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SHG officials and DfID have tried to conceal that “there will be some slight delay” in the new tender process currently underway to select an air service provider for St Helena. The evaluation period of three months to choose a ‘preferred bidder’ could possibly take up to five instead.
This comes at a time when the RMS St Helena has broken down, Ascension Island runway has cracks and knocking down King & Queen Rock is being discussed.
The Problem With Early Summer
There is a delay in the air service tender.
St Helena Government (SHG) officials and the British Government’s, Department for International Development (DfID) attempted to hide a delay in the announcement of a ‘preferred bidder’ by quietly discarding reference to the published 28 April 2017 deadline, replacing it with the more broader language of “early summer”.
News that the tender is now delayed, by any period of time, will add to the overall sense of frustration felt by islanders.
To recap, this was the original timeline the new air service tender was supposed to follow:
6 February, 2017 – Bid submission deadline. SHG said it was “encouraged by the response.”
28 April, 2017 – Announcement of preferred bidder due.
31 May, 2017 – Signed, minimum three year contract with chosen air service provider due.
Commencement of scheduled air service then widely expected to begin sometime before the end of 2017.
All seemed on track until 24 March, 2017, when SHG posted an airport update on their website which included this statement:
It is hoped to announce the preferred bidder in early summer 2017.
I’ve since made six written requests to SHG for clarification on whether the 28 April, ‘preferred bidder’ announcement date still stands. The replies have all avoided confirming or denying the fact.
However, the situation was confirmed by Executive Councillor, Derek Thomas, who sits on the weekly Access Board.
“Yes, there has been some slippage in the process, I have to tell you, I’m aware of that, so there will be some deviation from the original dates,” said Mr Thomas. “There will be some slight delay.”
I looked up the term ‘early summer’ as it applies to UK. It seems this could stretch into the second half of June, in which case this could then push the signed contract to the end of July. Potentially the tender process could be delayed by two months, based on current language.
So, we have a delay. Big deal, some might say.
Sure, but why not just be up front and say so, then? A delay is not such an unreasonable probability, but the sneaky handling after everything that’s gone before, is cause for concern.
It’s difficult not to doubt supposed experts who incomprehensibly failed to adequately consider wind shear when building an airport on top of a 1,000 foot cliff.
It’s not just an island thing either. In November 2016 the UK, House of Commons, Public Accounts Committee panel referred to the project as a ‘fiasco,’ concluding, “Thus far, the Department (DfID) has unquestionably failed the residents of St Helena and the British taxpayer.”
Attempts to hoodwink the public with this latest delay underlines the worrying detachment of those in charge, from the impact this ‘fiasco’ is having on the lives of Saints and everyone affected.
No Need To Move Mountains
During the November 2016, PAC inquiry in London, concerns were expressed that the coastal landmark of King and Queen Rock, at St Helena airport, might be knocked down in the name of wind shear fixing.
Like many, I had assumed this sensational option was no longer on the table, especially in light of the successful Avro and Embraer test flights in October and December 2016 respectively.
However, in a briefing earlier this month to elected councillors on St Helena given by the island’s Airport Director, the consideration of removing King and Queen Rock was included.
This for me is a worrying development.
Despite the PAC’s repeated questioning in November, to date no one it seems is accountable for the failure to consider wind shear. Would it be any different if removing King and Queen turned out to be wrong?
As expert opinions go I’m more inclined to trust the specialist Faroese and Brazilian pilots of the successful Avro and Embraer test flights than a computer simulation telling us to knock down a small mountain. The pilots had no problem with King and Queen, so let’s leave that rock alone, please.
The Old Lady Is Showing Her Age
It never rains unless it pours.
The airport failings thus far have been highlighted by ongoing problems with the island’s other method of travel.
Old faithful, the RMS St Helena, the island’s only scheduled, commercial means of travel to and from the outside world for the past 27 years, has serious problems with her starboard propeller.
A complete round-trip voyage was dropped from the regular shipping schedule in order to undergo an emergency dry-dock repair in Simon’s Town, South Africa. Two days after being refloated the repair has failed.
Latest information from SHG indicates the vessel will return to dry-dock later this week which means a second consecutive round-trip voyage is now being dropped.
The disruption in travel plans to hundreds of people is huge. In a statement SHG have said “Discussions continue as to whether an alternative passenger vessel can be located and at the same time investigations continue into whether an aircraft can be sourced.”
The Atlantic Star Proposal
Enter once again, Atlantic Star Airlines. The company’s CEO, Richard Brown, has responded to the crisis with an offer to establish an air link between St Helena, Ascension Island and Accra, Ghana, using an Avro RJ100.
Richard Brown told us yesterday, “The aircraft and crew are available, the necessary operating permissions exist and we could get something going very quickly if needed. We would also be able to carry freight. SHG and DfID are aware of our offer and our capability. We are waiting for them to decide the best way forward and we will help in any way that we can.”
Over to you, SHG and DfID, it seems.
Cracks Beginning To Appear
As if there aren’t enough spanners clanging in the island’s accessibility works, here’s another.
On neighbouring Ascension Island, 700 miles north-west, the “state of repair” of the runway has compromised the operational capability of Wideawake Airfield. This situation was only revealed four days ago as we entered the Easter holidays. This has huge implications for St Helena’s current woes.
Even at 700 miles away, Ascension Island is the closest diversionary airfield should aircraft not be able to land on St Helena.
All round, it’s an almighty mess the island finds itself in at the current time.
Still Failing the Residents of St Helena
It’s ironic that exactly one year ago, 18 April 2016, there was probably never a greater sense of optimism coursing through St Helena’s community. Jet engines were powering in a new age of prosperity and it was arriving in the gleaming red, white and blue colours of British Airways – we were about to be connected to the world.
But of course, wind shear was waiting on Prosperous Bay Plain that day. It extended a vigorous handshake to welcome Comair’s brand new 737-800, triggering far more than just an aborted landing.
There’s clearly a lot of work that needs to be done to sort out the mess the island’s access situation is in.
A good start would be improved quality of communications and a bit more honesty from those at the top.
Excessive secrecy has prevailed over the last year alongside a blatant disregard of the commitment of the island’s people in making the airport project possible. It’s about time this changed.
It’s been a little while since we indulged in a picture post, just photos for pleasure, so to speak. As it’s Good Friday today, a day of peace and reflection, we’ve compiled a ‘natural St Helena’ collection for Easter.
The topography of St Helena does a great job of making the island feel twice the size that it really is, and when it comes to great views this tiny place delivers far more than one might expect. Visitors constantly remark on the scenic contrasts that unfold around them as they venture inland from Jamestown to explore for the first time.
I guess living here we’re all a little guilty of taking the natural beauty of St Helena’s terrain for granted.
But not today! Here we go, ten shots of appreciation for St Helena – naturally.
Try this. Visualise three tourist attractions to see in Washington DC.
I bet there’s a good chance our immediate visions are very similar: The White House; Lincoln Memorial and Washington Memorial?
Even if you don’t know the names, the huge statue of Abraham Lincoln sitting in his chair is iconic USA; that tall, four-sided concrete obelisk of the Washington Monument with its pointy top, and of course the home of the president, the White House itself.
Washington DC is a sightseeing extravaganza; wide open park spaces, a glut of Smithsonian museums, plenty of people for that ‘safety in numbers’ feeling and grand monuments everywhere. We loved Washington DC – or just, “DC” as our friends there called it. Unlike the many deserted city centres we’d encountered across the US, DC was busy.
The city’s architecture we’ve seen on the silver screen for years, it’s as famous as anything anywhere else in the world.
But there are a few monument siblings that seem to live in the shadows of their more renowned family members. One of these is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, built on the south bank of the Tidal Basin.
The Jefferson Memorial was dedicated in 1943, not even 100 years ago. In some ways it’s a reminder of how young America is as the country we know today. The memorial even looks new, like a freshly made plaster cast, gleaming white.
While the Lincoln Memorial’s steps attract crowds like scattered bread crumbs draw pigeons, the scene at the Jefferson Memorial is far more sedate. Perhaps because it’s a tiny little bit out of the way and requires that extra bit of effort to walk there, but in my opinion well worth it.
Thomas Jefferson was born on 13 April, 1743. He was just the third president of the United States, elected in 1800. The list of US presidents is still quite short. Donald Trump is only the 45th. I wonder what a Trump memorial might look like one day! Hmmm.
There were a lot of rats running around the outside of the Jefferson Memorial at night; big rats. A couple of dead ones were lying across the pathway around the Tidal Basin and there was plenty of rustling in the bushes. Something to do with the Tidal Lake and all that water I guess. When Sharon and I went back for an after dark photo, we were talking loudly and stomping as much as we could to scare them off.
What struck me most about the Jefferson Memorial was the opulence of it all. Such a huge monument and grounds dedicated to just one person. In London the Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square is only 12 feet tall, you could miss it if you don’t look carefully enough. Even the Victoria monument outside Buckingham Palace seems modest in comparison to the DC memorials.
If you’re going to DC be sure to make time for the Jefferson Memorial, it’s a superb attraction, spacious and peaceful; and it’s free. Take time to read the inscriptions and learn a little bit more about America’s third commander in chief.
JAMES FANTOM, 24, MUSICIAN, HALF WAY | Sharon Henry
Time-Laspe is a blog feature designed to capture segments of time, life and culture through stories told by the people of St Helena.
“My love for music started when I was going to middle school in America (aged 11). I made a friend who played guitar and I thought wouldn’t it be cool if we started a band, because at that age you’re just trying to be cool right? So I started playing drums. But I picked up the guitar too, and I could tell that, like, I had some sort of natural talent with music and I got better quicker than a lot of people did.
“It quickly became my entire life. I was practising in high school about six hours a day, pretty much as soon I got home to 10pm.
“I started studying Music Education at university but changed to Classical Guitar Performance. That’s playing Bach and Mozart and things in a classical style.”
Not Fun Anymore
“At that time I wanted to be a professional classical musician. I was getting to the point where I was paid quite a lot to play. The going rate for me was £100 an hour for fancy business events or weddings. I gave that up because I realised the world I was getting into was like, extremely competitive and there was so much pressure to be better than the next guy.
“Music started to become not fun anymore. It actually drove me crazy after a while because of the pressure. I thought, this is not why I started playing music so I kind of put it down after a while and started focussing on stuff I liked.
“I can play guitar, bass, drums, piano, saxophone, clarinet, flute, violin, viola, cello… I can pretty much pick up any instrument and play. They all kind of make sense now, I can figure out the mechanics.”
Sheet Music In My Head
“My first adult band was called ‘Spuddy and the Twang’ it was me and a friend, we only recorded two songs but it was pretty good. Then I joined a band in Philadelphia called ‘Ecce Shnak.’ They were in the process of releasing two albums that I recorded before I left America. It’s hard to explain their music it’s really strange, sort of rock, sort of opera-ish.
“I try to write my own music every so often but I have the typical problem when I can start something but can never really finish it. I cannot do lyrics; I don’t have a way with words so I just write the music.
“One of the biggest things I got out of university is my ear is now very good. Basically if I hear a tune I watch it going by in sheet music in my head. I hear every part, all the little things.
“It’s good but sometimes I wonder what music sounds like if you don’t know all that. Like if you go to school for a film and all of a sudden all your favourite films are ruined because you know too much about them.”
One In A Million
“I’m now in a band called Island Politics (on St Helena), there are three of us and I play bass. I’m not the strongest singer so I don’t really sing. Also it’s quite hard to play bass and sing than it is to play guitar and sing.
“It feels really good being in the band and playing music. I came here (to St Helena) not really expecting to do that so well and it’s really nice to play somewhere and have people actually enjoy it, be on the dance floor and stuff. That’s something I haven’t really experienced to this extent before. It’s really great to be a part of something that I feel is kind of big even though anywhere else it wouldn’t be as there [would be] a million bands. I like it.”
James was born in Botswana, grew up in America and moved to St Helena year and a half ago. His mum is St Helenian, his dad is English.
There’s a crazy little thing photographers tend to do; set the alarm for stupid o’clock to go bumbling out in the dark in search of perfect sunrise pictures, but in Hanoi, Vietnam, when we tried this we got an unusual surprise.
You Can Do Whatever You Want Here
The Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which means “Lake of the Restored Sword,” was our destination, a beautiful centre-piece of the city, ringed with overhanging trees and the Turtle Tower island out in the middle. We were guessing it would look special at dawn.
But as Sharon and I walked toward the lake soon after 5am we found we were not alone! Instead of the deserted streets we would normally encounter elsewhere, the whole lakeside was alive with movement. Hundreds of people. ‘Movement’ really is the key word here! Any kind you can think of. Dawn we discovered was exercise time in Hanoi.
It was the most amazing sight, hundreds of people out walking, stretching, twisting, flexing, tai chi-ing and just a very few running. Not many youngsters mind you. I estimate the age range went from about 30 up to the top end of senior citizens.
Some people just stood facing out to the lake shaking their arms and flicking their fingers in and out. A few held arms above their heads and leaned over, side to side, almost like fans at a concert keeping time to a ballad. Sit-ups, push-ups, squats and lunges were underway. Park benches, tree trunks and lamp posts all became improvised gym equipment.
Groups of maybe 6 to 15 were taking part in slow, synchronised martial arts style movements. There were dance groups (it seemed) lined up in rows two or three deep.
What struck us the most was the ‘anything goes’ exercises – spasmodic shoulder shaking, jerky leg kicks, flailing arms… anywhere else in the world we would probably have been laughing but around the lake that morning it was clearly normal, and how quickly we adapted to accepting that normal.
Open Air Gym Membership
There were two fitness types on display. The gentle, tai chi style, sustainable movers; and then the shakers, the serious fitness buffs, mostly men pumping iron with homemade concrete weight bars or pulling their whole body up on lamp posts for incredible stomach crunches!
We soon forgot about the sunrise (it was too smoggy anyway) and just wandered about the lake marvelling at the public keep fit effort.
And then it all came to an end quite suddenly. Everyone finished up and wandered off to go about their day.
We were to later discover a similar thing happens in the evenings, although on a smaller scale. A section of the lakeside is turned into an outdoor gym with men mostly, out pumping iron as families and lovebirds strolled on by.
Badminton is another popular participation activity in the city’s parks. One day we sat and watched a group of men taking part in informal, yet highly contested badminton matches. Very entertaining, and I think they enjoyed having an audience.
I found myself thinking of that incredible sight around Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake this week with World Health Day being celebrated every year on 7 April. The theme for 2017 is, ‘Depression: Let’s Talk.’
Personally, I’ve always found exercise to be a great way to keep spirits high. It doesn’t have to be high energy, high impact stuff (or 5am starts); just going for a short walk will do it. Taking the camera makes it even more enjoyable.
The British NHS website advice on depression and mental health, suggests exercise can be a big help.
“Any type of exercise is useful, as long as it suits you and you do enough of it,” says Dr Alan Cohen, a GP with a special interest in mental health. “Exercise should be something you enjoy; otherwise, it will be hard to find the motivation to do it regularly.”
Increasingly many of us seem to require high-tech equipment or fancy designer sports outfits to motivate us into staying active, but in Hanoi, keeping fit is a culture thing and it works by making use of the space you’re in.
A little inspiration perhaps for World Health Day.
I’m sure St Helena must have been blown a few inches north; it’s been so blustery today! Swelly seas and gale force winds; that’s us at the moment.
The blowy conditions I’m guessing was the reason for the huge, squiggly cloud that loitered over the South West corner of the island today, impervious to the wind it hung there for nearly two hours, showing off in the changing sunset light.
Don’t Drop The Fish
It was certainly a big bonus on our mini-hike. We were inside all day working on different projects and (because of the wind) had to drag ourselves outdoors for the sake of a new Project 365 photo. Day 95 was calling.
We decided to hike along the Munden’s ridge top, one of our favourite scenic excursions, a place full of happy memories from the days when our dog, Jasper, was still with us.
A few minutes into the walk we watched in fascination at a fairy tern with a fish in its beak, attempting to fly up the valley and being pummelled by the wind. The poor bird was flapping away but incredibly it was being blown backwards by the powerful gusts. It did well to hang on to the fish!
As we were pushed along the pathway ourselves Sharon joked, at least we won’t get hit by any falling trees being where we were.
Off to our left, rising up above Half Tree Hollow a strange cloud was beginning to form; like rapid pencil scribbles, a swirly shaped thing. It stood out against a clear blue sky. Weirdly, while the lower level clouds were moving swiftly along in the wind, the scribbled cotton ball was just sitting there.
By the time we reached the end of the mile long ridge, overlooking James Bay, the cloud had stretched upwards into a taller column, seemingly hovering over Half Tree Hollow despite the strong winds.
Introducing The Cumuloticular
As the daylight softened and transformed into a gorgeous Atlantic sunset we got caught up in the natural spectacle above us, taking picture after picture, unable to tear ourselves away.
Finally, with darkness falling we hustled back up the ridge, street lamps already on in Jamestown below us on one side and Rupert’s Valley on the other.
Driving home in near darkness we could still just make out the shape of the cloud and had to stop for one last photo from Button Up Corner with the backdrop of High Knoll Fort. An ISO 4000 and aperture f2.8 setting was needed on the camera, it was that dark.
I’ve said it many times already – shooting a Project 365 has done wonders for our photography in so many ways. This photo-a-day quest can occasionally be a pain but more times than not it’s full of these wonderful surprises.
So what was that mysterious cloud? I’ve had a quick scoot online but can’t nail it down exactly. It seems to be a cross between a lenticular and a cumulonimbus cloud. Someone will tell me soon enough, but for now I’ll name it a, Cumuloticular!
A tropical, glamorous swimsuit shoot was always on the cards for our e-magazine, Breeze 3, unfortunately sunshine and clear skies have little respect for well planned projects, even when a beautiful model like Gemma Lawrence is involved.
Behind the scenes video from the Breeze 3 photo shoot:
Superheros Wear Bikinis
Grey, dreary days forced us to play the, ‘on again, off again’ game until the deadline to publish Breeze 3 was almost upon us, and eventually we reached the ‘now or never’ moment – rain, sun or snow, we were going to shoot and get it done, regardless. I packed strobes just in case.
It was a Wednesday afternoon, Gemma had just finished work and after weeks of gloom the Jamestown harbour was thankfully a brilliant blue; sea and sky.
We parked in the shade of double-stacked shipping containers so Sharon could do Gemma’s make-up, all the while I paced nervously around the car, watching the weather and trying not to keep asking, “how much longer, girls?”
We were inspired to use the anchorage for this shoot after seeing a TV show on the sports channel where a swimsuit line was being shot in exotic locations using old fishing boats.
Permissions were easy to obtain. A few of the boat owners joked they might have to come out to ‘help,’ curious no doubt to see just what exactly we were up to.
The ferry picked us up at the wharf steps in somewhat choppy sea conditions. But no reason to panic, Johnny Herne, the ferry driver was like a Faroese pilot in wind shear – we were in safe hands.
First stop, a yellow fishing catamaran, ‘Ocean Gypsy’ operated by fishermen, Henry and Cookin’s. The boat had just finished ‘dry-dock’ maintenance which included being painted so was very clean. It was also surprisingly very stable.
The light was pure gold, couldn’t have asked for better. Like a superhero shedding a dowdy daytime disguise, Gemma was suddenly transformed, looking incredible in a blue patterned bikini. We were soon down to business, clicking through frame after frame, conscious of not wasting the light.
First Class At Sea
Second look was a surprise – Johnny was back to pick us up and had arranged with a visiting yacht for us to shoot on board. Amadou II was a 20m, French made, luxury yacht visiting St Helena for a few days, a very posh number indeed. Chris Bull and Mike were understandably intrigued, greeting us at the top of the ladder before giving us the freedom of the upper deck to shoot. It was an unbelievable bonus. The boat was gorgeous and Gemma, now wearing a black all-in-one swimsuit, looked right at home draping herself across the sleek lines of Amadou II.
Partway through Mike came out to take a few pictures of his own. We exchanged email addresses, posed for selfies and promised to send them a copy of the new Breeze magazine.
The sun was now dipping lower and the light was fading. Gemma changed into a pink bikini and we started ‘working’ the tour boat. For half of these shots we used the natural sunlight; for the other half we fired up a single strobe mounted on a boom. I do love the strobe effect.
On any shoot the conversation bounces from one topic to the other, everything and anything it seems and always plenty of laughs. Sharon decided to record a little quick-fire Q&A session with Gemma as part of our shoot. Just for fun, nothing serious.
Guilty Pleasure?Anything Sweet!
Favorite Quote/Saying?After the Storm comes the Rainbow.
Biggest lesson you’ve learnt?Life is too short to waste worrying on things you should have done or could have done better.
Worst chat up Line?“Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere…Oh, yeah, you look like my future wife!”
Biggest pet peeve?When drivers don’t use their indicators when turning!!!
Have you been told you look like someone famous?Not that I can remember.
Favorite joke?Is Google a man or a woman? A woman, because it doesn’t let you finish a sentence before making a suggestion!
The shoot was wrapped at 6.30pm. Two hours, start to finish. Gemma was starting to shiver; the sun had dipped below the horizon.
We jumped back in the ferry one last time knowing we had been truly blessed with the light. It was going to be a superb cover for Breeze 3 as well as a great spread inside the magazine.
After all our stress, then relief of finally choosing a day with perfect, sunny weather, back on the wharf steps we met a large group of scuba divers preparing to go out on a night dive! What a wonderful world.
They say laughter is the best medicine and we’ve had a few a good doses during our travels, dispensed in the form of funny street signage and other peculiarities at different places we’ve visited. Some are whacky and obviously intended to crack a smile while others we guess are innocently unintentional.
So, if you don’t find the funny in some prankster swapping your sugar for salt on this April Fool’s Day scroll through this blog post for a dose of the good stuff. These are not April Fool’s jokes but actual signs displayed to inform the general public – however, they do make comical viewing.
Here are 20 signs we’ve happened upon that made us do a double take, including a ‘bemusement’ photographed right here on St Helena.
Hope these signs have provided a healthy dose of medicine, which is your favourite?
THROUGH THE VALLEY OF FIRE AND DONKEY POOP | Darrin Henry
Thompson’s Valley Post Box walk has somehow eluded us until now, although, making our first venture down the steep, muddy trail in the rain today is probably not our wisest hiking decision.
Just A Walk In The Woods
We committed to this excursion early this morning when dawn broke with gorgeous warm rays of sunlight. After the recent days of continuous rain, ever the optimists, we fell for the promise of a beautiful break in weather that often follows the storm.
Even as we set off walking in the fog and drizzle wrapping itself around the Blue Hill district again, we remain hopeful the weather gods will come good – but I can’t shake that niggling feeling this is foolish optimism.
The Thompson’s Valley Post Box trail begins from the turning/parking area, not far past Blue Hill shop, almost at the base of High Hill, another Post Box hike.
Rain aside, we are in high spirits – being outdoors, boots on your feet and backpack over your shoulders will do that to you; and a Yorkie bar for later!
The first part of the walk descends through the woods. Thick cedar and pine trees overhead with a carpet of pine needles underfoot. All very gentle so far.
About 100m down the hill at a sign post and information board, the route veers left, away from the Land Rover track, and narrows to a footpath. Soon afterwards there’s an old house on the right – we resist the temptation to head that way, this is not the trail, we continue straight ahead, down through the trees.
You Have To Know How To Fall
The path soon becomes noticeably steeper and zig zags its way to the right, skirting below an old house, then levels out as we follow the contour of the valley, weaving between bright green aloes and wild coffee bushes. There’s a short section where the narrow path runs unsettlingly near the top of a steep (almost sheer) drop into the valley below on the left. Not terrible, but plenty of reason to tread carefully. Especially when it’s wet.
After about 25 mins we reach a small, flattened ridge top with a large sugar cube shaped boulder on our left, overlooking the valley. This is a good reference point, and marks perhaps a little over a quarter of the map distance covered. We go out to the boulder but realise this is taking us off the path; the direction of onward travel is to keep the same line as before. We don’t see any of the wooden arrows that have been placed on many of the other post box walks, which is not too much of problem as the trail, so far, is pretty obvious.
Leaving the boulder ridge, the trail continues gently down the side of the valley, the foliage suddenly turns lush and dense with ebony bushes, eucalyptus trees, cactus, lantana (wild current) and aloes. The area to the right, stretching up the hillside is called Ebony Plain.
I slip and fall on my backside. Sharon can’t actually help as she’s laughing so much at my ‘comical’ attempts to keep my balance. I’m sure this must happen to Bear Grylls but those bits get edited out!
As I Walk Through The Valley Of Fire
The hundreds of bushes we’re walking past are actually dwarf ebony and a hybrid, the rebony, a result of the ebony and redwood cross-pollination. Looking back, High Hill towers above us, the top looking mystical, shrouded in wispy cloud.
After 2-300m of lush greenery (and my second fall) the route then descends again, gently down into another small plateau as the landscape undergoes a sudden transformation to something I’ve never seen on St Helena before. We find ourselves walking through an eerily scorched scene; circular patches of blackened earth. There are the charred skeletons of leafless bushes and tufts of burnt grass that look more like spiky sea urchins.
We are walking through the location of a hillside fire from five months ago (October 2016). A charred burning smell is still noticeable in the air. Even though recent rains have triggered new growth of grass the area still has a weird wasteland look to it.
Another thing I should mention, scattered along the pathway throughout the walk, is fresh donkey droppings. Feral donkeys still roam freely in this part of the island; a Blue Hill resident told me this week he saw a group of 12 donkeys recently near Horse Pasture, not far from here. Despite all the poop we haven’t seen any animals.
Somewhere Under The Rainbow
Another 2-300m on from the ‘valley of fire’ the plateau comes to an end, descending once again along the spinal edge of a ridge. Now we get our first look at the mouth of Thompson’s Valley way below us, set at the bottom of the deep V shape of the hillsides. At the top of that V, at the end of the ridge we are on, is an old ruin; a fortified, stone Martello tower.
Suddenly a few, brief bursts of sunshine project a brilliant rainbow over the valley in front of us. It’s breath-taking. You can’t plan for moments like this, when nature just springs something awesome on you without warning, you just have to appreciate the moment. We’re shooting with the waterproof Panasonic Lumix compact – I’m tempted to get the DSLR out of the bag but the light drizzle of rain is still with us. Oh well.
Small cairns of rocks that mark the St Helena walking trails are really helpful, especially when you’re not familiar with the route. I try to add a single rock to each pile we pass.
Because of the wet conditions I estimate we’ve taken twice as long to get down to the old guard tower than normal.
The old tower is pretty much built right on the edge of the 100m cliff. It’s still strange to think that at one time men were living at these little out-posts. It must have been difficult staying alert day after day, just scanning the horizon for approaching ships. Further down the hillside, about 50m, we spot a semi-circular shaped battery platform, constructed into steep hillside. A lonely, stubby looking cannon is still there, rusting away as it continues to monitor the horizon. We find the path down to visit this cannon but the last part of the walkway has crumbled away and it’s a bit of a scramble to reach the gun.
Then We Hit Rock Bottom
Anyway, that was a diversion. We double back to the trail marker that signals the final, very steep descent into Thompson’s Valley. This is the trickiest part of the entire hike. The little track is clear to follow until we get half way down, when it kind of just disappears. Because of the wet, slippery conditions we complete the final drop to the valley floor with great care (ie, very slowly), scooching down on our backsides most of the way.
The post box is situated on a beach of over-sized pebbles, rubbed smooth by the endless pounding of the sea.
I realise anyone reading for the first time about these St Helena ‘post box’ walks might be looking at the photos expecting to see an actual ‘box’ shape. Sorry, but the reality in most cases is a length of plastic tubing sticking out of the ground. ‘Post box’ is more in reference to the passing of messages between visitors via the log book.
The Thompson’s Valley book is a good indication of how difficult this walk is – only 3 different visits in the last 3 months. In fact only 17 recorded in the whole of 2016. In contrast, a more accessible hike such as Diana’s Peak can easily register three or four groups per day on weekends. An unexpected delight inside the post box is a folded watercolour of a tent, painted and left by the previous visitors who camped here overnight.
The appropriately named, Thompson Valley Island, feels like it’s within touching distance out in the bay. A steady, powerful stream of water is pouring down the valley and running out to sea. The sound of the gushing water adds to the noisy, peacefulness of the beach. We can even see a local fishing boat, bobbing around just a bit out past the island.
Not For Girls
I have to say, Thompson’s Valley has been a really pleasant surprise. The landscape is far more scenic than I had thought and the multiple changes of vegetation further up made it all the more interesting. Lower down, closer to the coastline, the rugged expanse of the hillsides is almost intimidating. We took time to sit a few times and just gaze around, absorbing it all. Even the drizzle and the slippy conditions added a bit of fun to the whole experience.
Although not overly difficult, I would rate this excursion in the category of ‘experienced hikers only.’ It’s still a fair old trek with some tricky terrain, definitely not one to be taken lightly. In dry conditions I would allow at least 4 and half hours for the complete round trip.
Cheese sandwiches, a banana each and of course that Yorkie bar, and we’re all fuelled up for the return trip. It’s all uphill from here.