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.
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 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.
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.
We pressed on to our final peak, Actaeon, stopped for a drink and bite to eat before turning back 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 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.