11 March 2012 | St Helena Island
SECRETS REVEALED "How does one begin to tell the story of an island so remote and isolated that it was deemed the safest place to send Napoleon? An island that for centuries lay in those uncharted waters marked on ancient maps by the legend "here be dragons", an island that although formed in a violent volcanic upheaval 14 million years ago, lay slumbering in the Atlantic, undiscovered, until the 21st of May 1502?" This same writer goes on to describe its fantastic remoteness: Angola, 1920 km away; Due west is Porto Seguro, Brazil , some 3620 km; Cape Town is 3100 km to the southeast . The island is tiny 17km long and 10km wide .the piece of land on earth that is furthest away from any other piece of land than any other piece of land on earth.
And this is where now I am celebrating the one week anniversary of my arrival. Let me tell you a little of what transpired and secrets revealed. THE ARRIVAL There is no real harbor here and thus no marina, really only a big bay. One simply drops 'the hook' in about 60 feet of water and hopes that it will hold. Such was the principal activity here on my arrival the first day. I dutifully stayed aboard the rest of the day to make sure the hook was hooked. And it was. THE WALL AND ROPES Next morning, a call on the VHF for the 'ferry service' brought a small diesel-powered old wooden boat which comes along side with enormous speed and then at the last moment, full reverse and hard against the side of Shearwater, only saved by a few rubber fenders . One is subsequently ferried to the wall which holds a sort scaffolding from which hang 3 big ropes. The trick is this: as the 'ferry' is brought alongside the wall in quite a big swell, 3-4 feet of vertical up and down, at the up-part of the swell one grabs one of these ropes and with great vigor pulls oneself off the boat and onto the concrete dock - quite a feat!
Formalities were next and after an official stamp here and a official stamp there I was officially on the island. A short walk to Jamestown illicited in me the comparison to a small southern Italian town with its clean streets, quaint buildings and open 'piazza'. The famous warmth of the St Helenians, known locally as the "Saints", was almost immediately felt in the waves, the nods, the smiles and the 'hellos' of almost every passerby. Then it was back to the 'wall', reverse the tricky procedure with the ropes, board the 'ferry' and head to the Shearwater which, thankfully, was still there.
FROM BLACK/BROWN TO GREEN Next day I became the guests of the French family Mesnier - a trip in a rented car to the interior. Leaving the ascending streets of Jamestown, we traversed the perimeter ring of cliffs that encircle the island via a circuitious narrowish road - "up has right of way". It was a foggy day and soon we found ourselves amongst the clouds with but a few feet of visibility. And then, the first secret revealed. Like a curtain on a great stage, the fog lifted revealing an entirely new scene, this one of luxuriant green. Gone were the blacks, browns and craggy cliffs and in their place splendid trees and dense vegetation, miles and miles of flax overhanging the road, hills of rich pasture land with cows peacefully grazing. And then almost as if to be certain we had seen all correctly we descended the other side of the island toward the sea and into, once again, the perimeter of " blacks, browns and craggy cliffs". And there we climbed for the next hours, every corner revealing views more stunning than the last.
BUT WHERES NAPOLEON? During the traversing of the island I kept my eyes open for Napoleon. Apparently he was here, all the island literature seemed to suggest it, somewhere. But all I saw were locked gates and a house from afar, purportedly said to be his. Well, perhaps another day. Back to town, back to the "wall and ropes" and back to the boat.
THE WRECK OF THE' PAPANUI' One day in the year 1911 a great big passenger ship, the Papanui, rounded the southern tip of the island and steamed slowly past Jamestown. It then turned and headed back into the harbor. To the stunned amazement of the 'Saints ' watching from the shore, the steamship was on fire! Frantic efforts managed to get all off the boat, before it was scuttled right there where it stood, and sank to the bottom in about 40 feet of water. And so, on my fourth day here, I swam that wreck and in the crystal clear waters another secret revealed as the Papanui lay before my eyes, on the bottom, in its watery grave, its massive rudder still swinging disconsolately.
NAPOLEON Day 6 was devoted to ascertaining if Napolean actually existed here on the island. Napoleon apparently landed here in 1815, a prisoner of war after his defeat at Waterloo. Accompanying him were his personal entourage of less than 20 and the British contingent of 3000 soldiers brought to ensure...no escape! Our first stop of the day was Briar's Pavillion, originally a farmhouse and Napoleon's first stop here on the island while his principal residence-to-be was completed. Well, it certainly seemed as though he had been here - lots of pictures and momentos and 'toothbrushes' so to speak. Then it was off to Longwood House where he spent his last years and where he died in 1821. The preponderance of evidence seemed to be indicating he was indeed here! Original furnishings, clothing, hats, his billiard table used as a map table (purportedly to plot his escape), busts of the entire family, death bed and even his metal- lined bathtub, although, interestingly, no commode slightly suspicious.
Ok... now The Tomb...that will settle it once and for all. Through the forest, down an exquisite path of green, on and on, quiet and serene, the sign "THE TOMB" and then, there, at the end, in the Valley of Geraniums, was a simple rectangle of stone, un-marked and framed by a black iron fence. "He IS here! And, after all my doubts!". But then, the dismal news. ' He WAS here but he is NOT here now'. Alas, I was gazing at an empty tomb. He had been removed exactly 172 years ago and back to Paris he went. Suddenly all was clear: he is here but he is not here.
More from this mysterious island to come.