Our readers share tales of their rambles around the world.
Who: Ron Whiting (author) and his son, Matthew Whiting, both of Bethesda, Md.
Where, when, why: Our trip was to St. Helena and Ascension, two remote islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, from mid-March to early April. Matthew had seen a program about the British Royal Mail Ship that regularly sails from Cape Town, South Africa, to the two British islands and asked whether I was interested in visiting. As it turned out, I was, especially because of the history of St. Helena. Napoleon was imprisoned and died there, and Charles Darwin and Capt. James Cook made stops there.
Highlights and high points: This was one of the last regularly scheduled trips of one of the last Royal Mail Ships in service, the R.M.S. St. Helena, a combination freighter and passenger vessel. We were the only Americans out of the 130-plus passengers. In the five days it took to sail to St. Helena, we never saw another ship, nor even a sign of an airplane.
Once on the island, we toured Longwood House, where Napoleon spent his last years. Despite Napoleon’s complaints, we thought it was quite nice as housing for a prisoner of war in 1815. We hiked alongside a naturalist from the National Trust conservation group to the top of Diana’s Peak, where we got a spectacular view of the entire island and learned about its native insect life. (Later in the trip, we also hiked to the highest point on Ascension Island, Green Mountain, a man-made forest in shocking contrast to the rest of the barren island of 44 inactive volcanos.)
Cultural connection or disconnect: The islands are very British in character. Ascension had no inhabitants at all until 1815, when the English established a naval base there to protect St. Helena from any attempts to free Napoleon. St. Helena had been a sailing ship stop and supply port for centuries, since the time of the early Portuguese sailors. The British took over the island in the 1600s. Jamestown, St. Helena’s capital, has a long history and looks like an old English village set at the bottom of a steep, narrow valley.
Biggest laugh or cry: The residents of St. Helena are called “saints,” a lovely term for the island’s approximately 3,500 inhabitants. After our hike to Diana’s Peak, we stopped at a small local pub, where we met a bartender who had lived for a few years as a child in Bethesda and had gone to high school there. His mother was a “saint.”
How unexpected: The contrast between the two islands is stark. St. Helena is lush and green, with cliffs surrounding the entire island, while Ascension is primarily jagged lava rock with a capital city (Georgetown) of only a few hundred people. Unless we took the boat back to Cape Town, a nine-day voyage, the only way off the island was a British Royal Air Force flight to Brize Norton military base in England, which we took. Many of the passengers on the flight were soldiers returning home from the Falkland Islands.
Fondest memento or memory: Two of our best memories involve turtles. We saw Jonathan, a giant tortoise who is over 180 years old. He is thought to be the oldest living land animal in the world and resides on the grounds of the St. Helena governor’s mansion. On Ascension, we took a nighttime beach walk to watch a giant green sea turtle lay over a hundred eggs. Hundreds of these turtles find their way to Ascension Island every season to lay eggs, and the animals are protected there. It was a great experience for a father and son to share.
To tell us about your own trip, go to washingtonpost.com/travel and fill out the What a Trip form with your fondest memories, finest moments and favorite photos.