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.

Lots Wife Ponds

Lot, is a huge pillar of rock, shining silver and emerging like Excalibur from the surrounding brown earth. Lots wife, is the nearby wife of Lot, a smaller pillar, eroded at the base such that its top appears as though it could topple at any moment. The ponds are the sheltered natural swimming pools that have formed on the wave cut platforms below Lots Wife, protected from the wild Atlantic ocean by huge walls, a seam of hard wearing rock now forming an impenetrable barrier to the relentless waves. Lots Wife Ponds were also the destination for Bev and I, on our first twenty four hours on our own, without the children, for over six months.

Good friends and regular babysitters Suzanne and Mike have become something of life saver to us, looking after our boys on a regular basis when we both dive or, in this case when we need to find some time for us, to remember that we are a couple, in love and not just here as servants to the needs of our children, (or employers). And so in quintessential Tyson style instead of resting, relaxing or some romance, Bev and I took to a 9km round trip across rugged terrain in 28C heat to find the ponds, a much talked about beauty spot of the Island.

The walk to Lots Wife ponds features in the post box walks, a series of tourist trails across the Island, graded for their difficulty in both effort and technical difficulty. Having tried some low grade walks with the boys, Lots Wife Ponds sits at the upper end of the scale, with a  grade of 6/10 for effort, and 8/10 for technical difficulty. And such we set out, across the wide flat dry river bed of broad gut and up the zig zagging path of and old cart road across the steep sided scree slopes beyond. Broad Gut, the Gates of Chaos, Frightus Rock and other aptly named peaks, ridges, valleys and gorges form the Sandy Bay National Park, an area that inspires awe as the Mars like landscape, scarred into volcanic rocks rises in reds, oranges and purples to the lush green slopes of High and  Diana Peaks and the central ridge. Formed during volcanic eruptions some 14 million years ago this now dry and barren  surface was once green with trees and plants found no-where else on earth. The arrival of goats on the Island in the late 1500s led to severe deforestation and hundreds of years of rain and driving Atlantic winds have scoured sharp ridges like daggers across the unprotected rock, forming a  Lord of the Rings landscape.

Start of the walk up from Broad Gut

Start of the walk up from Broad Gut

Our route, upwards!

Our route, upwards!

The path is well marked from the feet of other intrepid explorers, and of countless years of fishermen and donkeys and leads us upward, winding across steep valley sides ever on to a ridge we can see in the distance. As other parents will know, when you have children and have the opportunity to relieve yourselves of them for a day you have to take your chances, and as such we pressed on in the less than ideal conditions. Dry and extremely hot, the winds blowing up from the blue waves below us provided welcome rest bite from the burning afternoon tropical sun. As our car disappeared into the distance and the blue waters of Sandy Bay became obscured by rocks of red and orange we finally arrived at our highest point, a ridge providing extraordinary views of Broad Gut behind and the rocky cliffs of Asses Ears, Gorrila’s Head, Man o’War Roost and of course Lots Wife loomed high above us.

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Gorilla’s Head is the square shaped rock on the right hand side, with one of the Asses Ears above it


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Descending from the ridge we encountered our first “technical” section, a narrow, loose path with a steep drop to our left. Although not overtly daunting, the presence of a fixed rope at this point is welcoming, reassuring to know that we are on the right track, and that the reportedly difficult final section may be equally well protected. As we descended, clear white lines of guano could be seen on the finger ridges that slope off from the main cliff side peaks. Sitting below the ridge where Bev and I had the great pleasure of helping to tag and record Booby nests some months before, we found ourselves on the lower ridges, where the secondary team had worked that day. We pass by a nest and chick now almost fledged and a far cry from the eggs and newly hatched fluffy grey chicks we had encountered back in October. By this time of the day booby’s can be seen returning to their nests, bringing food to hungry chicks from a day’s foraging. These striking white birds fly like a red arrows display team in acrobatic lines to various white target points marked upon the red rocks.

Masked Booby and chick,

Masked Booby and chick,

Bev looks on at the chick and its parent.

Bev looks on at the chick and its parent.

We arrive at our next way point, an arrow marking the way to, “Lots Wife Ponds” in stones on the ground. Curiously, pointing in the opposite direction we find marked the words, “Fizzled me”. Although curious and with a strong desire to be fizzled, we continue our path to Lots Wife Ponds. Further on and still some 50m above sea level we came to the curious white sands of a former beach, apparently blown up the valley gulley’s and deposited up the slope. A beach that over millennia had become compressed to form rock, sandstone, was now being eroded and weathered back to whence it came and  into a beach.  After fifty minutes of walking, we reach the post box, a white tube containing a visitors note book and a stamp to mark our trail book as proof that we had completed the walk._MG_0015

At this stage we were a little underwhelmed by the technical difficulty of the walk. Having spent many good times amongst the infamous ice covered ridges of Crib Goch in Snowdon, I am perhaps not an average walker, but in comparison to our other low grade walks I was still expecting something more of a challenge from our grade 8’er. Perhaps the “optional extra” beyond the post box and down to the ponds themselves would provide the challenge. Alas we would remain disappointed, undoubtedly a  bit of a nervous scramble under normal conditions, the last two steep descents are provided the safety of strong and well placed ropes giving secure hand holds to counter any loose footsteps.

And so it was we reached our destination, Lots Wife Ponds. A huge pillar of rock greeted us to our left, the gap between it and the cliff face providing views of an elevated and tranquil pool. To our right, waves surged into a gully, racing up and increasing in size before spilling over into a second, lower, and somewhat turbulent pool. The sounds of huge waves bellowed against the rock wall that had now become apparent at the edge of this rocky platform, holding back the Atlantic on one side, and holding in our tranquil swimming pools on the other.

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The more choppy of the two ponds. The rock wall which holds back the Atlantic can be seen on the left of the image, but the wall has been breached on the right.

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Water surges up the gulley through the gaps in the natural barriers.

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Knowing we were short on time we stripped to our swimwear and waded into the most still of the two waters. The water appeared cloudy, and green, our became feet sore with sharp snail shells under foot was we crossed the rocks to reach the waters. Was this the beauty we had been promised? As I moved into the water the sandpaper rocks gave way to soft velvety algae covered slopes, rounded by years of waves splashing ashore and softened by a thick layer of cushion soft seaweed. The water was warm, incredibly warm, like walking into a bath. I could see fish further out, but wondered how they could be surviving in such unusually hot conditions, easily 35C plus. As I moved further into the pool the answer became apparent as my feet suddenly felt a severe chill, enough to make an involuntary squeal come out of me. The hot sun beating down on the pool had created a thermocline, a sharp transition from hot, saline water above to cooler water below. Donning my mask I dived out and down, across to the deeper part of the pool and down through the hazy mirage of the thermocline and into the cool, clear waters below. Reversing the previous experience, my feet now warm and head cold, I delighted like a small child in this amazing experience with fish swimming all around me, trapped to the bottom of their pool by the warm waters above them.

Having not seen a single soul on our entire journey, and feeling secure that we would not be disturbed, I longed to remove all my clothes and enjoy the freedom of skinny dipping in our own slice of paradise. Nerves and British restraint however got the better of me, and the five finger fish, parrot fish and surgeon fish were all saved any embarrassment, and starved of a potential meal. We moved to the second, lower and cooler pool, bouncing up and down with the waves that crossed the waters as each new breach from the Atlantic squeezed its way through a gap in the wall in the distance. In no danger we swam amongst the fish and revelled in the pools and gullies.

With time running short we dried off, regrettably having to leave our little Eden behind. But not before I ventured onto the rock wall to witness the Atlantic below. Very aware of the spray shooting upwards some 20ft and the deep, bellowing of air being trapped and squeezed upon this natural barrier I cautiously climbed up the wall and poked my head up above the parapet. Gaining in confidence I could see the concave wall, worn away at its base and now forming the curve so commonly seen in man-made breakwaters. Waves hitting the base of the wall were deflected in a huge curve back out to sea. The power was extraordinary, 15ft waves booming and shaking, punching at the wall and then sucking back, as if trying to pull the wall down, angry, determined and relentless, and yet the unyielding wall stood firm, protecting Bev and I and stopping the waves from cutting down yet more of St Helena’s cliffs.

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We had to leave, we packed our bags and once more started to climb the steep sides of St Helena’s Southern Cliffs. The sun was setting, lights streamed through gaps in the rocks, creating striations of black and orange. The green slopes on the central ridge came into view in the distance, like an oil painting of colour, the greens of the peaks framed by deep blue above and orange, purples and reds of Sandy Bay amphitheatre below.

As were traced our footsteps I knew I had to return, I needed to witness the light streaming up Sandy bay and waking up this extraordinary Island at Sun Rise. I shall return, I shall return with my camera and, at 5am, perhaps without my swimwear