Stuart and I made the five-day journey from Cape Town to St Helena and back a couple of years ago, on what we thought was going to be one of the last ever sailings. It was an unforgettable experience.
The current ship, built in Aberdeen in 1990, carries half cargo and half passengers. As the island's lifeline, it brings in almost all the food and products needed to make life bearable, indeed, viable. Most of the crew are 'Saints', ie have been born on the island. So are a good proportion of the passengers, for many are returning from working abroad, mostly on Ascension Island, 700 miles away, or the Falklands 4000 miles again from Ascension Island.
As you board the RMS, as it is known, you see the cargo being loaded. Gradually, the bows are piled high with containers - cars, fridges, toilet rolls, hammers and nails, fresh fruit and vegetables, Coca Cola. In contrast, the stern deck and accommodation below provide passengers with all the ingredients of a luxury cruise: comfort, superb food, and five star service. Indeed, there is something a bit old fashioned about the RMS, with its 11 o'clock beef tea, quoits and deck cricket.
The plan was to replace the RMS with regular flights. While people had mixed feelings about this, as the RMS is much loved, not only was the ship coming to the end of its life but better access was needed to medical care beyond that provided by a GP practice, a 'cottage' hospital and days spent in a ship's cabin en route to Cape Town for treatment. As you can imagine, it's best to arrange NOT to get ill between sailings. Indeed, the mortality rate is no longer acceptable for a modern society. The island also needs to become more self sufficient. It is currently dependent on British Government funding, about £30 million per year.
One of the best ways of becoming more self sufficient, it was thought, was to attract tourists, for which these days you need an airport, although cruise ships occasionally drop by. You have to be particularly determined to reach St Helena by the RMS, given that you must disembark at St Helena's only port and main settlement, Jamestown, by lighter as the ship cannot dock in the bay. If travelling from Ascension Island, you must first make the journey from Brize Norton by military plane.
A few years ago, the island's Director of Economic Development said, "What motivates me is [that] I don’t think the island’s situation is very good. Average wage £6,000, hospital’s poor, school’s extremely poor, 20 per cent of kids have got at least one parent working overseas. The place is chronically institutionalised because all of the money comes from the Castle [the island's government]. The island is earning £2 per person per day from its own activities, so we would be one of the poorest places in Africa, and yet you drive around and it feels like it’s a slightly poorer version of the UK.” (Financial Times 2013)
The island's relatively comfortable way of life despite its lack of local resources, results from its almost total dependency on the British government, hence the search for other sources of income, like tourism. Department for International Development (DfID) forecast that tourist numbers would increase from fewer than 1,000 a year to 59,000 by 2042 once the airport was operational, spending a projected £66 million.
So, why has the island been completely cut off since the end of February?
This time last year, the inhabitants should have been preparing for a grand opening of a new airport and, thereafter, regular flights to South Africa. However, it turned out that planes could not land safely because of the extent of turbulence and wind shear. A single test flight was carried out with a propellor aircraft, whereas the intention had been to deploy a twin-engined jet. A commercial flight did manage to land on the island in April 2016, but only on its third attempt. The opening ceremony was cancelled.
The airport has been built on the only piece of land flat enough to take a runway - right on the top of the extinct volcano which comprises St Helena - and even then a considerable amount of earth moving was needed. It is a windswept location, not far from where Napoleon ended up, which is why the British government housed him there. Not only was the location not ideal, but it was where the St Helena plover, a flightless bird unique to the island, happens to live, which meant that the runway apparently had to be truncated.
This view of Deadwood Plain (left below), where Boer prisoners of war camped out (left) and the golf course (right) shows the barren land on the top of the island and the steep cliffs surrounding.
The airport project cost £285 million, drawn from the UK's overseas aid budget. As you would expect, the UK Parliament held an enquiry into the airport problems. Extracts from the report of the Public Accounts Committee read as follows.
'We asked the department how if Charles Darwin could have experienced and described the problem of wind shear on St Helena in 1836, it commissioned a £285.5m airport, paid for by the British taxpayer, without properly appreciating the danger of this effect.'
Not only is very expensive remedial work being carried out, but DfID is still trying to find an airline able to operate flights to the island.
'The department is in discussion with a number of alternative airlines to provide this service because Comair, the airline currently contracted to provide a weekly commercial flight, does not have an aircraft of suitable size for landing on the southern approach,' the MPs’ report said. (Financial Times)
Local and international investors have spent a lot of money on building and refurbishing hotels and guest houses, training hospitality staff and tour guides and improving transport in preparation for the arrival of tourists, so far all in vain. As far as we know, heads have not rolled.
Nevertheless, despite the airport debacle, the island was still being served by the RMS until, alas, at the beginning of March this year, the ship experienced technical difficulties with its propellor shaft, and was sent to dry dock in Simonstown near Cape Town to undergo repairs. Fortunately the repairs are now complete and the ship has gone back to its routine sailings. Last Friday, the RMS St Helena left from Cape Town carrying 130 passengers, 67 crew, 49 x 20′ containers, 2 x 40′ containers, 6 x 20′ reefer containers, and 139 tonnes of non-containerised cargo, according to the official statement.
Another piece of good news is that a charter plane with 60 passengers also managed to land this week. One proposal was to run twice-weekly round trip flights from St Helena to Accra in Ghana, where people can connect to Europe and the US. Such an arrangement would bring in more passengers than currently, though not as many as the original projection. Already some lighter aircraft for business travel and medical evacuation have started to use the runway, though from the south rather than the north. Meanwhile the originally planned flights to Johannesburg using a bigger aircraft are on hold.
So, is it worth tourists visiting St Helena, given all the hassle? Short answer, yes, that is if you like peace and quiet, rocky landscapes, Georgian architecture, whale sharks, dolphins and birds, oh...and coffee. If you do, St Helena is for you.
And don't forget Napoleon's residences at Longwood House and Briars Pavilion, with their attractive gardens.
Nevertheless, the whole sorry saga of the airport does raise issues about the viability of very isolated islands. St Helena never had an indigenous population but was settled during Britain's colonial era to facilitate its global ambitions. Here ships could take on water and oversee Atlantic shipping. The islanders who live there can trace their ancestry back two or three hundred years, many of them descendants of slaves rescued from slave ships during the nineteenth century. The community has been supported financially and in kind by the British government ever since. However, St Helena no longer serves a military purpose and simply exists as a community because people have had their home there for generations and Britain has been able to afford to supply it.
What about other isolated islands?
The RMS now only visits Tristan da Cunha and its 'capital' Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, a fishing village of about 80 families, once per year. It lies a couple of thousand miles to the south of St Helena. There is no airstrip or any possibility of one being developed. Annual visits are also made by research ships and the occasional supply ship. The families who live there are, as far as I understand self supporting, relying on fishing in particular, though Britain supports a school and medical centre. It also provides help in emergencies, as when the volcano there erupted in 1961, an event which I well remember, The entire population of 264 islanders took to the water in open boats and sailed to an uninhabited island from which they were picked up by a Dutch passenger ship that took them via Cape Town to Britain.They lived in an RAF camp until their return in 1963. More or less self sufficient they might be, but still vulnerable to unpredictable events.
Ascension Island is a military communications centre with no permanent population, but with 1000-1500 support workers, mostly from St Helena, together with military staff from the UK and USA. Saints have to work for a minimum of 20 years on the island to qualify for a pension. The island is supplied through the regular schedule of the RMS, although it also has an air link with the military airport at Brize Norton. Its only purpose is military, though tourists do visit for the wildlife.
It is a similar story of dependency in the Falkland Islands, population 2,900, which would almost certainly have been handed over to Argentina after the junta collapsed if that country had not got over ambitious and invaded, leading to war with Britain. Although the island never had a real role in colonial Britain, its population insists that it should continue to be part of its sphere. They want to 'remain British', even though Margaret Thatcher took away their automatic right to British citizenship the year before the invasion, one of the reasons why Argentina thought it could get away with it. The same happened to residents of the other islands. However, the Falkland Islands are largely self-financing, apart from the costs of the military base, which are paid for by the UK taxpayer. The islanders are guarded by 1,300 service personnel, slightly more than one soldier for every couple of islanders. The cost was £61 million in 2012-13, increasing by about £2 million a year, more than £20,000 per islander, in addition to overheads.
These far flung islands raise the question of how long expatriate communities which may have originated in Britain hundreds of years ago should still be considered part of the wider British overseas territories. Is it enough just to wish to remain British? After all, these days the UK does not support the Welsh settlers in Patagonia or, indeed, settlers in most other areas of the world. The Falklands is probably close enough to the Argentine mainland to integrate, if the will were there, which is doubtful according to the most recent referendum, but St Helena and Tristan da Cunha?
The Atlantic islands are at the extreme end of a spectrum of remoteness, yet other islands also experience relative isolation from mainland Britain, though geographically and politically they are intrinsic parts of it: Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides. These islands seem surprisingly close, in the context of St Helena! Yet they too have had to confront the issue of their own survival as depopulation has threatened their traditional way of life.
The financial and other costs of an island life are substantial, even if people's lifestyles are modest. Island authorities have to cover the costs of transporting visiting teachers between schools, managing hostel accommodation for pupils and carrying out medical evacuations. Access to IT may have brought people across the world together, but the quality of service may be inadequate for them to rely on it too much for work. Residents pay more for their fuel and goods, including those which are ordered online. Even holidays are difficult when the costs of taking a ferry or plane to a mainland airport are taken into account. Many smaller islands of which St Kilda is the most famous, have been abandoned but some tiny communities like the Out Skerries and Fair Isle (left above) carry on, with their tiny one-teacher schools and seasonal travel arrangements.
Several Scottish islands have taken the solution into their own hands. They have welcomed new residents, many of whom have come from quite different communities far away on the mainland to make a new life for their families. While some new islanders may bring existing domestic troubles with them or find the weather or isolation difficult to deal with, many others become active members of their new communities and are vital to their survival. Indeed, not just survival. Many traditional communities thrive with the influx of a new members, who often embrace the culture, and indeed, in the Hebrides, the Gaelic language, enthusiastically (photo of Uist right above). New residents grow businesses and become a source of increased employment.
It is interesting, though, in a place like Orkney which comprises several islands, how different island communities have reacted differently to the threat of depopulation and have become more or less welcoming, more or less attractive, to new inhabitants. Some islands, like Sanday (left) thrive while others become emptier. Much depends on the quality of community facilities like the school. If it is good, people will stay.
Keeping remote communities alive is not just a financial decision, however. If we can afford a nuclear deterrent with its potential to destroy all life as we know it, then we can surely afford to nurture and protect life, to keep even these most isolated of communities going. At the end of the day, it is for the islanders themselves to decide whether their way of life is still sustainable, whether it is too far removed from the advantages of a more developed society: that is their choice. I suppose there may be some limits to expenditure. However, until such limits are demonstrable, perhaps because of a collapse in our own economy, then I am quite happy for my taxes to be used to support the costs.
And in return?
In return, we have the pleasure of knowing that there are people in this world who are satisfied with a simpler, perhaps riskier, way of life than our own, one nearer to the basics. Such reminders are good for us.