THE PLACE TO RELAX | Darrin Henry
Sandy Bay is a bit of a show off among the St Helena districts when it comes to landscape, but you can hardly blame it once you see the place – it really is stunning.
Beautiful, charming scenery across the island of St Helena is a common feature, but the south side of this spike on the mid-Atlantic ridge is surely the showpiece.
From the moment the car crests the legendary (among Saints) ‘Sandy Bay Ridges,’ the countryside on display below takes our breath away. A spectacular, natural amphitheatre, set against flax covered slopes on the inland side all sweeping dramatically downward to the tiny, peaceful settlement dotted about the valley.
Flax Industry On St Helena
The sea of New Zealand flax is one of my earliest childhood memories of St Helena and, for me, the defining feature of Sandy Bay. From 1907 – 1966 the flax industry on St Helena thrived with up to nine mills at one stage producing the fibre that was exported to England and South Africa. Then enforced redundancy hit in the late 1960s as global manufacturing switched to cheaper synthetic fibre. Fifty years on the wild growing flax still dominates the island’s central slopes.
Ahead, on the distant coastal perimeter of Sandy Bay, the greenery gives way to hues of brown and red where the barren volcanic ridges meet the deep blue Atlantic Ocean. It’s a gorgeous panoramic that I will never tire of.
The road down the Ridges twists and turns through the spidery flax fingers. The picture perfect scenery pops into view through occasional breaks in the flax, very tempting for photography.
The SHAPE of Sandy Bay
Below the flax line the vegetation turns dense and tropical with gingers, yams and banana trees. The air is cool and fresh. There’s a mystical feel to the place, walking in Sandy Bay, enhanced by the sounds of hidden streams beneath the foliage, thickets of ginger bushes and clusters of damp bamboo stalks huddled around the turns in the road. Warm air blowing in off the sea mixes with the cooler mountain air here, often generating foggy and low lying cloudy conditions over the peaks and Sandy Bay. But when it’s clear, like it is today, it’s spectacular.
We’re now down in the central hub of the district where we find the main concentration of homes although even these are sprinkled around the hillsides. The only flat terrain are the excavated plots for building sites. Rising up dramatically behind us are the mountainous central peaks, including the highest point on St Helena, Diana’s Peak. Every now and again you can’t help but stop and gaze around at the magnificence of it all.
The old Sandy Bay school house is now the SHAPE centre, providing employment, training and support for vulnerable and disabled adults across the island. Other small, outlying district schools, such as this one, have closed as the island’s population has declined since the turn of the century. The school is not the only casualty of this change.
Patsy Williams moved to Sandy Bay 36 years ago after she got married. Patsy told us, “One of the biggest changes in Sandy Bay has been the closure of the farm [Bamboo Hedge].” Once a plentiful source of fresh produce in the district, now only the piggery remains in operation. Patsy has been working in Thorpe’s Grocery Shop in Sandy Bay for the last eight years. The best thing about Sandy Bay “is the quiet, the beach and the views.” And the worst thing? “The mud!”
Meet The Saints Of Sandy Bay
Across the valley from Thorpe’s shop is St Peter’s church, although so well camouflaged is the building by the trees it is easy to miss, especially with the distracting view in the opposite direction. The church itself is incorporated into a two storey house and is surrounded by fruit trees – dates, loquats and guavas all crying out to be picked.
We find Bamboo Hedge Farm a little further along the road. The piggery is indeed still in operation and turns noisy when the animals see us approaching. This was previously one of the Sandy Bay flax mills.
Campbell Buckley, a Sandy Bay resident is out with his machete to tackle the invasive white weed that is putting down roots in one of his fields. Campbell’s story is a familiar one. He grew up in Sandy Bay, emigrated to the UK where he lived and worked for 38 years, before returning home eight years ago to retire. He now enjoys a gentle routine driving the SHAPE bus for few hours each morning and chores such as today’s white weed offensive.
“Not much has changed in Sandy Bay, just more houses, that’s the main thing,” Campbell tells us. Knowing we’re exploring the district he suggests Lemon Grove right at the bottom of the valley may have been home to Fernando Lopez, the first resident on St Helena.
Jesus Lives In Sandy Bay
Sandy Bay can appear very quiet and deserted if you’re driving through. The island’s electoral register (Feb 2016) indicates the population of Sandy Bay accounts for just 6% of everyone listed. That would work out to around 250 people living in the district. But take a walk or sit and rest for a while and you will soon meet some interesting characters.
Raymond Isaac is another Sandy Bay original; in fact one of his nicknames is “Sandy Bay,” the other is “Jesus.” His long beard and authentic ‘mountain man’ look makes him very popular with tourists who regularly request to have their photos taken with him. “A whole busload once stopped and asked to take pictures with me!” chuckles Raymond. “I’ve been growing my beard since September 1975. Before that I’ve only taken a full shave about 11 or 12 times.”
Raymond spent many years working as a rigger for the BBC on Ascension Island. He returned home 23 years ago and now, at age 62, tends one of the banana plantations in Sandy Bay.
Rex Thomas also has a great story. He left St Helena in 70s along with 34 other Saints and spent 15 years working on Union Castle ships. He told us tales of his amazing travels: Japan, Tasmania, Alaska, South and North America to name a few. His favourite place was the “prairies” around Philadelphia in the USA. Rex also spent time working on the old RMS St Helena (pre 1990) and on the Falkland Islands.
St Helena Coffee
We stroll on past Colin’s Bar, a popular if distant get-a-way for islanders looking to enjoy a drink with a different view.
Around the next bend is one of the coffee plantations in Sandy Bay clinging to the side of the slope. This particular coffee plantation in Sandy Bay is owned and managed by Solomon and Company. St Helena coffee enjoys prestigious status on the world market, something to do with the climate and soil conditions I believe.
The diversity of flora throughout Sandy Bay is remarkable. Walking along the road you soon spot all types of fruit dangling on long limbs out over the banks, daring you to try reach them. Oranges, locquats, plums, bananas, medlems, guavas, and wild raspberries are the main ones depending on the time of year.
Sandy Bay Baptist Chapel
The Sandy Bay Baptist Chapel, a little church set against the towering column of Lot, signals another change in landscape. We are much lower down now and the greenery here changes rapidly to a more dry and dusty terrain.
Below the chapel the route turns quite precarious, as the road becomes steeper, narrower and tighter in the hairpins with unsettling drop-offs into the valley. But once down this last stretch you find yourself in the bottom of the Sandy Bay valley.
Down here is one of the most remote places to live on St Helena. Streams that originate on the peaks above, converge here, running all the way down to the sea. The tell tale line of green runs through valley, marking the flow of water.
And finally to Sandy Bay Beach with its black sand nestled between towering cliffs on either side. It’s not suitable for swimming here but the area is popular with locals for picnics and fishing trips and there are historic fortifications that can be explored. The Lot’s Wife’s Ponds Post Box walk also begins from here.
Time to head back up the hill!