Saint Helena, the secret of the Atlantic

Saint Helena, the secret of the Atlantic

Our goal for this entire trip is of course Saint Helena, an island about 4,000 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro and 1,950 kilometers west of Angola. Saint Helena is, of course, known as Napoleon’s exile, and he was not allowed to complain. 

As with Tristan da Cunha, Saint Helena does not have a deep harbor, so we cannot get off the boat directly on land here either. But unlike Tristan da Cunha, the sea is a bit calmer here and we don’t have to use the rope ladder. Instead, a walkway is lowered onto a platform from which you then step into a boat. This boat does not hold 12 but 24 people. So unloading the passengers is a lot faster.

One last time I turn around and look at the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena (RMS) where we have very nice memories. I will never drink a beef tea again without thinking about the RMS. It was a special trip, because this trip was the second-last trip of the RMS. After this she will sail one more time from Cape Town to Saint Helena, to Ascension Island and back again. Unlike the British and the Saints, it doesn’t do much to me, for them it’s a tradition, a heritage. For me now and then doom and gloom.

Finally we are there! After 12 days at sea we are finally at our final destination: Saint Helena. We soon leave the customs office behind and start discovering Jamestown at our leisure. A beautiful town with artistic buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Jamestown is built in the shape of a V in a narrow valley between 150 meter high cliffs. There is a wide street through it called ‘Main Street’ and a number of small streets that often lead to a dead end. Several restaurants and hotels can be found on the Main Street, as well as two small souvenir shops and two supermarkets, which are closed on Wednesday afternoons. There is a post office and a local hangout located in front of ‘the Market’. There are two pubs in the village, diagonally opposite each other and a little further on is a cake by the way ”.

Main Street.  Photo: Milene van Arendonk

Dutch on Saint Helena

On our travels we often encounter a history that is less known to us in which the Dutch more often than not played a leading role. Similarly, on Saint Helena.

We decide to take a look at Jamestown’s only museum ‘The Museum of St. Helena’, which is located next to Jacob’s Ladder (a staircase of 699 steps that Jamestown with Half Tree Hollow). The pleasantly and conveniently arranged museum opened in 2002, five hundred years after the Portuguese discovered the island, and can be visited free of charge. “The island was in Dutch hands for a while,”  the museum’s curator tells me. “There is no evidence of this, but it is said that the Dutch came here in 1633 and left in 1651. After all, you already had the Cape of Good Hope. ”

Jacobs Ladder (699 steps).  Photo: Milene van Arendonk

Jacobs Ladder (699 steps). 

Right at the entrance of the museum is a huge eye-catcher: the cannon of the White Lion, a Dutch VOC ship that went down here. De Witte Leeuw was built in 1601 in Amsterdam and sailed to Asia and back many times. In 1603 the ship was on its way to the Netherlands with three other Dutch ships, loaded with spices, jewelery and other goods from Asia. As the ships approached Jamestown, they saw two Portuguese ships. The Dutch attacked the ships but did not know the waters of the Jamesbay. And one of the Portuguese ships was soon able to sink the White Lion, after which the other Dutch ships fled.

In addition to The White Lion and the Boer War, we also find a painting about Willem Merk. Willem Merk was a drug trafficker and is the only person who ever escaped from the island in a self-made boat. In the painting, which he painted himself, we see Speery Island, in the south of Saint Helena, and a sailing ship sailing away. The painting is also accompanied by a newspaper article from July 31, 1994: ‘Fleeing Dutchman’s 2,000-mile escape. Jailbreak drug runner sailed alone across Atlantic in makeshift dinghy. ‘ With the help of the Dutch embassy in Brazil, he was able to fly back to the Netherlands and was not extradited to the British. According to the article here, this was because in the Netherlands the possession of soft drugs is punished less severely and he had already been imprisoned for three years for the smuggling.

We leave the museum and walk through the photogenic Jamestown. I decide to buy some souvenirs and immediately send some tickets. Of course, after two weeks without WiFi, an internet moment at Anne’s Place cannot be missed. This turns out to be a super nice spot in the castle gardens.

Diana's Peak, highest spot on the island (823 m).  Photo: Milene van Arendonk

Diana’s Peak, highest spot on the island (823 m). Photo: Milene van Arendonk

The dependent island

Then we decide to go for a drive with our rental car. Driving across the island by car is great, from bare steep cliffs we suddenly end up in a paradise tropical area. Suddenly, a strip of flax plants along the road obscures our view. At the beginning of the 20th century, a new economic function was found for the island: the flax plant. Introduced from New Zealand, it dramatically reduced native plant species. Rope was woven from the flax, which was used, among others, by the British postal service to bundle letters. The flax industry was the main source of income for the island until 1966. The island’s economy collapsed when the British postal service switched to synthetic rope. Brian, who we know from the boat, tells us that no new source of income has ever been found since then and that Saint Helena is heavily dependent on British support. “Every year we receive about sixteen million euros in subsidy” says Brian. When asked whether the fishing industry can improve the economic activity of the island, Brian indicates that very little is being caught around the island.

The flax plant on Saint Helena.  Photo: Milene van Arendonk

The flax plant on Saint Helena. 

But in addition to flax and fish, there may be another economic highlight on the island: coffee ! Napoleon once said “the only good thing about St Helena is the coffee” . On February 10, 1733, the first coffee beans were brought to the island. These came from Yemen with Captain Philips’ ship the ‘Houghton’. Brian’s wife Brenda is convinced that the coffee is the best in the world. “Our coffee has won several awards,” she says proudly. When I enter a souvenir shop to buy this award-winning coffee, I soon find out that the St Helena coffee is not only national pride but also quite expensive. “It is the most expensive coffee in the world”says the saleswoman. I will soon taste whether it is worth this price. But I doubt whether this can become a stable source of income for the island.

But perhaps the airport, formerly known as the ‘ most useless airport in the world ‘, can attract a new economy: tourism. The Saints are quite reserved about this and despite wishing everyone a good day and waving to everyone, many Saints would rather see tourists go than come.

Tristan da Cunha; the end of the world

Tristan da Cunha; the end of the world

“Welcome to the remotest place on earth, welcome to Tristan da Cunha” she says cheerfully and shakes my hand. We introduce ourselves and “Oh I know you, Milene!” she shouts and gives me a hug. Kelly is a young girl from England. A few years ago she fell in love with a Tristanian when she visited the island. She is now married, has a daughter and has lived on the island for a year. We spoke on Facebook before leaving.

Tristan da Cunha is the most remote inhabited place in the world, to the delight of its inhabitants. But not for Kelly, she likes it when a boat full of tourists comes. Nine times a year a freight or expedition ship comes along and a little more often a private sailing ship, but (almost) never the RMS St. Helena comes along with so many tourists. The island is then flooded, and some like that too much.Conrad Glass.  Photo: Milene van Arendonk

Conrad Glass. Photo: Milene van Arendonk

Like the only police officer on the island: Conrad Glass. He is a descendant of the very first inhabitant of the island ‘William Glass’ and has his hands full with the hordes of tourists. Although there is only one road on the island, it does have a fairly sharp bend. He must also check and stamp all passports. Not only the police but also the post office are busy. Here you can buy nice souvenirs that are also made by the local population. From hand-knitted sweaters to postcards with seabirds on them and stamps of island traditions (sheep shearing, potato paws) to crocheted penguins. Whatever you spend your money on here, it goes straight back to the population.The Albatross pub.  Photo: Milene van Arendonk

The Albatross pub. Photo: Milene van Arendonk

There is no airport here. Not a deep harbor either. To get ashore we had to go via a rope ladder that was attached to the ship. Then we came ashore with the help of a boat with fishermen. From the boat we could already see that Tristan da Cunha is little more than a 2060 meter high volcano surrounded by the great emptiness of the Atlantic Ocean. Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, also known as ‘The Settlement’, consists mainly of low buildings with red and blue corrugated iron roofs. There are also three churches and a pub: The Albatross. Inside, the resemblance to an English pub is striking. The English flag hangs prominently above the bar, some fishermen are already having a drink and the British news is read aloud on the TV in the corner.

On the way to the potato fields

We decide not to waste all our time drinking in the pub and start a short walk. We follow the three kilometer long ribbon of coarse gravel that leads through the peaceful landscape with the mountain on one side and the ocean on the other. Soon we come across the Hottentot Shelter. The name of the bus stop, a small van drives up and down to the potato patches, refers to the African soldiers who camped here in 1816. They had to stop any French who wanted to liberate the exiled French Emperor Napoleon on Saint Helena via Tristan.

The island has some crazy names, and on the way to the potato fields we encounter Mile Stone and Red Body Hill, we also heard about Ridge-Where-the-Goat-Jump-Off. Places with interesting stories, Kelly tells us later. The road ends at the potato fields. These fields consist of a bunch of fields surrounded by stone walls. Small houses can be seen here and there, some built of volcanic stones. We climb a steep hill to have a nice overview of the potatoes. “These are the best potatoes in the world,” says Joe, who spent 9 months on the island as a vet. Each family has its own way of fertilizing the potatoes. One does it with remnants of the lobsters that are caught and the other does it with sheep’s wool.“For the Tristanians, potatoes are a kind of insurance,” says Joe. “If the money loses its value, they will always have their potatoes” . Not only Joe loves the Tristan potatoes, the Saints (Saint-Helena) also love them and like to import them.On the way to the potato patches.  Photo: Milene van Arendonk

On the way to the potato patches. Photo: Milene van ArendonkShed at potato patches.  Photo: Milene van Arendonk

Shed at potato patches. Photo: Milene van ArendonkThe potato patches.  Photo: Milene van Arendonk

The potato patches. Photo: Milene van Arendonk

Dutch blood on Tristan da Cunha

Once back in the Settlement, I meet up with Kelly. Kelly belongs to the ‘Green’ family. Green is the largest family on the island and consists of 33 men and 33 women. In addition, the family has a link with the Netherlands. Peter Groen was born in Katwijk in 1808 and was shipwrecked off the coast of Tristan da Cunha in 1836. He stayed there for the rest of his life, got married and eventually became spokesman / governor of the island. Groen changed his name to Peter Green and made himself useful, among other things, by rescuing drowning people. In the ‘News of the Day’ in 1897 he was even referred to as the ‘uncrowned king of Tristan da Cunha’.Not a day without wind on Tristan da Cunha.  So the laundry dries quickly but the line needs some help.  Photo: Milene van Arendonk

Not a day without wind on Tristan da Cunha. So the laundry dries quickly but the line needs some help. Photo: Milene van ArendonkTristan's internet cafe.  More often closed than not.  Photo: Milene van Arendonk

Tristan’s internet cafe. More often closed than not. Photo: Milene van Arendonk

“Living on Tristan is like living in a bubble,” says Kelly. Your wallet will not be stolen here. You don’t see everyone posting photos on Instagram here. You will not see the latest films here immediately after they come out. You celebrate birthdays together here, and for a whole week. Very different from, for example, England. But she does not regret her adventure. On the contrary. “Everyone here cares about everyone, everyone helps each other, that’s the great thing about living on an island with only 250 people” .

After a few hours I leave the island again. I wave to Kelly and tell her we can keep in touch via Facebook. People here today live less isolated from the rest of the world because of the use of the internet. A day on Tristan da Cunha is of course far too short, but another special island awaits.

Celebrating New Years Eve on the Atlantic Ocean

Celebrating New Years Eve on the Atlantic Ocean

The water is very restless, causing the ship to sway back and forth. Naja rocking. Do you know that boat in Drievliet? Well that’s how this boat goes back and forth. It is dark below us. The captain said this morning that the water is about 4,874 meters deep. Not even David Attenborough has been there. When I think about what is going on there, I get goosebumps on my arms.

On deck it is about 16 degrees and there is a lot of wind. The water is 22 degrees, yet I took it out of my head to jump in. We haven’t seen any marine life yet, but I’m sure there are scary animals swimming under the boat. By the way, we see enough birds. They don’t seem to have lost sight of us since Cape Town.

Today we met Helena from Oslo and Aniket from Bristol. Helena has lived on St. Helena for two years. Her grandmother is from there and when she was on vacation she thought; this is where I have to live, this is where I belong. She celebrated Christmas in Norway, but she can’t wait to be back on St. Helena. Aniket has a completely different story. He was a vet at Tristan da Cunha for four months. So for him it is like coming home to Tristan. We hear from him that we are staying, if we can land, with the only police officer on the island. Unfortunately the weather is not looking good to land on Tristan so far. There is too much wind and this will not change in the coming days.

Fortunately it gets a bit quieter at the end of the day. The wind seems to have died down and the waves are happily participating. It is December 31st and at 6pm it is time for a cocktail party with the captain. With a beer, what do you mean cocktails ?, I get into a conversation with two officers. They tell me about life on board and how not to get seasick. A little too late for me, but thanks anyway. According to them, alcohol is the answer. Chah when not?

Everyone came to the cocktail party in their finest clothes. The one even neater than the other and some a bit raunchy. Of course we knew that we had to bring nice clothes, this is what we have been told before the trip. A generous amount of alcohol is served and that produces beautiful images when the boat laps over large waves. The tall men hold a drink with one hand and the ceiling with the other so as not to fall over. The women hold on to each other, chairs, the bar, etc.

After the party it is time to eat. We are of course back on the first shift and still have a great time with Brian and Brenda. When I look around us I see tables where people are not enjoying themselves. You just need to have a nice table partner. Brian and Brenda tell a lot about the islands. Brian knows an incredible amount about it. Every dinner we become wiser and every time my desire to visit the islands increases. Ok, this also has to do with the fact that after three days on the water I am already quite fed up with the sea and can not wait until solid ground under my feet.

The frograce starts at 10 pm. A race in which people pull strings to pull a frog over the line as quickly as possible. It looks hilarious and they are very fanatic.

And then it is time for the New Year’s Eve party. A large bell is driven into the ‘main lounge’. The oldest and youngest members of the crew can each ring the bell 8 times. Then the confetti cannon spurts into the air and there is toast and dancing. A typical Scottish dance is started where everyone puts their arms together and jumps back and forth. Nobody watches from the side, everyone participates. In the meantime, balloons are kicked and the boat makes sure that everyone moves.

The champagne tastes good and really where everyone is dancing. Well, almost everyone. Me, Yuri, Andrew and Mr. Foo are nice at the bar drinking a beer. On the New Year. And if it starts like this, this will be a great year.

For a moment I think about the world around us. The great sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the endless amount of water that surrounds us. And there, like a tiny dot on that great sea, we celebrate New Year’s Eve.

Day two on the Atlantic Ocean

Day two on the Atlantic Ocean

Unfortunately, things quickly go wrong again after a good night’s sleep. My vestibular organ does not seem to be able to get used to the power of the Atlantic Ocean. The sea laps against the boat, causing the boat to go up and down considerably. Just like a wooden roller coaster, where the cart goes up and suddenly crashes down, turning your stomach upside down. So take a pill and lie in the sun on the Sunnydeck.

I haven’t eaten much yet, but the fruit will go in. The people on the boat are nice. We have already met several people and all with their own story. Today we had lunch with Andrew, a Birmingham lawyer. He has a number of court cases on St. Helena and told us that the only person who ever managed to escape from the island was a Dutchman. That happened about 20/30 years ago. This Dutchman smuggled drugs and when he was caught he could not much later escape by boat. He sailed to Brazil where he took a plane to the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, different rules apply and he was not convicted.

A daily program is placed under the door of our cabin every day. Today it starts at half past three with a documentary about Tristan da Cunha. Almost everyone is present and listens and watches the interesting story about the way of life on Tristan da Cunha. I am curious if we can come ashore, but that is still the question.

The sea is calm today and it just keeps popping into my head what it’s like to jump in. I am terrified of deep water but somehow it looks attractive. The water is a beautiful dark blue, it doesn’t look cold but it will be solid. What will all be swimming underneath? We have not seen any animals except birds. Although I think I see a flying fish jump out of the water every now and then. Anyway, luckily we have a swimming pool on board.

The boat is one of two RMS ships in existence and the only one specially built for the Cape Town – Saint Helena – Ascension Island route. The ship was built in 1990 but, according to Brian, this ship was already written off after 20 years. The boat will now stop, not because it has been written off, but because St. Helena has an airport. Until recently, this airport was the most useless airport in the world . About 300 million euros had been earmarked for the airport to make more tourism possible. When the runway was ready, however, it turned out that large aircraft would not be able to land due to the treacherous wind shear. But in October 2017 the first plane landed. We will therefore also take the plane and not the boat on the way back.

By the way, we met Brian at lunch. A nice man from London who is now retired. He used to earn his money as a social worker. He travels as much as he can, does French folk dance and enjoys theater and going to the movies. Enough to talk about.

Many people on board think it is a pity that the ship stops with this route and are therefore now sailing along. According to Andrew it is a work vessel and therefore so different and unique compared to other cruise ships. The RMS – St. Helena can accommodate 150 guests, half of the ship is used to deliver mail and other goods to the islands.

The ship does not creak and rush through the waves too easily, yet I understand the grief. The ship has a certain atmosphere, it evokes a certain feeling. What will happen to this ship later? The island of St. Helena would like to buy it but does not have the money. According to Brian, that is an eternal sin. The ship is a piece of the island and it will soon be lost.

The last voyage

The last voyage

… Well not our last voyage, but from the Royal Mail Ship – St. Helena. The journey we’ve been looking forward to for so long is about to begin. From Cape Town we will sail to Tristan da Cunha in 6 days on the Royal Mail Ship – St. Helena (RMS – St Helena). It will be the final journey of the RMS. Tristan da Cunha is the most remote inhabited place on earth and it is hoped that we can enter the island. Weather permitting, we will sleep two nights with the only police officer on the island. Then we will travel on to Saint Helena where we should arrive on January 10th. 

During our trip on the boat we have no internet, no connection with the world. But of course I have a notebook and a pen. Read in my series ‘ the last voyage ‘ about our journey to the end of the world.

Day Cape Town

Around five o’clock we leave Cape Town behind. A rough sea meets us. We soon meet a number of fellow travelers including Austen, a stamp collector from Malaysia. We also soon meet Bassel, a journalist from the Lake district who, quite coincidentally, writes stories about people who collect stamps. The two are not traveling together, by the way.

The dinner

We are on the first dinner shift, which means that we eat at 6.45 pm. Every day we had dinner with Brian and Brenda. Brian and Brenda live on Saint Helena, our final destination. They know how to entertain us with interesting and beautiful stories about the island. 
Dinner consists of an 8-course menu. Unfortunately for me, my stomach, like the boat, was in full blast. My appetite is nil, although the Kudu back tasted good. Tasty cheeses are served for dessert, but I thank them kindly. And with a concerned and motherly look from Brenda, I call it quits.

The captain of the ship also eats at table 16 every evening, the second dinner shift. Every evening, some of the guests are invited to dine with him at the table. You are then expected to dress formally. Not for us.

After dinner I enjoy the sunset on the deck for a while. The sea is fairly calm. My lips already taste like salt and my hair feels rough after a few hours. Walking is still a bit difficult, but that will come naturally.

The boat creaks but seems to find its way through the waves somewhat. The water looks black and seems cold, icy. There is a light breeze and the moon is shining brightly. Cape Town has completely disappeared and all I see is water, water and water. The sea stretches out as far as I can see. The boat rocks back and forth on the waves, let’s see how I get through the night.

Cycle 4 Plan Zambia

Cycle 4 Plan Zambia

Cycle for Plan

Sometimes spontaneous hunches are the best. Or at least the most exciting. For example, we decided to attend an information evening of Cycle for Plan. Cycling more than 600 kilometers in a country we hadn’t been to before, why not? Even if we only help a single child with my efforts; isn’t that worth it already?

Cycling 600km

Wednesday 9 November it was finally time! The adventure that we and the whole group have been looking forward to for months began. At 7.30 in the evening we gathered at Schiphol to leave for Zambia – with a stopover in Dubai. A long journey in which we also got to know each other better. After the group photo and the farewell to the home front, the time had come.

Zambia, here we come!


Cycle 4 Plan

Every trip, a group of sporty volunteers takes on the challenge of cycling hundreds of kilometers for a better future for girls and boys. Each participant collects sponsorship money in advance, which supports the work of Plan International. During the trip you will visit Plan projects to see the impact with your own eyes.

Zambia & child marriages

3 out of 10 girls are married off by the time they reach 18. Child marriage is a tragedy for the young people it affects, often the most vulnerable, poorest and marginalized girls.

Zambia has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world with 42% of women aged 20-24 years married by the age of 18. Under statutory marriage, child marriages are illegal, and considered a form of child abuse. The legal age for marriage under statutory law is 18 for females and 21 for males.

Enough reason for us to cycle through Zambia and create awareness for this issue. And of course, hopefully, change some opinions and views on child marriages in Zambia along the way.

A tough journey

It was tough, it was hot and it was fun. We laughed, cried and cursed. Fighting against the elements, climbing steep mountains, getting a heath stroke. But after 600km we reached South Luangwa National Park. It was a once in a lifetime experience and we are happy to be part of it. 

Besides cycling we also visited projects of Plan Nederland, talked with village elders and had a sneak peek into local life of the incredibly kind and hospitable Zambians. Afterwards we enjoyed some days in South Luangwa NP, we checked out the Victoria Falls and took the train to Tanzania. 



Lusaka – South Luangwa

We cycled from the capital to South Luangwa NP. Also visited the Victoria Falls in the South.


Our summer

We went in November – bloody hot! Better to go in our summer, their winter – bit more rain though.


Plan Nederland

This was partly an organised trip by Plan Nederland. For more info on Cycle 4 plan.

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