It is currently winter in St Helena. The wind blows strong, the rain drives down, and blankets of cloud marry the ocean. Scruffy August; the worst of the months- 17 degrees in Jamestown and as low as 12 degrees up country.
Every year at this time spirits lower. The August of 2018 was arguably the worst I’d experienced as Basil Read, the airport construction company went out if business. There were layoffs and it was clearly the end of the airport boom.
We now look forward to the fibre optic cable landing, due this week, and we are certainly in a different place three years later. However, as with every August morale is low, but even more so because of COVID. Last December was the smallest celebration I’d seen on St Helena, with festival of lights quieting down by 10pm. And now we look forward to December wondering if people will travel to the Island for Christmas. Flights are full on 29 November and 13 December but that’s only about 200 people. If another flight was put on, would it fill? Well that largely depends on St Helena changing their quarantine rules from 10 days to a lower amount particularly for vaccinated people. A press release talked of a phased approach to this, and looking forward from scruffy August, I’d say the Island really needs it, if only to boost morale.
So the cable is landing but it will take a good while for it to be tested and translate into cheaper packages for Islanders. So we all look forward and wonder whether we will have good news two years from now? We hope we will see digital nomads working remotely, digital businesses registered in St Helena and some resemblance of much needed growth and positivity. And hopefully by then COVID is somewhat less tragic as it has been.
Believe it or not, the pandemic has brought around some travel opportunities, if you’re willing to look hard enough, and you have a little bit of flexibility.
For St Helena that opportunity comes in the form of direct flights from London Stansted. It also comes in the form of being one of the few countries which will be announced on the UKs Green travel list from May 17.
It does take a certain traveller to choose this adventure. For one, flight booking is through an email account, with a confirmation some 3 weeks before travel (and you will have to be satisfied you will get a seat to return on, which you will, since you will be prioritised to return to your country of origin). Even though you might not technically get an email confirmation about your return journey before you travel, returning will be no problem as the flight is restricted to 96 to St Helena (due to COVID) but unrestricted (140) on exit. When you live here, taking leaps of faith is quite typical; because on St Helena “yes I’ll do it” means “yes it will happen, and I won’t forget” and booking confirmation seems unnecessary because “I said yes”. It’s almost as simple as that. But still coming from the UK I couldn’t quite believe anything would happen until I had a booking confirmation, and so if you function in that way, then this will be interesting for you.
But for St Helena these flights 11 hours to London Stansted via Accra fuel stop are incredible. It used to take 5 days by ship! This flight is so easy it’s laughable compared to travel 5 years ago.
You have two options for quarantine. First you join a group in Bradley’s Camp, make lifelong friends, contribute to whatever group exercise activities are created when resources are pooled, but suffer a small basic room and internet on £6.60 tickets for an hour (with one free ticket a day).
Or you go more upmarket. Choose a self catered accomodation, arrange an internet package with Sure which gives you free internet between 12-6am, and £82 +10% service charge for 14,250MB.
And to what end? Pure freedom. Joining a community (and hey, when you are one of a few tourists you will get pulled into the community), parties, yacht trips, stargazing, sporting events, festivals, markets, go karting, water sports, walking, scuba diving, whale watching, history tours, yoga, gym. No mask. No social distancing. No risk.
The next trip at the time of writing after the UK opens up travel again is 21 June until 11 August. Perhaps those of you who have the time and resources will think of making this incredible journey.
St Helena is home to probably 4 Americans. The rest of us love foreign affairs and have been gripped by “that series called America” for quite a while now.
Our very own US representative and political journalist also economist Amanda had quite a following when she was posting her election updates by hand on the window of her quarantine hut in Bradley’s Camp back in October/November. Many of us who had access to actual news found it all too unclear so we were reading Amanda’s posts (reposted on social media) and were sending these to our friends.
So tonight was a big night, and because we do love a celebration in St Helena we gathered with Amanda and Dave round the BBC broadcast in the small living room of the period town house named Coles to see it all go off without a hitch. I thought they might have filmed it before and replayed it to avoid incident a bit like the footage of the first man on the moon (apparently filmed in Ascension Island not so far from here). But it looked extremely genuine, even if I did think the Hunger games had started by the huge Mocking jay broach adorned by Lady Ga Ga. J Lo had her moment too as well as a famous country singer I had never heard called Garth Brooks of whom the BBC described as “doing a cover of Hallelujah kareoke style”.
Great to see a female VP, Kamala Harris, who I wouldn’t be surprised to see voted in as the next president in 4 year’s time. Joe Biden spoke somberly about COVID; not sure he was reading the crowd who were all ready to party. Except perhaps Mike Pence. For some it might be their last party as the country singer Brooks seemed to spread COVID around with hugs like it was Christmas.
One true star was Amanda Gorman who wrote and performed an incredible poem, it moves me greatly seeing young people with such talent and passion.
And now to the photos from our little big celebration on the tiny Island of St Helena. Thanks Amanda and Dave and those millions of voters who didn’t pick the orange man for another term.
Well I never thought I’d be writing a blog like this when I first started blogging my St Helena journey back in 2016, but here we are.
Regular readers know that I do this blog to share information. Back in 2016 there was barely anything on the web about St Helena; I remember looking at Google (before a family arrived with the street view camera from Google – thank goodness) and thinking, ok well there is one bar called Donny’s and maybe a shop and a bank, but I have no idea what else. Hence I started a blog.
Nowadays there is plenty on Google (although not everything) and a lot on the Tourism website and apps like Inside St Helena. That’s probably why the frequency of my blogs slowed. I’ve also repeated many walks and no reader wants to hear about Thompson’s Valley AGAIN.
But here we are, on a topic that I don’t think other people have blogged about. Back in 2018 I published an Investment Strategy for the Island, and deeply believed when writing it that St Helena was a good place to invest. Which is why when the tenants in the flat my dad and I owned in South London asked to buy from us, and in July 2019 I came into some money, I figured I should put my money where my mouth is.
The truth of it is, that building a house in St Helena, I project (and investment is a betting game) would have been a much better use of my money than repaying off another mortgage or leaving the money sat in the bank, especially when moving in will save me rent costs every month. Of course, I won’t know the return on my investment until any sale (which I’m not proposing be any time soon) but these are my projections.
Like anywhere, the price of land depends upon its size, whether it is ready to build, its location, and whether you are buying freehold or leasehold. A fine sized plot for a detached house (mine is 0.18 hectares / 18000 sqm) might be bought from Crown Lands for £5k. But it’s on a slope. 99% of what you would buy in St Helena would be on a slope. So if you instead buy from a builder, who has cleared the land and flattened it, then you’re talking about £25k. Add £10k if it’s got planning permission, and maybe even foundations. Add possibly £500-£700 for stamp duty. And around £2,000 to convert the leasehold to freehold (if that is available to you).
And here’s what you might budget for.
Windows and doors
Fixtures and Fittings
Building Materials and Labour for house, driveway and landscaping
£90,000 – £100,000
Some things we paid more for, some things we managed to get discounted, so don’t see this as a true representation of my actual house, but its a starter for 10 if you wanted to know what to budget if you were aiming to build yourself. And the important thing. Add 10%. Some call this contingency. My dad and I affectionately call it “fuck up tax”. This comes in handy when your bathroom sink smashes to smithereens during transit like mine did or when you need a huge holding tank for the sewage because you couldn’t yet connect to the grid. You could spend anywhere from £150,000 to £250,000 depending on spec. Again, we went for a two story home, but single story is also popular here.
So, being an economist, I budgeted the bejesus out of this. July 2019 I sat there after work every evening salivating over bathroom tiles and cupboard handles. Having watched some architecture students at uni made mood boards, I figured what I needed is a clear theme to each room. So I donned the prit stick and home magazine cut outs (I’m kidding I didn’t, I just wrote some words on a spreadsheet).
Put simply I chose wood, metal and earthy greys and blues downstairs in the open plan kitchen diner, living room; forest green tiles and traditional white in the downstairs bathroom; and modern Moroccan style upstairs. Poor Rhys was ‘allowed’ to choose the colour of one room, the spare room (9 years of history had taught me that Rhys is great at a thousand things but picking colours for houses wasn’t one of them). He chose yellow. In order to avoid anyone sleeping in there being blinded by the brightness, we adapted slightly by painting below waist height yellow, and the top white, with grey windows and blinds.
I did get a contract written up by a lawyer who serves St Helena, but later I found out the law society has good templates which you can adjust to your own needs. And got scheduled into Robbie Greek [Robert Henry] (Rg S Contractors) agenda for a January start. Andrew Weir, who ship to the Island, have a service whereby you can send things to a warehouse in London over a period of 6 weeks and they pack it into a container for you for a few hundred pounds. This process was super exciting as I went on a buying spree over the six week period. I used 2 containers and it totalled £11k. It took about 3 months to arrive.
Robbie and his team were brilliant to work with, I must say, great communication (also hilariously funny) and a really good eye. To the keen builder to be I shall say that the construction industry here on Island is buoyant and if Robbie is booked up there are also some, so I hear, good builders offering their services. After that point the fellas did all the heavy lifting. Blocks, windows, roof frames, roof, plasterboard, partition walls, electrics, plumbing, plastering, painting, flooring, fitting, skirting, tiling.
What are my favourite things? The staircase was pretty spectacular, made locally to spec with glass panels (approx £2.5k). The bifold doors (£5k each), the argon PVC grey windows from House of Windows (such an easy company to use), my Berkley Slate Blue entrance hall tiles from Topps tiles, the wooden ribbon cupboard handles from my Howdens Kitchen, the traditional freestanding shower bath from Victorian Plumbing and the four poster bed from Wayfair.
And how much is it worth? Well one can only do a comparison using the Island’s online property listing http://www.propertyfinder.sh/ But for now, we will very much be enjoying living in it.
Now we are moved in, we have been working on the garden. Both having worked at the Environment Agency in the past, we are very green minded. We have a solar water heater, a solar home made hot tub heater (made by Rhys) and any used water from the sinks and showers go into a tank which we pump onto the garden. We’re starting to grow a small lawn. Meanwhile water from the roof flow into a tank, which is partly used to fill the downstairs toilet, and partly used to water the fruit trees and strawberries I’ve been growing in the front garden patch. We are deciding how the sewage fares; it is processed through 3 tanks and the theory is it could come out clear enough for more gardening. If not Connect can pump it out and dispose of it.
And the benefit to the Island? About four jobs for around 10 months (builders), business income (design, survey, driveway, glass cutting, plastering, carpentry, electrician, plumber, DIY stores, shipping, utilities) and finally tax and revenue (import duty, stamp duty, crown land sale).
I write from the UK. A huge, largely overlooked, opportunity presented itself as a result of the pandemic and South Africa originally calling a halt to international travel – that was the trigger for a DIRECT flight to London Stansted, which took 9.5 hours including a stopover at Accra. The flights have been taking place every 6 weeks.
Considering my first journey to the Island was an 11 hour flight to Cape Town, an overnight stay and 5 days by ship, this was a huge deal.
Titan, who runs the charter, isn’t in the habit of running commercial routes (i.e. where they sell tickets and run the risk of not breakong even) so this might be short lived, but the point is, that it’s possible to send an ETOPS certified Boing 757-200 from the UK to St Helena and back, with stops to Ascension if necessary. The ticket price was about £950 each way and the plane is likely to have broken even if the passenger numbers were higher (the plane has a 140 passenger capacity) and COVID didn’t present the challenges it did. Something for the longer term future perhaps.
Whilst I have been gone the Island saw Carnival (with the theme “free spirit”) and also prepared it’s version of the hugely popular Jerusalema dance, which I leave here for your viewing pleasure.
Since March 2020 there has been a requirement for new arrivals to quarantine on entry to St Helena. Originally this took place in people’s homes, or where this was not possible, in specific locations such as hotels. A scare occured, the word on the street was that someone had a cough and their washing might have changed hands with someone else, (and who knows what actually happened as per a lot of the street gossip), despite no one having COVID-19 the scare was enough for the public to demand new arrivals stay as far away from the community as possible.
Bradley’s Camp was built for the airport workers. It was temporary accommodation for Basil Read, although temporary, some workers, mostly migrants for example from Thailand, lived in the camp for long periods of time, in some cases, years.
Bradley’s Camp had previously been suggested as future a holiday camp, even a location for a space park for earth stations, that is until March this year.
My husband was part of a team who had to convert the blocks into livable quarantine accomodation within 6 weeks. I can tell you that him and so many of the other workers worked early morning to late night through the weekends to get the site ready for a flight arriving from South Africa. Since then there have been 3 further flights from the UK. The capacity is around 50-70 max. Therefore inbound flights such as the 757 who can take up to 140 passengers is restricted to the number of rooms at Bradley’s which obviously makes it difficult, nay impossible, for the flights to break even commercially.
Its fairly obvious there are challenges of putting all the arrivals in Bradley’s; but at this time by being near the airport the public feel safer.
Of course there are several alternatives to using the Camp for everybody such as testing regimes, quarentining at home, social distancing and a combination of all. Each has its own risks, and of course the data needs to be clear about effectiveness of testing, risk reduction by mask wearing and social distancing, probability of non-compliance, and there needs to be procedures in place such as what happens if someone skips quarantine or contact tracing becomes a necessity.
The Incident Emergency Group have been dealing with such issues so far.
And for those people who are facing 14 days in the camp. Download movies in advance, bring exercise equipment, and books.. see below for a tour of the camp.
As usual all opinions are my own and not representative of SHG or any other organisations that I am affiliated.
It feels like an age ago I wrote the last blog, so much has happened. Lockdown, our prime minister catching Corona, halting of flights all over the world.
But we rejoice. We are one of 55 inhabited territories who are still COVID-19 free, according to WIKIPEDIA, who seems to provide the most up to date list (unlike the BBC who miss St Helena off completely).
How? Our weekly flight became impossible after S Africa banned travel by Brits, Americans and Europeans on 18 March, and those arriving in St Helena on 21 March, a small group considering, had to quarantine for 14 days. There hasn’t been any flights into the Island since.
Yachties have been required to quarantine and can only come on shore if there is distress as per the international codes.
When the next flight does arrive, any arrivals will be quarantined for 14 days.
Other islands in our position include Svalbard, Tuvalu, Samoa and Palau. Other British OTs still COVID-19 free include Tristan, Ascension and Pitcairn.
But there is a huge amount of guilt I feel after seeing friends in the UK on their 3rd week of quarantining, and after having heard from friends in quarantine in China back in January.
Remoteness has it’s restraints. From time to time I wish I was in a city going to watch some live music, or go to a bar I’ve never been to, or simply hang out in a country pub by the fire. We have shortages in the shops, only once every 3 weeks our supply ship arrives with the fresh imports (like apples and oranges) which we can’t produce here. If you buy something online, unless you send it by air freight (2 weeks) it will go by ship (3 months). So in a way, we know how the rest of the world are feeling when things are hard to get. But there is no way we can fully experience the pain. There is no way I can feel what it’s like being in a 2 bed flat with 2 kids off school and no garden.
Going about our business on the Island has been too much for some people and “self-isolation” as we are calling it in St Helena (referring to staying in to avoid catching the virus) has been wide spread here, for precaution, for safety, and in solidarity with those across the world. Even though we have no cases. “Just in cases”.
The restaurants, the bars and the night club here is dead quiet. People are staying at home. Whilst we are still able to go out and about, the Islanders are holding their breath, waiting, watching, hoping, wishing.
But there is a part of me which feels absolutely grateful for being here right now. Thankful for this remoteness, for the open ocean I see stretched before me, for the hills and the forests and the desert and the dust. For the freedom to roam, to care for others, to drink a glass of wine in a restaurant and eat fish by the seaside (no chips, we ran out of potatoes and frozen fries last month, ha).
I’m also thankful for Zoom and Whatsapp. I haven’t connected as much with my friends and family from the UK and Europe in the last 3.5 years of being here as I have now. I may be rubbish at responding, as I only get on social media at home, but it brings a smile on my face turning my WiFi on and receiving 35 messages from my friends in the UK. All the sweeter now my holiday to the UK in June has been put off.
I worry about saying the wrong thing. This post isn’t about lording it over others, or putting out judgements. But this is my blog, and this is how I feel. Sending love to all of those quarantining right now. Stay safe. xx
A friend sent me this gem, written by the administration over 50 years ago, which outlines Advice to Europeans. The friend said “I know a lot of people look at your blog before coming to the island for information on what to expect so I thought you might appreciate this information pamphlet from 1956 that I came across amongst my great grandfather’s paperwork”
Some things have changed in 50 years, and some things absolutely haven’t!
Now we already know St Helena’s crime rate is minuscule, prosecutors spend more time dealing with drink driving than theft, and you can leave your car window open and your laptop on the back seat and come back an hour later and still find it (true story – me last week).
Terrorism has never been here and most likely will never come here. St Helena is just too small and there isn’t anything strategic to target.
But what about worldwide viruses? Coronavirus has been a huge worry for people across the world. And unsurprisingly, the worst place to be right now is in a very populous area, particularly in the cold, with a significant amount of migration. Today alone the number of cases in the UK jumped from 48 to 163. A friend on facebook is asking where to escape to with his laptop to work? Well looking at the map, if you want to reduce the probability of catching a virus like this, perhaps it is Greenland, perhaps it is central Africa, perhaps it is one of the hundreds of tiny dots on the maps, islands where not too many people travel to.
Now March brings us one flight a week (compared to Dec – Feb which was two a week) we are looking at a mere 90 or so passengers arriving a week to St Helena strictly travelling from South Africa whereby the airports undertake temperature monitoring. Whilst this does not make the island immune to the virus, the pure probability is on our side. However, since a good number of the 90 on the plane will be from the UK, and the UK is seeing spikes in coronavirus cases, it doesn’t mean that St Helena is completely protected.
So what is St Helena doing to avoid COVID-19? As well as all the handwashing precautions, there are travel restrictions from key countries. At present (although this will update – see www.sainthelena.gov.sh if in doubt), St Helena will screen anyone travelling from Wuhan city and Hubei Province (China), Iran, Daegu or Cheongdo (Republic of Korea), or any Italian town under containment measures. Screening may involve a medical assessment on arrival and, if thought necessary by the medical professionals, this may result in a person being quarantined for 14 days on the Island. Visitors from Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Italy: north, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam other than the places above must self-isolate if they have the symptoms and call the health directorate. People are told not to come to the hospital.
Sadly the CTO Digital Economy Forum, an international conference hosted by St Helena is being cancelled. I suppose better safe than sorry. Perhaps it was a good thing that the spread of the virus started to kick off in Europe at the end of our key tourist season. The risk is, that if St Helena did see the virus arrive on its shores, whilst we may not see any spread through public transport like elsewhere; because residents are just so sociable, it might fly round the island within a matter of weeks. In which case, if it gets here, we need to be very careful to avoid spreading it to the elderly and the vulnerable.
But for now, we are probably one of the safest places on earth. So if you can handle our internet prices (pre-fibre optic cable) and fancy an air bnb with a sea view, then why not enjoy a Corona with us, without the virus.
Christmas in St Helena isn’t really on the 25th December. The day of joy and celebration and fun in December is a week earlier on the night of the Festival of Lights!
Readers of earlier blogs will know I think this is the best event of a year. And really this was even better than before.
There has been a population explosion this week with hoards of people arriving on St Helena and the festival was packed to the brim with a huge amount of visitors as well as the familiar faces.
Back again this year was the Kingshurst Chinese dragon, and the transformer robot, new this year included a moon themed float with astronauts and an incredible Saints with Wings performance on Jacob’s Ladder. The night was topped off with a performance by Island Politics / Beverley Thrills at the Mule Yard and a fireworks show.