Regular trips to Tristan
- I won't go into all the errors in this article except to say
that the regular trips to Tristan, which were annual when
they were regular, have long been discontinued.
Cape Town's 'other' island
Mon, 17 Oct 2005
Somewhere in the South Atlantic, five days’ fair sailing from anywhere, there is a Capetonian longing to come home. That in
itself is not unusual — longing to come home is one of the defining characteristics of Capetonians not in Cape Town — but
this one is different. He is dead.
No one knows his name precisely, but you will find him in the tiny village of Jamestown on the island of St Helena, a green
speck of landfall in the empty blue areas of the map, midway between Angola and Brazil.
Jamestown is the only town on the island, and on certain summer evenings when the moon turns the wide Atlantic silver, the
night air smells of salt and jasmine and the calling of the tree frogs sounds like wooden chimes tinkling through the
streets, on just such an evening in Jamestown you might happen to see the man the locals call The Sailor.
The Sailor, so the story goes, was indeed a sailor who stopped off on the island at some time during the 1800s when St
Helena was the regular halfway house between England and the Cape. He fell in love with a local beauty and stayed on the
island when the ship sailed, but when his love ran off with a sailor from another ship, he pined away to an early grave, as
romantic heroes did back then.
To this day, when the skies are clear and the wind is set for the south-east and you have had just the right amount to drink
at the Consulate Hotel, you might yet see the silvery glow of The Sailor as he wanders through the town to the sea’s edge,
looking for the ship that will take him home.
St Helena has many such yarns and legends — although none, surprisingly enough, about the island’s most famous dead person,
Napoleon Bonaparte, who died in exile in a small house on a high ridge in the centre of the island, near the Heart-Shaped
Waterfall and just along from Deadwood Plain, with nothing to comfort him but a cellar stocked with bottles of Vin de
Constance from Groot Constantia.
Nor was that the last historical bond between the Cape and the island. When last I was there I met a local who told me
"We’re supposed to be an English colony, but more and more I’m becoming convinced we’re actually a colony of Cape Town."
It is a shame that more Capetonians have not visited St Helena, for the two places are linked over and again in a thousand
ways, with a thousand invisible bonds stretching far across the wild, blue waters.
St Helena is the most remote inhabited island in the world, and the only way to reach it is on the world’s last working mail
ship, the RMS St Helena (known to locals as simply 'the RMS'), which is based in Cape Town and regularly makes the week-long
journey across to the island and to Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, with Namibian stop-offs in Luderitz and Walvis Bay.
There is as yet no airport or even an airstrip on St Helena, so the only way on or off the island is via Cape Town. From the
St Helenian world-view — somewhat geographically wider and more elasticated than our own — Cape Town is to the island as it
is to Stellenbosch: the nearest town, a place to pop off to for a shopping spree or if you want to see a movie, or if you
need advanced medical treatment.
There are principally two large collections of ex-pat St Helenians (or Saints, as they prefer to call themselves). One is in
Southampton in England, at the farthest end of the shipping line that loops to the island via the Cape, and the other is in
Cape Town, which has a substantial yet strangely elusive local community of Saints scattered in clusters around the
peninsula — I once met a woman in Sea Point who has arranged her bed so that each night she can sleep with her head facing
out across the wide leagues that separate her from her birth-home high on a misty cliff fringed by cloud forests on the
slopes of Mount Diana.
On my most recent visit to the island, I met a family from Milnerton who were bringing their grandmother to find the place
where her uncle lies beneath a simple stone on a hillside near Plantation House, facing Sandy Bay Ridge and beyond it the
blue, shining sea where whales and dolphins were leaping, the sun glinting off their dark backs.
For a time, the old lady, very frail, quite overcome with the emotion of finding the final resting place of her mother’s
brother, couldn’t speak. She leant against her eldest son and covered her mouth with trembling hands while a pair of fairy
terns circled above us, glowing dazzling white in the afternoon sun. "My mother would be glad," she said at last, "that he
is in such a beautiful place."
St Helena is a magical place, a time capsule cut off by the sea from the rest of the world and from the 21st century. If I
had my way, I would add it to the Cape Town visitors’ route, as it always was in the days before men could fly. It is a
jewel, a treasure, a glittering companion-island to Cape Town; a little farther away than most local attractions, perhaps,
but ah — it is worth it when you get there.
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