I Was There

I was there, I can tell my Grandchildren that on the 15th September, 2015 I shared in a piece of history. It is a remarkable co-incidence that on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, one of the most important days in aviation history of the British Empire, that another, far flung out post of the Empire should join the rest of the World and take its first step in its own aviation history.

At 13:47 GMT (according to my watch) a small, Beachcraft King Air 200 aircraft touched down on St Helena. Years of planning, and thousands of man hours have brought us to this point where St Helena is no-longer one of the most isolated places on earth. And as the plane touched down I was there, stood alongside other members of St Helena’s photography and media community, just 100yrds from the runway.

There is much written about the airport, its construction, and planning, incredible feats of engineering so I will not go into it here, but instead hope to convey what it feels like to be here during this momentous and historic occasion. I am of course incredibly fortunate, not only to of been granted ringside seats today, but to even be here on this little Island in the first place. From my initial few months of self-doubt and worry, I have worked very hard to establish myself here, an ex-pat without a contract, trying to gain peoples trust and confidence in my work and to spread the word of what I hope I can deliver for the Island and its people. It was therefore incredibly disappointing when I was, at first, turned down from my opportunity to photograph this great event. But, as a testament to, “if you don’t ask you don’t get” I contacted Basil Read directly and to my great surprise I was granted access, alongside the Islands media photographers, to get within touching distance of the runway.

With insider information on the exact time of arrival I met the others at Basil Reads offices in Longwood and found a busy gathering of media, Island dignitaries, Councillors and others who, like me, had convinced someone to allow them special access. I was, to say the least, feeling a little over whelmed and perhaps out of place, after all why did I deserve to be here amongst such company when many many hundreds of others, some would argue more deserving than myself, were left to watch from distant vantage points across the South East corner of the Island.

The media and photographers were ferried by shuttle bus to three pre-designated sites along the runway. Having been myself for a preview of the sites I knew the location I wanted to be at, but had no idea if I would get my choice. As chance happened I did, and by just after 12.30 myself, representatives from South Atlantic Media Services and the Independent, Basil Reads HR officer and his daughter (a photographer) were each selecting our own little spot on our vantage point and chattering away about what would happen next, which direction the plane would come from, who would get the best photo etc.

With radio communication we knew that touch down would be very close to 13:35 so with an hour to go we settled down to wait. Prosperous Bay plain, the site of the airport is an incredible landscape, moon like sands and rocks of purple and red dominate, the desert landscape now punctuated by the pale concrete runway and rather Isolated and lonely looking terminal building. The wind, though light by St Helena standards, whipped up the occasional swirl of dust, and I sat watching the run way wind sock anxious that the weather didn’t deteriorate.

Having ignored the advice I give my children on going to the toilet before leaving the house, I became increasingly desperate to relieve myself. As time ticked by I knew that holding on could result in me missing the big event, and so I wandered off to find myself a little boys room behind a rock. As time went by I noticed that at least two others in our party did the same and I began to realise the nerves that we all felt. Was it nerves that we would miss the big photo, that something would go wrong, of the enormous change that the next ten minutes would signify, I don’t know, but we were definitely nervous.

We had a radio call stating that the Beachcraft was now just 100 nautical miles away, approximately 20 minutes by our calculations, and would approach from the North East, right over the imposing black rocks of the Barn, dominating our view. Silence fell upon us, we sat listening for the sound of propellers, the silence broken only by the odd nervous joke about shooting right past and missing the Island altogether.

And then, in the distance, a flash of sunlight on metal first caught my eye and then a black dot appeared. Very shortly after we could hear crowds on the distance slopes, the many hundreds of people watching shouting cries of “there it is” in unison. The airport brings about mixed feelings and emotions for the locals here, but undoubtedly today has shown me that along with concerns there is huge excitement and support for the airport and the changes it may bring.

The plane moved in closer, following the line of the runway as it made its first fly past. A twin engine propeller plane, it was larger than I expected and I found that even at normal flying speed I was able to pan and follow the flight path with my camera, much to everyone’s relief.

The first fly past with the Barn on the Right and Flagstaff protruding to the left.

The first fly past with the Barn on the Right and Flagstaff protruding to the left.

Another fly past and finally, the moment of truth, from past the Barn to my right I followed the plane in as it dropped and glided along the runway, touching down several hundred yards from where we had expected. I had picked the wrong spot and new instantly that the money shot of tyres screeching belonged to someone else.

Beach King Air 200 comes in to Land at St Helena Airport.

Beach King Air 200 comes in to Land at St Helena Airport.

And then it was done, a moment of silence returned as we all looked at each other, as if it were important to remember who we were stood with at that moment in time. The airport was interesting but insignificant to me just thirteen months ago, now, as I stood looking around it brings about all sorts of emotions and feelings. It is different here now, and there is no going back.

Sequence shot of the final touch down showing the moon like setting and terminal building still under construction.

Sequence shot of the final touch down showing the moon like setting and terminal building still under construction.

We waited to be collected by our shuttle bus and we bemoaned our choice of positioning, cursing those who had taken the “secondary” spots and joked that the pilots should have known better and perhaps could even do the whole thing again.

Before long we were ferried off to the parking area and had our opportunity to photograph the plane up close, its crew, and even have our own photographs next to the first airplane ever to land on St Helena. A joyous occasion it was also a little chaotic, reporters, photographers, staff and dignitaries all wanting their own photos, interviews, their own moments of history. A few quick photos and I stood back to allow the “more important” people to get on with things.

Since returning home I have felt something of a come down, strange given that I didn’t know I was on an “up”. But being part of something so huge gives you a high. Social media has gone crazy this afternoon as everyone rushed to get the first or best photos out there for the world to see. As I speak my own photos on facebook have just hit 20,000 views, in seven hours!!! Collectively between the different sources and social media avenues I guess that photos of this Beechcraft King Air 200 landing on St Helena have probably been viewed around 100,000 times since touch down.

What the future holds now we don’t know, in many respects that is up to the Saints and whether they embrace the changes that are about to occur. Time will tell, but for now, today history was made, and I was there.

Two Years in Shorts!

So, after a huge amount of hard work, with support from my family and friends, and through some difficult time I have done it, 365 days wearing shorts!!! Having survived a British summer still with shorts on each day I now aim for two years in shorts, and as the sun shines through my window I am confident of achieving this goal.

We are back on St Helena, after a mere eight days of travelling we reached home two weeks ago. Not that we traveled every single day as we enjoyed a wonderful two night stop over in Cape Town. Cape Town remains, second time round one of my most favorite places I have visited.

A city full of life, colour, sound, history and culture. A place of welcoming people good food and spectacular natural history. I was lucky enough this time to full fill a long held ambition and ascend Table Mountain. Not, as I would of liked, on foot, but via the famous cable car that ferried throngs of tourists up the mountain each year. Although undoubtedly less of a place of wonder as a result of the tourists lie myself, Table Mountain still holds a prehistoric feel to it, and a short walk takes you away from the crowds and out on your own across the huge rocky plateau. The views are truly spectacular as we looked out to the Cape of Good Hope and across to Table Bay. As we gazed the wonderful sight of the RMS St Helena coming into port greeted us, as we contemplated our third and likely our last voyage across the Atlantic. By the time we leave in 12months, the RMS will be no more an aeroplane will be our rather more boring mode of transport off the Island.

In may also be our last time in Cape Town and as such we were determined to enjoy it, we could not of been happier to watch a thunderstorm blow through Cape Town as we sat upon our balcony sipping Cape wine and taking in the sights and sounds of Cape Towns night life below.

The view from our balcony at night.

The view from our balcony at night.

Boarding the RMS was a strange experience. 12 months ago we past through immigration and port control, and climbed the ramp up to the RMS with great excitement, and a fair amount of fear and trepidation at the unknown world we were heading to. This time however the RMS provided a huge amount of security, a welcoming and familiar vessel to transport us not to the unknown, but to what is, for now at least, undoubtedly home.

Our crossing was smooth, fast and pleasant, a hugely appreciated upgrade ensured we enjoyed one of the larger cabins and the extra space was very welcome having spent five weeks in each others pockets. The conditions were a far cry from the rough seas we had encountered five weeks earlier and the journey was incredibly smooth and, as a result very quick, as quick as crossing the Atlantic can ever be.

It was a particular pleasure meeting new arrivals on St Helena, tourists and our new Doctor, full of questions, which we were now in a position to answer. Travel on the RMS St Helena is a wonderful experience. I allows new comers to the Island to form friendships and meet people before the set foot ashore, providing rea-assurance and dinner invites, particularly useful when arriving on a bank holiday weekend when all the shops will be shut for two days.

On early morning of our fifth day St Helena filled the view from our port hole, filling my heart with a warm sense of joy. The sun was shining and we were all looking forward to stepping on land. The sun shone for our first two or three days on the Island, before taking a turn for the worse, after all we are still just emerging from winter, but the days of are punctuated nicely by days of glories tropical sun.IMG_4056 IMG_4055 IMG_4048 IMG_4044 IMG_4039

Our first weekend back however reminded us of why we love the place so much. A walk up flagstaff to enjoy the spectacular views across the Island, a lovely dinner at a friends house, with a huge slab of T-bone steak, and a party on another night.

Our weekends have been instantly filled with good company, good fun and wonderful scenery. This weekend has been no different. A return to Sundowners drinks at Donny’s bar, a walk to Fairy Land, aptly named this time of year as you can see and swimming in the pool under baking tropical sun.

I have undertaken something of a fitness regime, climbing Jacobs ladder twice a week, and at present, swimming a kilometer twice a week before 9am!! This is, as my friends will testify, most unlike me. However 6 weeks of pure indulgence, drinking and eating takes an inevitable toll which was confirmed to me as we walked to the coffee shop following our disembarkation from the ship to be greeted with “you’ve put on weight” from one of our friends. Before we left the Uk 12 months ago I was determined, having reached my “middle age” that I would have something of a change of life style and eat better and exercise more. My good intentions were thwarted following my groin injury (plus complete lack of will power and a liking for beer) but I return more determined to keep fit and look the part for my gorgeous wife.

Life has been hectic, in one day I found myself climbing Jacobs Ladder, shopping, photographing ladies under wear, plumbing in part of a fish tank and writing a husbandry guide for colleagues back in the UK. All in a day’s work over here. At this point many of you will of thought “photographing ladies underwear”??? And yes, I have a contract with a new business who is importing sexy, Anne Summers underwear to the Island. At this stage I am just taking product shots for the website, however when my studio equipment arrives at the end of the month a model shoot will take place. Totally out of my comfort zone I am both excited and extremely nervous at my first actual photoshoot with models, and in skimpy underwear no less. OF course this has gone down well with my male friends and I have already signed up several police officers as security and at least seven people holding a flash for me!!

After six weeks in each other pockets the Wednesday the boys started back at school was a joyous day for us all. Charlie has now started full time schooling and seems to be relishing in this new, “big boy” environment, part of the main school and not within the annexed nursery building. Oliver on the other hand has struggled to settle back in and reform the friendships that he left behind eight weeks ago. However, two weeks in, and with the help of taking a football to school it seems to be improving for him. Of course both boys now have a warped perspective of our life in the UK. Having spent the past month being spoilt by grandparents, having days out at the zoo, park and generally living a life of riley, they are now convinced that our lives in the Uk are one great big party with grandparent. Convincing them of the realities of our previous life in the UK being different from the holiday we just enjoyed has taken some doing, and Charlie is still not convinced. However a boat trip with dolphins, swimming, football, friends and sunshine has convinced them that another year here will be ok!!

Leaving the UK was difficult for everyone this time, but particularly for Bev, who’s sister was induced into labour the day before we left the UK. Knowing that our new niece would be born as we were travelling, and that she would be twelve months old before we get to meet us is of course hard. It reminds us of the precious things we have left behind. But I would not change it for the World. We are on a countdown now, 12 months to go, 11 months, 10 months etc, and yet we return feeling at home. I am no longer searching for my place here, desperately fighting for some feeling of importance and worth. I am slotting back into my place here and the sacrifices we make are more than worth it.

As we reach mid-September St Helena is about to enter a whole new age, and history is being made. The very first mobiles phones were sold on the Island on the 1st of the month, the network due to be operational before the month end. And, on Tuesday 15th of September 2015, St Helena will no longer be an isolated Island in the Atlantic, as the very first Aeroplane lands here. With it come mixed emotions for Saints and Ex-pats alike. What will this new age herald for the Island as it undertakes the most significant change since its discovery in 1502? Time will tell, and I will hold comment and judgement until such time as I could give a balanced and informed comment. Until then the island undoubtedly excited to welcome its first test flights next week, and no doubt huge crowds will be in place to witness the event. Whatever the long term future for the Island it is a privilege to be part of life here at this momentous time, and we could not be happier to be back.