Stepping onto St Helena for the first time
Our second guest blog written by popular author Niall Griffiths, who has six published books to date and also writes travel pieces. This is what brought him to our small island last month. Today he writes about what it was like stepping foot onto St Helena for the first time.
The morning of the sixth day at sea and the tannoy awoke me, heavily hungover, in my cabin at 8AM: ladies and gentlemen, welcome to St Helena. I looked out of my window and all bleariness was blasted away by the sight of those twin volcanoes, appearing colossal after nearly a week of low waves, a mighty and static eruption from the sea. ‘Magnificent’ is the word. And ‘thrilling’. And, I’ll say it again, even though it’s been said a thousand times before, because it’s true: Unique.
It’s profoundly strange, initially extremely disconcerting. Jamestown is a cross between a Cornish fishing village and a steamy Oriental seaport. The Union flag flies over fortified volcanic slopes and hillsides that flap with huge prehistoric leaves and are spiked with rusting cannons. It’s a city in miniature with disparate echoes and associations which, somehow, despite their differences and proximity, coalesce into something harmonious; here, the Pembrokeshire beach bar of Donny’s, there the Antipodean mining-town of the Consulate hotel. There’s summer-evening Toxteth in the people sitting and chatting on their front doorsteps, and there’s Namibian bush in the mud-caked trucks rolling into town from the highlands. It all melds and works together, and the opening strangeness quickly becomes replaced by its opposite; a familiarity, and the corresponding calmess of that. Within an hour or so, drinking coffee on the Consulate’s veranda, I felt as if I’d been there for months. Or, rather, I felt like I’d been there before – the mind latching onto seemingly known quantities.
For all that, however, I quickly became aware of the fragility of the island’s ecosystems. I was thrilled to find a praying mantis on my shoulder but was told of the dangers that such invasive predators pose to the unique indigenous invertebrates. Similarly, I was swiftly informed of the fears of cultural dilution that the airport’s construction will impose. This is characteristic of remote islands across the planet; what they require to survive, much less thrive, carries within it the seeds of its own potential destruction.
A legitimate worry, and such places are planet earth in a small space, but there’s an army of committed and talented people there dedicated to guarding against such eventualities (and whose motto is, admirably, Do No Harm), and additionally there’s the collective spirit of the Saints themselves; an older tour guide gave me the memorable phrase ‘we are a people who think with our hands’, and a younger guide, with his plans to renovate and grow and tend and innovate, illustrated that that muscle memory is still very much alive.
I landed on the island, completely individual as it is, with a deep feeling of hope, and I left it with that feeling strengthened even further.