Easter, Awesome and Loss

So its been a bit of a while once again since my last update, seems that my life continues to be rather hectic, and whilst we have settled into our new home and many of the Island ways, taking it easy and living life at a more relaxed pace does not seem to be one of them. It’s a shame in some ways, but St Helena is just so full of fantastic things to see and do, and is such a social place that there is always something you wish to be doing, or getting involved with.

I go back now to Easter, which makes me realise just how long it has been since I last wrote. Easter on St Helena is exactly what it should be. One shop in town that I know of was selling Easter Eggs, a refreshing change from the marketing bombardment that occurs in the UK in the lead up to any public holiday. Like many things in the Western world, Easter has become about the most chocolate, the largest egg, and generally how much money can be put into the pockets of Nestle and Cadbury, the meaning of Easter has largely been lost.

Of course the true meaning of Easter is religious, and most of you will know I am not a religious person, quite the opposite. St Helena however is a very religious place and as such Easter is in general held in high regard, carrying a special meaning to many of the people here. But what was most pleasing about Easter on St Helena is the sense of family, the sense of holiday. It is the one weekend a year where literally everything stops, no work, no shops, no diving, the Island shuts down so that families can spend time together, it is wonderful. Many Saints on the Island take the opportunity to go camping, but this is not camping UK style, people camp in large extended family groups, taking with them all manner of home comforts, and providing opportunities for siblings and cousins to run and play, for families to catch up and spend quality time with each other. Of course, some traditions from the UK can be recognised, that of camping in the rain, and it seems to be well known that, largely due to all the camping, Easter weekend will bring with it buckets of rain!!

And so it was with buckets of rain that our own Easter began, and organised walk cancelled five minutes in as the heavens opened and soaked everyone down to their underwear within moments. A hasty retreat to a friend’s house and a change of clothes actually led to a lovely few hours drinking tea and chatting away whilst the boys played, rather surprisingly with a tea set! Spending quality time with friends became the main focus of the weekend. A dinner hosted by ourselves and some fairly damn impressive Chinese food served up by yours truly on the Sunday night and lunch with friends on Easter Monday.

On the work front I have completed one, and nearly completed a further two large projects I have been working on. The tourism website now boats up to date photos and information on all of the Islands accommodation and restaurants, the first of my big projects on Island, you can check out my work in the “Where to Eat” and “Where to Stay” sections of the website. It has been fantastic to visit these establishments, meet new people and find out about some of the positive tourism work being done here, as well as enjoying the odd freebie meal for my efforts, and of course being paid for my first major photography project.

On behalf of the National Trust I have been producing interpretation to improve the visitor experience at High Knoll Fort, one of the Islands historic landscapes. As well as improvements to structural parts of the fort, visitors can now find out more about the fascinating history of this site and it feels wonderful that when I leave St Helena something of my work will remain.Gun 2.1

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The weekend after Easter saw another trip to Lemon Valley, far from becoming bored of visiting Lemon Valley, we had a fantastic time. Partly due to spending time with new friends and expanding our social circles but, in the main, due to the presence of two, brand new jet ski’s. I and the boys had a fantastic time shooting around the bay. Kyle, owner of one of the jet skis and myself managed to turn so tightly in the 1500cc jet ski that we flipped it right upside down. I also had my first ever go on a knee board, pulled behind the jet ski at ridiculous speeds I quickly got the hang of it and before long was riding the wake and performing full 360 degree spins. I was officially described as awesome by eleven year old Luis, who’s Dad owns the second of the jet ski’s.

My Monday night dive was one of my best yet as I spent moments with a Devil Ray.   Commonly thought of by divers on the Island as one of the most wonderful encounters, Bev and I have been longing to see one and although we had a brief encounter whilst snorkelling (at Lemon Valley) this was my first real encounter with one. Whilst it was only a short encounter it will leave a lasting impression. Filing with the go pro and some shoals of fish, I spotted our dive leader Anthony frantically pointing at something, as I turned round this large dark diamond loomed into view. Gracefully, and with slow motion movements this 6ft goliath swam casually past us, its Ramora companions in two. Often Devil rays will spend time with groups of divers, seemingly as curious about them as the divers are in return, but for sadly our devil ray had no such intentions and despite giving chase I could not keep up and he disappeared into the blue as quickly as he had appeared. As we surfaced some time later we emerged to the most fantastic sunset, and spectacular end to a fantastic dive.

Late in the season we have also experienced some of the clearest night skies and amazing views of the stars I have ever witnessed, or am ever likely to witness. A night time drive further inland and away from the lights of Jamestown was nothing short of breath-taking. The milky way could be seen in all its glory, and small swirls of bright cloud marked distant galaxies. The stars have been bright before but this was simply amazing. It has also increased my excitement at my latest purchase, a new Full Frame, semi-professional Canon EOS6d. Like everything brought to St Helena there is a wait, and it is another three or so weeks until my shiny new camera arrives. Seeing these night skies has made the wait seem even longer!

The central ridge at night

The central ridge at night

Milkey way, St Helena

Milkey way, St Helena

Pro Arc, Project Management firm on St Helena with awesome Landrovers

Pro Arc, Project Management firm on St Helena with awesome Landrovers

The view from my back garden.

The view from my back garden.

This past few weeks has been some of the best we have had on St Helena, full of fun and laughter, but I also experienced one of my hardest times. I have debated whether to include this in my blog, after all some experiences I believe should be kept private, but as a reflection of our time here, and a memoire of our experience and memories then I believe I should reflect on all of our times here, both good and bad. My Nan unfortunately passed away last week. She had been ill and in hospital for some time and we knew the inevitable would happen soon. It has been incredibly difficult being away from home, unable to help support my Mum, unable to provide some happiness in the final weeks of my Nan’s life. The news of her passing was upsetting, but nothing had actually changed for me and the news did not immediately affect me greatly. But Thursday was the day of her funeral, as I sat at the table working on yet more photos I looked at the time and realised the service was going ahead as I sat there. Alone, To try and make myself feel connected to the service some 4000 miles away, I listen to the music that was to be played at church, this was a mistake and was quickly followed by a release of emotion and grief.

I am ok now, I needed to feel something, to feel her passing, and sat at that table I cannot think of a time I have felt more alone. But before long the boys were home from school to annoy me, and the normal evening chores ensued. When I said good bye to my Nan eight months ago, I never expected that would be a good bye for good. Being on St Helena is wonderful, we are extremely privileged to be here and experience this, but it comes at a cost, and being so far from family and close friends is one of those costs.

Back to all things awesome, and my fridge is now stocked with a small bag of chocolate, not just any old chocolate mind, but handmade Belgium chocolate made by a master chocolatier. Sarah Jane Sharman, a biologist and local fungus expert amongst other things, ran her own business in the UK making fine chocolates after years of professional training. She has thankfully now started to make chocolates on Island and they are divine. Good chocolate is a rare thing on St Helena, it doesn’t last the journey well as the milks and solids separate due to the fluctuating temperatures in the containers. As I bit into a perfectly made dark chocolate truffle I even made a little noise of delight. I sincerely hope that Sarah keeps this up; I have become her biggest fan.

Politics tends to dominate the news in St Helena, a delicate and complex situation dictates that it is always up for discussion. But a recent big story has shown the best and worst of St Helena in one go. In the past few months, an entrepreneurial partnership has opened up a mobile bar and grill, named Amphibians, serving the hospital staff during the day, and providing a wonderful waterfront open bar in the evenings. There are however a small minority of Saints, who are resentful of people, ex-pat or otherwise, making something of themselves. I don’t believe I am out of place saying that, as it is through Saints that I have discovered this. It is against this backdrop that the mobile bar was apparently set on fire whilst in storage, destroying most of the bar and equipment in what is believed to be a deliberate act of arson. Fortunately this is where the bad news ends. Having lost almost everything on the Tuesday, thanks to the goodwill and help of the community they were ready and open for business by Thursday evening. People rallied round to donate fridges and repair the trailer and woodwork. The nurses and hospital staff, who appreciate their doorstep lunch service made a collection and raised £200 to help purchase new equipment. From terrible news came great community spirit as messages of good will and offers of help came flying in. Far from damaging the business, the perpetrators have only served to enhance the standing and reputation of Amphibians, and presented an opportunity to show the community spirit and all that is good and great about this small Island.

We have reached eight months in into our adventure, in three we will be returning to the UK for our mid-term break. It feels strange even saying that, time has truly flown. But for now we will continue to concentrate on all that St Helena has to offer, diving, snorkelling, nature and above all people, really wonderful people, Saint, Ex-pat, South African, black and white all wonderful in this awesome little melting pot of people in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Just before I leave, I was thrilled to read this week’s Sentinal, and a letter from Jan Schou and Vibeke Amelung in Denmark who have been following my blog. Thank you so much, it really is wonderful to know people are still enjoying my ramblings.

An Easy Entry

An easy entry for me today, I’m simply going to copy and paste someone else work, not plagiarism but with permission from Ceri Sansom. Ceri works for the Environmental Management Division here on St Helena, her husband Ben heads up the division and the team who are helping to restore the fragile habitats of which I spoke about last time. Her very well written account of the challenges they face compliments my last blog entry perfectly. Here I am enjoying the fruits of the work of people like those who work at EMD and here Ceri is explaining the difficulties in restoring somewhere like the Diana’s Peak national park. Please read on, and take a look at Ceri’s Page, its well worth a visit.

And thank you Ceri for allowing me to use your blog.

St Helena’s terrestrial conservation is a story that cuts both ways. It is a story with successes. It is also a story of monumental failure. It depends, to some extent, where you start your timeline.

When the Portuguese stumbled across the island in 1502 it was a unique biosphere; an extraordinary natural treasure. Not that the sailors would have seen it in that light. To them it was land, food, water and a means to extend their domain. So, how to improve it? Add meat (goats) and maybe a few citrus trees and all of a sudden it has become a stepping stone into the ocean and beyond.

Andrew Darlow demonstrates the fiddly art of seed cleaning.

Within a few short decades the introduced animal life ate its way through the verdant forests. Humanity worked through a good chunk of the rest for buildings, boat mending and fuel. Who knows how many species and fragile microcosms were lost. In Napoleon’s time there was still a Great Wood at Longwood, but goats and rabbits and man stripped the land, until there were just a few cliffs or high areas that escaped the devastation. With the vegetation went the accumulated soils and the treasures within. Reports of vast volumes of soils being washed from the rocks that lie comfortably at a 35degree angle corroborate the idea that this island is now only 20% of its size only a few, short million years ago. The soils and rocks continue to slide away particularly in scruffy August when the sea becomes cloudy with sediment and it is rockfall season.

Twenty years ago, in 1980 Dr Quentin Cronk, from Cambridge University, spent a few short weeks on the island. He met with George Benjamin, a Saint searching the landscape for lost species. It was a partnership that marked the start of the terrestrial conservation on St Helena that we know it today. Having a passion for rediscovery George had already found the lost St Helena olive (now extinct). During Quentin’s short time here they walked many of the remotest areas of the island scouring cliffs and inaccessible tracts for endemic plants. With George’s extraordinary eyesight he spotted a specimen of St Helena Ebony clinging a tens of metres down an inaccessible cliff below the Asses Ears. George’s brother, Charlie, a fisherman and therefore climber (you have to be good on these cliff tracks with a sack of fish on your back), was sent down on the end of a rope to retrieve cuttings which he bought back up between his teeth. These were duly taken back to Royal Botanic Gardens Kew for formal identification and fortuitously the cuttings rooted on the RMS so not only was there a herbarium sample but live specimens too.

This was the start of a building interest in clawing back the remnants of St Helena’s endemic plants. It has been a long haul with successes and failures.

In the intervening years many others, including Stedson Stroud, have joined the hunt and and found a Bastard Gumwood,  a few St Helena boxwoods and the finding of a ‘lost’ group of St Helena tea plants. In the Scotland nursery Vanessa Thomas has bought her breadth of experience from old time Saints and Kew horticultural techniques to bear. Many other ecologists have bought their expertise to the island to catalogue and take the early steps in understanding how the habitats might work – not just for plants but invertebrate life too. EMD, St Helena National Trust and the St Helena Conservation Group all contribute to the effort. Serious efforts have been made to squirrel away seed collections for storage and to create living collections on island. But all is not rosy. There are significant hurdles that are only on the periphery of research, let alone action.

The problem with finding ‘the last one’ of anything is that the genetic variation is tiny and unrepresentative, and this makes the offspring inbred and weak. For example, take the Irish potato famine. That was (at least in part) down to the lack of genetic diversity in the potato so the entire harvest failed as a result of a particular fungal attack, resulting in the starvation of a nation. The same is true of any single plant. Often they are hard to breed from and the offspring are uncommonly fragile and vulnerable. This is a problem facing many of the endemics here. The population sizes have dwindled and although now bulked up and apparently healthy, the population will be less resilient than a more diverse collection. It is an issue that will continue to be felt, particularly with the advent of climate change and reduced habitat imposing more challenging conditions on the plants.

Endemic gumwood, Daisy Tree

Another, seemingly more subtle, problem is that of lack of fungi in the soil. Many plants rely on fungal association (so fungi and plant roots grow in alliance to the benefit of both) to allow them to extract the nutrition from soils. For some species it is absolutely essential, for others it is the difference between spindly and robust growth. It is not a process that is widely understood, least of all on St Helena, although some root samples retrieved by Prof Cronk in years gone by would suggest that there may well be particular fungi that support particular plants. This is a problem. Firstly, because it means it is not possible to just pop plants in the soil and assume that that they will grow, as in most areas of re-colonisation the soil containing the necessary fungal spores has gone. Secondly, it means it is probably not possible to add some generalist fungi (if it were agreed with biosecurity) to the mix and hope more vigorous trees are produced. An example perhaps is that of the gumwood. These should be wonderfully open canopy gnarled daisy trees, and yet a noticeable proportion of the trees that have been carefully planted seem to get to a certain height and then stop. And then die. Because there are so many factors at play it is hard to identify what horticultural practices may entice these beautiful umbrella shaped trees back to their full habit, but depleted soils do not help.

St Helena redwood propagation programme. A close relation of the St Helena ebony.

When you present a case you should use no more than three points to make a case, or so I’ve been taught. So now I’m faced with a dilemma. I want to talk about the daily challenge of not allowing species to go extinct (St Helena Olive extinct, Bastard Gumwood last adult dead seeds in propagation, False Gumwood last specimen in the wild dead and a stiff fight for the large bellflower), fragmentation of habitats, increasing pressure from more types of invasives with consequent increase in labour intensive methods to preserve habitats, shrinking good quality habitats and the impact of short term project funding compromises conservation. They are all significant challenges and they all affect the resilience of habitats to climate change and water supply. But I have intruded on your time enough.

Prof Cronk has returned to St Helena, which I hope marks only the end of the beginning. He is delighted with the recolonization programmes, the opportunity to learn from them and although the Benjamin brothers are no longer here to share his enthusiasm, it builds on their extraordinary commitment to conservation. Although St Helena has a habitat that is a shadow of its former self, it still is the home of 30% of the UK and British Overseas Territories endemic biodiversity – something that has to be worth protecting and cherishing. But it will take work, expertise, commitment and funding to preserve what we have left.

Prof Quentin Cronk, visiting researcher and Ben Sansom head of EMD.