St Helena: A remote revelation

With one step I traversed 80% of the planet's entire species of tooth-tongued fern. That's an odd and heavy sensation, to know that, with one stumble or misplaced step, I could've committed botanic genocide

By Niall Griffiths
Published 17 Dec 2013, 10:00 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 15:29 BST

And to squat and peer and know that only those who have ever stood on this very spot have ever seen this particular plant. There's a great weight of responsibility in this.

St Helena teems with such revelation. All the traditional epithets – the most remote inhabited place on earth, the most unique etc – come nowhere near adequacy of expression. I lean on a rusting cannon, think briefly on the great travail of hauling such a thing to this high spot, and take in a 360-degree panorama of the entire island, from the lushly seething green valley on my left to the red-streaked rocky rawness on my right, the dream-like rock formations, the vast black bulk of the Barn (a sight which greeted Napoleon every morning when he opened his shutters and which he apparently loathed).

I could be straddling two different countries. And around it all, in every direction, lies the endless blue wilderness of the Atlantic; the isolation is extreme, and thrilling, and necessary, in its way – it is always salutary to be forced into a realisation of human feebleness. But there's the paradox; tiny and trivial on this rock, I'm nevertheless aware of the hugely important duty of care, with the immeasurably rare and precious, exquisite plants a mere inch or so away from my steel toe-caps. All travel is a learning experience, of course, but some more than others.

Like, say, Australia, St Helena evolved in isolation but on a micro scale, and its relative geological youth – volcanism ceased only around eight million years ago – has kept much of its biodiversity small. But it's absorbing nonetheless and David Pryce, the St Helena National Trust's invertebrate conservation project co-ordinator, shows me treasures in his trawlnet.

Then I descend the mountain and make a great leap in scale when I get on a boat to watch humpback whale cows with their calves, close enough to sway with the swell as they sound, and drift into a school of pan-tropical dolphins, several hundred strong, which seem to set the whole sea boiling with their spinning leaps and the aggressive abandon of their play. I watch a baby – no more than a foot long or so – attempt to copy the adults, but he's only able to clear the water by a few inches.

He keeps trying, however, and I have to admire his determination, a feeling which swells again when I regard the island from the sea, see the twin hulls of its volcanoes and its gouged valleys, the small cottages limpeting the dark serrated flanks, the low scatter of the capital, Jamestown, and think of the 4,000 people that cling onto those rocks in the middle of the vast wild ocean. It took five days on a boat to get here; that will change when the airport opens in 2016. But I can't help thinking that maybe the journey here needs to be arduous, and long; such rewards need to be earned, don't they?


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