Travel to Saint Helena – Episode 417

categories: africa travel

Hear about travel to Saint Helena as the Amateur Traveler talks to Gary Arndt about his visit to this isolated island between Africa and South America.


Gary has come on the show a number of times to talk about obscure, out of the way, and small places. Saint Helena qualifies as all three.

“A lot of people may have heard about Saint Helena in high school history when they heard about Napolean because it is the island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where he was exiled. Saint Helena is a British territory. It is located in the South Atlantic Ocean about 1500 miles off the west coast of Africa. It is approximately the same latitude as the Namibia Angola border. It would be maybe 2000 miles south of the Ivory Coast. It is part of the territory called Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha.” It only has a population of about 4000 people. “As far as I know, Saint Helena is the largest
settlement on the planet that can only be reached by sea. The only way to reach it currently is a 5-day boat trip from Cape Town.”

“They are building an airport that opens in 2016. It will be the biggest change that the island has seen in 400 years. Getting to see it the way it is today was a real treat. It doesn’t really get a lot of tourism now. Right now it requires commitment to go there. The boat, the RMS Saint Helena, is one of the last two Royal Mail ships in operation. It’s only mission is to go to Saint Helena and Ascension. It is half a cargo ship and half a passenger ship. Most of the passengers that were there for tourism… and there weren’t many… a couple of dozen… tended to be older and retired, people who had two weeks to do this.”

Saint Helena was an uninhabited island when it was discovered by the Portuguese over 500 years ago. “It was first settled by the British. It was originally given to the British East India Company to manage. At its peak, there were almost 17,000 people on the island and its primary function was servicing ships that were going around Africa. They would stop there and get fresh water, produce, food before continuing on their journey. At its height, two ships a day were stopping in Saint Helena as opposed to one every three weeks now.”

“The thing that struck me the most was the people. There are three S’s that were involved in the creation of Saint Helena: soldiers, settlers and slaves. After slavery was abolished in 1833, Great Britain began to actively pursue slave ships in the region. As many as 30,000 slaves who were freed from captured slavery ships were brought to the island. On Saint Helena, the people intermarried and blended together. At the beginning of the 20th century a group of Chinese laborers was brought to the island, the British brought Indian laborers to the island and everyone melted together. You will see some people you think are Native American, you will see some people you think are Hawaiian, some people you think are African, some people you think are European, some people you think are Asian and it all comes from the intermingling of so many people. I have never seen anything like this anywhere in the world other than Saint Helena.”

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Show Notes

Everything Everywhere
Saint Helena
St Helena Tourism
Saint Helena Airport
RMS St. Helena
Longwood House
Briars, St. Helena
Millennium Forest
Diana’s Peak
About Flax
The Consulate Hotel


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Chris: Amateur Traveler, Episode 417. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about a destination so remote that the British decided that it was a good place [00:00:20] to store Napoleon, as we go to Saint Helena.

Chris: Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I am your host Chris Christensen.

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Chris: I would like to welcome back to the show Gary Art, who has [00:01:50] come to talk to us about the remote island of Saint Helena. Gary, welcome back to the show.

Gary: For the 80th time, thanks for having me.

Chris: You’re welcome. And for those people who don’t [00:02:00] know, the three of you who don’t know, Gary and I also so another show called This Weekend Travel, where we are co-hosts with Jenny Leo. Gary, we have sometimes joked that you [00:02:10] come back on a show and talk about obscure, out-of-the-way, and small places. Does Saint Helena fit into that theme?

Gary: Yes, yes, and yes. [00:02:20] Very much so. I think a lot of people listening may have heard the name Saint Helena. They may have heard it in high school history when they heard about Napoleon [00:02:30], because it’s the island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where he was exiled. But to give some background on it, Saint Helena is a British territory. It is located in [00:02:40] the south Atlantic Ocean, about 1500 miles off of the west coast of Africa. So, it is approximately the same latitude as the [00:02:50] Libyan-Angolan border. Then it would be, maybe, 2000 miles south of, I think, the Ivory Coast. So, it is basically [00:03:00] sitting in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with, really, nothing around it. And, legally, it is part of the territory called Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha [00:03:10]. So, those are three islands, all British territories, kind of lumped together.

Chris: Not particularly near each other, though.

Gary: No. Tristan is way far [00:03:20] away – population of 200 some-odd people. Saint Helena is a population of a little over 4’000. And Ascension is a little over 200 miles from Saint Helena and has a population [00:03:30] of approximately, I want to say, 2500 with a U.S. military base.

Chris: Oh, I didn’t realize there was a U.S. base there.

Gary: Yeah, they have an [00:03:40] air base there and that is Saint Helena. And as far as I know, and maybe one of your readers can come up with a counter-example, Saint Helena is currently the largest [00:03:50] settlement on earth that can only be reached by sea. In other words, there is no airport. There are no roads. The only way to get there is [00:04:00] a five-day boat trip from Cape Town. That is currently your only option.

Chris: And I was really … because I knew you were going over there, obviously. So you are five days over, five days back [00:04:10] and you felt it was worth it.

Gary: Yeah, I am glad I got to see the island because, and we will talk about this more, they are building an airport. And that’ll [00:04:20] be open in 2016, so there is not much time left to really… It is going to be the biggest change that the island has seen in 400 years. It will absolutely change [00:04:30] everything about the island and nobody knows how exactly it is going to be changed. But being able to see it as it is today was a real treat. [00:04:40] I should say, it is five days but it also leaves from Cape Town. And getting to Cape Town is not the easiest thing in the world either, because it is a really long flight from pretty much everywhere.

Chris: Right.

Gary: And if you factor in two [00:04:50] days – you have the really long flight, maybe a connecting flight, plus a day waiting for the ship or something overnight, its two weeks of transport time; [00:05:00] four days flying, or whatever, plus 10 days on the ship, just in transportation to get to Saint Helena and back. That’s [00:05:10] pretty much how remote it is and why it doesn’t really get a lot of tourism right now.

Chris: Right. Well, and, honestly, this usually falls outside the bounds of what we try and cover on this show, as I try [00:05:20] and cover places you can see with a week or two weeks. And this is one of those that really doesn’t, today, fall in that category although it will [00:05:30] soon. Although, I am not getting the impression that we are going to get Ryanair cheap discount flights down to there. This is not going to be the next hotspot, probably.

Gary: [00:05:40] No. But, I think that if they have weekly flights, say, from Heathrow, it will change it from a two week, just in [00:05:50] transit and then you have to spend eight days on the island for the boat to come back. Such that you could fly down one flight and then fly back the next week. [00:06:00] Or, I assume, there will be over flights coming from, say, Cape Town maybe Namibia or something like that.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Gary: Maybe even Ascension Island, such that this becomes, [00:06:10] in the realm of traveling to other places. Something that maybe takes a couple of days that someone could do on a vacation, as opposed to right now where it requires [00:06:20] commitment to go there. And, I should say, on the boat… So, the R.M.S. Saint Helena is one of two royal mail ships currently in operation – the last two. Its only mission is to go to [00:06:30] Saint Helena and Ascension and it is also half of a cargo ship, half a passenger ship. Most of the passengers that were there for tourism, and there weren’t many – a couple dozen – [00:06:40] tended to be older and retired, people that had two weeks to do this. And then the rest of the people were either native Saints, which are the names of the people from Saint Helena [00:06:50] – they call themselves Saints – or people that were there to work for the airport, that they had some sort of project. So there was one guy from the United States who worked for Honeywell who was [00:07:00] doing an [00:07:00] initial install of a GPS system for kind of local… something to give higher resolution to the planes when they’re landing. Two British guys were there to [00:07:10] fix a weather station. There was another guy there doing a remote sensing platform for isotopes for nuclear blast detection, ’cause Saint Helena is so isolated [00:07:20]. So there is a lot of that sort of stuff and there was, like, two dozen welders from Thailand on the boat

Chris: Interesting. Was the boat expensive?

Gary: It is [00:07:30] probably going to run you an amount… I think it was like $800.

Chris: Okay. Was that one-way?

Gary: Yeah. [00:07:40] So, like, if it was a long-haul flight and when you look at it… and I was talking to some of the Saints… And I should say I had a private room. There are other rooms that are, like [00:07:50], sleep four people. So there are cheaper options available. I don’t think that the price of going to Saint Helena could possibly go up even if [00:08:00] the flights don’t have a ton of competition. So that’s probably what you’re still going to be looking at to fly to Saint Helena when the airport is open.

Chris: And I’m curious – you say [00:08:10] one of two last royal navy mail ships. Do you know where the other one is?

Gary: I don’t know where the other one… No. But I think it’s another… It may either go to [00:08:20] Pitcairn Island or one of the other… Maybe like Tristan or something like that. Either the British Antarctica territory or maybe [00:08:30] South Georgia. I am not sure. It’s got to be one of those two.

Chris: Right. Well and it’s interesting when you say that, because this is almost more a hold-back of a different [00:08:40] era. The fact that they do this still and the strategic importance of why they’re there in the first place really is looking back to the days of the Empire.

Gary: [00:08:50] Yeah. I mean, I should explain some of the history of the island. It was discovered about 500 years ago by the Portuguese, initially. There were never any native inhabitants on the island. So it was uninhabited, settled by [00:09:00] the British, and it was originally given to the British East India Company to manage. And I think, at its peak, there were [00:09:10] almost 7000 people living on the island and its primary function was servicing ships that were going around Africa. Or, I guess, South America at the time perhaps too. But, basically [00:09:20], they would stop there, get fresh water, produce, food before continuing on their journey. And, at its height, I believe two ships a day were stopping in [00:09:30] Saint Helena as opposed to one every three weeks now.

Chris: And my picture of the island – you mentioned, before we started recording, that putting an airport on the island wasn’t [00:09:40] easy. So, I’m picturing something very rocky and mountainous, but not very big.

Gary: I think they said it was 47 square miles is the island, in [ 00:09:50] area and yeah, it is very vertical. A lot of up and down. So the capitol, and really only city on the island, is called Jamestown and that’s basically [00:10:00] at the bottom of a valley. And when you see a picture of it, it is just this long strip of houses going uphill with enormously steep cliffs on either side of it. And a lot of the [00:10:10] driving on the island is up and down. And I think one of guy said that on his way to work and back, he can easily, up and down, go a [00:10:20] vertical distance of almost a mile in the course of the day driving.

Chris: So, what stands out for you in Saint Helena?

Gary: Well, the thing that struck me the most was the people. [00:10:30] And to understand what I mean by that you need to understand a little bit of the history of the island. They say there are three S’s that are involved in the creation of [00:10:40] Saint Helena – soldiers, settlers, and slaves.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Gary: So, it was a military outpost. You had soldiers that were garrisoned there. You had people that came there to start up homesteads and farms. And then, of course, you had slaves [00:10:50]. After slavery was abolished in the British Empire – and I think it was 1834, 1835 – Great Britain began to [00:11:00] actively pursue slaving ships and try to stop the slave trade in the region. So now not only do you have free slaves on the island, but then I think the [00:11:10] estimates were as many as 30’000 slaves who were freed – who were taken form captured slaver ships – were brought to Saint Helena [00:11:20]. Some of them lived and remained, some died on the island because they were in such horrible shape when they were taken off the boat, some were returned to Africa. But, what happened over time is unlike in many places [00:11:30] – like in the Caribbean or in the U.S., basically freed slave populations kept to themselves – on Saint Helena, the island was so small and so remote [00:11:40] that the people just intermarried and blended together. And then there was, I believe, at the beginning of the 20th century, a large group of Chinese laborers [00:11:50] who were brought to the island. The British brought Indian laborers to the island. And everybody, literally, melted together.
So the faces of the Saints… [00:12:00] You’ll see some people you think are Native American. You’ll see some people who you think are Hawaiian, from the pacific. You’ll see some people you think are African. Some people you think are European. Some [00:12:10] people you might think are Asian. And it all comes from this literal intermingling of so many people and I have never seen anything like this [00:12:20] anywhere in the world other than Saint Helena. It’s really quite remarkable. We, in the United States, talk about being a melting pot. The Saints [00:12:30] have us beat. I mean, they are truly, truly a melting pot in a way that I have never seen anywhere else on earth and it’s quite remarkable.

Chris: In other ways [00:12:40], it’s a small town. It’s 4000 people.

Gary: Yeah, but it’s spread out enough and there are enough valleys where getting across the island isn’t [00:12:50] necessarily that easy. I suppose it is easier now there’s cars and whatnot. But, yeah. It’s not a whole lot of people. I’d ask a lot of people and I’d joke like “Well, everybody must know everyone [00:13:00]”. They’d say, “That’s not quite true, but you’ll always know someone in common”. You’re one degree of separation away from everyone. [00:13:10] I was told there are 30’000 Saints. There’s like a Saint Diaspora. So there’s a lot of people on the island who end of leaving and many of them come back, actually [00:13:20], for education, for work reasons. A fair number of them live in Swindon, in the UK. And, and interesting tidbit, in the early 80s they passed [00:13:30] a law in the UK that took away their citizenship.

Chris: Oh, really?

Gary: So they were British citizens. Well, what happened was it was because of Hong Kong. And so they passed a law saying that people in [00:13:40] British territories… because they didn’t want a flood of people coming in from Hong Kong at the turnover. And Saint Helena and a lot of other places kind of got [00:13:50] caught up in that law. So they had their citizenship restored. I want to say it was in 2002 or 2004. That gives you it was taken away in [00:14:00] 1984 and brought back in 2002 or taken away in ’82 and brought back in 2004. But their full citizens now, British passport. So a fair number of them [00:14:10] live in the UK and I think that’s one of the other interesting things that will happen with the airport. It’s going to allow people not only to leave the island easier, but also to come back as well [00:14:20]. And a lot of people do some back and there are a lot of houses that people are building, especially when they retire. They want to return to Saint Helena.

Chris: And, for actual sightseeing, you go [00:14:30] to Saint Helena… In part you went to Saint Helena because it’s hard to do.

Gary: Absolutely. I’ve been to so many places. I mean, I think it was three years ago [00:14:40] I came up with a list of here are the top thirteen places in the word I want to visit. Saint Helena was on that list because of the history. Just because no one goes there. That’s why I [00:14:50] wanted to go. But when you are on the actual island itself, there is actually several things I found that I thought were kind of interesting. The most famous visitor, obviously, was Napoleon.

Chris: Napoleon [00:15:00].

Gary: And so that’s the first thing everyone does. You go to Longwood, which was his home. There’s a part of the island called the Briars, where he stayed for seven weeks when he first came to the island [00:15:10]. He was the guest of one of the residents while they were working on his home and the island had no idea Napoleon was coming. And he just sort of showed up and it was run by the British [00:15:20] East India company at the time. The ship arrived and said “Oh, by the way, Napoleon’s here and the island is now under the direction of the crown directly [00:15:30]”. And they garrisoned it with several thousand troops. They had two boats circling the island 24 hours a day in opposite directions. No boat could leave the island until there [00:15:40] was confirmation Napoleon was in his home. All these safeguards to make sure he didn’t leave.

Chris: Well, and if you remember you history from 1815, it makes perfect sense [00:15:50] because this wasn’t the first place they had exiled him. Obviously, he was on Alba and snuck off and basically the war that had been going on for decades [00:16:00] restarted then in 1815 which culminated in Waterloo, as most of us have heard of. But, the war had finished in 1814 and then he didn’t stay on [00:16:10] the island they had exiled him to, which is why they chose, obviously, Saint Helena in the first place then. [ss] Yeah.

Gary: But he wasn’t the only famous person to come to [00:16:20] Saint Helena. Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, had been to Saint Helena 10 years earlier. And, strangely enough, the first night Napoleon was [00:16:30] in Saint Helena he stayed in a hotel in Jamestown. He slept in the same bed that Wellington slept in 10 years earlier. So…

Chris: [laughs] [00:16:40] Now, did he help decide that he should go here? I don’t know if he was even in on that decision. Did he say, “Hey, I went to that remote island. It should…”? Okay. Just coincidental.

Gary: I don’t think so.

Chris: [00:16:50] Okay.

Gary: Darwin had been there and had some amazing things to say about the plant life on Saint Helena. One of the naturalist there told me some Charles Darwin [00:17:00] quote that he said something to the likes of “If one was to categorize all the plants in the world, a good place to start would be to say this plant is on Saint Helena and this plant is on the rest of the earth.” [00:17:10] Edmond Haley came there during the transit of Venus. There are other people that were there, other than just Napoleon. And I think there isn’t, perhaps, [00:17:20] things to see quite like there is with Napoleon. We have his house. We have his former tomb. But there are things of interest as well. And, I should add…

Chris: Former tomb because he was then [00:17:30] repatriated to Paris.

Gary: Yeah. So, after he died, he was buried on the island in an unmarked grave. And the reason it was [00:17:40] unmarked is because the French, and he had several members of his entourage with him on the island, wanted “Napoleon” listed as his name. Just [00:17:50] “Napoleon” with the date of birth, date of death. The English insisted it say “Napoleon Bonaparte” and they couldn’t agree so they left it blank. And, [00:18:00] what happened… So, after he died, Queen Victoria later bought the land of his house and of his tomb and [00:18:10] gave it to the French king after they restored the monarchy in France.

Chris: The … King.

Gary: To this day the tomb, the Longwood house, and the house in the Briars, which was [00:18:20] given at a later time, is the property of the French government. And we got to meet with the French consul, which is on the island. The term consul is an honorary one, but the guy is a [00:18:30] member of the diplomatic corp in France. He’s lived there for over 30 years, basically a native at this point. And they are responsible for the [00:18:40] upkeep of home and all of the various Napoleonic sites.

Chris: Hmm. Interesting.

Gary: And they do a good job of it, too. I mean they… it’s really nice.

Chris: And [00:18:50] you mentioned the wildlife – the flora and the fauna. Is there a particular place that you recommend people go to see that or particular animals that [00:19:00] you have…

Gary: Yes.

Chris: Okay.

Gary: The endemic creatures that you’re going to find on the island, in terms of animal life, is not that sexy. You’re not going to see any mega fauna. There’s [00:19:10] no native mammals on the island. There’s one bird, called a Wire Bird. There’s about 400 of them in existence, all of which are on Saint Helena. There are tours you can go [00:19:20] see the Wire Birds. They are tracked very carefully in terms of nesting and eggs and things like that. They are very easy to see.
And then the plant life on the island. A lot of the [00:19:30] native trees are members of the daisy family. You might be thinking, “A daisy is not a tree. A Daisy is a flower”. [00:19:40] Well, it is true. But when a seed floats over the ocean, lands on an island that has several million years by itself to be unmolested, it can evolve into a tree. And so there are [00:19:50] several species of trees on the island that are basically in the daisy family, and several of those tress … and several of the plants on the island – there were three at least, I think, that were mentioned – [00:20:00] were down to a single specimen. There was one plant left and they managed to bring them back. And I think that’s quite remarkable. So there’s an area, actually [00:20:10] near the airport, called the Millennium Forest and it’s a gumwood forest. The only real one of its kind in the world. And when I say Gumwood [00:20:20] I’m not referring to the Gum tree in Australia or Eucalyptus.

Chris: Oh, that’s where I went. Okay.

Gary: These are… Yeah. And right now they’re not very big. It is in a rather dry [00:20:30] part of the island that it’s on, but it’s the only one of its kind in the world. And then the other place is on top of Diana’s Peak, which is highest point of the island, and from there I also went with a naturalist. [00:20:40] And we stopped at this one area, and it was quite small, and there were these little kind of dirt embankments on either side of the trail. And he showed me these ferns and [00:20:50] he said “80% of all the known specimens of this fern is within a five foot radius around us right now”.

Chris: Huh.

Gary: So there’s all sorts of these plants [00:21:00] and the one plant you’ll see everywhere on the island is flax. Flax used to be the primary industry on the island and it ended quite abruptly in the 1960s when the [00:21:10] British mail service decided to switch binding their mail, instead of using…

Chris: Twine.

Gary: …twine they shifted to nylon. And that [00:21:20] basically turned, like, half of the island unemployed overnight.

Chris: Now, you say a daisy related to a tree and, of course, my first picture then is of giant daisies. But I [00:21:30] suspect that I’ve got that picture wrong.

Gary: I would never have guessed it was related to a daisy if I hadn’t been told.

Chris: Okay.

Gary: It’s a genetic thing. It doesn’t look, necessarily, [00:21:40] like a daisy. Although the trees do flower and I don’t think we actually saw any flowering, but it’s not something I think that anybody would notice unless you happen to be an expert in the subject.

Chris: [00:21:50] Mm-hmm. I’m guessing that the flower, when it does flower, probably is daisy-like. But, interesting.

Gary: Yeah.

Chris: Who’s the most interesting – you mentioned a couple different locals [00:22:00] that you met, naturalists and such. Who left the biggest impression on you?

Gary: Oh, probably a guy by the name of Basil George. That’s a very English name.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Gary: And Basil [00:22:10]. Very interesting guy. Lived on the island his whole life. Married a Scottish woman and retired. I think he was almost 80 years old. I think he was like 78 or [00:22:20] something. But, really interesting guy. Fascinating stories. He was the one that pointed out that the history of the island is really on the faces of the people. And he was saying they did his ancestry [00:22:30] and some were English settlers, some were soldiers. He had freed slaves. Everyone has kind of a light.. a darker colored skin, kind of like [00:22:40] you would see with a mixed race person. And he say “Well, yeah. One of my great-grandfathers was Chinese.” He had fascinated stories about the island and he too was very interested in [00:22:50] what the future was going to bring to the island. And we even had a discussion of could Saint Helena be independent and I think that’s a theoretical. There’s no movement for independence [00:23:00].
What someone pointed out, that I thought was very interesting, the island was never setup to be self-sufficient and it never has been in its history. It was designed to be [00:23:10] a port for ships. That’s really all it was and ever since that kind of went away, they’re on the dole pretty much. A lot of the people work for the [00:23:30] government. There’s a lot of money that comes in from the British government. That is, pretty much, how the economy functions right now.

Chris: And you mentioned a dozen tourists [00:23:30] on the boat. So they don’t have a big tourism influx, I’m assuming. Do they have much tourism infrastructure, then?

Gary: No. [00:23:40] So, I got to meet with the tourism people and they told me there is an occasional cruise which that will stop.

Chris: An Around the World cruise or something?

Gary: [00:23:50] Either that or a reposition.

Chris: Okay. Sure.

Gary: That has to cross the Atlantic. So, about a week after I left there was a ship that was going to stop with about 1500 people, which the island in no way, shape, or form can handle that. I mean, they don’t have cars to drive people around. They don’t have enough taxis. They don’t have restaurants [00:24:10]. They just don’t have anything. So, outside of the occasional cruise ship stop, which I think they get maybe four a year, and that includes I think smaller [00:24:20] boats as well like expedition class ships. They said they get about 2000 people visiting the island.

Chris: Hmm.

Gary: And their hope is that it can one day, [00:24:30] with the airport, get to about 30’000. But it’s going to require… there’s only one real hotel on the island.

Chris: Well that’s what I assumed. You’re not going to have a lot. [00:24:40] Yeah.

Gary: I stayed at, basically, which was a boarding house. It was someone’s home and they served dinner and breakfast. Not quite a B&B, it was [00:24:50] kind of more like a boarding house.

Chris: Were a lot of the boarders then people working on the airport, or…?

Gary: Yeah.

Chris: Okay.

Gary: I think they were all men at the place we were staying at. Then there’s a couple other smaller places [00:25:00] where people have spare rooms, and that’s about it. There’s no way they could handle 30’000 visitors a year right now. So there’s been talk of building. Right now what everyone’s waiting for is the airport to [00:25:10] be opened and they want to find out who’s actually going to fly there, because that’s a big question mark as well.
They have a whole bunch of airlines that are interested, [00:25:20] but no one has committed yet. So British Airways is possible, South African Airways is possible, some former pilots have talked about buying a plane and running a route that would basically go [00″25″30] Heathrow, Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Ascension, Saint Helena. Something like that. There probably could be flights from [00:25:40] Swakopmund in Namibia, which is kind of the closest major city. Cape Town or Johannesburg. Those are options as well, but no one knows yet and they’re all sort of waiting.

Chris: What [00:25:50] surprised you?

Gary: The people surprised me, how industrious. On the one hand, I heard a lot of people say that the islanders were not [00:26:00] that entrepreneurial. Yet, I found a guy growing coffee. Some of the rarest coffee in the world, the Saint Helena coffee. Hardly any of it’s exported. He runs a coffee shop right at [00:26:10] the waterfront and that’s where most of it is consumed. One guy opened up a distillery. The world’s most remote distillery, where they [00:26:20] create rum and gin and a whole bunch of other things. Not a lot of food grown on the island anymore. It is really dependent upon the ship. For example, the radio station talked [00:26:30] about a potato shortage while we were there and because they found some sort of disease in the potatoes in South Africa. So, no potatoes for a month. That happens. This [00:26:40] place, which is so remote, the people that live there it’s just home. They just consider it home and I think that as odd [00:26:50] as maybe I thought it was of your only communication with the outside world. You know, the internet was really slow. It’s very difficult to get on or off the island. But that was [00:27:00] just the norm for them, and it’s been that way forever. That’s the entire time they’ve been living on that island and we’re so used to the idea that we can go anywhere we want and communicate [00:27:10] instantly that to be in a place where that is simply not possible was kind of eye opening.

Chris: One thing I’m curious about, too. You’ve gotten [00:27:20] known for your photography, I think it’s fair to say, these days. Certainly since you first came on the show oh so many years ago. In fact, for those of you who don’t know, Gary has just won [00:27:30], I’m going to say three awards for his photography: the Laurel Thomas Award, the North American Travel Journalism Award, and then [00:27:40] it’s about to be announced and by the time this comes out it will have been announced, a Northern Lights Journalism Award. And I think I’m probably missing at least one new one.

Gary: Well, the Laurel Thomas [00:27:50] Award is separate from the Munster Award, which is for the photographer of the year. So, I did win a Laurel Thomas Award, which is given for photo-illustration of travel. So, that’s [00:28:00] like for a particular article. And the Photographer of the Year Award is for a whole portfolio.

Chris: But, also, from the Society of American Travel Writers.

Gary: Yes.

Chris: Got it. Okay. [00:28:10] I knew I was missing one. Okay. So, given that, what picture are you most pleased with from your trip to Saint Helena? [00:28:20]

Gary: One of the very first photos I took on the boat, because when we arrived. The thing about Saint Helena that was good for photography is the fact that [00:28:30] every day I was there was partially cloudy. So you would have these clouds move in and it would be overcast and it might sprinkle a little bit, and then it would [00:28:40] move away and it would be blue sky peeping through with sunbeams coming down. So you had very dramatic skies all the time. And when we first pulled in [00:28:50] there were these clouds hanging over the island but the space for the sun to just sort of peak through and shine on it.
And the interesting this is when you see the island from a boat [00:29:00], it looks like the moon. I mean, you just don’t see any plant life, there’s no… it’s just barren rock. And when you get on the island and the [00:29:10] interior, it’s totally different. It’s lush and green on the interior of the island, but you have absolutely no idea just looking at it from the sea because you can’t see it from there [00:29:20] . So I have a couple pictures of that, a couple pictures when I climbed Diana’s Peak, which is the highest point on the island. I had some very interest lighting effects with the clouds going on [00:29:30]. I haven’t posted any of them yet, but hopefully I’ll be doing some of that in the next few days.

Chris: Well, we didn’t mention, we’re calling Gary. [00:20:40] One of the reasons we wanted to get this interview in when we did, by the time you hear this he’ll be on a boat going up the coast of Africa for about a month. Or, [00:29:50] possibly even done with that by the time this show comes out. But we finally got good bandwidth so we wanted to get this interview in while we could. One of the questions we [00:30:00] ask, and this is a very appropriate episode to ask it on, is when did you feel closest to home and when did you feel furthest from home?

Gary: I felt furthest from home [00:30:10] when I was one the ship, because you’re just in the middle of the ocean. I mean, there’s nothing. Every day at noon, they would [00:30:20] do a ship’s announcement talking about the positioning of the ship, distance traveled, things like that. And they’d be like “And, our nearest point of land is 700 miles away.” And so this isn’t like [00:30:30] going on a cruise in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, where you’re basically hugging the coast. This is open water in the middle of nowhere.

Chris: Well, not a big ship either.

Gary: [00:30:40] Not huge. It was bigger than I thought it would be. But it was a far cry from a cruise ship.

Chris: You said 110 passengers or so?

Gary: [00:30:50] Yeah. And then in the front there was room for I don’t know how many shipping containers. Maybe, like, two or three dozen of those. Not a lot, but enough to supply the [00:31:00] island.

Chris: Hmm.

Gary: And then, closest to home. They have television on the island now, a satellite television. So I was able to go to the place called the Consulate [00:31:10] Hotel, which is kind of the only hotel in town. I found out they have the best internet. All calls out of the same satellite connection. Extremely expensive. 13 pounds 20 for two hours [00:31:20] of internet access and for a brief period of time I was able to be on my laptop, have something to drink at a bar, watch a soccer game. And, [00:31:30] for at least a small period of time, you’d think you were pretty much anywhere in the UK, almost.

Chris: [laughs] Well, I think we’ve kind of run out of [00:31:40] things to say about Saint Helena, I’m going to guess. Before I get to my last question, is there anything else we should know?

Gary: You’re going to probably start seeing some more news stories about Saint [00:31:50] Helena in the next year or so. Maybe next two years, I guess, before the airport opens.

Chris: It’s opening in 2016, you said?

Gary: February 2016 [00:32:00] is the current scheduled date it’s opening. And I should mention about the airport, it is really quite an undertaking. It is a far bigger engineering project than I [00:32:10] ever thought it was before I went on the island. There are literally putting in, I think it was, over 300 feet of landfill [00:32:20] to basically fill in an entire valley to put the runway on top of it. And the thing you have to remember, so this is a half a million [00:32:30] dump trucks full of fill.

Chris: Oh my.

Gary: They have tons of huge dump trucks that they had to get to the island. But to have them get to the island, they had to build a [00:32:40] jetty for the roll-on and roll-off ships in order to be able to deliver the trucks. And then they had to build a road from the [00:32:50] jetty to the airport site. So there was a ton of things that they had to build just before they even started the airport in order to get the things there. So it was a [00:33:00] massive logistical problem just to work everything out. And so there is a company, Basil Reed. It’s a [00:33:10] South African construction company that won the bid for it and they had to build all this stuff. And they’re building more. They’re building a breakwater for a harbor. They’ve never had a harbor. When [00:33:20] the ship lands, you don’t dock. There’s no dock. You have to put a tender in.

Chris: Put a tender in.

Gary: Yeah. So when they built this jetty for these ships it was the [00:33:30] first ship in history that ever actually connected to the island, took cargo off, and then left again.

Chris: Hmm.

Gary: And this [00:33:40] island has been around for 500 years and that had never happened before. So and then the other big thing, in addition to the airport, is that there’s a good chance they may be getting a fiber-optic connection. So not more [00:33:50] satellite internet, no more expensive phone calls. That they may actually be boosted into the 21st century as they move a fiber cable from South Africa to Brazil they would [00:34:00] connect Saint Helena up. So that has huge potential too. There’s not a lot of people on this island and even a small call center could do wonders for their economy.

Chris: [00:34:10] Hm. Yeah, no. Certainly the ability to have jobs and things like that, if there were fiber, would be probably, possibly even more [00:34:20] substantial changes than the airport.

Gary: I was telling people that and I think the airport is such a physical, obvious thing. Getting on and off the island. And that’s been [00:34:30] probably the determining characteristic of the island is just its remoteness that people may have overlooked the benefits of getting fiber. And I think that will be huge as well [00:34:40].

Chris: Interesting. Well as we get up to our last three questions. One thing that makes you laugh and say “Only in Saint Helena.”

Gary: The license plates are all [00:34:50] four digits or less. In fact, I don’t think. The highest number license plate I saw that 3922 and I didn’t get to see number [00:35:00] one, which is evidently on an old Land Rover. But I did get to see numbers five, seven, and nine and so a lot of people. They also just [00:35:10] instituted a five digit phone number. The phone numbers were four digits and a lot of people had the phone number the exact same as their license plate. So you just needed to know that number [00:35:20] for the person.

Chris: You wonder even if you need license plates on an island where the importation of cars is going to be fairly controlled. So.

Gary: There’s a lot [00:35:30] of older cars of the island, as you might expect, because the cost of bringing in. So, it’s funny. There are many old cars and then I saw a lot of brand new cars. [00:35:40] Like, really nice cars. And if you’re going to spend the money to bring in a car, you might as well get a nice car.

Chris: [laughs]

Gary: I swear to God, one quarter of all [00:35:50] the cars on the island were Land Rovers.

Chris: Well, it’s got to last a while, too.

Gary: Yeah.

Chris: Last two questions. You really know you’re in Saint Helena when [00:36:00] what?

Gary: You hear the boat blow its whistle and it goes [deep whistle] and that’s when you know you’re on Saint Helena. Literally [00:36:10]. That’s how they announce it.

Chris: [laughs] And, if you had to summarize Saint Helena in three words, what three words would you use?

Gary: [00:36:20] Remote. Unique. And historical.

Chris: Excellent. And, Gary, where can people go and read about the [00:36:30] award-winning travels that you have been taking.

Gary: They can find it at We are recording this at the end of March 2014 [00:36:40] and hopefully we will have some things from Saint Helena up soon. And then some things later this summer once I get back from my other trip up the west coast of Africa [00:36:50]. But, I certainly have a lot to say about it as you can tell from this episode. Small place, but extremely fascinating. And when the airport opens up, for those [00:37:00] people who are rather intrepid, it’s someplace I would strongly consider looking at. And if you’re really, really intrepid I could consider doing it before the airport opens up [00:37:10].

Chris: Excellent. Well thanks, Gary. Thanks so much for coming back on the show.

Gary: Thanks for having me.


Chris: Before we get into this week’s interview, I do have two news stories for you. In the first [00:00:40] one: you may have thought they couldn’t squeeze anymore passengers onto a plane, but companies at the recent aircraft interiors expo are betting you are wrong. One company, Zodiac [00:00:50] Aerospace, revealed a new design – a set of three seats with one passenger facing forwards, and one facing backwards, and then another facing forward. The seat bottoms also flip up, like seats at the ballpark, [00:01:00] to let passengers board and exit faster. I like that second idea, but the idea of facing your seatmate for the duration of the flight … a little less so.

In the second news story, [00:01:10] San Jose International Airport performed an unscheduled security audit this week. Okay. That’s not really what they did. They had a teenager, instead, run away from home, climb a fence, and [00:01:20] board the landing gear of a jet. Fortunately he did not die, which is very likely which you try and do that in an unpressurized jet. I mentioned an unscheduled [00:01:30] audit of their security system. You’ll be glad to know that security cameras did catch him in the act, but no one noticed until he had already landed. Some questions are being asked. [00:01:40] For links to both those stories, check out the show notes at


Chris: In news of the community this week I heard from [00:37:20] Jim who wrote about the episode that we did on Rega. “I have not been to Latvia, but went to neighboring Estonia on a tour in 2009. Lots of drunk Brits [00:37:30] there, too. But I have never seen a place where so many people were so happy. The freedom was palpable. But, there is a problem and Latvia has the same problem. A large minority of [00:37:40] ethnic Russians. Estonia was a favorite retirement spot for red army officers and there are a lot of Russians there, 300’000 out of a population of 1.3 million. [00:37:50] In Latvia, about 35% of the population is Russian speaking. Both Estonia and Latvia, but not Lithuania, border Russia. With Putin actively re-litigating the end of the [00:38:00] cold war, I’m sure they are not at all comfortable. Neither should we be comfortable. The Baltic States are all members of NATO and the U.S. is obligated by treaty to assist them if [00:38:10] they are attacked.”
I may have mentioned I went to a luncheon put on by the Berlin Tourism Board recently and they expressed a similar sentiment about how people are feeling in the Baltic States [00:38:20] these days. With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, drop an email to host at or leave a comment on this episode at [00:38:30] You can also join the Facebook community, follow me on Twitter @Chris2x, or go to to pre-populate a tweet that tells people how much you love the show [00:38:40]. And, as always, thanks so much for listening.

Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

5 Responses to “Travel to Saint Helena – Episode 417”



Ok, you got me: I didn’t read the title of this episode close enough. I thought for sure we were going to Central Oregon, and not once did you discuss the 1980 eruption. Ha! Even when I realized my mistake, I knew I was in for an educational episode. As an American with limited vacation time, I can’t say I’ll be on the next boat or the one after that, but it was very interesting to hear about such a remote part of the world. Maybe someday when I retire. Thanks for another interesting episode.

Dennis Strissel


Very interesting since we lived on the Island with our two children from 1980 – 1984. The island hasn’t changed a lot and we stay in contact with some of our friends there. I can be contacted at

Lesley Edwards


my 3gt grandfather was a soldier at st helena when napolean was there and my 2nd gt grandfather was born there



wow, that is a unique connection

Anne Griffiths


Hi Lesley. Your family history is very similar to mine with my 3gt grandfather a soldier on the island when Napoeon was there with my great great grandfather John Thomas Gamble born there also. Hope to visit the island before airport is built. Great episode!

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