March 27-30, 2010 (At Sea & St. Helena)

MARCH 27 – 29, AT SEA

After leaving Cape Town we headed northwest toward the Island of St. Helena. A freckle on the atlas in the South Atlantic Ocean.

MARCH 30TH – JAMESTOWN, ST. HELENA (Maiden Call)

St. Helena is 10.5 miles long by 6.5 miles wide. It is 1,200 miles from the coast of southwest Africa and 1,800 miles from the coast of South America. The closest land is Ascension Island, 703 miles to the northwest. There is no airport. The only way to get here is by boat. The RMS St. Helena steams back and forth to Cape Town every 3 weeks. This is the only way for the locals to get off the island. A supply ship arrives every 2-3 weeks. We’re talkin’ remote.

This uninhabited island was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1502. It ended up in the hands of the British (is there anything they didn’t steal?). The Brits used it as a place of detention for many unsavory characters throughout history. The most famous being Napoleon Bonaparte. He was exiled to the island in 1815 and remained here until his death in 1821. He was permitted to roam freely. Where was he going to escape to?

4,255 people live here. 3,800 inhabit the Queen Mary 2. Our landing fits the definition of an Invasion. We anchored a half mile offshore near the capital of Jamestown (the only town). The swells from the Atlantic Ocean are routinely over 6 feet at the primitive dock and ships often cannot discharge passengers, at all. Imagine the mutiny, after being incarcerated for 4 days. It made us question why such an “iffy” port was chosen to begin with.

At 7 AM we waited like coiled vipers ready to strike. Two tenders were sent on a reconnaissance mission. The Captain’s pronouncement on sea conditions was eminent. Eureka! Permission was granted to go ashore! We raced for the loading area, knocking down the Ancient Ones with walkers who got in our way. We knew freedom could be revoked at any moment if the ocean decided to scratch it’s back. Not many on the ship move as stealthily as we do, so making the first boat was child’s play. Good thing we did. With only one tender operating due to limited docking space, the unloading process was interminable. The “step” from the tender to the dock was a doozy, for the vertically and spatially challenged. It took several hours to get everyone off. The Crew’s “leave” was cancelled due to the monstrous queue.

View from ship of Jamestown, St. Helena.

On shore, the first thing we noticed were clusters of gleeful kids. School was cancelled due to our visit. We were Superheroes. Every school bus and any other vehicle that was remotely road worthy was allocated to move around passengers.

Our first priority was to climb Jacob’s Ladder; a perpendicular staircase leading up the precipitous slope surrounding Jamestown. It has 699 steps with 12 inch risers. It is 900 feet long and 700 feet high. It was originally built in 1829 to link the town with the garrison on top of Ladder Hill. Soldiers used it to haul up ammunition and supplies. I doubt they scaled it for bragging rights, like we did. Now it is used by those who don’t own cars, or can’t bum a ride up the mountain. Residents say it will “break your heart going up, and break your neck coming down”.

We sprinted to the base before it got jammed up with people who thought carrying food laden trays for 3 months qualified as aerobic exercise. We didn’t want their unconscious bodies blocking our way. We were humming along just fine, until I made the grave mistake of pausing to soak in the view around me. I wasn’t expecting to see such a sheer drop behind me and dizziness took hold as my heart galloped. I was paralyzed. Steve knew I had “ladder issues”, and took control when he heard me sniveling behind him. Shifting to my backside, he coaxed me upwards by imploring me NOT to look around until we reached the summit. He reminded me again and again that I couldn’t “plummet to my death” because he was right behind me. He soothed my irrational fear of flying backwards with profound gentleness and patience. My knight in sweaty armor.

Jacob’s Ladder from the base.
Jacob’s ladder from the summit.

When we made it to the top, I was elated and cocky. I remarked to Steve that due to the significant discrepancy in our leg length, I actually climbed double what he did. He didn’t buy it.

There were 15 Islanders encamped at the peak offering kudos. Watching tourists attempt the climb is a popular spectator sport on the island. There was also a team of EMTs stationed nearby, ready to take action. It’s a good thing we went early. The Ladder was soon clogged with aggressive tailgaters bullying the throng. If I was forced to take my hands off the railing to step around someone, I might have become a permanent resident of St. Helena.

You could tell the locals were starved for conversation with “new blood”. As soon as we stopped panting, they descended with a litany of questions. We were delighted to share information about our ship, the voyage, and ourselves. We felt like royalty. After a time, a couple offered to give us a “lift up the hill” (which ended up being 5 miles) and drop us at the Plantation House. We readily accepted.

It’s a pretty colonial structure built at the end of the 1800‘s. The governor lives here, but he’s not the star attraction. Jonathan, the giant tortoise, is. His age is estimated between 150 and 200 years (he kept getting older with every person we talked to). No one seems to know how he ended up on the island. We had a theory. We learned while visiting the Galapagos Islands (on a previous journey) that tortoises can live for up to one year without any food or water. In the old days, explorers would pluck them from their native lands, stack them upside down in the hull of a ship, and nosh on them over several months as an easy source of fresh meat. Jonathan must have escaped with his lightening speed.

Johnathan

After meeting the local celebrity, we started trekking back to town. We declined the plentiful offers for a ride. It felt great to stroll and stretch our legs. After a few miles, we heard a “Yoo Hoo!” and looked up to see four ladies waving daintily at us from the front steps of a sprawling home. A sign nailed to a tree at the bottom of the drive read…

Open House from 10:30 am to 2:15 pm
for visitors from Queen Mary 2 and others.
All are welcome. Please drop in for Tea Coffee Eats.
No Charge, but kindly give donation for the Haiti Appeal.
Thank you. Enjoy your Day.

How could we not stop? The owner, Patsy Flagg, was the “poster child” for island hospitality. She gave us a tour of her 120 year old home, then ushered us into the dining room where she stacked our plates with homemade treats. We were offered coffee or tea before adjourning to the porch. Steve drinks neither, but graciously suffered through a cup. I was reticent, simply because it was foreign water. We hoped that the high temperature would kill off any intestinal nasties.

Two of the ladies (in their 60‘s) had never been off the island, which blew our minds. We flirted with a variety of subjects before landing on natural remedies and Yoga. Before long, I was demonstrating “Downward Facing Dog” on the front porch. They were all intensely curious and tried out the position. Although I would have loved documentation… Steve felt it was exceptionally tacky to take a shot of our 5 butts swaying in the breeze. When we left an hour later, the ladies posed for me (upright) and made us promise to come back for vacation.

Patsy Flagg and friends.

We sauntered back to the top of Jacob’s Ladder after chatting with every Islander we met on the road. It was jammed when we got there. Those arriving at the top, bent over and wheezing, were scrutinized by the EMT squad. I casually mentioned to a few of the more fit specimens that if they had enough energy to walk another mile or so up hill … there was a group of engaging ladies who would love to meet them. Did you know up is a dirty word? Taking The Ladder downhill was not an option. I needed both hands on the rails; an impossibility with two way traffic. We took the serpentine road instead. Wise decision. Without the feeling of impeding doom suffocating me, I could freely glance around and marvel at the astonishing landscape.

Walking down the road back to port. Yes, it is two lanes. Seriously.
Spectacular views going downhill.

Back in town, we stopped by the tiny St. Helena Distillery for a tour. They make a spiced rum and coffee liqueur from local beans. Their speciality is “Tungi”, made from the flower of the island’s Prickly Pear Cactus. I sampled it, and couldn’t feel my Tongue(e) afterwards. We bought a bottle of each. We had to. The thick glass is shaped like Jacob’s Ladder with “St. Helena” embossed on the side.

St. Helena Distillery

Jonathan moved faster then the queue for the return tender. We were glad to have a fresh bottle of SPF 30 sunscreen, as we sizzled in the equatorial sun.

Sunset lights up the Island as we steam away.

A few more days at sea before arriving in Rio De Janeiro.

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