAMS Facebook 

In diving news no sooner as I pass my open water, I am now half way through my advanced course. Consisting of five specific dives, I must admit this necessary stepping stone is nothing more than a money spinner for PADI. However it has led to some wonderful experiences including my first deep dive down to 28m on another ship wreck, a specialist navigation dive and, last night, my first night dive. The night adventure is the first time I have felt some serious nerves before a dive, I guess in some respect that’s why people do it and it proved to be an incredible experience. With nothing but a light of a torch, the surrounding blackness is almost blinding, with your hearing muted and tunnel vision of your spot light, a sense of complete aloneness is broken only by the flashing of lights from the other divers. Strange life forms emerge at night. Synaptid Sea Cucumbers, meter long white worms like animals, like something from the 1990 film Tremors, hold their tentacles aloft, waving them in the current, wrapping around each other in a serpentine dance. Large conch shells crawl along the sand leaving trails of slime in the sand to follow their path. Billions of dancing fairies spin and twirl hypnotically, caught in the light of the torch these planktonic organisms forming the base of the food chain for everything else, emerging at night. Huge Moray eels defend their homes and huge hedgehog like urchins make a stray hand a potential injury. Two octopuses cover themselves with rocks, picking up the jagged pumice stone and carefully placing it all around to hide their outline, their presence given away only by the stray sucker on show, and the jet stream from their siphon.

It was a magical experience made all the more special by the night sky as we broke the surface on our accent. Just as leaving the cinema in the light of day confuses the senses for a period, so does emerging from the sea to a starry sky, even if it similarly dark below. The boat trip back to the wharf was a largely silent affair, the group of eleven divers with little to say to each other. I think we sat in quiet contemplation at the shared experience, plus we were all quite knackered!

Oliver and Charlie continue to surprise and impress me with their own watery skills. Oliver and I took some father, son time and swam out to snorkel on the Papanui, the ship wreck in James Bay. Lets put this in perspective. Five months ago, not long after we arrived, Oliver would not get in the sea, he wouldn’t even jump into the pool. Now, he is wading out into surf, diving head first into the oncoming waves, swimming a good 250m out to sea and then freely snorkelling on a ship wreck in 14 meters of water. He takes place in the inter schools swimming gala today, I am very proud.

Charlie too is coming on leaps and bounds and his own transformation is no less impressive. When the pool here opened up mid-November, Charlie would not let go of Bev or myself in the water, clinging on for dear life. He will now jump in the sea (albeit with armbands) and snorkel from the wharf, enjoying every moment and screaming the names of trumpet, butterfly and parrot fish as they swim by. I have no doubt that given the opportunity he too would take a trip to the Pappanui.

Charlie’s latest triumph came on Monday evening, as the boys and I joined Bev on one of her O’level, Marine Biology adult classes. This class was a practical exercise in water sampling as we and the students took to the sea on the Enchanted Isle. Technology being limited on the Island this was a rather crude affair. The only method we had for obtaining water samples at depth (to compare with surface conditions) was for yours truly to swim down as deep as he could whilst free diving, open up a bottle and fill it with water for testing at the surface. Whilst doing this I enjoyed the company of a Devil Ray, a 7ft ghost like animal, gracefully gliding by me with slow, purposeful wing beats. Shortly after we were in for another surprise.

Whilst concentrating on the depth of a sechi disc (a device for measuring turbidity) I looked up to see a whale shark not more than 3 meters away from us, its mouth out of the water and heading right for the boat. Still in my swimwear I had no hesitation in jumping right back in for my now fourth close encounter with these incredible animals.  Before long, Bev and Oliver had joined me, along with some of the other students. Of course it was not long after that Charlie started asking if he could swim too. His last experience with them did not go well, lots of tears and cries of “Im blind” were my memory of that occasion. Knowing he has come a long way since then, and equipped with a new wet suit to keep the cold at bay Charlie was lowered into the water with me. It was not long before our four-year old was just yards from a 10 meter whale shark, and he clearly delighted in the occasion.

Out of nowhere came a huge shoal of 6 inch blue silver fish, scad of some sort, a thousand or more strong, heading out of the blue and towards the whale shark. Charlie and I watched as this ball of fish parted in unison around the whale shark, and closed ranks as they passed beyond its flanks, before parting once more around Charlie and I. A thousand fish swam by us, surrounded us, encased us, and as swiftly as they arrived, left us. If was a few seconds of pure joy and magic, and Charlie was right in the centre of it all.

More good news came this week with the announcement that Green Turtles have nested in the black sands at Sandy Bay. Once common on Saint Helena, these animals, like many other places around the world have been persecuted in the past for meat and their shells and in the modern ear have been seen only at sea in low numbers around St Helena. Occasional nesting attempts through the years have been hampered by shallow sands in which to dig, and the low-lying beach leading to water-logged nests on high tides. This year however there is greater confidence that they may survive. The sand sits some 7ft deeper today than in 2011 when the last nesting attempt occurred, and the beach and nest sits much higher, avoiding all but the roughest of waters. 60 days will tell us if they have been successful, I for one have my fingers firmly crossed.

This week was a big week for me personally, it was a week where I have finally realised my place and come to terms with what it is I wish to do here on St Helena. It has taken six months of a troubled mind, not wishing to make wrong decisions and conscious of doing the right thing by everyone. And it was with this in mind that I applied for a job, a fantastic job that appealed greatly. Even as I wrote my application however I was in turmoil as to whether both Bev and I working full time was the right thing to be doing, right for me maybe, but whether it was right for the boys or for Bev was less clear. My application was successful and I was invited to interview. It took till the morning of the interview, for me to finally realise that for everyone concerned, me, Bev, the boys and indeed for the employers concernedPaul Tyson Photography that right now, nine to five (or eight to four on St Helena) isn’t what I should be doing.

It seems that being faced with an actual choice, instead of hypothetical contemplation has forced my hand, and I feel all the better for it. I will push my photography and design business, I can enjoy the creativity and further develop my skills, and most importantly work flexibly around the family, be there to support Bev, and enjoy my time with the boys. No sooner as I had made this choice then I’m thrilled to announce that I have my next big photography job, creating images for inclusion in a new guide to the Napoleonic sites of St Helena. More than the pay, it is a wonderful feeling that my work has been admired, and that others too will enjoy it in years to come within the pages of book.

More sobering news came this week, when it emerged in the rumour mill that a young girl was taken seriously ill, with needs beyond the range of equipment and resources on St Helena. The RMS was more than four days travel away from St Helena, even with the RMS in port it could be three days to the nearest airport on Ascension, and a flight to a hospital beyond that. It is at such times that our remoteness hits home. Apparently thoughts were being drawn up to utilise a local fishing vessel to transport the girl to Ascension Island, although to me that did not seem a viable option (these were just rumours, I have no idea if this was given serious consideration), but it turns out, previously unknown to me, that nautically speaking St Helena is classed as a vessel at Sea, and as such, under UN convention passing ships within a set range are obliged to answer a distress call and attend if they are able. With this in mind an emergency pan-pan medico signal was made to passing ships within a range of 1600km. Without hesitation the MV Traveller, a Dutch container ship on its way from South Africa to the British Virgin Islands responded and proceeded to make the journey to St Helena. The owners of the ship BigLift, deserve huge praise, absorbing all the costs of their enormous detour to St Helena, and then onto Ascension Island. Thanks to the incredible work of so many incredible people on St Helena, at sea aboard the MV Traveller, at Ascension and the UK the patient arrived in Great Ormond Street Hospital just over 48 hours after the alarm was raised. She is thankfully now stable and receiving the best treatment in the World. I was not a part of this amazing story, but I am a part of St Helena an Island that takes you close to its heart and close to its people, it is truly humbling and inspiring to be here and see people come together for each other, for the sake of one little girl, who now holds the islands hopes with her.