Before I continue from where I left off, I want to present a snippet of why I love this Island. Driving the children to school this morning, the sun is shining, but Charlie has just annoyed me to the point of shouting. As I drive I’m fuming, we sit silently in the car, the boys afraid to make noise for fear of re-awakening my wrath! We pass an elderly gentleman and with a piece of paper he flags me down. “Are you going to town” he asks, “yes, do you need a lift?” was my reply I have given more lifts to strangers in the past three years than the rest of my life put together. “No” he says, “but could you please deliver this letter to Sure (the Island’s telecom providers), it’s very important”. “Of course I can, no problem sir”, and with that a complete stranger trusts me with an important letter, and instantly lifts my moods and brightens my day.
I appologised to the boys for losing my temper, whilst re-iterating that they can’t leave their shoes in the rain all night, we cuddle, I tell them I love them and they walk into school happy, all friends again. Magic.
So back to the main story, after my last blog, things went from unusual (for St Helena) to damn right weird. An adventure cruise ship, fresh from taking bird watchers to the Antarctic is passing St Helena and agrees to call in to take approximately ten stranded, and urgent passengers to Ascension Island and beyond to Cape Verde, where they can then catch a flight to the UK. Crazy I know, but if you need to get off the Island, at this point in time, it’s your only option.
For me this was not a strait forward option, it gave me two days’ notice and may of cost a lot of money. After checking with my new boss, I decide to wait in hope the RMS is fixed, and I can travel on the 17th May, arriving just two weeks late for work. For friends of ours however this was not an option, with their passports expiring they were not able to travel through South Africa, and Ascension was their only option. But as I explained, Ascension Island runway is now also closed, so the MV Plancius, leaving in two days became their only option to get off the Island. With the ship boarding at 11am, Frankie and Dean Gonsalves were still rushing round town, trying to speak to one government official after another to get emergency documents sorted to allow them to travel. With the children in tow and the sun reaching its mid-day peak I offered my hand and took their children for toasties and slushes in the park, a welcome relief to the stressed parents.
Eventually the documents come through and, after a third goodbye I saw off some of my best friends on the Island, not sure when I would see them again. They travelled for two days before arriving on Ascension Island, and with a few hours stop over, headed to English Bay, a stunning white sand beach with clear blue waters. Now at this stage some of you probably know what’s coming next, yes that’s right, my friends were attacked by a shark. Are you f**king kidding me, you can’t make this up. As Bev and I are enjoying a wonderful wedding on the Island news comes through that our friend Frankie has been attacked by a shark, and although is alive and safe, will face months of surgery and rehabilitation as her Achilles tendon and other parts of her ankle have been torn to pieces. By all accounts Dean was something of a hero, punching said shark in the face repeatedly to get it to leave his wife alone, before fending it off from himself. Two other people worthy of a mention are Paul and Craig Scipio who selflessly ran to their aid pulling the couple from the water and administering essential initial first aid.
The children, thankfully not in the water, witnessed the whole thing and were understandably in pieces. The news left us all on the Island shocked and worried. With Frankie stable and in good care, she awaited an emergency flight to the UK (one way to get home quicker) whilst Dean and the children were dumped back on the Plancius to spend another ten nights at sea away from their injured wife and Mum.
Happily I can report that Frankie is doing well, operations have gone well and I’m sure she will be back with us before long, already able to laugh and joke about the events. The children and Dean remarkably got back in the sea at Cape Verde, something I think is pretty incredible. For us it was difficult, not only the trauma of getting trickles of information about friends in a very serious situation, but, having spent most of our lives as Marine Biologist peddling stories of how sharks are not dangerous and the oceans are safe and sharks should be protected, one of our closest friend’s bloody well gets attacked by one. It’s important to present some background though. For some time now Galapagos sharks have been encroaching on the island, encouraged by the discard’s of fishermen thrown freely into the shallow waters. These sharks have not only begun to relinquish their fear of man, but are actively seeking out shallow waters with people around, associating the situation with food. The Ascension Island government must make some changes. Although not a tourist destination, the two swimmable beaches on the Island are very very popular with the locals on the Island and those passing through, who now would risk swimming in their clear blue waters.
Back on St Helena the fall out for me was somewhat intense as the worlds media did their best to find out what is going on. A quick search on Frankie’s Facebook page reveals a photo of her swimming with a whale shark, taken of course by yours truly. This led to five national UK papers phoning me directly trying to get more information. Sticking to the facts as I knew them and correcting some inaccuracies it was a delicate situation. My friends still separated as Dean and the family travelled by sea, the extent of Frankie’s injuries not clearly known, and not wishing to upset anyone I told them as little as I could get away with and bided them a polite goodbye.
The photo itself though did appear in several national newspapers. One would never ever wish for anyone they care for to be injured in this way, but it’s a pretty cool photo and seeing it in the national press I must admit is exciting!
Now, at two pages long already I should probably stop writing before boring you all to death, but if you’re with me so far I shall continue. Set as I was to leave on the 27th of April, our personal belongings were boxed and packed into shipping containers the week prior, on the 20th April ready for their long journey back to the UK on the MV Helena (the replacement cargo vessel commissioned to ensure supplies to the Island) . Now with over a month left on the Island, Bev and the boys even longer, we had no option but to move into someone else’s house. What we needed was a family, who were on leave and would be off the Island, whom perhaps had young children with toys for the boys. Whom could that be, yep, that’s right, Frankie and Deans house! And so it was that we left our lovely home in Alarm Forest and crossed the Island to Cleughs plain with just a suitcase each to last the next three months! The local news outlets were keeping us informed about how passengers, now stranded in Cape Town might get home and how in turn, those here might be able to leave. A plane, no plane, the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship, no Queen Elizabeth Cruise ship, RMS on schedule, RMS needs more work, the stories and rumours went back and forth like a yo yo. Eventually confirmed, news from SHG that a plane had been commissioned to fly people now stuck in Cape Town for, in some cases 6 weeks, home to St Helena. So finally I had a confirmed route back to the UK that would get me to work on time.
I e-mailed the given address and was assured my name was on the list and more information would be provided when available. Waiting and waiting it was 2.30pm, the day before the flight before I phoned up Solomon’s Shipping office who were dealing with bookings. “Hi there, its Paul Tyson here, I think I’m on the flight, but Ive not heard anything more can you provide some information. What time will we depart, what time do we arrive, do I have a ticket, where do I get my ticket from, hat is the baggage allowance?” My questions went on and the response was a rather despondent “I’m sorry Sir, I don’t have any information to provide you, we haven’t been told anything yet”. I asked if I was still booked onto the 17th May RMS voyage, and had it confirmed I was. With that I asked them to call me as soon as any information is forthcoming. As I sit here now, the plane has been and gone and I still haven’t received that phone call. But never mind, my passage on the RMS is booked, the ship is repaired, has reached St Helena and is currently steaming towards Ascension Island.
I will arrive in the UK on the 24th May, ready to start work on the 29th. My sixth and final voyage on the RMS, a small piece of history of my own. In the meantime St Helena made its own history once more as, only 12 months late, the first commercial passenger plane landed and departed on St Helena. The boys and I went to watch this historic event. For most parts of the world, a plane with 60 passengers landing is not big news, but for the Island this is massive. The airport heaved with people, family and friends and curious onlookers like myself. The airport, baggage handling and oversubscribed restaurant all ran perfectly, and for the first time the airport operated as it was intended. The excitement was palpable, and I am thrilled for all the staff and people involved in the project. We are still some months away from the airport operating properly, but at least we now know it can. Will we ever get to the bottom on who cocked up along the way, I doubt it, and does it matter? Well yes it does, but we can move on and the successful landing of RJ85 Avro flight takes everyone a step closer.
Crowds gather waiting for the plane to arrive.
The airport seen from Millenium Forest
The airport was heaving with excited friends and family.
Anyone wishing to read more about the airport and this historic day should take a look at Darrin and Sharon Henry’s terrific blog, What the Saints Did Next. Fantastic photography and writing.
So what’s with the title, “Packing it in”, obviously I have eluded to our personal belongings being packed away, but, set as I was to leave on the 27th April, the past three weeks have truly allowed me to pack it in, and my weeks have been nonstop fun. People are now asking me, “how many leaving do’s have you had? Six!!” The undoubted highlight of which was an awesome party with our neighbours who put on a mini festival involving a swimming pool and bouncy castle, barbecue and cooking on a fire pit, lots of beer, a live band and a stunning sunset to boot. Oh what a night. A huge thanks to Hayley and Jamie Bridgewater for a memory lasting night.
Aside from hangovers I have also managed to start, at long last, playing golf. My game is not good, but improving, and with that I played my first (and last) Texas Scramble tournament, a doubles game where the use of whichever ball is hit best, allows for my way wood shots to be discounted! Alas my teammate Tina Johnson and I came last, or joint third as I prefer to call it, but it was a great day and was followed up with another barbecue and more drinking. There is a solid theme of the past few weeks and beer has been central to that theme, I shall have to re-asses my habits wen I’m back in the UK, but for now I’m on holiday and shall enjoy it!
I have also fitted in three post box walks. Post box walks are list of 21 walks, of varying difficulty across the Island that, at the end of the walk, have a post, containing a stamp for you to mark ones guide book at the completion of each walk.
The first was a walk to Great Stone top, with friend Gordon Brodie. Gordon has not yet featured in my blog, which is strange as he has been something of an ever present. Cards, Golf, Snooker, drinking and barbecues all, inevitably are shared with my unique and characterful friend. Some (well he) would call him powerful, his friends affectionately tend to call him Gordie Bollocks. I could tell you a hundred stories from our time here together, most of which involved beer and often the breaking of something or someone, or other inappropriate behaviours. But for now I’ll leave the stories to his company as a walking companion for the week!
Leaving the Bell Stone (an ancient phonolithic volcanic rock that rings like a bell when struck) we started out through forests of pine before the path opens out with spectacular views across Prosperous Bay and the airport. With another drinking engagement in the afternoon we soon made the decision to forego the full walk to Great Stone top and instead settled for its little brother, Little Stone Top! A pleasant walk with enough out of breath moments to make one feel as though they have done some work, but short enough to get back in time for a party . We all enjoyed the views, the climbing and the company.
Gordon and his son William also joined us a few days later as we tackled Sharks Valley. A longer walk through a steep sided Gorge that falls deep into a ravine and opens out onto the rugged rocky coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. This was something more of a challenge as much of the walk traverses along very narrow loose paths across the steep sided rock face of the gorge, with a precipitous drop below. Oliver in particular struggles with this, the combination of exposure and loose grit below his feet, understandably unnerving him. We edged along, hand in hand, for what felt like an eternity as his nerves undoubtedly rubbed off on me. But we made it, down to the sea where we were faced with what I personally can only describe as a shocking scene. Here we are, 800 miles from the nearest other land, 1400 miles from the nearest continent, on a rocky beach simply covered in the world trash. Rubbish, carried on the current for hundreds or thousands of miles and washed up on our isolated Island. You would struggle to find somewhere more remote than this beach, and yet Mans’ mark has been left. Humanities collective contempt for our planet never ceases to amaze me, and here it was laid out before me in the form of bottles, sandals, ropes, nets and trash.
Next up was a tour with a difference as Arran Legg, of Arran 4×4 tours met us in the morning for an off road drive through the Islands off beaten tracks. We spent six enjoyable hours in the company of the very knowledgeable, and thankfully skilled Arran as we wound through hill and dale, across lush pasture land to dry deserts. The highlight of which for me was a lengthy, often unnerving, drive through Fishers Valley and to our picnic sight overlooking the airport.
This spot and track (if you can call it that) are only used by Arran himself, and the National Trust when monitoring the Islands endemic Wirebird population. It was as remote as it was stunningly beautiful. The recent rains have brought colour to this arid landscape. The feeling of isolation and privilege was wonderful. My mind wandered as I contemplated the huge amount of change this apparently static landscape has seen. Once the location of a huge woodland of endemic Gumwood trees (large Daisies that grow as trees!!) the landscape has been eaten bare by centuries of wild goats, brought to the Island by successive Portuguese ships as a food source for their long journey on the Indian trade routes. More recently of course, a valley has been filled in, and an airport has been built. The site of which will soon become normal, but at this stage still presents a somewhat surprising image of this concrete strip perched perilously on a bizarre, remote rock plateau miles from any other human habitation!
“One of the most challenging Post Box walks”. “Walking on St Helena is different and challenging…..confident and regular walkers from elsewhere in the world have found that they are not able to cope with the local terrain”. “For walks rated 5/10 and above it is important for walkers safety that they are accompanied by a knowledgeable guide”. Are the words I read once safely back in my car, AFTER, taking on the infamously named “The Barn”. I should of read that earlier!!
Perhaps the most notorious of walks on the Island with difficult path finding, vertiginous (I love that word, it means vertigo inducing) drops and exposure, shear cliffs and 300ft drops. No problem I thought, Ive spent many years scaling Peaks in Snowdonia, this will be fine, besides, Bev has done it before!!
As I crossed the first few fields and the sight of the Barn presented itself it crossed my mind that maybe, I shouldn’t of gone alone. But my ego, which has led me into many silly situations before, would not let me turn back and leave the Island having not “done the Barn”.
It stood out ahead of me, a massive dark formation of hard rock, eroded on all sides as the softer landscape around it has dropped into the sea after millions of years of South Atlantic winds batter the cliffs. The guidebook suggests that paths may be difficult to follow following heavy rains, “we’ve had a lot of that” I thought. But the start of the path was easy to find and I followed into onto the first early challenges, traversing a grey mud cliff and gorge where the 6 inch wide path had been often filled in with an angle of mud, or obscured by sharp gorse bushes, all the while accompanied by what turned out to be an almost ever present feeling of impending doom.
Looking back towards the crazy mud “path” that crossed the steep slope of mud!
One false step and you’re in serious trouble here mate. After crossing this first challenge the path reaches a wide broad ridge, welcome relief and impressive in its beauty, sharp edges eroded and crumbling in the wind with sands of orange, red and purple. The view stretched across Flagstaff Bay, looking towards Prosperous bay in all its glory.
“Maybe that’s the difficult bit over with” I thought but before long the knife edge “Knotty Ridge” was before me and a challenging scramble down to meet it ensured. Now I felt like Oliver as I tiptoed steadily down the slope, aware of the looseness of volcanic ash and gravel below my feet.
The guide book became a little unclear, do I follow the ridge, or traverse across its flank following the very obvious scar to the base of the Barn itself. “Follow the path Paul” were my reassuring words to myself. It wasn’t long before I thought I had made a mistake as in places the path was not a path, but a slope, upon which I gripped the mud above as I dug my toes in and edged across, foolishly looking between my legs to see the 300ft drop below me!! Others have done this walk with no problem, Bev included. Either I am not the mountain man I thought I was, or the paths have become seriously degraded and filled in as the regular rains have washed sand and mud down the slopes to smooth out contours.
After what felt like a very long time my drained and tense body found flatter ground on which to rest, take a sip of water and re-group. From a distance the next challenge looked to be the worst, but I now saw ahead of me some familiar territory. With renewed confidence I climbed upwards, with good hand holds and solid rock below my feet. I was now on the Barn itself and the loose gravel and sand that led me here has given way to solid volcanic rock, both secure and grippy. The narrow path, or complete absence of path no longer bothers me. This is proper climbing, this is my world.
As I topped out I expected to be nearing the top of the Barn and some flat ground, instead what greeted me took me aback. From a distance I have looked at the Barn and dismissed its scale, unaware of where the path goes and thinking much of the walk would be across its flat barren summit. What greeted me however was the enormous Eastern flank of the Barn and a small narrow path proceeding steadily and endlessly upwards. This was not a challenge of vertigo, or tip toeing, it was simply exhausting. After a leg draining time I reached the plateau of the Barn. Empty, beautiful, barren and yet full of life. Recent rains whilst eroding paths have enabled small plants such as the colourful Ice plant to thrive. Lichens and mosses, some of which are hundreds of years old cling to rocks and give away the secrets of some of the cleanest air in the World.
As I turn to the East, I am one of the first persons on the Island to witness the joyous return of the RMS St Helena, as she steamed past the airport. A poignant image of an old ship, the life line of the Island for some many years still pushing on (just) against the empty sad face of a false dawn. In a few days I shall be on the ship once more, I’m glad that I will leave the Island that way, its just somehow more fitting.
After stamping my book, eating a sandwich and having a drink I turned to face my return journey, quickly arriving at my nemesis, the traverse. I decide that this time I simply don’t want to try that again and instead, I look upwards and decide a risky scramble to the ridge is a better option. Again I was soon doubting my judgement as I took one slip backwards for every two steps forward. But I reached the ridge and scrambled for what I hoped would be solid rock. To my dismay, the first part of this knife edge ridge was crumbling, and it wasn’t long before I was once again clinging and edging inelegantly along. A rock gave way beneath my foot as I scrapped my arm and grabbed a very well placed Wild Mango tree to arrest my fall.
After a short while the ridge widened slightly, and more importantly became solid, I could stand up on it, arms out and balance along its top. A friendly Fairy Tern came to look at this strange creature that looked as though he wanted to fly, but who’s feet were firmly planted on the ground.
A scramble uphill, and an easier uphill traverse (uphill is always easier on dodgy ground) across those same muddy slopes led me back to my car, and to my relief I was able to sit down and read the pages I should of done earlier. “Walking on St Helena is dangerous and challenging…ignoring advice and attempting the more difficult walks (without a guide) is likely to result in unpleasant experiences and is dangerous” I should bloody say so!!!