TOUCHING DOWN ON VIRGIN SOIL: ONLY SIX HOURS TO ST HELENA - We Are Africa

TOUCHING DOWN ON VIRGIN SOIL: ONLY SIX HOURS TO ST HELENA

3 -min. read

It’ll be a long time before the residents of the island of St Helena stop talking about the afternoon of Saturday 14 October 2017.

View of St Helena
View of St Helena – via the BBC

As Airlink flight SA8131 finally touched down on the runway on the island cast away deep in the Atlantic, the arrival of the first-ever scheduled air service finally brought the island within reach of curious tourists. Until then, the only way to reach the island had been a five-night voyage from Cape Town aboard the ageing Royal Mail Ship St Helena. It marked the end of centuries of isolation.

St Helena airport
St Helena airport – courtesy of St Helena Tourism

Building an airport on this far-flung British Overseas Territory had been mooted for nearly a century before the runway and airport terminal was finally completed in 2016. It took eight-million-cubic-metres of rock to fashion a flat plain out of the volcanic island, all at a cost to the British taxpayer of £285 million. No wonder the UK government was left fuming when excessive wind shear meant larger planes were unable to safely use the runway.

With commercial flights delayed, the RMS St. Helena was hauled out of retirement, and authorities went back to the drawing board. A solution was finally reached earlier this year when South African regional carrier Airlink stepped up to the plate. Its new Embraer E190 jet was capable of both making the six-hour journey and touching down safely on the windy runway.

With regular commercial flights now into their third week of operation, tourism authorities – and locals – are hoping the long-awaited tourism boom arrives. The island has long been famous as the place where Napoleon Bonaparte saw out his days, while war cemeteries and colonial history pepper the rugged island. The hills offer spectacular walking trails, while the seas surrounding St. Helena deliver superb deep-sea fishing and scuba diving.

“For St Helena, today is the start of a bright new future”, commented the governor of St Helena, Her Excellency Lisa Phillips, after the inaugural flight had landed. “We are open for business and investment, and we know tourists will marvel at the beauty of the island. We are happy to welcome our visitors to the ‘secret destination of the South Atlantic’.”

The excitement around the new flight is perhaps most evident in the capital, Jamestown, where the Mantis Collection is putting the finishing touches to a brand-new 30-room boutique hotel that is due to open in a matter of days on Saturday 28 October. It will be the island’s first luxury property, with both historic and contemporary-styled rooms on offer.

 

“We’re so proud to be associated with this new and exciting venture”, said Adrian Gardiner, founder and chairman of Mantis, when announcing the new venture. “Mantis always seeks to unearth the exceptional, and we’ve undoubtedly achieved that here – not many people have visited this remote part of the globe, and we are delighted to have been given the opportunity to open up the doors to this exciting new destination.”

It’s a location finally within reach thanks to the new weekly air service. At present, Airlink will offer weekly flights from Johannesburg to St. Helena, stopping in Windhoek (Namibia) to refuel. The flight has also been timed to coincide with a service from Cape Town to Windhoek, allowing passengers to fly seamlessly from either South African city to St Helena.

Winkhoek, Namibia
Winkhoek, Namibia – via hotelroomsearch

Fares start at £804 (including taxes) for an economy return ticket from Johannesburg and £846 (including taxes) from Cape Town.

The airline says it is also pursuing Fifth Freedom Rights between Windhoek and St Helena. That would allow passengers arriving on other airlines to easily join or disembark the St. Helena service at Windhoek. The likes of Lufthansa, TAAG and Air Namibia all fly international routes to Windhoek.

From next month Airlink will also operate a monthly charter service between St Helena and Ascension Island.

Ascension Island
Ascension Island – photo by Jeremy Holden
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Richard Holmes
Richard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.

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