WALKING THE CLIFFTOP TRAIL | Darrin Henry
You can’t fail to notice St Helena’s distinctive pyramid-like shape of Sugar Loaf, on the far left of the island profile as you approach Jamestown from the sea. Even viewed from inland it’s a reliable reference point, like the top of a chess piece quietly hiding in plain sight on the north-east corner of the island.
Taking The Top Down
Of course, on the top of this landmark is a post box, one of 21 such outdoor adventure trails on St Helena. Just in case you don’t know, post boxes are basically just a stamp and log book in a weather-proof container at the destination of the trail. Walkers log their names, dates and a few thoughts about the experience. The stamps are unique to each box and a great souvenir so take a notepad.
Hiking the Sugar Loaf post box you have two approach options – ‘top down’ or ‘side and up.’
The ‘side and up’ route begins in Rupert’s Valley, cuts along the coastline to Bank’s Battery, then up Bank’s valley, across to the base of the Loaf followed by the short climb up the ‘pyramid.’ Return the same way.
The ‘top down,’ one-way route, is our preferred choice and the one we are doing today. It requires a little planning with transportation, but there’s more scenic bang for your buck this way and it’s a tiny bit easier on the joints.
Two Post Boxes In One Day
It’s three days after Christmas. Parking on Deadwood Plain at 8.20am, near the wind turbines, we set off in a chilly breeze to begin working off the mince pies and turkey.
Up the Land Rover track we go, all the way to the top (700m) of Flagstaff, another post box walk. After a quick peek over to The Longwood Barn and down into the bay below (always a fantastic view) we log our names in the post box book before beginning the descent.
The official Sugar Loaf trail was signposted further back along the route we’ve just come up, but we are taking a short cut, directly down from Flagstaff, picking up the marked path later. Although we have done this easily before, a lot of furze bushes, with their vicious spikes, have sprouted on the steep slope in the intervening years. There’s a brief moment of panic, if we can’t get through it means climbing the steep, powdery slope back to the top of Flagstaff.
Luckily, on this occasion we are able to skirt around the furze and pick our way through the bushes. But the furze growth is quite thick so I would not recommend anyone taking this route in future. Follow the official Sugar Loaf path.
All Along The Fortress
A short distance later, having descended about 200m, we reconnect with the official marked trail. From here on it is a simple walk, right along the spine of the ridge, the cliff falls away on our right to the dull, blue ocean below. The gentle, rolling earth marls are on the left, scattered with clumps of grass, cactus bushes and other sparse vegetation that thins the further the valley stretches down to the sea.
Sugar Loaf, our destination, is clearly visible in the distance throughout. It’s all gentle downhill.
We pause regularly to gaze back up at the towering headland of Flagstaff and the dark, fiercely scarred cliffs all around the bay and The Barn on the far side. St Helena is often described as a fortress by those approaching from the sea, and from here you can see why.
Below us the tiny fluffs of white wave tops fade in and out of view, tricking our eyes into thinking it must be a whale breaking the surface. But after a few minutes staring we realise it’s not.
Not many seabirds around on this pathway. Either they are out to sea but more I suspect the windy and exposed conditions put them off nesting on the cliffs below us.
The soil underfoot is gravelly soft, but stable and not too dusty, not slippery; easy on the knees type of soft. Yep, that’s my first thought now-a-days!
We’ve picked an overcast day it seems. I thought the cloud might break by mid-morning considering it’s late December, but no such luck. Good walking weather, not ideal for photos but can’t have everything.
The View From The Top Of Sugar Loaf
Two hours since leaving the car, we’ve reached the base of Sugar Loaf and now the upward climb. It feels quite easy and short after all the downhill and after a few minutes on the narrow, winding pathway, we’re at the summit. The top of Sugar Loaf at 272m, according to the ‘Post Box Walks of St Helena’ book.
This is where my knees feel a little wobbly. Don’t attempt Sugar Loaf post box walk if you suffer from acrophobia (a fear of heights). It feels a little precarious, like we’re stuck on a little platform at the top of a huge scaffolding stack. I stay well central, unable to go near or peer over the coastal edge. I know it’s not a completely vertical drop but it feels like it.
From the top of Sugar Loaf the view opens up looking west along the coast; the boats on the anchorage off Jamestown in the distance dotted on the sea, the long thin sliver of Half Tree Hollow tilting down in a straight line from the top of Ladder Hill and the new, bright core lock sea defences lining the new jetty in Rupert’s Bay.
Breaking The Bank
A cheese sandwich, an orange Club chocolate and a swig of water tops up the energy levels and off we go again, back down the side of Sugar Loaf and then taking the right fork, striking out across the valley, aiming for the saddle of the ridge on the other side.
Over this saddle we’re now into the main Banks valley and following the pathway down to the old fortifications below. Sharon and I tell our two walking buddies about the time we did a fashion/swimsuit photoshoot at Bank’s. They don’t seem too impressed by our tales of lugging the heavy gear all this way.
As we’ve come this far we take a short excursion to explore the old Bank’s battlements built into the cliff sides that reach out to the far eastern side. I never fail to be amazed by the nerve of engineers to build on such impossible sites. I shudder to think of the accidents that must surely have happened during the construction years.
At the far end, as far as we can go, there’s a solar powered beacon light; a navigational aid for approaching ships and yachts. This is the corner of the island, where South East trade winds meet the sheltered lee of the island. I recall bouncing around in the little race boat a couple years back just off this point, meeting new arrivals in the Governor’s Cup Yacht Race 2014.
Guess What We Did Today
Ok, homeward we go, picking up the Banks trail that leads around the side of the hill. I say hill, but it’s as steep a slope as you can get without being a full on cliff. Comfortable walking but great care needs to be taken as the drop off to our right, down to the sea, is quite severe.
The path brings us round into Rupert’s Valley. Normally this would be the start/stop point for Bank’s Battery walk, near the old stone built Fisheries office. But we still have one last stretch to do.
Up the other side of Rupert’s Valley we go, picking up the pathway that leads around to Munden’s fortifications, looking down on Jamestown. It’s been a long hike, four and half hours by the time we finally make it into town and flop ourselves onto the benches outside the Canister building in Jamestown.
Normal people are strolling by with their shopping bags and I feel like shouting to them, “hey, we’ve just walked down from Deadwood Plain via Sugar Loaf.” But that would just be weird, eh!
Oh, well, time to get our lift back up to fetch the car from Deadwood. It’s the holiday season and we have a fish fry to go to this afternoon.
Can’t wait for the first person to ask what I’ve been up to today!