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Open Features: St. Helena Island - Part 2

...'How do you know when to yield?' I ask.

'It's simple' he replies. 'Fella comin' down make way for fella comin' up. Ye jus' gotta hoot plenty.'

And 'plenty' is exactly what happens...

Jacqueline Dowling concludes her wonderful word-portrait of the island where Napolean spent his final years.

What a great old chap Sam turns out to be. A character straight out of Dickens with all the old world charm of one of his more likeable characters: a mine of information, all delivered in the lilting island dialect.

We climb out of the valley along a hair-raising switchback road, single laned and clinging precipitously to the mountainside, narrow with great rocky outcrops bulging out on blind hairpin bends on one side, and dizzy volcanic drops on the other. The ancient seat leather, cracked and polished to an almost hallowed radiance, is warm beneath me as I slide about, trying in vain to find a steadying handhold, eventually settling on a central spot with feet anchored in the foot wells and hands gripping the front seats.

Sam's energetic manipulation of cogs, and vigorous hooting has us wondering what he'll do if we meet another car coming the other way.

'How do you know when to yield?' I ask.

'It's simple' he replies. 'Fella comin' down make way for fella comin' up. Ye jus' gotta hoot plenty.'

And 'plenty' is exactly what happens. Clinging to my slippery perch, I rationalise that if he's been driving for sixty of his presumed eighty years, he must know the road pretty well by now – when to hoot and where to stop. He must also be able to service his car, keep a stock of spare parts because supplies are hard to come by, and there's no airport until 2015...so, no stress. Until an ominous smell of hot metal leaks through an open window.

'No worry missus, I put in new ones last week.' Sensing my anxiety perhaps.

'I t'ink you like to see Napoleon's grave now so we stop for a hour, jus' on the top here.'

To the frenetic ticktick of hot metal, and the stink of overheated rubber, the car shudders to a gravelly halt, hiccups and dies.

Napoleon chose a place of great beauty, at the head of a valley for his grave. He died in 1821 and his remains were repatriated to France in 1840, but the original grave remains on this small piece of France; surrounded by ferns, begonias, yellowwoods and blue agapanthus.

We continue our twisty trip into the highlands enveloped in chill mist. This precipitates even more frenetic hooting, stopping and swerving. It's a bit like being in a badly sprung Landau, without the horses. And zero visibility.

Sam applies brakes, car judders and stops.

' Now you visit Longwood House, jus' over that way. I wait for you to take your time.' He waves in the direction of a misty shape across rough commonage.

Here Napoleon endured six increasingly wretched years of exile, here he died. It's a quiet, thought-provoking and mournfully personal place, especially in the mist. With a little imagination one can see a lonely figure in dark jacket and cocked hat pacing the sunken gardens. Longwood, for me, is alive with ghosts of soldiers, sentries and the palpable despair of a dying man far from home. I touch the globe of earth and sky that stands in his bedroom, it spins gently, coming to rest over the endless Russian steppe...

In front of the house, under khaki army lean-to tents women pour tea from large brown enamel teapots. Everyone is welcome and we feel cocooned and cared for up in the clouds, warmed by tea and jam scones. There used to be horse racing on this common we're told, and cricket matches. Legend has it that during a match played close to the edge of the ravine, a fielder fell backwards to his death and was reported as having 'retired dead.'

By this stage of the trip we're becoming seriously concerned about the state of the brakes, and worrying about the dizzying zig-zag descent into Jamestown. Fortunately, given the temperature of the tyres, the mist is too thick to stop and view Deadwood Plain, the Boer cemetery or Diana's Peak National Park. Our host tells us graphically what we're missing, and offers an alternative stop at Government House to meet Jonathan the 250 yr old tortoise. We choose instead to admire the view from the top of Jacob's Ladder's six hundred and ninety nine steps; giving the screaming brakes time to cool down and us an hour of looking at the unchanging landscape. Sam just doesn't get it. How many photos can one guy take of the same thing? Obviously time's up and we embark with the greatest trepidation on one of the most hairy descents I've ever made. The terrifying truth being that we are the fellas goin' down and our brakes are seriously dysfunctional. I assume the head on knees crash position in the back, each corner brings forth another screech of hot metal – I slide from side to side, not daring to look up.

Suddenly it's over. In the shade of the peepul tree we share a spit-roasted chicken – one only.

We're back to where we started on the wave-washed steps of this lovely, friendly and isolated island, far from the coast of anywhere.

©jacqueline dowling.
2013

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