The remote island of St. Helena has only had a flight connection since October 2017. Tourism has been growing ever since. It gives hope to the locals, because the British overseas territory also feels the Brexit.
The announcement doesn’t sound very reassuring: “There could be a brief moment of discomfort right away,” reports the chief stewardess as she approaches St. Helena. The volcanic island lies almost in the middle between Angola and Brazil in the South Atlantic and has been approached by scheduled flights for the first time since October 2017. And really: The landing on the windy island is rough.
At first glance, St. Helena is not a very hospitable place. Napoleon was banished here in 1815. Steep mountains, dark volcanic rock, hardly a plant can be found in this barren landscape. But the first impression is deceptive.
The fact that St. Helena can also convey a sense of security becomes clear on the footpath from the machine to the brand-new terminal, on the upper floor of which the islanders are crowded together to witness the arrival of newcomers and long-lost family members. Quite a few have come for professional reasons, Derek Richards for example. Since last year, he and his wife Linda have been running a small guesthouse in St. Pauls, ten minutes by car from the capital Jamestown.
The airport makes the mail ship superfluous
The two rooms of the hostel are attached to the house, guests and host eat together. “I had planned it long before, but people didn’t come regularly,” explains the 52-year-old. The airport, he says, has changed the entire dynamics of the island.
Not only is it now easier for tourists to reach it, but the locals also find it easier to get to the rest of the world. “You are no longer on a boat for five days if you want to go on holiday.
Exactly this was the reality so far – and St. Helena therefore no tourist destination. The British mail ship “RMS St Helena” connected the island since 1990 with the motherland and above all with the nearby port of Cape Town in South Africa. The monthly arrival of meat, vegetables, medicines – and always also of a few travellers – determined the pulse of the island for decades.
Now that the Airlift has been established, the time-honoured ship resigned on 10 February 2018. An era came to an end. The last arrival of the mail ship at the end of January from South Africa was an event that made many sentimental – for example Gregory Phillips, 39.
He watched the spectacle from his desk at the Old Fort with binoculars, high above the capital Jamestown. Once used as a defensive structure, the fortress now houses the semi-public power and water utility.
The Brexit has caused prices to rise
The ship with the blue-white hull and the thick yellow vent has brought Phillips four times to Cape Town and back. “Many people like to travel by ship,” says the trained plumber. Then he first remains silent and looks out to sea.
He had heard that on the new ship, which only carries goods, the freight charges per container increased. Yet the cost of living is already so expensive. The Brexit has caused prices to rise. Now the island hopes that tourism will boost the economy and reduce dependence on the British government.
There has already been a lot of investment, both from private individuals like the Richards and from the Island Government. The latter had three historic terraced houses completely renovated in the city centre, connected with each other and thus built an elegant hotel out of the ground. At first, they tried to find private investors, says Governor Lisa Phillips. “But that was difficult because the airport had not yet opened. But now the time had come – so the island needs guest beds.
Lisa Philipps invites us to talk in her office in the Castle, originally one of the first fortifications built by the British. In front of the windows in the bay lie the boats of the fishermen and a few yachts on a mirror-smooth Atlantic. Behind her desk chair hangs a blue-tinted picture of the Queen on the wall.
But this secluded idyll is not immune to the problems of the world. Phillips complains about the effects of the forthcoming Brexit, which has already made food imports more expensive and endangers the continuation of EU funding programmes on St. Helena.
The British influence still shapes St. Helena today
However, the island, which was often advertised as the “most remote place in the world”, had really not been separated from Europe for centuries anyway. For the Portuguese, who discovered it in 1502, the uninhabited spot of land, covering a total area of only 121 square kilometres, initially served as a supply station. They brought farm animals, planted fruit trees and replenished their drinking water supplies.
Despite all the original secrecy, the strategically important location soon brought other major European powers onto the scene. Above all, Dutchmen and Englishmen fought for the island. In 1657 the British Crown handed over the rights to administer St. Helena to the British East India Company. Settlement began.
The British influence cannot be overlooked until today. In the British overseas territory, the administration of which is directly under the control of the Foreign Ministry in London, payment is made with the Saint-Helena-Pound. The currency is pegged to the British pound. On the narrow streets carved into the stone, left-hand traffic applies – if two cars pass each other at all.
And the official language is English, too. Even if the Saints, as the islanders call themselves, interpret English in a dialect that they have also christened Saint and which is reminiscent of a yodelled mixture of Scottish highland gibberish and US southern slang.
Exiled, Napoleon Bonaparte lived on the island
The way of life clearly deviates from the hectic pace of European metropolises. Each of the only 4500 inhabitants greets everyone on the streets. There are no traffic jams and angry tirades of stressed road users – and there can’t be, because you know each other and will certainly see each other again soon. Crime is also a foreign word, the inhabitants don’t even lock their cars. Today people come to St. Helena for exactly these reasons.
200 years ago, however, it was this provincial that brought the most famous island inhabitant against his will – Napoleon Bonaparte – to the palm of his hand. From 1815 until his death in 1821, the French military dictator lived on St. Helena, banished and guarded by the British, but in an elevated style.
Noble wines from Madeira and Cape Town as well as ham from Spain had been delivered to Napoleon, who was also allowed to leave his house at will, reports Trevor Magellan. “He could move freely, but where could he go?
Magellan, a pensioner for a long time, now guides tourists twice a week through the house where Napoleon lived for the first seven weeks of his stay. Since the airport was opened, he has a lot to do: 32 visitors came last week, today already 25, he proudly reports. But before that – he admits – he was sometimes left all alone. With the spirit of Napoleon, of course.
The gigantic whale sharks tolerate snorkeling tourists
Anyone looking for solitude has to drive out of Jamestown today. The town with its shopping street and small harbour is a kind of miniature centre of the island. From here, the boats take divers to the reefs, where colorful doctor fish, rock perches and moray eels cavort. The main attraction between November and March are the gigantic whale sharks, which as plankton eaters peacefully tolerate snorkelling companions.
In addition to the tourist boats, the old fishing boats still leave the bay. Peter Benjamin is one of only seven professional fishermen who set sail at four o’clock in the morning to catch the shy bait fish and then the thick yellowfin tuna under the protection of the night. Whenever possible, he also takes guests with him.
Of course, these trips have little to do with a stylish trip in the fighting chair of a sparkling yacht. The odd 57-year-old doesn’t even have a fish finder on board. “When you’ve been fishing for 41 years, it’s in your head,” says Benjamin. And he keeps his word. Soon the sea robbers are literally circling the boat.
While his two fishing passengers fight for minutes with a single fish, Benjamin hits the water surface with a bamboo stick to lift the five to seven kilogram tuna out of the water one by one. Chronic back pain? He only notices them when he is back on land, he says with a laugh.
It is this mixture of lightness and suffering, of rough landscape and perfect peace that makes St. Helena special. Even the almost 80 air passengers who now land weekly do not change this. Guest house owner Derek Richards has brought this island atmosphere back again and again. He worked twice for several months in England, where he trained as a firefighter. But staying there was out of the question for him.
With a glass of white wine in his hand, Richards stands in front of the steep slope at South West Point, where the calmer waters of the north coast meet the rough waves coming from South Ossetia.