As the ship plows through choppy ocean water the color of asphalt, heavy clouds obscure the sky. A five-day voyage from the sunny shore of Capetown, South Africa, comes to an end as a dark, jagged silhouette emerges from the mist.
The clouds give it a ghostly appearance as its contours sharpen up, looking almost unreal in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. The island is Saint Helena, 2,000 miles from Capetown and more than twice that distance from Great Britain. Together with Tristan da Cunha, 1,500 miles farther south, and Ascension Island 800 miles to the northwest, Saint Helena is part of the British Overseas Territories.
Life on Saint Helena was probably most remote from the rest of the world between 1981 and 2002. An act of Parliament in far-away London had just removed the Saints’ (as the islanders called themselves) rights to live and work in Great Britain. In 2002, the British Overseas Territories Act restored them to full British citizenship.
Seen from space, the island looks harshly dissected. Small rivers and rainwater running off the volcanic rock have cut deep, V-shaped valleys.
The visual effect is strongest in Jamestown, the island’s capital. The downtown district looks just like its counterparts in England. Unusual is the fact that it’s less than a mile long, and only 500 feet wide.
On both sides of Market Street, barren slopes rise steeply beyond the first row of buildings. Like an American town in the deep Appalachians, Jamestown is in the shade morning and afternoon.
Oct. 15 is a milestone calendar day on Saint Helena for two reasons. On Oct. 15, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was brought here for his final exile. Back then, the shortest trip to Saint Helena took almost a week by sea. Exactly 202 years after Napoleon’s arrival, the first commercial flight landed on the island, shortening the trip from Capetown to five hours. As of this month, regular scheduled flights are available on British Airways Comair.
The 4,500 “Saints” will see their lives change as more tourists than ever arrive on the 6-by-10-mile island. Summer, starting Dec. 21 south of the equator, will bring pleasant weather without excessive heat. Historic sites like Napoleon’s house are attractive. Excursions across the volcanic landscape are too, with plants like the ebony tree that can’t be seen anywhere else.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.