Wednesday 28th February, 2001
James Bay, St Helena
Writer : 
Brady Gilchrist

0740h The sky is still dark the sea is calm. Martin is adjusting the rain clutter on our primary radar and ahead 26nm that familiar pattern of greens, reds and yellow marks St. Helena in the darkness. The electromagnetic energy from our radar is being reflected with vigour by volcanic cliffs that reach hundreds of metres from the sea.

0805h The sky is starting to lighten with the impending sunrise. The light comes on slowly and evenly, revealing a steel blue sea and a grey sheet of low level solid cloud. In the distance we see land for the first time. A slight angular contrast on the horizon, a shade lighter than the sea and a shade darker than the sky. We are still 3 hours away.

1140h St. Helena has become a massive imposing rock, thrust from the sea. We are a mile offshore looking up at cliffs created in an age of volcanism and coloured with various hues from black to tan. The sea crashes into the base of cliffs in some places, revealing caves that burrow into the steep rock face. Along the top we can see green trees and fields providing contrast to the deep, aggressive tones of the rock.

1150h “STARSHIP STARSHIP STARSHIP this is St. Helena Radio on channel 16 over” - they are expecting us and asking for our ETA. We will be dropping our anchor in 30 minutes.

1215h We round the final corner and James Town is slowly starting to reveal itself before us. As we approach, massive fortifications are visible everywhere. Huge gun emplacements from World War Two are visible, built into the rock giving the appearance of an island fortress. We can see houses built along a ridge, running hundreds of metres above the core of James Town. There are many yachts from all over the world slowing swaying in the light swell.

A small boat with officials aboard approaches from the pier. Our visitors come on board and we complete the formalities of arrival. After several attempts we finally get our anchor to set.

Hanns-Joerg and Wolfgang from Stern headed in with our official visitors to make arrangements for their exploration. After lunch Birgit and I, along with Martin board the tender and headed to James Town.

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STARSHIP in St Helena.
[ photo - James Frankham ]

James dropped us off at the pier and we wandered along the pier, past many multicoloured buildings built directly into the side of the cliff. It feels like we have stepped back in time. Everyone we meet says hello and waves. The Saints, as they are called, are truly friendly. A hello and a wave, as we have discovered, are the norm here at all times. We leave the small port area, walking past small mounds of containers waiting for the next re-supply from sea. 

The entrance to the original James Town dates back to the 17th century. We walk through a large gate and onto an old and historical street. It now really feels like we have walked back to a time when the British Empire touched the far reaches of the world. This is a place so rich in past you can feel it with every breath. As you walk down the streets of the town, past the castle which is government house, you are reminded of the spectacular landscape at every step. Giant volcanic hills loom up on either side of the town center. To our right a staircase called Jacobs Ladder with 699 steps appears to climb directly towards the fortifications at a 45 degree angle.

The town is quiet. Being Wednesday afternoon all the shops and businesses are closed. We wander up to the top of the street in search of the Tourist office. We enter and meet Karen who is very helpful getting us oriented and providing the many contact numbers we need for our explorations. Birgit and I venture further into town for a quick reconnoitre. The buildings are old, the feel of this place is warm. We see beautiful White Fairy terns, the sounds of nature are alive within the trees and greenery. You can feel the humidity. We wander around streets just taking everything in and making note of the places to visit during working hours.

The radio crackles; Hanns-Joerg and Wolfgang have arranged their car. We join them to visit some of historical sites from the time of Napoleon’s exile. We drive up the steep hills on roads so narrow you feel your heart beat rising. The hills are rough and volcanic. We reach the top of the first turn and drive down a small street past a row of satellite dishes which announce St. Helena’s membership in the global village. Our destination is a house called the Briars which was home to Napoleon from October 18, 1815 to December when he took permanent residence at Longwood house. Interestingly, this same house played host to the Duke of Wellington during his 1805 return from India. The view is tremendous. We gaze out over James Town and the Atlantic with a gaggle of tiny yachts swaying gently in the sea. Exploring with Hanns-Joerg and Wolfgang is a pleasure, the knowledge they have and the stories they tell are fascinating. We talk about how fortunate we are to be in this moment.

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Napoleon's grave.
[ photo - James Frankham ]

We head off again, this time to the place where Napoleon was interned for 19 years after his death in 1821, before being returned to Paris and the dome of invalids. We walk down a grass covered lane, gazing into a valley with green and life everywhere. Our view of St Helena on arrival, and the view from this valley are at exact opposite ends of a scale. The birds sing, the green and the view calm the senses. The path winds on ahead of us at a gentle 10 degree angle. We slowly move down into the valley. We come to a lookout that commands an epic view. Surrounded by trees that reach into the sky 30-40 metres there is a large stone slab surrounded by a wrought iron fence. This was the final resting place of an emperor. It was chosen because this was Napoleon’s favourite place on St Helena. We look around and gaze at trees that we are certain would have been gazed upon by Napoleon. We wonder where his thoughts went as he looked out over this same vista. This may be one of the remote places one can imagine, but the setting here certainly was a fitting tribute to an important figure in history.

In our first day our eyes were opened - St. Helena has much to offer and the next 4 days will be very intriguing.

Fair winds, calm seas


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