Friday, 4 September 2015

Searching for Napoleon, in the middle of the South Atlantic.

[Hello, again!    As a change from the usual news of the Falkland Islands, I have enlisted a guest blogger this month.  Earlier this year, my best friend, soul-mate and darling wife travelled to the very remote islands of Ascension and St Helena.  For reasons too boring to go into, I stayed at home watching the PC, in case a Skype message appeared.  It didn't....until she arrived at Cape Town!

Below is her account and photos of her trip to find Napoleon's (almost) last resting place.....!]

RMS St Helena
 Until the new airport is opened next year, the only way to get to St Helena is by ship.   It is about 1,200 miles  west of the Angola coast and 2,500 miles east of Rio de Janiero.  The only ship that regularly calls there is the Royal Mail Ship, St Helena, which plies between the UK, Ascension Island, St Helena and Cape Town.
 Fortunately for residents of the Falkland Islands, getting to Ascension Island is relatively straightforward.  Twice a week, flights to and from the UK (RAF Brize Norton) refuel there.  Ascension is near the Equator and a fascinating place. See earlier blogs for more detail.
"Ascending Ascension"  >

Welcome Aboard!
So, in March, my wife and our friend, Bx, flew 4000 miles north to Ascension, to wait for the St Helena.  On the following Saturday, they boarded one of the last voyages of the ship to Cape Town.
John the Purser organising deck games.
 It takes almost three days sailing to reach St Helena.  On board, there are a wide range of activities to entertain passengers, despite this not being your normal cruise liner!
Calm waters in the seawater swimming pool
 Eventually, just when you are getting the hang of deck quoits, the looming hills of St Helena come into view.  As in Ascension, there is no harbour, so unloading cargo and passengers is a time-consuming business.
Arriving at St Helena
 Due to the irregular pattern of the ship's schedule, passengers could either stay 1 night on the island, or wait for the ship to return from Cape Town in 2 weeks, to take them back to Ascension.  My wife could only stay one night, so there followed a whirlwind 24 hours of touring to make the most of their time.
Raising the flag
Once ashore, they checked in to their hotel, then found the tour "bus" which would help them explore the highlights.
Wellington Hotel, Jamestown
 The island was discovered, uninhabited, by the Portugese in 1502, but most of its development happened in the early 19th century, when it was decided to use this remote re-victualling outpost, as the secure exile for Napoleon Bonaparte, recent loser of the Battle of Waterloo, and general troublemaker of Europe.
The tour charabanc!
 For more information about St Helena, try here >>
Distillery shop
Making use of the plants that grow there, the world's most remote distillery produces Jamestown gin, spiced rum, Cacti pear spirit and Midnight Mist coffee liqueur.

Longwood House - Napoleon's residence
 Napoleon served his exile in Longwood House, a plantation mansion.  He died there in 1821, and was originally buried in the island, but his body was re-patriated to Paris in 1840.
A corner of France
 However, the house and grounds were given to the French nation in 1858, in recognition of the importance this spot has in its history.
This way to the tomb
A vacant plot.  
Jonathan may have met Napoleon!
 The island is about the size of a sheep farm on the Falklands - about 10 miles by 5.  47 square miles or 120 square kilometres.  The population is just over 4000, but many "Saints" live and work in the UK or Ascension or the Falklands.
The Governor's Residence, Plantation House - with tortoise lawn-mower
 The old Georgian plantation houses still have their elegant gardens, kept trim by the roaming wild tortoises, some of whom may have been sprightly youngsters when Napoleon was around!
Beware of the Tortoise

Jacob's ladder
 The island was fortified to help repel potential rescuers of Napoleon, and a ladder of 699 steps was built to connect the capital, Jamestown, in the canyon, with the fort, on the hill above.
Top of the ladder
Jamestown from 700 steps up
 The main town, Jamestown, nestles in a narrow canyon.  Most of the island is covered with flax, which once supported an industry making rope and string. Now exports come from the distillery and from production of what is said to be the world's most expensive coffee.
Harbour view
Wifi and shade at the Consulate Hotel
The road to the new airport
But all this remoteness and solitude is about to be ripped apart by the arrival of an airport next year.  It will have regular flights from Johannesburg, from where travellers can connect with the rest of the world.   However, there are many people who would have liked to have seen a regular flight connecting the islands in the South Atlantic, not least those Saints who travel home to families at Christmas.  Now they will have to fly via London or Brazil to South Africa first!
All too soon, passengers and freight were brought on board, and the trip resumed.
Farewell to St Helena
Time to slow down and enjoy the trip.....
Back to the challenge of deck quoits
Life on the ship makes the most of calm sailing conditions and sunny days with traditional deck games and a pool to cool off in.
The Captain's sundowner cocktail party..
Deckchairs were rearranged.....and the pavilion made ready.
If you ever wondered what "rearranged deckchairs" looked like......
One eagerly-anticipated activity was the 'Crew versus the Passengers' cricket match.  Recalling the almost-forgotten days of slow travel before long-haul flights, when touring cricket teams had to spend six months on a ship to reach their opponents on the other side of the world....Oh, did anyone see the Ashes this year?
Crew vs Passengers cricket match
 Playing cricket on a ship really helps improve your game, especially if you are in the fielding side.  There were some complaints about dampness on the boundary, though!
The winning Quiz team!
Post dinner entertainment caters for varied interests and talents, bingo, darts, quizzes being more familiar to most than frog racing. 
Last night prize-giving and frog-racing
 The journey from St Helena to Cape Town takes 5 days, but they fly by and all too soon a familiar shape comes into sight.......
Sunrise over South Africa
Unmistakable Table Mountain
 Do you remember the Tony Bennett classic  "I left my heart in San Francisco....."

Well, Spike Milligan of The Goons wrote a tribute....
"I left my teeth, on Table Mountain..
High on a hill, they smile at me!"   :-)
Farewell to the RMS.  Only a few voyage left.....
The RMS finishes its regular schedule, providing supplies and a link to the outside world for the St Helenian population, in April 2016. After three special voyages that take in a trip up to London and a final trip to the even more remote British Oversea Territory of Tristan De Cunha it will sail into Cape Town for the last time on 15th July 2016 Flights will be the new link to the Island, but the joy of slow travel will be lost.

So, a fascinating and unique journey.  Now, all my wife had to do was to get back to the Falklands from South Africa.....easier said than done!

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Pebble winter escape.

[Welcome to an occasional look at life on the Falkland Islands, from the point of view of a couple of UK expats: working here for a few years and enjoying what the islands have to offer]

The snow that fell in June had long gone.  But, in late August, subsequent short snow showers had again carpeted the capital, Stanley, in a white blanket.  This made it seem like a long winter, so my wife and I decided to escape to a remote island.   Luckily, there is no shortage in the archipelago, but we chose Pebble, again.
Snow squall approaching Gypsy Cove
As we took off in the 8-seater plane, we climbed quickly into the gale that was bringing more squalls from the west.  Being one of the two passengers on the 40-minute flight, it was quickly decided that I would sit beside the pilot!
High tide prevented landing here
Unfortunately, the tide was high, so we missed out on the chance to experience a rare beach landing.  The beach on Pebble Island is about 4 miles long, and we were to see a lot of it.
The Nest
The Nest - snug 
We were met at the airstrip, by Riki, the Lodge manager, and our friendly hostess, Dot, who, with her husband, also farms the island.  Apart from them, we were the only people on the island.
Working dogs.
Too early? A sign of Spring?
We were shown round the self-catering cottage, The Nest, which, unlike Dr Who's Tardis, was as neat and compact on the inside as it seemed from the outside.  However, it was beautifully appointed and proved to be a very comfortable bolt-hole.
Black-necked Swans
But, we couldn't linger to enjoy the sofa.  My wife had spotted some distinctive birds just before we landed and we were keen to get a closer view.  These swans are extremely shy, and difficult to get close to.  But the pair on Pebble proved to be co-operative, and within a few minutes of arriving, we were sitting watching these graceful creatures.
Island cemetery
After watching the swans till our bums were numb, we wandered round the scattered settlement, wondering what some of the older man-made devices were for originally.....sculptures?
Any ideas, please?
The settlement used to be populated by several families - it had a school.  But only a couple of Lodge workers, and the farming family, live there now.  Some of the houses are being converted for holiday use, and that's how we came to be staying there, as the Lodge was closed for the winter.
Looking west to the hills.
Although the settlement of about 10 houses is roughly central and low-lying, it has extensive views to the hills at the west end of the island, about 10 miles away.  To the south, other islands, and the hills of West Falkland fill the horizon.

The next day, the squalls disappeared, and, after a leisurely breakfast of scrambled eggs, we set out to see the swans again, and walk the long, long beach.
Pebble Island Lodge. Upland Geese on frozen pond
What makes the beach seem even longer is that, every time you turn round, you can still see the large lodge in the settlement.  The beach is semi-circular, and even after walking for two hours, we were still about the same distance from the lodge!
Near the end of the 4-mile beach. Settlement on the horizon.
Frozen streams
Although sunny, it was also very cold, and a few times we slipped on the frozen sand, where a sheen of sheet ice was waiting for the unwary walker!  The cry of "Sheet!" rang out
Frozen ponds
The tide was going out and the wading birds - gulls, oystercatchers, sheathbills, and plovers were our constant companions, even if they were tricky to photograph!
4 miles back to the Nest
Some of the streams we crossed were frozen and the ice had created some amazing sculptures around the grass and waterfalls.
Frozen blade of grass
Low tide on the runway!
Looking east along the semi-circular beach
Cemetery amongst the gorse bushes.
Sunset, with Upland Geese
Dinner that evening was a delicious risotto, washed down with a couple of cartons of good Chilean red wine. (Cartons were lighter than bottles, and we were only allowed 10kgs on the plane!).  No TV, no Internet, no radio.  Peace and quiet surrounded us.  zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Settlement houses.
The old school looks out to sea.

A friendly Jack Russell terrier.
The jetty
After the relaxing weekend, the same plane returned to take us back to Stanley.  It was full this time, so we squeezed in at the back and snatched glimpses of the snow-covered hills below us.,
Two Sisters

Now, in September, it is light from 7.30am to 6.30pm and getting lighter every day.  Hardy flowers  are starting to appear in gardens, and reports are coming in of Elephant Seals wallowing ashore to breed on Sea Lion Island - a sure sign that Spring is here!

With any luck, we should be on Sea Lion in November, enjoying the wildlife and hospitality.  If it is as good as that on Pebble, we are in for a treat!