Getting High Before The Sun Comes Up
GREAT STONE TOP Post Box | Darrin Henry Turns out I suffer from acrophobia; a fear of heights. Not vertigo, as I had previously believed. Unfortunately, it’s the highest elevation that tends to offer the best vantage points for landscape photography, which had brought us to the 494m Great Stone Top; the top of yet another cliff, trying to hold the camera steady, with knees (mine) quivering. This coastal post box walk measures about two crow flying miles to the south east corner of the island after starting from the eucalyptus forest of Bellstone, in the Levelwood district. We parked the car and started walking a few minutes before 6am. Cloud cover had increased significantly since checking the skies at 4.30am, but we gambled it would clear again. We were hoping for a good view and picture of the new airport under construction, and Great Stone Top promised a good angle for this and other landscapes.
Generally, this walk is pretty easy; the outward journey anyway. It’s downhill to start with then level-ish for the long mid section. There are ‘ringing’ stones lying along the pathway, or trachyandesite to use its correct geological name. The sudden ascent at the end of the walk takes some puff, as the coastal hill rises up suddenly. The trick we found were regular ‘catch your breath’ stops. At the top, the last 40m or so, the path runs right near the edge of the cliff. Spectacular views if you have a head for heights. Exactly 1 hour 18 mins after leaving the car, we were at the post box.
Cloud still blanketed the sky, but it’s a fantastic view down to the airport site on Prosperous Bay Plain, so we settled in to wait a bit for brighter skies. It was mesmerising watching the fairy terns and red billed tropic birds, tracing large, lazy circles below us as they hung effortlessly on the updraft of air coming off the cliffs. Even further below us a deep green thicket of wild mango bushes lined the narrow bed of Sharks Valley, snaking its way from below Levelwood in the distance, all the way down to the coast, out of sight below us. (As I understand it, sharks are rare around St Helena, so not sure how the name Sharks Valley came about). Across a bay, a ridge and a valley, a mile and a half away, the airport site finally resembled an airport. For more than two years it had been little more than a red tinted, lunar landscape, mutilated by the excavators and heavy earth moving equipment that scurried around 24 hours a day levelling the area. Filling the chasm that was ‘Dry Gut’ valley, had finally been completed, and now the tightly compacted layers of stone rose neatly out of the randomness, with the new runway perched precisely on top. Beeping of reversing trucks and the drone of a distant generator made its way across to us. Otherwise the only sound was the surf on the rocks 494m below.
Waiting (hoping) for the clouds to clear, we passed the time reading and laughing at the humorous comments in the post box visitors’ book:
1 April 2013 – Hungry, hung-over and happy! Amazing views and the spectre of an awesome night at Donny’s. Happy Fools Day! Glen Westmore & James McCabe. (no date) – Paul Williams, Post Box Supervisor. My daughter Megan moaned all the way up. I expect the same all the way down. She is only 15. Kids are so unfit. (no date) – Martin Warte, seasoned walker. Is it really necessary to put people’s lives at risk by placing yet another post box in a dangerous position? Come on guys! Isn’t it enought to have climbed the peak?
Two lots of walkers had been here on New Year’s Day 2014. Sheila & Chris Hillman from Blue Hill, and Graham and Sandra Sim & Cassey. People from Kosovo, South Africa and Sweden had written in the book. We scribbled our own message; always a pressure moment that, trying to come up with something original. I bet most walkers had spent many minutes pondering their entry. The effort to reach the post box and the amazing views seem to demand something more profound than we can manage. Oh well, “good walk, great views,” it is then!
Finally, more than 2 hours later, after a few false starts, the cloud burned away enough for some reasonable photos. It’s always a challenge to capture the scale of a landscape in a single picture. The incredible height and ruggedness of the cliffs in front of us, condensed into the three inch display on the back of the camera. Ten minutes later all the pictures were done. Having lugged the telephoto lens up it wasn’t needed; we were close enough to the airport site that the 24-70mm filled the frame as required.
It was nearly 10am by the time we started the walk back; the sun was out and it was hot. Colourful marl gouges in the hillsides are my favourite landscape features around St Helena. About the halfway point on this walk there is one such spot, looking up toward Levelwood. The red, blue and brown earthy tones contrast spectacularly with white chalk like seams. It had been dull on the way out, but these marls were lit up on our return journey. My limited research has suggested these hues are created by deposits of clay and silt, rich in lime. This proved too tempting a photography excursion, despite our desire to get out of the increasing heat. Fifteen minutes of sliding around in the soft ridges later, we were homeward bound once more.
Dragging ourselves up the long hill back to the car, we met a group of four walkers just starting out on the same route. Our frazzled appearance from the heat didn’t deter them, however, and after a quick chat they headed off into the shimmering haze. (We later found out they had completed the walk and enjoyed it, but one or two were a bit sore from the sun). Nearly five hours after setting off, we arrived back at the car and the cooling shade of the Levelwood eucalyptus trees. A final obligation; to ‘ring’ the Bell Stone. Lying on a slight incline, like a huge turtle shell, the trachyandesite stone has become a tourist attraction, even having a local wine named after it. The stone gives off a sonorous sound when struck. It’s a surprisingly rich ringing noise, not at all what you would expect from a large stone. Upon hearing it for the first time you tend to do a double take, almost to check it’s not a lump of metal being struck. Like many before us, the ringing ‘bell’ signalled the end of another St Helena post box walk.
Resource references: St Helena: One Man’s Island by Ian Baker – Bell Stone detail