DIANA’S PEAK POST BOX WALK | Darrin Henry
Diana’s Peak, the endemic rich pinnacle of St Helena at 823m is THE post box walk to go on the top of anyone’s island activity sheet.
Stunning 360 degree panoramic views, an easy to moderate level of difficulty and an opportunity to walk through one of the most special eco-systems – in the world, no less – how could you not?
Even when the peaks are shrouded in mist it’s still a special experience; how many people get to walk through a working cloud forest?
The Three Point Plan
Diana’s Peak National Park has three main central peaks – Mount Actaeon to the south-east, Diana’s Peak in the middle and Cuckold’s Point to the north-west. The Norfolk pine trees on top of Actaeon and Cuckold’s are hard to miss. The three peaks are the showpieces of St Helena’s 700 acre (291 hectares), national park, slightly bigger than a square mile. (St Helena itself is only 47 square miles in size.)
In this post we’re concentrating on the walking trails to the highest point on St Helena only. But, for more about the eco-system on the Peaks and the huge conservation efforts to restore the natural endemic habitat, have a read of this blog from earlier.
The Black Gate Trail
There are two main hiking trails for the day-tripper. Other trails exist but have been closed, mostly for conservation or safety concerns.
Sharon and I live near Black Gate, the start point of one of the main trails so it is, unsurprisingly, the one we use the most. Black Gate is found about a kilometre past Hutt’s Gate and St Matthew’s church, on the road towards Levelwood. There’s space to park on the side of the road.
The start of the trail is an easy ascent on a Land Rover track, up through pasture land.
Depending on your fitness level, it takes about 15-25 mins to reach two wooden huts with the three peaks looming up behind them. The lower hut is an endemic plant nursery where the Peaks Conservation team prepare new seedlings. A few metres up the slope is the worker’s tool shed/rest hut.
The trail splits here at the nursery, after going through a gate – straight ahead leads off to the right in a gentle, diagonal climb around the side of the peaks towards Cuckold’s Point. For the purposes of the blog, don’t take this route.
But turn left, go up to the second hut, then follow the trail that goes right past it, heading towards Mount Actaeon, the left-most peak from here.
The Long-Fingered Villain Of The Peaks
Open fields are now left behind and the path narrows, following the contour along the steep mountainside. If it’s been wet recently then you can expect to get a bit of mud on your boots. Up ahead, zig-zagging through the lush foliage you will see wooden staircases, clearly marking the route. It’s all very easy to follow.
Large jellico endemic plants (big sister to the ‘dwarf jellico’) line the sides of the chunky wooden stairways. Apparently back in the 19th century people would eat the raw stems of the plant.
Don’t forget to look back every now and again as the scenery opens up behind you and the views change quickly as you climb.
Vegetation changes too as you go higher and approach Mount Actaeon. On the fluttering flax leaves, look out for the endemic blushing snail. The New Zealand flax was, of course, introduced to St Helena and is not one of the endemic plants.
Today the flax is a threat to the endemic habitat and is being painstakingly removed from the Peaks. But this long-fingered plant wasn’t always the villain. Just 100 years ago it was cultivated, processed and the fibre exported as raw material to make rope and twine products. From 1907 to 1966 the island’s flax industry was a success. The business model collapsed as synthetic string took over.
Up Close With St Helena’s Endemics
Black cabbage, the tallest of the endemic trees, can be seen on the upper slopes, protruding out from the blanket of green.
Closing in on the summit the giant endemic tree ferns begin to appear. In the final stages of the ascent, the stairway leads right underneath the shady canopy.
Approximately 20 – 30mins after leaving the hut, you should pop out from under the tree fern canopy and onto the top of the ridge. The views of Sandy Bay on the other side of the island are now visible for the first time. Turn left and follow the path for two minutes, right past the tall Norfolk pine, to reach the top of Mount Actaeon.
The Views From Mount Actaeon
Looking west from the top of Mount Actaeon, the tree fern covered ridge scoops across to Diana’s Peak and then on to another Norfolk Pine on top of Cuckold’s Point.
In the opposite direction (east) flax covered slopes lead down to Levelwood and Rock Rose to the left and Green Hill to the right. Great Stone Top and the airport out on Prosperous Bay Plain can be seen from here. On a clear day the views are fantastic.
Sandy Bay with its lush green upper slopes contrasting with the volcanic reds and browns on the coast, is way below on the southern side. The buildings scattered across the valleys are tiny from up here, like little houses and hotels on a Monopoly board.
Mount Actaeon is a good rest stop after the ascent from Black Gate. From here return back down the trail, but this time stay on the pathway that follows the apex of the ridge. The hike across to Diana’s Peak takes around 15 – 25 minutes, although, if like us you’re taking a lot of pictures, then add on extra time.
Beautiful, But Not Welcome Here
There are more stairs and boardwalks that have been installed over the last year or so. These have made the paths a lot more accessible to more people, especially when it’s wet underfoot.
Look out for the attractive red ‘trailing fuchsia’ flowers (Fuchsia coccinea) and the similar ‘Bolivian fuchsia’ (Fuchsia boliviana) which are found up here along the pathways. These are not an endemic species. In fact, they are considered a threat to the habitat and will attach roots into the spongy trunk of the giant tree ferns.
Mexican creeper or creeping gloxinia – Lophospermum erubescens – is another pest, hiding behind its pretty pink flowers. This vine generally grows above the 600m contours and poses a threat to the endemic habitat due to its smothering characteristic.
Highest Point on St Helena – “Great views, lovely walk!”
Diana’s Peak is one of the island’s 21 post box walks. The visitors’ book is an indication of how popular this walk is. Inside the wooden post box you should find a log book, pen/pencil, ink pad and stamp. This is probably one of the more demanding exercises of the day, trying to come up with something original to write in the book! ‘Great views, lovely walk.’
Just remember when you’re standing on Diana’s Peak, you’re standing on the highest point on St Helena at 823m above sea level. It’s all downhill from here.
You Can Hear Voices…
Once an inspiring entry has been made in the book and enough pictures taken, it’s time to move on.
Continue along the ridge, down the staircase towards Cuckold’s Point, the third of the three main central peaks.
On a windless day, if you stand still, you can sometimes hear the sound of voices and radios wafting up quite clearly from Sandy Bay.
When the cloud is down you lose the views, obviously, but I love the mystical experience of trekking through the cloud forest. Seeing the murky silhouettes of giant tree ferns appearing through the mist is quite special, particularly now that I know this is important in sustaining the endemic habitat.
Cuckold’s Point is the final, premium view point. Continue past Cuckold’s and down in the same westward direction. In just a few minutes, after descending a set of wide, curving, wood supported steps cut into the hillside, you arrive at a clearing and a junction in the pathway.
The path straight ahead, leads down to Cabbage Tree Road, which is the other popular starting point for visiting the peaks.
We will turn right here and follow the long, gentle downward path that leads all the way back to the endemic nursery we encountered earlier. This completes the loop of the peaks and takes us back down to Black Gate.
Obviously when you’re out and about hiking the great outdoors, anywhere in the world, use plenty of common sense and tread carefully.
St Helena’s central peaks can seem deceptively docile, don’t let this fool you. Some of the drop-offs on the sides of the trail are quite severe. The thicket on the sides of the path can obscure the edges, so be careful. Stick to the pathways!
Enjoy St Helena’s three little Peaks.
Here are just a few pictures from our many visits to Diana’s Peak National Park.