Five days ago I boarded the RMS St Helena at a distant and apparently little-used dock in Cape Town, and today I am sitting in a guesthouse in Jamestown, the Georgian capital of the remote island of St. Helena.
One could tell that the dock was little used by its casual approach to security imposed by a number of cold looking chaps huddled round looking like discarded chess pieces. However, we set sail with no worry, and gradually pulled away from the Cape toward the remote rock in the Atlantic Ocean called St Helena.
It was journey back in time, and one remembers the delights of deck games, quizzes, tombola, frog races, beef tea, convivial bars and well stocked libraries, all punctuated by regular and rather pleasant meals.
Certainly, the feeling yet again of clambering through a looking glass into a parallel universe was reinforced by our activities. It was curious to imagine the peculiarity of 100 passengers (minus the chap who was travelling in the hospital) and 50 crews dressing up for the Captain’s Cocktail party while floating on the ocean surface some five kilometres above the bottom in a 6,000 ton boat.
The entire journey was redolent of an era when everyone travelled by sea, and indeed there were sufficient government “officials” off to St Helena to administer, audit and generally keep order to keep this image at front of mind.
It was a marvellous journey; the ship is not a cruise vessel, it is a passenger ship. It is comfortable, cosy, friendly and well able to accommodate travellers seeking a rather different experience. The sea was mild, with only one bouncy evening, the sky endless, the water infinite and the expectations as we drew toward this remote island were palpable.
Best known, if known at all, St Helena was the destination that the English decided to send Napoleon to die. He had caused the English no end of trouble, and had form as an escapee from exile having managed to squirrel his way from Elba. Believing that his new exile would be in North America, one can only imagine his surprise at disembarking in Jamestown, an island that is reputed to be the most isolated inhabited land on earth.
To prevent his further escape, 2,500 soldiers were dispatched to guard him, and four warships continuously circled the 50 mile circumference of the island, two in each direction. Guards were posted in a circle around Longwood, his rather dreary house, at 50 metres, but at night they were drawn in to stand at the house itself to prevent an Empirical Departure.
They were successful, Napoleon duly died and was buried in the manner of a Russian doll inside five layered coffins; they were of mahogany, lead, more mahogany, tin and finally an inner protective wrap of a more mundane wood. Designed carefully to prevent movement, in 1840 by order of the French government, he was exhumed with difficulty and removed to Paris where he has lain in state ever since.
There are other interesting things to do; it is an island that has a rather lovely Georgian façade, and a genuine feel of life decades ago. It is an ecological delight, with rare birds, wildlife, fauna all among some quite extraordinary scenery. It is a place of wonders, least of all why on earth it is still here, and how it will actually adjust to tourism on a greater scale once the airport opens in 2016.
The journey to St Helena has just begun.