How long have you got?

…….Or should I say how long have we got, because our time here continues to be simply brilliant and quite frankly I wish it would never end. Normally family ups and downs aside, when I sit back and think about the times we are having it becomes a little astonishing. Tonight’s blog entry is no exception and my ability to keep our stories to a reasonable length will be tested such is the diversity and frequency of good times we are accumulating .

For the past two weekends have started with a morning walk, nothing exceptional there of course. However the walk is along a section of the central ridge, with stunning views down to the Atlantic Ocean on either side, this walk is not a normal walk, when you then factor in the fact that we are walking, or should I more correctly say being walked by Donkeys, then we see that nothing in St Helena is normal, and few things are less than exceptional.

You can tell by peoples clothes that the central ridge is almost always chilly due to the high winds.

You can tell by peoples clothes that the central ridge is almost always chilly due to the high winds.

The island of St Helena, given its extreme topography, had relied for many years on the use of donkeys to haul goods, food, water, fish and lots of flax around the island and up and down extreme cliffs, mountain paths and just about anywhere they were needed. As little as twenty years ago it seems that donkeys were still in very regular use across the Island. Thankfully with improved roads and more significantly, improved cars and trucks, the donkeys are largely surplus to requirements and a good number of them have now found refuge in the St Helena Donkey Sanctuary. Set up some four or five years ago to provide a restful retirement for these lovely animals and providing, each Saturday, the opportunity for the public  to take them for a walk.

Like me Oliver loved Prince.

Like me Oliver loved Prince.

This is one of the unique things about St Helena, a large group of people, locals and expats alike, and from all walks of life, gathers to enjoy the simple pleasure of walking a donkey.

I was lucky enough to walk Prince, a grand old boy, weak in the knees, almost blind, and absolutely lovely. One of the few donkeys to of still been working as little as a few months ago he is now enjoying his leisurely life in the sanctuary, Prince and I bonded well.

Prince did have his stubborn moments when he would just point blank refuse to move.

Prince did have his stubborn moments when he would just point blank refuse to move.

Wonderfully gentle animals.

Wonderfully gentle animals.

Donkey Sanctuary St Helena

We also took in our first post box walk as a family. Across the Island there are numerous walks, and a few years back attempts were made to open up some of the walks, at varying difficulties to make them accessible to tourists and locals alike. Each is finished at a small post which contains a stamp with which the accompanying guide book can then be marked upon successful completion of the walk. We took on one of the easy walks up High Peak, one of the highest peaks on the Island but little distance from the nearby road. Taking a route through steep slopes of thick flax some 2m or more high,  the boys felt like explorers cutting through a thick jungle. Past a spring full of tadpoles and eventually up onto a high ridge with extraordinary views of Sandy Bay.

As we passed through the flax jungle, Charlie started to scratch his backside, nothing as it happens of any particular surprise when Charlie is concerned. After a while I told him to leave himself alone and he exclaimed, “but I have something in my bum!” . Somewhat dismissively I agree to check and sure enough, reaching into his shorts I pulled out a  small round shiny object, a Trolley Pound! How on earth a trolley pound found its way into Charlie shorts on an Island that does not even have trollies I will never know!! Reaching the summit we saw our first endemic St Helena Tree ferns. These ferns are prehistoric and although only in isolated stands on High Peak they still take you back to another time or world.

High Peak. Marking the start of the walk.

High Peak. Marking the start of the walk.

Sandy Bay Amphitheatre and Arum Lilly

Looking down on Sandy Bay Amphitheatre from High Peak

Looking down on Sandy Bay Amphitheatre from High Peak

The morning of the 9th of November, was spent, like many others paying our respects to those who gave their lives for the freedom of all, and somehow even this was different on St Helena. Held at the island’s cenotaph on the water front a large crowd had gather to pay respects and watch the ceremony led by acting Governor Burns. The sound of waves crashing behind us added to the atmosphere and the boy’s impeccable behaviour helped to make the morning an enjoyable and somehow appropriate one.IMG_9984

Good friend John playing at the remembrance service.

Good friend John playing at the remembrance service.

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The afternoon was spent in the sunshine in James Bay, rock pooling and testing out my new wetsuit with a little snorkelling in the bay. Bev and I have now passed our diving theory course, the pool is almost full and we can expect our practical lessons to commence in the next couple of weeks. Given the quality of snorkelling just yards from the town centre I simply cannot wait to don my cylinders and step out into deeper water and the numerous shipwrecks around the Island.

Friday night saw our regular evening at Donny’s bar watching the sun go down. This Friday however took a new turn and I stayed out late, drinking Gunpowders (Spice Rum, Lime and Lemonade) and treating the crowd to my karaoke talents, friends at home will know how I love a bit of karaoke. Along with ex-pats and Saints alike we all partied into the night and after much singing, dancing and many many drinks a great night out Saint style was had by all. It is a long time that evenings have been warm enough in the UK to be out under the stars till past 1am, but I suspect it will not be an uncommon occurrence on St Helena!

Oliver has joined in with one of the local junior football teams on a Thursday night. Lack of numbers on Island  and the season coming to a close means he currently is the youngest player amongst a group of players up to twelve years in age. After a tentative start he thoroughly enjoys going up against “the big boys” and I hope it will help him learn and develop and increase his confidence. I am also enjoying the opportunity to coach again, (I coached an under 6 team back in the UK, one of the things I miss most) helping out with the local coach of all sports here on the island.

Finally I am especially pleased to report that I have started work with the St Helena National Trust. Although the post is unpaid due to the limited budget of the trust I will be working part time as Director of Communications. The St Helena National Trust, like that of the UK and other nations is a non-government organisation, a charity, established for the protection of the Islands built, natural and cultural heritage. The work they do and plan to do is vital to the Island and I am very proud to be a part of it. A fantastic opportunity for me to develop many of the skills I had already established in previous roles I will be responsible for company branding, internal and external communications, developing interpretive material for historic and natural sites on the Island and will have the enviable opportunity to work on the production of a guide book and photo book, featuring my own work. If I am able to leave the Island with a book I produced to help others gain the enjoyment I am, then I will be very happy indeed. Keep your eyes peeled here for how you can help with this exciting and important project.

So another two weeks has passed by, and once again I have the opportunity to sit and recount the story of my family on St Helena. Writing a blog has become very important to me for many reasons, to reflect and realise the wonderful opportunities we are lucky enough to be enjoying is, I think, the most important of those and I can scarcely believe .that three months into our adventure I still have so much to talk about.

The Gigantic Isle

I have been led to believe that St Helena is only small, apparently ten miles long and five miles wide, fifty square miles in area. That would make it very small in comparison to London for example which is around 950 square miles. (more comparisons between London and St Helena here)

However, quite simply I do not believe it, it cannot be true, St Helena is gigantic, it must be enormous, it is the only explanation I can find for the huge array of people and places, of habitats and climates and even of seasons on this Island.

Sunset 6

Another Stunning Sun Set

Having driven almost every mile of St Helena’s roads I can say that this Island is continental in its variety of environments. Were you to flatten is peaks and valleys into one large sheet, I have no doubt it could envelope the earth.

Coastal areas are dry and arid, dominated by bare scree slopes, steep cliffs and sparse vegetation of low lying salt and arid tolerant Ice plants (Aizoaceae),  hottentot figs (Carpobrotus edulis) , and the endemic,  lime green Babies Toes (Hydrodea cryptantha) which are still found in isolated pockets. The Sandy Bay amphitheatre, containing the only significant beach on the Island with its black volcanic sands, steep crags and sharp ridges is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, snaking its way deep into the Island, the eroded remains of the second of St Helena’s two shield volcanoes that erupted some 12 million years ago. Huge cliff faces and giant rock formations reach from the waves below; flashes of white pass by as the beautiful Fairy Tern or Red Billed Tropic birds fly in to their nest sights, contrasted against the rocks of blue, purple and orange.

Moving up to the low lying terraces of Half Tree Hollow, Prosperous Plain, Donkey Plain or Horse Pasture and the environment takes on a semi-arid scrub land feel. Like an old Western where Cacti grow thick. Nargy weed with its bright orange golf balls lining its central stem thrives here, and low lying scrub with creepers now forming large expansive mats, succulent leaves with bright red flashes and large yellow flowers. Carpets of yellow tussocks of fountain grass stem the tide of erosion, whilst the elegant and grand English Aloe stands high, reaching for the sky with singular bamboo like stems some three or four meters high. Canaries, finches and Mynah birds provide a chorus of chirps whistles and song as they fly in small flocks from feeding ground to feeding ground, picking off scurrying insects, moths or falling seeds.

The enormous yellow flowers of the cup of gold (Solandra maxima) catch the eye as you past A&D mini market. Roads are lined with wild tomatoes, currants, lilacs, hibiscus, fuscia, acasia, passion flowers which sit along side more species of plants than I could mention, providing all colours of the rainbow where ever one looks. The endemic dwarf Ebony, with its delicate white, petticoat like flowers,  cultivated from the last specimen on earth found clinging to the edge of existence high on a cliff face, now grows in abundance. Trees of craffa thorn (Erythrina caffra), jacaranda (Jacarana mimosifolia) and coral trees (Erythrina speciosa) provide red and purple flowers of colour against the historic buildings, whilst the occasional palm tree reveals the sub-tropical climate of the Island

Crucifix Orchid (Epidendrum ibaguense)

Crucifix Orchid (Epidendrum ibaguense)

As you move inland the environment changes again, becoming green and lush with valleys of grass and tall woodlands appearing. The stunning Arum Lilly (Zantedeschia aethiopica) starts to make an appearance, pure white flowers and elegant glossy green stems, growing wild in huge abundance.  Pasture and wide open green plains are grazed by cattle and sheep providing a sense of home, a familiar rolling landscape of fields and hedgerow, its peculiarity revealed by the nesting wirebirds, a beautiful and dainty plover found, like hundreds of other species, only on St Helena. Forests planted over a hundred years ago contain such diverse mix of trees that one could equally be in a Scottish Highland forest of pines facing one way, and yet turn around to find themselves in an

Cape Iris Napoleon's Grave

Cape Iris at Napoleon’s Grave

old English forest with Oak and other gnarled trees twisting round, thick roots breaking the forest floor, On the South Side of the Island, at Levelwood, huge stands of Eucalyptus trees pass for a rainforest canopy. Their stripped bark hanging like vines, with a variety of species forming multiple layers as the forest itself is dissected by the steep slopes and truncated spurs. In the valleys, streams provide a permanent wetland, home to Banana trees, wild celery and yams. The orchestra of frogs play continuously, like a thousand raindrops echoing into an underground lake. These mid-level valleys are a land where daisies grow as trees, home to the last remaining stand of wild, endemic gumwood trees, in Deep Dale.

Sandy Bay Arum Lily

Sandy Bay Amphitheatre. Slopes of Flax and Arum Lilies give way to forests with endmeic Gumwoods and eventually the barren steep gorges of the Gates of Chaos and Broad gut.

Driving up higher, the winding roads take you into green carpets of flax covering entire slopes with a velvet coat. Flax, once a major export industry on St Helena was planted in huge quantities and now dominates much of the upper slopes. Although the flax has sadly replaced much of the native cloud forests it does in its own right hold a degree of beauty, and adds to the sense of history that the Island exudes in abundance.

The central ridge of St Helena holds one of the most precious habitats on earth, a world where dinosaurs would not look out of place, now sadly an urgent conservation concern. Just forty hectares of native wild cloud forest, dominated by the prehistoric Tree fern (Dicksomia arborecens) remain. Where cabbages are trees and some of the rarest invertebrates on earth find shelter in the damp undergrowth.

Perched high on the central peaks this is a wind-swept world, where clouds hang forming dew of the tips of leaves only to be swept away forming swirls of smoke down the valleys before burning off in the warmth of the lower reaches. Trees bend sideways, almost reaching the ground at the their tips, their longest arms often lower than their roots as they bend down over the sharp ridges, pushed over by the relentless Atlantic Ocean winds.

Wind B&W

Wind swept central ridge

These changes in environment, almost continental in their diversity happen over such short distances that one may even experience changes in season whilst driving half a mile up the road. Plants now dry and bereft of life at the lowermost end of Half Tree Hollow can be found in full bloom at the top. Jamestown may be five or more degrees warmer than a mile inland at Francis Plain, where a thick layer of cloud often provides rain all day whilst James Bay bathes in sunshine.

From the Grand Canyon to rural England, from Asian cloud forest to Texan desert, ST Helena has it all and is indeed an enormous Island. The St Helena Tourist board promotes the Island as the most extraordinary place on earth, approaching our third month here I should think they are right, and I am certainly not going to argue with that assessment.

Wonderful Weekends

I didn’t and don’t expect the current pace of my updates to continue, but at the present time there is a continuation of new things to speak of and discoveries to be made such that I cannot help but feel obligated to continue writing with the same celerity.

We have just finished our second week on “Our Island” (as Charlie continues to call it), and we are already establishing that weekends and the activities thereof are the reason we have taken this move.

Our weekends start early on Fridays at Donny’s bar on the waterfront. A friendly bar frequented in early evening by families and ex pats. Our ship mates also take the opportunity to meet up and discuss their week’s, share stories’ and exchange information on discoveries of new shops, the availability of fresh fruit or vegetables and new parts of the Islands yet to be explored. Although I am yet to witness it myself the opportunity to observe a breaching Humpback Whales whilst enjoying a beer certainly adds to the attraction.

Food is served at the local takeaway where we are rapidly learning the Saints propensity for shortening time and that 15 minutes is usually more akin to 45, and subsequently that tomorrow or “soon” generally means at some point in the future.

Following that, weekends have been spent with a morning outing followed by a social nicety of one sort or another. Our first weekend introduced us to the huge diversity and fascinating world of St Helena flora. During a walk through the grounds of Plantation House, the Governors Island residence, we encountered endemic flowers, lush green carpets of moss thick enough to bounce on, Eucalyptus trees and stands of Bamboo 12 inches thick and 15m high. After a time of exploration and further research I shall no doubt dedicate several pages and numerous images to the Islands fascinating fauna and flora.

Upon leaving the grounds of Plantation house we met a local Saint, who, with the customary combination of friendliness and intrigue took the time to say hello and engage us is conversation. To our own amusement the lady enquired if we knew of the gentleman from the UK her daughter had married, given that his surname was Wright it was expected that we may know him. We didn’t have the heart to tell her that on a somewhat larger Island of 60 or so million people its unlikely that we knew him just from his surname.

Evening was spent enjoying a home cooked dinner of Tuna steak and Barrracuda, or Wahoo as it is known locally, with enough fish to feed four of us for less than £3. Some things are undoubtedly more expensive, others are considerably cheaper!

This weekend has been even more enjoyable. Saturday morning was spent at an altitude of 750m in a cloud forest at High Peak, volunteering with a community conservation scheme. The children relishing the opportunity to become caked in mud whilst pulling up the invasive Ginger Root, planting native trees and shrubs and building paths. This also gave me the opportunity to speak with a resident expert on Island flora and start to add names to the amazing array of plant species we have encountered.

Huge areas of what should be native forests have been overrun with Giner root. Clearing this is hard work with huge roots to dig out of steep hillsides.

Huge areas of what should be native forests have been overrun with Giner root. Clearing this is hard work with huge roots to dig out of steep hillsides.

Restoration work is r-establishing the native forests. This area was planted two years ago. Some of the rarest plants of earth are here, with some species down to less than ten individual plants and one endemic tree down to one remaining specimen on earth before this work started.

Restoration work is re-establishing the native forests. This area was planted two years ago. Some of the rarest plants of earth are here, with some species down to less than ten individual plants and one endemic tree down to one remaining specimen on earth before this work started.

Oliver in an area of cleared Ginger Root

Oliver in an area of cleared Ginger Root

 

Even Charlie was able to get involved and do his bot for conservation, although he was more interested in just digging in mud!

Even Charlie was able to get involved and do his bit for conservation, although he was more interested in just digging in mud!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a hard working three hours we were rewarded with our first sample of local cuisine, a Paella type dish known locally as Pillau, and bloody lovely it was too! Lunch provided the experience of conversing with bug man Dave. Dave is a true geek in the best possible sense, and a fountain of knowledge when it comes to local fauna. During his time on Island he has discovered several new species of endemic insects, declared two extinct and is now in the process of listing 200 further species of insects on the IUCN Redlist.

Wonderful to do something positive for the environment, for tourism and that we could all get involved with together.

Wonderful to do something positive for the environment, for tourism and that we could all get involved with together.

Muddy Hands

The rest of the day was spent enjoying an afternoon Tea at Patsy’s house. This was enjoyable for so many reasons; firstly we visited Harlyn, a house of 186 years and the reference point of our own address, Near Harlyn! Of greater importance was the delightful time spent with one of the Islands most loved people. On Saint Helena it seems some people are held in great Esteem and respect. As a former head teacher, landlady of one of the Islands oldest houses, mother to the Captain of the RMS St Helena, charity fundraiser, coffee morning host and much more besides Patsy falls within that category. A wonderful lunch of home-made breads and cakes was followed with a tour of her fascinating house and long conversation about her family’s history on the Island and the encyclopaedic knowledge of the Island’s people and of bygone times.

Today (Sunday as I write) we spent the morning aboard a whale/dolphin watching trip. Alas, and against all expectations and prior enunciations we saw nothing, not a whale, dolphin or even Masked Booby! But the trip was still thoroughly enjoyable and afforded further opportunity to meet various people and, in true Saint tradition, find out what they do and how they may be useful to our stay on the Island.

The Tysons on their Whale Watching trip. Distinct absence of Whales, Dolphins or anything else for that matter

The Tysons on their Whale Watching trip. Distinct absence of Whales, Dolphins or anything else for that matter

Our afternoon was spent with the aforementioned Days family, Andy, Lucy and their two children Toby and Lawrence. A constant source of help and support aboard the RMS and during our feet finding first days on the Island, this afternoon was about developing friendship. We could not of had a more enjoyable afternoon with roast Chicken, walking, and construction of essential additions to a jungle tree house. When adding in superb roast potatoes to top off enjoyable conversation in lovely company, the day left both Bev and I feeling warm and fuzzy about making new friends and the good time to be had ahead of us.

It seems that beyond the spectacular landscape, the fascinating flora and fauna, the challenges to overcome and opportunities to be had, this trip is about people. It may yet turn me into a gregarious human being instead of the socially awkward and positively miserable git that I currently am.

Finally, if the weekend could not get any better our scooter has arrived having passed its MOT, Oliver, following in his fathers footsteps with his new found love of photography saw fit to take some photos of my first, somewhat wobbly, steps on our new Island toy. I must add by the end of the weekend I was heading off at close to 40mph (downhill of course)

Valentino Rossi eat your heart out!

Valentino Rossi eat your heart out!

Oh, and we may also be buying a boat!