St. Helena Sightseeing and a Surprise, Part I, by Ted Cookson

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ST. HELENA SIGHTSEEING AND A SURPRISE!
PART I

by Ted Cookson
Published in February 2007

 

With Captain Christopher Turner at the helm, Holland America Line's elegant MS Prinsendam slowly approached the anchorage in James Bay off the north coast of the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic on the morning of 14 November 2006 after a 66-hour crossing from Luderitz, Namibia.  As it eased to a stop and dropped anchor, the 38,000-ton Prinsendam passed the much smaller, 6,700-ton RMS St. Helena, which already lay at anchor closer to shore.  The royal mail ship is the only vessel which regularly links the British overseas territories of St. Helena and Ascension with Walvis Bay, Namibia and Cape Town. 

Discovered in 1502 by the Portuguese navigator Joao da Nova and briefly occupied twice by the Dutch during the seventeenth century, St. Helena has been in English possession continuously since 1673.  At that time the English East India Company used the island as a stop on the voyage to India via the Cape of Good Hope.  In 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte was brought to St. Helena and detained there until his death in 1821.  The island was also used for the detention of some 5,000 Boer prisoners during the Second Boer War from 1899 to 1902.  The economy of St. Helena prospered when the island was used as a port of call for ships plying the route to India and the Cape Colonies.  However, the construction of the Suez Canal reduced the frequency of such long sea voyages.  Since World War II the prosperity of the island has continued to decrease.  However, there are now plans afoot to build an airport on St. Helena in order to help boost the island's economy.  Currently it is hoped that the new airport will open by 2012.  

At 10 a.m. the Prinsendam, Holland America's oldest (built in 1988) and smallest (793 passengers) liner, commenced tender operations from the ship to the Jamestown wharf.  Our touring party that day consisted of a dozen Americans.  Most members of our group had embarked in Lisbon on 17 October for the entire 46-day "Taste of Two Continents" cruise to Ft. Lauderdale via Cape Town.  Prior to St. Helena the Prinsendam had called at a dozen ports in ten African countries from Morocco to South Africa. 

After stepping ashore at the Jamestown pier our party was met by Tracey Corker.  Tracey and her amiable father Colin operate Corkers Tourist Services.  Colin's father had imported one of the first vehicles into St. Helena in the early 1930s.  That 1929 Chevrolet Charrabanc, an open touring car which had been manufactured for export in the U. S. with right-hand drive, is still in good running order today; and it can hold up to 16 passengers.  Our party had pre-arranged a full-day island tour in Colin's unique green car which is well known on the island.  Colin's father had installed a convertible cover for use in rainy weather.  The occasional heavy mist we experienced in the uplands that day, said to be unusual for St. Helena in late spring, made use of the convertible cover necessary for awhile.

Our St. Helena sightseeing tour began with a group photo in the Chevy Charrabanc on Main Street in Jamestown.  Then, with Colin at the wheel, we proceeded to drive up Side Path, the steep single-lane switchback road carved into the eastern side of the narrow ravine in which Jamestown is located.  Colin kept the throttle in low gear for the entire uphill climb as the road rises nearly 600 meters (2,000 feet) in only about 3 km (2 miles).

Our first lengthy stop was made about half an hour later near Napoleon's fenced but inscriptionless tomb.  After a 10-minute walk down a wide path we reached the spot at the head of Sane Valley where Napoleon had originally been interred at his death in 1821 after six years in residence on the island.  Napoleon's remains were removed to Paris in 1840.  I found that the tomb site had been much improved since my first visit to St. Helena in March 2001.  Whereas previously a simple grassy area had surrounded the tomb, now there is a well-manicured garden off to one side.  The French tricolor continues to fly from a short flagpole near the guard's kiosk.  This spot and Longwood House, our next stop, were ceded to France in 1858.

The grounds of Longwood House, Napoleon's residence on St. Helena, were as beautiful as ever.  Napoleon's sunken garden pathways, on which he could stroll without being seen from afar, remain in evidence.  However, I found that Longwood House had been changed in one important respect since my last visit.  While the entrance on the east side of the building is unchanged, the exit is no longer through the long green trellis on the same side.  Now visitors can only leave via a gift shop on the north side of the house.  The gift shop, which bears the sign of Hutt's Gate Store on the wall behind the counter, offers every sort of Napoleon-related souvenir imaginable, from T-shirts to fridge magnets.  But, since Longwood House still has no entrance fee, one can hardly complain.  Non-flash photography is allowed in the house but video photography is not. 

From Longwood House we returned back to the island's circular road.  En route we passed Hutt's Gate Store.  Once an inn frequented by Napoleon's guards, Colin mentioned that currently the store is up for auction.

The interior one-third of St. Helena is foliated and resembles England.  Southeast trade winds carry mists which shroud the highest slopes and help create lush uplands.  During our tour around the island Colin pointed out a couple of disused flax mills.  The flax industry was established on St. Helena in the early years of the twentieth century.  New Zealand flax, said to grow best on St. Helena's highest ground, was baled and exported to England and South Africa where it was made into hemp.  However, the flax industry collapsed in the mid-1960s when the British General Post Office began to employ nylon rather than hemp manufactured from St. Helena-grown flax. 
 
As the afternoon wore on, our party paused en route at the Solomon & Co. shop at Silver Hill for some refreshments of candy and cookies.  Fifteen minutes later we passed Sandy Bay, which forms part of a large sunken crater.  Unfortunately foggy conditions made it difficult to discern Lot and Lot's Wife, two giant basalt pillars which jut up from the lunar landscape in the south of the island.  The beautiful vistas of the blue sea beyond the island's arid coast were also obscured by the fog and mist.  During our tour Colin pointed out three new senior citizens' residences which have been constructed by the government in recent years at various places around the island.

End of Part One

 

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com
 

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