Diana's Peak, Mount Actaeon, Cucold's Point


By: Burton Falk

In High Places:

St. Helena by Burton "Snail Circuit" Falk

So, other than the fact that St. Helena (rhymes with Galena) is the site of Napoleon Bonaparte's final exile and death, what else do you know about that small island located way out in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean? "Not much," you say. "But I'd like to know more."

Well, are you in luck! Here are a few additional notes regarding that idyllic spot, the home of approximately 5,000-as the islanders refer to themselves-"Saints."

  1. St. Helena, along with a line of seamounts extending northeastward from the MidAtlantic Ridge to Cameroon/Nigeria, was formed as a result of a tectonic plate moving over a hot spot (or plume) in the earth's mantle. The island is what remains of a huge shield volcano. It is believed that the last volcanic activity took place there 8 million years ago.
  2. Ascension Island, 703 miles to the northwest, is the nearest land to St. Helena. The mainland closest to the island is the west coast of Angola, in Africa, some 1,200 miles away. St. Helena is approximately 47 square miles in area, and is just over 10 miles wide at its maximum.
  3. Although situated in the tropics (15 degrees south), St. Helena's climate is kept "mild, equable and healthy" by southeast tradewinds. Summers are warm and sunny, while winters are cool and mild, with moderate rains. In coastal Jamestown, the island's only city, temperatures average between 68 and 86 F. Rainfall averages 10" per year along the coast, but about 40" in the island's lush central mountains.
  4. The Portuguese admiral Joao da Nova Castella discovered the island on May 21, 1502, named it St. Helena it honor of the mother of Constantine, and claimed it in the name of the king of Portugal.
  5. As Portugal's interest in the South Atlantic waned, first the Dutch (1633), then the East India Company (1659)-a British concern, claimed the island. In 1834, possession of St. Helena was transferred to the British Crown, and it has remained there ever since.

It took Napoleon Bonaparte, however, to bring St. Helena to the world's attention. Indeed, the remote island was just a watering stop on the route to India until October 15, 1815, when the Northumberland, carrying perhaps history's most famous prisoner, arrived off the island's northwestern coast.

"But, refresh my memory," you say. "Just why was Napoleon exiled to St. Helena?"

Well, briefly, Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica in 1769, educated in mainland France, and received his commission in the French Army in 1785 In 1793, shortly after the French Revolution, the young Bonaparte became instrumental in driving the British out of the seaport of Toulon, and in October 1795, he helped rescue the teetering government by giving an angry Parisian mob "a whiff of grapeshot," killing some 100 insurgents while doing so.

In appreciation for his efforts, Bonaparte was appointed commander of a collection of rag tag troops, a group he rapidly transformed into a firstclass fighting machine. Tasting his first victories in Italy (1796) and Egypt (1799), Bonaparte returned in triumph to Paris, where he was appointed the First Consul-in essence becoming the political leader of France. Continuing his ambitious plans, he defeated the Austrians at the battle of Marengo in 1800, smashed the combined Russian and Austrian forces at Austerlitz in 1805, routed the Prussians at Jena in 1806, and subdued Sweden in 1808. While all these victories were piling up, Bonaparte, in 1804, literally taking the crown out of the hands of the Pope and placing it upon his own head, proclaimed himself Emperor of France, thus restoring the system of court and nobility that the revolution had brought to an end to fourteen years earlier.

In 1812, Bonaparte's fortunes took a decided turn for the worse when he opted to invade Russia.

Following a victorious but costly battle just outside Moscow, then entering the city to finit flames, the Emperor came to the realization that his army was overextended, that it lacked in supplies, and that the dreadful Russian winter was fast approaching. He was forced to pull back.

As a consequence of this misbegotten Russian offensive and disastrous retreat, up to a million troops-French, Russian, Prussian and mercenaries from many other nations-perished. Returning to Paris with his tail between his legs, the Emperor abdicated the throne, and in 1814 retired to become ruler of Elba, a small island lying between Corsica and mainland Italy.

Unfortunately for Europe, Elba wasn't big enough to hold Napoleon. Early in 1815, he returned to France, raised yet another army, and headed north, toward the Low Countries. Confronting British and Prussian forces at Waterloo in what is now Belgium (June 12-18, 1815), Napoleon and his army were soundly and roundly defeated.

Following Waterloo, the allies, especially the British, decided the scourge of Europe must be exiled to a place from which he could never return-and thus St. Helena became a familiar place name in world history.

So when my wife Jo and I, passengers on board the Explorer, visited St. Helena last October 20, did I visit Longwood House, where Napoleon spent the last six miserable years of his life and lor the Sane Valley, where he was originally buried, the two most visited tourist attractions on the island? No, indeed, I did not. Rather, compelled by the knowledge that ECHO readers would expect me, nay, demand me to explore St. Helena's mountains, I, while Jo and the other passengers were soaking up Napoleonic history, sacrificed myself by spending my one and only day on St. Helena climbing Diana's Peak, the 2,685' highpoint of the island.

Okay, okay-I confess-it was no sacrifice at all. In fact, my climb of Diana's Peak ranked as one of the top two best things I did during our thirty-five day cruise from the Canary Islands to the Falklands (mixing it up with 25,000 magnificently attired King Penguins on South Georgia Island was the other).

And the main reason I had such a terrific time was due to my guide, whom I had prearranged by internet-the bright, dedicated and delightful, Dr. Rebecca Cairns-Wicks.

Cairns-Wicks-"a thirty something female, with fair hair," as she described herself in one e-mail message-was born and raised in the north of England, and first became interested in the flora of St Helena while working as an undergraduate student at Kew Gardens in London. Later, while studying for her doctor's degree at Oxford, specializing in St. Helena's endemic plants, she made two trips to the island, and there she met her husband to be, a "Saint." And the rest, as they say, is history.

Until recently Rebecca was the island's Environmental Coordinator, but, due to the loss of her babysitter, she had to quit and become a full-time mom to her two small children. Her passion for the native island plants remains undiminished, however, and, indeed, she and her husband are currently nurturing a crop of seedling endemic plants that will someday be transplanted on the island's mountains.

Which poses the question, "Why would indigenous plants need to be returned to St. Helena's lush and fertile mountains?" Well, the primary reason involves flax, a plant that resembles a clump of grass, only magnified until its blades are up to 9 feet long and 5 inches wide, a native of New Zealand, which is used for making cordage and sacking. It seems that years ago some genius discovered that St. Helena's climate was just perfect for profitably growing the plant, and soon after acre upon acre of the island's indigenous plants were being cleared and replanted with the non-native flora. And as the flax grew and prospered it began to aggressively encroach upon what remained of the island's rare plants.

Which poses another question, "Just what's so special about St. Helena's native flora?" Well, to quote from the Diana's Peak National Park official brochure: "...St. Helena has harbored forty-five special plant species and hundreds of animal species for millions of years. Their ancestors colonized St. Helena from prehistoric forests which have long disappeared from the world's continents, so casting (the island's) plants and animals as fragments from the wreck of an ancient world..."

"Tangled endemic tree ferns form the thickets covering St. Helena's highest peaks.. .Endemic trees living amongst the tree ferns are descended from trees of the humid forests of Africa from the Miocene age, more than 10 million years ago. They are of exceptional interest to scientists trying to understand the evolution of species."

And that brings us up to the climb itself. Although low clouds covered the mountaintops on the morning that Rebecca, Phil Claud, a retired U.S. Forest Ranger, and I began our ascent of Diana's Peak, it was obvious that the hillsides upon which these prehistoric plants grow were stunningly beautiful.

Starting off on the Snail Circuit (named for the endemic Blushing snail, not because it's a slow hike), one of the National Park's three loop trails, we wound our way first through an area where the invasive flax is still abundant. Even these areas, covered with the long-leaved plants, glossily verdant in the morning dew, were attractive. Climbing ever higher on the island's backbone ridge, which runs northwest to southeast, we gradually entered an area that has been restored to an almost pre-flax condition, and there we found the landscape even more appealing. Indeed, surrounded by plants from the Miocene-tree ferns, black cabbage trees, he and she cabbage trees, large jellicos, etc.-it seemed as if we had been sent spinning back to the age of the dinosaurs. If a fern-munching brontosaurus had suddenly poked his head over a nearby hill, I wouldn't have been in the least bit surprised. Okay, maybe a little!

Although the Snail Circuit can normally be hiked in two hours, Rebecca stopped every few feet to point out some interesting new flora or fauna-an endangered plant, an endemic weevil, a special moss-all the while discoursing on the manner in which conservation efforts are proceeding in the Park (four men are now working full time to tear out the flax-not an easy job as many of the clumps grow on steep hillsides). She also mentioned that flax isn't the only plant causing a problem, and that others too, including fuchsias, which have escaped from island gardens, are now spreading throughout the Park. All in all, it took us about 3-1/2 hours to complete the Snail Circuit, which traverses the island's three highest summits, the mythologically named Mt. Actaeon, Diana's Peak and Cuckold's Point.

While visiting Diana's Peak N. P. was a fascinating experience, getting to know CairnsWicks was even better. I can't recall when I've ever met anyone with such a focused passion for conservation. What a treat it was to get to know her. Should she remain on the island, as I presume she will, I'm sure that one day she'll be recognized as the doyenne of St. Helena's conservation efforts. About 1 p.m., Rebecca delivered Phil and me back to Jamestown, situated in the bottom of a long, steep-sided volcanic valley (think lao Valley in Maui, only much drier), where we joined the rest of the Explorer's passengers at a luncheon at a local hotel. Following the meal, we were royally entertained by a choir of young "Saints" performing a medley of St. Helena folk songs.

That afternoon, Jo and I poked around Jamestown, bought a few souvenirs, and then climbed up and down Jacobs Ladder, a steep 699step stairway, leading from the middle of the town to an overlooking hill.

Since there is no pier in Jamestown, and because the landing area is often dangerous due to large swells, we left the island that afternoon in same manner by which we arrived that morning, i.e., carefully, via Zodiacs.

Still later, after an on-board cocktail party and dinner in honor of several prominent "Saints," including the island's UK appointed governor, the Explorer began its 4-day, 1,317 nautical mile voyage south to perhaps the world's most isolated island, Tristan da Cunha..


Although Napoleon's 6-year exile on St. Helena was for the most part a melancholy affair, early on, while he and his entourage were waiting for Longwood House to be restored and remodeled for their use, he did enjoy a few lighter moments. It was then, while living with the Balcombe family, that he became friendly with Betsy Balcombe, a thirteen-year old lass proficient enough in French to be able to translate for him.

Betsy is described by author Julia Blackburn, author of The Emperor ~ Last Island, as a girl who "clings on to the amphibious state between childhood and womanhood which allows her to be bad-mannered and rough, while keeping an edge of flirtatiousness."

Forming an immediate bond with the erstwhile Emperor, Betsy teased him, pestered him at will, and on one occasion informed him bluntly that he couldn't sing. When he cheated while playing cards, she threatened to run him through with his own sword. Amazingly, Napoleon, once the most feared man in Europe, seemed charmed by young Betsy's audacity.

Napoleon was first buried in a crypt in the Sane Valley, below Longwood House, but later his remains were removed and interred in a tomb in Les Invalides in Paris. At some point after his death, according to Blackburn, the Emperor and his testicles became separated, the latter now stored in a jar of pure alcohol in a small museum in the South of France. Ouch!

Except for a modicum of island-grown food, St. Helena is dependent on imports for all its supplies. Roughly 60% of these imported goods come from the UK, while the balance is shipped in from South Africa. For the most part, island income is earned through fishing, the sales of fishing licenses and postage stamps, a bit of tourism, and from the export of island-grown coffee. These activities, however, generate only enough revenue to cover about half of the island's operating expenses. The government of the UK underwrites the balance of the finds necessary.

St. Helena has no airport, and thus the only way to visit the island is by ship. Refer to my recent article on Ascension for details.

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