Isolation island: a portrait of remote St Helena as its airport opens to travellers

What does a new flight route mean for one of the world's remotest islands? Some 1,200 miles from the Angolan coast, St Helena — rather surprisingly — has never been short of visitors, from Napoleon to naturalist Charles Darwin.

By Emma Thomson
Published 14 Apr 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 12:23 BST
The remote, volcanic South Atlantic island of St Helena, part of the British Overseas Territory also encompassing ...

The remote, volcanic South Atlantic island of St Helena, part of the British Overseas Territory also encompassing Ascension and Tristan da Cunha islands, is famous as the site of Napoleon Bonaparte's exile and death, marked by an empty tomb.

Photograph by Alamy

When Napoleon was still a student, he scribbled on the last page of his geography book: 'St Helena. Small Island.' Oh, the irony — 30 years later he was exiled and died here. Yet even today, few of us know little more than that. Not even its location. But that's all set to change. In October 2017, this remote Atlantic outpost welcomed its first commercial flight. Previously only accessible via the RMS St Helena, the journey time has been slashed from five days sailing from South Africa to four hours by air.

It hasn't been without challenges. The inaugural flight was delayed for over a year due to dangerous wind conditions. The headlines weren't kind: it was dubbed 'the world's most useless airport' by the British media. Even though downgrading to a smaller plane and training pilots intensively for eight months solved the issue, the airport has struggled to shrug off its shaky start. "Currently, only four pilots in the world are qualified to fly into St Helena," says Jaco Henning, the South African pilot who landed the maiden flight on 14 October. "It's classed as a Category C airport — the toughest tier."

What does quicker access mean for one of the world's remotest islands? A third the size of the Isle of Wight, some 1,200 miles from the Angolan coast, St Helena — rather surprisingly — has never been short of visitors. Naturalist Charles Darwin, explorer Captain James Cook, novelist William Thackeray and astronomer Edmond Halley all stayed here. But the island's most famous guest might never have made it at all.

"It was a sailor who turned the tide of history," says 81 year-old local guide Basil George, tickling his grey goatee, as we stroll around the docks. "When the Duke of Wellington passed by in 1805 on his way back to England from India, the boat taking him ashore capsized in the rough seas. Three people drowned. Wellington couldn't swim, but a young boy came to his rescue. If he hadn't, the Battle of Waterloo might never have happened!" Basil pauses dramatically, to let the full weight of the story sink in.

Now, the island's own fate is changing. "Before the Suez Canal, 30 ships a day docked here," continues Basil. Trade had been booming since 1657 when Oliver Cromwell granted the East India Company a charter to govern the island. A small platoon and a gaggle of planters arrived — making it one of Britain's oldest colonies — and with riches from the passing trade from India they built a fort, castle, St James' Church and Plantation House. Merchants such as Solomon's and Thorpe — which still owns stores in the capital, Jamestown — set up shop in the 1790s.

But when the island passed from the East India Company to the British Crown in 1833 "we became poor," says Basil, and things took a further turn for the worse in 1869. "The canal took us off the map and since the collapse of the flax trade in the 1960s — when Royal Mail decided to start using rubber bands instead of twine to tie the post — we've been dependent on aid [from the Department for International Development] ever since," laments Basil. Jobs were so scarce, children were left with their grandparents while their parents sailed to UK to work as domestic staff for rich families.

One of those to experience this was 58-year-old Ivy Robinson, who runs Wellington House B&B in Jamestown. "My sister left when I was four years old and I didn't see her again until I was 44," she relates, as we sit in the hotel lounge. And things haven't changed much. "The island can be a circle of security, or a trap," says Basil. "Sixty per cent of people worked off-island last year."

But it's hoped the airport will give younger islanders — known as Saints — a shot at a future that doesn't force them off the island in search of work. Aaron Legg — a fifth-generation Saint in his early 30s — used to depend on farming, but has diversified to offer 4×4 adventure tours of the island. "I don't have to wait three weeks for my next client," he says with some relief, as we scan the scrub for the endemic wirebird. "The airport also gives me the freedom to travel, without taking too much time away from my business."

But not everyone is in favour of the airport. In 2002, a referendum was held allowing islanders to vote for or against it. Only half the population turned up, making the win somewhat skewed. The economic crisis hit, funds dried up, and plans were put on ice until 2012 when ground was broken for the first time without a second vote held. "[Back then] I didn't vote for the airport. I wasn't sure if we could adapt quickly enough. The younger ones can, but we're used to a slower pace of life," admits Ivy. She worries that this impingement on their isolation will have a detrimental effect. "We're so protected here: no crime, no locked doors. People go away and bring back new habits from outside."

For others, it's the practicality. "It wasn't built for Saints," muses Vince Thompson, editor of the island's Independent newspaper, between deep drags on his cigarette. "Seventy-six seats a week will not fulfil our needs." He's concerned limited seats means an insufficient influx of tourist dollars. Mantis, the new hotel, has relied on foreign investment, but local B&Bs need visitors first before money can be poured back into upgrading services. There are also grumbles the flights are too expensive for some Saints.

In the meantime what can travellers expect? Forget fantasies of white-sand beaches and palm trees. St Helena has more character than that: a ring of ocean-carved cliffs, steep rain-cut valleys cloaked in vast fields of flax that ripple in the wind like sea grass and lush fern-filled forests lapped by swirling tidal mists. And the sand spread along the curve of Sandy Bay is black.

The island is rigged for adventure. Wriggling around her waters are 30 endemic species of fish and, from January to March, it's one of the world's few hotspots for whale sharks. History buffs can dig into Napoleon's past with visits to Longwood House and his tomb. Naturalists can go nose to nose with the world's oldest living animal, Jonathan the Giant Tortoise at Plantation House, and endemic species such as the wirebird and miniature blushing snail.

You can also sip the world's most-remote coffee, sup a dram of Tungi (prickly pear-cactus spirit) and munch on fishcakes and bread 'n' dance (tomato-paste sandwiches). And, come nightfall, tip your head back to gawk at very twinkly skies. The island is currently awaiting official Dark Sky Association recognition. "We're unique because from here you can see both the Southern Cross and the Plough," enthuses Vince.

“What can travellers expect? A ring of ocean-carved cliffs, steep rain-cut valleys cloaked in vast fields of flax that ripple in the wind like sea grass and lush fern-filled forests lapped by swirling tidal mists.”

by Emma Thomson

But the island's ace is hiking. It starts with the soaring 699 steps of Jacob's Ladder that scale the steep valley protecting Jamestown. "Have you climbed it yet?" asks Val Joshua, who is taking me for a hike up to Diana's Peak. "I have — I did it in 20 minutes and 30 seconds," boasts fellow UK traveller, Leon. Val, who is 69 years old, nods quietly. "What's your time?" asks Leon, politely. "Twelve minutes," responds Val. Leon's face drops as he calculates he's been trumped by someone 30 years his senior. "When was this?" Leon presses. "About two weeks ago!" Val helped grade the 20-plus hikes around the island and has calves as tight as fists. Indeed, it turns out locals are too fit: the trails are being reclassified to allow travellers lacking the mountain-goat gene a fair chance.

Against this ruggedness, island life is a calm succession of days where locals still barter pumpkins for chickens; mobile phone coverage was only rolled out in September 2015; and the two roundabouts "haven't quite been mastered yet," smiles Stephen Biggs, owner of Farm Lodge B&B. With 4,100 islanders, family is, literally, everything. "Everyone's an auntie and uncle — even if they're not!" laughs Matt Joshua, manager of the new Mantis hotel. So it's first names only on the island radio. Indeed, on my second day, as I'm wandering around Jamestown taking photos, a lady crosses my camera shutter. "Can I have a copy? My name's Molly," she smiles, as if that's all the information I'd need to pass it along.

Remoteness does have its challenges. "When we arrived three years ago, my six year old wanted a BLT sandwich," relates Niall O'Keeffe, chief executive for economic development. "It took me three months to gather the ingredients," he laughs.

But isolation is also its appeal. Travellers can really switch off here. UK mobiles don't get reception and the (expensive) wi-fi is limited to a handful of places in Jamestown. Stranded both digitally and geographically, you slip back into a slower gear and return to simple pleasures. Locals greet you in the street or wave to you when passing on the roads (regardless of whether they know you); there are pockets of prolonged silence, and you find yourself playing board games beside roaring fires.

Travellers should grab this chance of a digital detox quickly. Snaking beneath the ocean is a branch of the South Atlantic Express submarine fibre-optic cable — connecting South Africa to the US East Coast — which will arrive in 2020 and end St Helena's digital isolation. "It'll have a much bigger effect than the airport," says Helena Bennett, director of tourism.

The RMS St Helena was retired on 10 February 2018. Cargo boats still come, but the age of travellers glimpsing this halo of rock from the bow of a boat is over. Does arriving by air change the experience for travellers? Rainer Schimpf, a South Africa-based dive operator hoping to lead expeditions here, has tried both. "People loved the RMS because it was like stepping back in time — you'd expect to see Humphrey Bogart in the corridors. By the time you arrived, you were friends with everyone and knew all about the island. I was expecting the plane to be different, but there were still lots of conversations being held back and forth across the aisle — it's not like a normal flight."

So while it's easy to romanticise the elegance of arrival by sea — and the slow getting-to-know-the-island she afforded — the airport does provide a real solution to ending the island's economic dependency. Tourism can only be sustainable when visitors arrive weekly instead of once a month. Wanted or not, change is — literally — winging its way to St Helena.

Landing back in Johannesburg, my phone immediately trills to life. I flinch at the intrusion. It's not until you return home do you realise how trés Bon-aparte St Helena really is.

How to do it

Discover the World offers a Discover St Helena Fly-In trip combined with optional extensions in South Africa. Prices start from £1,588 per person for a week-long fly drive, based on two sharing, B&B, including car hire, 4WD adventure excursion, a half-day wildlife cruise, and return Johannesburg to St Helena flights with SA Airlink. Flights from the UK to South Africa start from around £600 per person. 

More info

Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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