On the fifth morning of our voyage the south Atlantic’s sapphire light vanishes in glowering cloud. Perpendicular cliffs rear hundreds of metres into vapour like some fearsome primeval mirage. We have reached Saint Helena.
“It’s Genesis!” cries a passenger on the Royal Mail Ship that connects the island to Cape Town. Because St Helena produces almost nothing, the RMS is the only way in for everything from cars and curry powder, and the only way out for everyone from casualties to the career-minded.
The speaker, Duncan Grindley, a South African entrepreneur, is not just referring to the view. All but bereft of beaches, palms, tourists and crime, and enjoying a startlingly British version of equatorial weather (the north glitters in sunshine, while the centre is swept with misty wind), St Helena, perhaps the strangest of tropical islands, may also be the setting for one of the world’s most unlikely investment booms. In February 2016, the British taxpayers’ newest airport is scheduled to open, 1,200 miles off the coast of Angola, on basalt clifftops above us.
“Nothing’s happened here for 30 years,” Grindley says. “I’m interested in setting up tented camps, walking tours, maybe shipping. I see massive opportunity.”
The UK government prays he is right. The Department for International Development has given £220m to contractor Basil Read to build the airport and £30m to a subcontractor, Lanseria, to operate it for the first decade. Entrepreneurs are vital if St Helena is to be weaned off its £25m-£30m annual subsidy.
Another passenger, Hannah Chadwick, is the Foreign Office desk officer for this Overseas Territory. “It’s amazing!” she says, as a V-shaped crack in the island’s cliffs reveals the settlement of Jamestown. “And it’s British!”
There is no harbour, so we land the way Napoleon Bonaparte did in 1815, transferring from ship to shore by boat. Beside the joyful crowd of islanders meeting relatives and friends is a school band. “With or without you, I can’t live, with or without you!” they sing, which is apposite, given the island’s development plan. About 800 travellers made the journey to St Helena last year. The airport funding is predicated on that many tourists every week by 2020.
Saints, as the islanders are known, are famously open-hearted. The 4,000 inhabitants all claim to know each other; as we walk up Jamestown’s Georgian Main Street, past the castle, the canons and the jacaranda trees, charmed by fairy terns, mynah birds and the sight of a Victorian prison (staff 16, inmates three), no one passes without a wave or a greeting. But visions of tides of visitors – 30,000 annually, according to the plan – rather strain the island’s smile.
“I don’t think we’re really geared up,” says Pat Williams, who works in the bank. Her speech, like that of many Saints, is a beguiling kind of mid-Atlantic drawl with inflections of antique cockney. “The infrastructure needs a lot of improvements, the roads, the water, even the electricity. There’s a lot of negativity about the airport. People got to change. We’ve got to take ownership instead of letting other people come in to run the island – and then there’s a hoo-ha because islanders have no say. Now’s the time when we should start moving with everybody.”
The idea of St Helena “moving with everybody” seems dizzying, two days later, when the RMS leaves for Ascension on the next leg of her round trip, which will bring her back to St Helena in four days, thence to Cape Town. As she disappears, you are as far away from everybody as it is possible to be, wonderfully marooned on an island so remote that even pirates never found it.
Long-tailed tropicbirds dandle around the cliffs, waves wash over the shipwrecks in the bay and the island’s two newspapers report the latest crime headlines: “During the early hours of Saturday there was a report of a person allowing a ferocious and unmuzzled dog to be at large in the Jamestown area, this is currently under investigation.” Scarlet Madagascar fodies chirrup like sparrows. Above town, the hinterland is a scrunched wonder of steep ridges, wuthering moor and volcanic thrusts, barely woven together by single track roads.
Because of its gradients and crumbling soils, St Helena is a perilous jewel for adventurous walkers. Prospects shift from dreamlike pasture, where pepper trees with fiery blossom take the place of oaks, to steep dells thick with arum lilies and little hamlets of red-roofed houses, all overseen from the colonial-style splendour of the governor’s residence, Plantation House.
From the highest point, Diana’s Peak, your gaze travels across cloud forest to volcanic desert, beyond which is ocean on every side. On ridges below, where botanist Lourens Malan has been working to save the island’s 49 remaining endemic plant species, are giant tree ferns, gumwoods, black cabbage trees with white flowers, St Helena ebony and dogwood. Until its discovery in 1503, they made the island a time-trap from prehistory, though goats and humans have since accounted for much endemic fauna. The spiny yellow woodlouse and the giant earwig are hiding, possibly extinct but Malan has seen a golden sail spider: “It’s got purple shiny legs – we think it tiptoes across other spiders’ webs to steal their prey but we’re not sure.”
Uncertainty is omnipresent here. Without mobile phones, serendipity and word-of-mouth determine many meetings. Rhythms are set by working hours: with 38 per cent of the working population employed by government, that means Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm, when Jamestown produces a jam of minibuses ferrying civil servants home. With internet connections costing £120 a month, people are reluctant or unable to go online for information. Instead, the island rests on a gossipy edge between rumour and edicts issued by “the Castle”, once headquarters of the East India Company, now a metonym for the governor, chief secretary, financial secretary and Department for International Development adviser, who determine the island’s fate. None are Saints, though they are advised by islanders elected to committees.
“Politics, politics, all we talk is politics,” sighs Aaron Legg, the young owner-driver of Aaron’s Adventure Tours, and a rare example of the island’s missing demographic. Nearly half his contemporaries are overseas. Legg comes from Sandy Bay – “Paradise!”, he calls it, and it is, a verdant, tumbling contortion of vertiginous descents down to a black sand beach. At the top is a bar with opening hours determined by the owner’s whims.
“We have a beer and talk about who’s got how much from ESH, what’s going on with Shelco, the airport,” Legg says. “Sure we need the airport, but are we really going to get 30,000 people a year?”
ESH is Enterprise Saint Helena, the development body; Shelco is the Saint Helena Leisure Corporation, a group of British investors with ambitions to build a luxury hotel and golf course. The two are engaged in a game of chicken and egg. ESH, led by the man in charge of economic development, Julian Morris, wants Shelco to commit to building their hotel so that an airline might commit to flights. Shelco wants ESH to produce an airline before they begin work on the hotel. Morris is undaunted.
“What motivates me is I don’t think the island’s situation is very good,” he says. “Average wage £6,000, hospital’s poor, school’s extremely poor, 20 per cent of kids have got at least one parent working overseas. The place is chronically institutionalised because all of the money comes from the Castle. The island is earning £2 per person per day from its own activities, so we would be one of the poorest places in Africa, and yet you drive around and it feels like it’s a slightly poorer version of the UK.”
Morris has a solution. A map in his office shows a plan of Jamestown with most of the buildings near the sea – Crown properties including the castle, the prison, the museum and the post office – marked for development. With subsidy in the form of payload guarantees, Morris believes an airline will be persuaded to come, bringing custom for hotels, bars and restaurants.
“Having a mono-economy is no bad thing. We’re swapping being completely dependent on what the British government throws to us. The Caribbean islands are virtually all tourism-based economies and they’re doing better than here.”
Without the Caribbean’s beaches or climate, even Morris looks momentarily unsure about what tourists might do on St Helena. “A mix of walking, fishing, diving, heritage, Napoleon and wildlife,” he says.
Despite the competing claims of a small endemic plover, the wirebird, and the interest St Helena holds for students of emancipation (the island was a clearing station for thousands of liberated slaves) and incarceration (5,000 Boer prisoners of war were transported here in 1900), St Helena’s cultural star will always be the man who hated it most. Napoleon’s legacy includes an empty tomb in a dramatic valley; his accommodation, Longwood House; and a French consul, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau.
“Queen Victoria bought Longwood with her own money and sold it to Napoleon III for five times its value,” he says, explaining why the most famous attractions of St Helena are owned by France. “I lived there for a while – it was terrible, gloomy, awful. I don’t think anyone could like it.”
Nevertheless he has restored it exquisitely, and Longwood's concentrated melancholy – complete with signs in French recalling Napoleon’s curses and glooms, and replicas of the arsenic-dyed wallpaper that may or may not have killed him, and his copper bath, seemingly the only thing on the island he appreciated – is irresistibly compelling.
Despite the emperor’s appeal, betting the island’s future on his ghost would seem a long shot. There are other ideas. “Residential care!” says John Styles, head of the chamber of commerce. “Elderly people with lots of money want to come somewhere safe with a benign climate. Particularly with the way South Africa is going – crime, insecurity – people are looking for a bolthole.”
Even with an airport, St Helena will ever be at a unique remove from modernity. Though anyone who visits, whether bolting or exploring, is guaranteed extraordinary encounters with nature – like the pod of leaping spotted dolphins that surrounded our boat, and the flip of humpbacks’ tails disappearing as they sounded – its human drama is the island’s richest trove. Entrepreneur Duncan Grindley’s expression changed over the week but he was undefeated: “Walking tours are out, you go 5km and you might as well have gone 50 because of the gradients. I’m thinking about hotels now.” The Foreign Office’s Hannah Chadwick looked preoccupied, having discovered the scepticism with which many Saints regard their colonial rulers. In contrast was the unfettered joy of Tom Wortley, a young plasterer from Windsor, who is making his life on the island with his Saint Helenian partner. “You’d never live like this in the UK, would you? I love it,” he says. Without exception, the other tourists on the ship loved it, too: deeply eccentric and savagely beautiful, St Helena is the only country I have visited which is truthfully summarised, for good and ill, by its marketing slogan, “The most extraordinary place on earth!”.
An unforgettable moment came as we sailed away. Lilla Oliver is a Saint who works in Wolverhampton. Hearing her father was unwell, she made the fastest possible journey to the island – four days, via Ascension, where she was lucky to catch the ship – but arrived too late. “I can’t afford to come back until next year,” she says. “Employers don’t give you four weeks easily, and my mum’s getting on.” The little knot of people waving farewell diminished to a handful. At the front, smart in her blue dress and waving with both hands, was the tiny figure of Lilla's mother. Everybody seemed to be crying. Whatever else the British government may or may not owe the people of St Helena, an end to such separations is long overdue.
Horatio Clare was a guest of the Enterprise St Helena. The RMS St Helena takes five days to travel between Cape Town and the island; the journey costs from £409 per person. See also www.sthelenatourism.com
Remote island adventures: More cruises to the middle of nowhere
Bijagós Islands They may be tropical islands with spectacular, palm-fringed beaches, but the similarity with regular cruise ship destinations ends there. The archipelago of 88 islands, 23 of which are inhabited, sits off the coast of Guinea-Bissau in west Africa, and in 1996 was designated a Unesco biosphere reserve. Islanders are known for their matriarchal society while the islands’ rich wildlife includes marine turtles and saltwater hippos. The islands are one port of call on a 12-day cruise from Ghana to Senegal operated by luxury cruise line Silversea. Departs April 11, from £4,350; www.silversea.com
Tristan da Cunha The world’s most remote inhabited island, Tristan da Cunha is an active volcano that is home to about 300 people. Coming here really is getting away from it all – there is no airport, airstrip and only a small harbour; it is administered from St Helena, part of the same British overseas territory, even though it is more than 1,500 miles away. Cruises here are rare but the islands can be reached on the MV Plancius as part of a month-long “Atlantic Odyssey” cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Ascension Island (departs March 29; from €5,890) or on a six-night cruise from Ascension to Cape Verde (departs April 29; from €690). www.oceanwide-expeditions.com
Wrangel Island Poseidon Expeditions is best known for its trips to the north pole on board a nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker but it also operates cruises along Russia’s far east coast. In August the ship Professor Khromov (which carries just 48 passengers) will depart Chukotka for two 14-night journeys north, through the Bering Strait, to Wrangel Island. Almost all the 2,900 square mile island is a nature reserve, and it has a higher density of polar bear birth dens than anywhere else, and the Arctic’s largest walrus rookery. Departs August 7 and 21, from $9,800; www.northpolevoyages.com