Friday, February 19, 2016

St. Helena, South Atlantic Ocean

I know that chronologically I should be posting about the time we spent in Namibia but there are too many spectacular photographs to post and the bandwidth here sucks. So, for now, I'll tell you a little about the very remote island of St. Helena and why it's captivating us.

Our 1225-mile passage from Namibia to here was very easy with no big seas and fairly constant winds - our time of 7 days, 23 hours was no speed record but wasn't all that bad, either. Since St. Helena gets up to 300 yachts per year, they have wisely invested in a robust mooring field for visiting boats and it makes for an easy, if at times rolly, stay. The town of Jamestown is the business end of the island and even if the stores lack a wide selection of products and produce, for the most part it isn't too hard to find what you're looking for, as long as it falls within simplistic guidelines.

What was remarkable to us was the check-in process, which can often be a humbling, hat-in-hand experience of dealing with bureaucrats who are required to give you permission to enter their country but for whatever reason seem to be reluctant to do so. Here it was just the opposite. Customs, Port Control and Immigration seemed to be actually pleased to have us here - even to the extent where they said, "Of course you don't have British pounds to pay your fees! You just arrived, the banks are closed and we have no ATMs. Pop on by tomorrow and pay us then." It's altogether likely that no American Immigration officer has ever said those lines.

We took a hired tour of the island and albeit interesting, didn't live up to the hype given us by cruisers of the previous year. This morning we decided to do a trek with our friends, Helga and René, and based on the information on a book loaned to us by fellow cruisers and information from the Tourist Information Office, we plotted an easy but beautiful walk. The beginning turned out to be a little inauspicious as we were looking for the trail head, we asked the woman at the laundry service for directions. "The trail to Rupert's Bay is this way, yes?" we inquired. "It's too dangerous to go that way. The trail is badly sloped and much too loose. You should take the road there," she said. "But the woman from the Tourist Office said to go that way," Helga protested. The woman from the laundry service paused, her eyes narrowed and she said as both a question and a statement, "She did?" We thanked her for her time, found the trail head and marveled at the view of Jamestown Bay from high up on the side of the cliff as we walked along. True, some of the trail was very narrow - in some areas it was not much more than the width of a human hand and the cliffs dropped precipitously away far below us but we weren't too concerned. We traversed Rupert's Bay's shores and followed the trail along more steep cliffs, finally finding an ideal spot to stop for lunch at the old abandoned battery just below Sugar Loaf Peak. Lunch was relaxed as we watched the sea pound against the rugged rocks below us. There was some discussion about which way to head as the map we had wasn't too clear and the book was even less specific. Fortunately, the route we took was the right one - or the wrong one - depending on your point of view.

We climbed up from Bank's Valley but it didn't feel right, all of us thinking we should be heading more northerly than westerly. Still, we hiked up through enormous fields of prickly pear cactus (called 'tungy' in St. Helena) and though the trail was no wider than on the cliffs above the ocean, at least if one fell here you wouldn't wind up in the sea. It seemed as though we walked for a very long time when we finally came to the junction we had seen on our map. One direction went to the summit of Sugar Loaf Peak and the other headed north. René asked Ruthie if she'd like to hike to the summit and though Ruthie didn't reply specifically, the snort that came from her was a definitive dismissal of the idea. René turned to me and looked me in the eye for a moment. "Neal?" he said. I paused for a few seconds and said, "Okay." I shed my rucksack, leaving it on the trail to pick up on our return. Helga and Ruthie took the fork that headed north that was, thankfully, level, which was a relief, and René and I were to catch up with the two women once we hand successfully scaled the peak. As it turned out, the path up to the summit wasn't too much more difficult than what we had already been on but it did reveal to us what was ahead of us. In the distance I could see a tall ridge that we'd have to cross one way or another and it looked very steep. "I bet that ridge is 6 kilometers away," I told René, "and it's very steep and it's already past three o'clock." We climbed back down and walked quickly up ahead to catch up with Ruthie and Helga. "We have to go back the way we came," I said, "There's a steep ridge ahead and I have no idea how long it will take us to get to a road." No one was interested in hiking back down the steep Bank's Valley or walking the narrow path along the cliffs back to Jamestown so we all studied the map and book carefully to see if we could find holes in my suggestion. The book said it was nine kilometers from Dead Pan to Sugar Loaf and we were mostly passed all that so, we figured, we should have, at most, four kilometers to go. I was uneasy to say, "Easy" but we loaded up and started to finish up our hike. At first the trail was level and comfortable but we soon came to a nasty set of switchbacks that slowed our forward progress to a crawl. From there we had to hike straight up a ridge that had a shear drop to the ocean on one side and thick groves of cactus on the other. It was windy and warm and we were getting low on water. Once we were on higher ground we had a better view of the ridge that we faced and it was terribly demoralizing. I briefly thought about suggesting that we turn around from there and return via the way we came but thought better about it. René was doing fine but then he was raised hiking the Austrian Alps - he's extremely sure-footed and incredibly strong - while Helga, Ruthie and I were struggling to keep up with his pace. It seemed like every precipice we climbed were then followed by more, steeper ones. By now our water was gone and I was having occasional cramps in the area of my kidneys - my t-shirt was completely soaked with sweat. It was quite late in the day when we topped the last ridge and found the road that headed back to civilization. Miraculously, my cell phone found service and we were able to call a taxi to take us back to the ferry that would get us home. Larry, the taxi driver who came to pick us up, asked us what we were doing up in the Dead Pan area. "We hiked up from Jamestown, past Rupert's Bay, up to Sugar Loaf and then to here," I said. Larry, who was born on St. Helena almost seventy-five years ago, stopped for a moment, then started to say something and then stopped again. He mused, "I don't think I've ever heard of anyone hiking that route." It was a small consolation to us but a least a vindication that we had taken a route less traveled. The roads on St. Helena are narrow and steep (often one car has to pull over and wait for oncoming traffic to pass by) but I was still mildly surprised at how long it took to drive back to Jamestown.

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