THROUGH THE VALLEY OF FIRE AND DONKEY POOP | Darrin Henry
Thompson’s Valley Post Box has somehow eluded us until now, even though we are out walking on St Helena all the time, 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 when out walking 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 trails are really helpful when walking on St Helena, 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.
Walking on St Helena To Find The Tube
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.
‘A Description of the Post Box Walks of St Helena’ by the St Helena National Conservation Group