Though Portuguese navigators first recorded the island in 1502, naming it for the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, it is the British East India Company that has dominated the island’s history. In the heyday of the company the island was an important replenishment stop on trade routes to the East. Everyone from James Cook to William Bligh has set anchor offshore over the centuries. And Napoleon aside, it has long been a useful prison for the British crown, the Alcatraz of the Atlantic.

The Zulu king Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo was banished here in 1889, and spent nearly a decade on the island. St Helena also played host to thousands of prisoners from the SA War of 1899-1902. Today the sombre Boer graveyard near the settlement of St Paul’s marks the final resting place of many who never made it home.

Walk it off

With those stories ringing in your ears, you’ll step outside the museum to wonder at the curious stairway reaching up and out of the steep Jamestown valley.

The 699 steps running vertiginously up the slope are known as Jacob’s Ladder, and it’s one of the quirkier attractions of the island.

The steps date back to 1829, when they linked Jamestown to the hilltop village of Half Tree Hollow above. A railway track once ferried goods up and down, but today the steps and handrails are more of a challenge for visitors and locals racing to the top. Built at an incline of up to 45°, with each of the 699 steps at least 30cm high, it’s no mean feat. My fastest time, after two attempts, was 10.03, just about double the current record.

If you’re looking for less strenuous ways to stretch your legs, St Helena doesn’t disappoint.

Picture: St. Helena/Richard Holmes
Picture: St. Helena/Richard Holmes

"Worse, almost continuous hiccupping, restless, pulse 102 and weak, intermittently delirious, tried to walk and collapsed."

It was the morning of May 2 1821 and in the damp confines of Longwood House, up in the misty central highlands of the island of St Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte lay dying. Refusing medication and slipping in and out of consciousness, according to the records of his physician, Dr Francesco Antommarchi, Napoleon’s duel with stomach cancer was in its final throes. Three days later, at 5.49pm on May 5, Napoleon died.

Since his arrival on St Helena in October 1815 Napoleon had been an unhappy guest of the British East India Company and its garrison of government soldiers. The island, 1,800km off the coast of southern Angola, made a fine jail for Napoleon, who had lost the Battle of Waterloo and found himself a prisoner of the irascible governor Hudson Lowe.

It’s been two centuries since his death, but the French leader is still indelibly linked with this beguiling island in the mid-Atlantic. Officially a British Overseas Territory, its colourful history runs from trading companies to freed slaves, and long years as one of the most isolated communities on earth.

The arrival of direct flights in October 2017 changed that, swapping a five-day sea voyage on the RMS St Helena for an easy flight from Joburg. With the prospect of tourists jetting in there’s a new energy in the island’s tourism industry: local guides lead an array of island tours, and guesthouses have spruced up their rooms to offer a wider range of accommodation. I loved the homely feel of my family-run B&B as much as my chic rooms at the luxury Mantis St Helena.

Napoleon Bonaparte. Picture: SUPPLIED
Napoleon Bonaparte. Picture: SUPPLIED

All of which has made it easier for travellers to soak up the Napoleonic history of the sites where he spent his final days.

That pilgrimage typically begins with a visit to Longwood House, one of three Napoleonic properties owned and managed by the French government.

After a few months at a local home, The Briars, Napoleon spent most of his years on the island at Longwood House, even as he groused that it was unfit for a man of his station. "Like a dank cellar," he grumbled on arrival. Then again, it was a converted farmhouse prone to damp, battered by wind and often shrouded in mist, so he may have had a point.

Today Longwood House looks much as it would have in Napoleon’s day, decorated with original furniture including the billiard table around which he dictated his memoirs. In the wooden shutters Napoleon had spyholes cut so that he could peer out without his captors intruding on his privacy. In the bathroom remains the deep copper bath where he often took meals and consulted with the advisers who had followed him to the island.

After his death, Napoleon’s body was sealed inside four caskets before being interred in a site of his choosing, a leafy glade in the nearby Sane Valley.

It remains a serene place, reached along a path of soft grass overlooked by Norfolk pines and bougainvillea. In a quiet glade the stone walls and manicured lawns around his tomb remain, even if Napoleon does not. In 1840 the French received permission to return the emperor home, and today his body lies under the soaring dome of Les Invalides in Paris.

But it’s not only Napoleonic history that makes St Helena such a beguiling destination. This volcanic outcrop is blessed with remarkable natural bounty, above sea level and beneath, and a colourful cultural history.

It’s a history well told in the cosy St Helena Museum, situated in the island’s capital settlement of Jamestown.

Trip Planner

Getting there: Airlink offers
weekly flights (Saturdays) from
Joburg to St Helena. A midweek
flight, some from Cape Town, will
operate during the high season
between December 2019 and
March 2020.

Getting around: There is a
limited bus service, but a hire car
is best for discovering the island.
Local tour operators offer a range
of guided excursions.

Visas: SA passport holders do
not require a visa, though a £20
landing fee is payable.

Currency: The St Helena pound
has parity with the British pound.
Travel insurance: Insurance is
mandatory for all visitors to the
island. Proof of cover must be
shown at airport check-in, and
again on arrival. Authorities
recommend minimum evacuation
cover of £500,000.

Though the island is only 16km wide by 8km across, it boasts a wonderful variety of walking trails. The highlight is the 21 "Post Box" walks that explore many of the island’s wilder corners. While many are well marked and easy to tackle on your own, it’s worth hiring a local guide for both finding the path and unravelling some of the island’s history.

Which is how I find myself in the company of Marco Yon one afternoon, tackling the trail up the rump of Diana’s Peak as mist swirls through stands of dogwood and black cabbage trees. These indigenous forests are slowly returning thanks to dogged work by the St Helena National Trust, which is nibbling away at the acres of broad-leafed flax that were once a key export from the island.

Diana’s Peak rises to 823m and is the highest point on the island, dishing up panoramic views of the island from Jamestown in the north to the rocky valleys of Sandy Bay to the south. When there’s no mist, that is. We shake the drizzle off our jackets and head back down.

For St Helena is becoming as popular for its attractions beneath the waves as it is for those on land.

Snorkelling tours explore the historic shipwrecks on the seafloor not far from Jamestown harbour, while the island’s pristine reefs and rich marine life are making it a bucket-list destination for adventurous scuba divers. Boat trippers are also rewarded with aerobatic displays from the resident pod of pantropical spotted dolphins.

But it’s Rhincodon typus that has really put St Helena on the underwater map, and the island has become one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks. Typically solitary creatures, whale sharks congregate here to breed between January and March, and it’s not uncommon for snorkellers to encounter a handful of these enormous fish on a single swim.

My last hours on the island ended in the company of an 8m giant, finning gracefully above 80m of inky-blue Atlantic Ocean. The water was choppy and the depths intimidating, but swimming metres from this oceanic wanderer made the journey to this far-flung isle all the more worthwhile. A pity Napoleon didn’t get the chance.

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