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No longer cast away: St Helena joins modern world with flashy new airport

Flag map of Saint Helena

CAPE TOWN — The saints have come marching in – or rather they’ve opened the doors of the St Helena island home they regard as heaven – to the world. That’s by building a new airport that makes the remote South Atlantic island hugely more accessible, in particular to South Africans. Here, business entrepreneur Paul O’Sullivan, better known for his global corruption busting efforts, outlines the significance of this new air-travel link to the island’s economy and development. It’s been a long time coming for this 121 km square island of just under 5000 souls with its tropical climate and previous dependence on the RMS St Helena mail ship for travel to and from the outside world. Britain’s second-oldest remaining overseas territory after Bermuda, St Helena is brimming with history, not to mention natural beauty. It is now a mere three-hour flight from Windhoek where departures and arrivals are timed to link with flights to Johannesburg and Cape Town. The state of the art airport was built by the British Government’s Department for International Development. One can only imagine the delight of the inhabitants, who now, finally, enjoy all the advantages of the modern world. – Chris Bateman

By Anthony Fitzhenry & Paul O’Sullivan*

After a delay of 18 months, due to air-service tendering issues, the GBP250m airport on St Helena Island, in the South Atlantic received its inaugural flight in the afternoon of 14th October 2017.

We were privileged to be on that flight, along with other entrepreneurs and global travel guru’s and this is our story.

We decided to form St Helena Corporation Public Limited Company (SHC PLC www.shcplc.com ) in July 2015, when it became apparent to us that the island of St Helena would be opened for business, following the construction of a state-of-the-art airport, by the British Government’s Department for International Development. SHC PLC was intended to be an investment platform to take advantage of new opportunities on the island, flowing from drastically improved accessibility.

History

Located just short of mid-way between Luanda and Rio de Janeiro, St Helena Island is a tropical-island that forms part of the British Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, in the South Atlantic Ocean. More than 3,700km of ocean divides the three Volcanic islands. Whilst Ascension Island and St Helena have been extinct for millions of years, Tristan da Cunha is classified as ‘dormant’ having erupted briefly in 1961, causing a temporary evacuation of the island. Ascension Island, is much smaller, mostly desert and houses a US strategic airbase, which is used by the British government to provide an air-bridge between the UK and the Falkland Islands.

Anthony Fitzhenry and Paul O’Sullivan outside the new airport terminal.

St Helena was uninhabited when discovered by Portuguese navigator ‘Joao da Nova’ in 1502. The Portuguese found an abundance of fresh water and vegetation and decided to use the island as a stop-over for the Cape route between Portugal and Asia. They imported live-stock, vegetables and fruit trees and the Island became a ship-servicing port for many centuries to come, but remained virtually uninhabited until 1657, when Oliver Cromwell granted a charter to the English East India Company to ‘govern’ the island. The island has been in British hands ever since, with a short interlude in 1673, when the Dutch East India Company forcibly took the island, before control was taken back by the British a few months later. For the next several hundred years, a British naval squadron was based there.

Until now, the only way of getting to the island was aboard the Royal Mail Ship, the RMS St Helena, on a round trip of three weeks, which allows for six nights on the island and two weeks at sea. This is not very convenient, especially since there is no communication with the outside world during the sea-faring period. The remoteness of the island made it suitable for the British to house empirical trouble makers, such as certain Zulu warriors and 6,000 or so Boer prisoners of War. The most famous of the island’s prisoners was Napoleon Bonaparte, who was incarcerated from 1815 until his death in 1821. Although Napoleon’s remains were repatriated to France, his tomb and residence, ‘Longwood House’, are now owned by the French government and are amongst the many tourist attractions on the island.

Next stop, Jamestown!

The Airlink (https://flyairlink.com/destinations/flights-to-st-helena) flight from Johannesburg is a short two hours to Windhoek for refuelling, followed by a further three hour flight to St Helena. The Windhoek fuel-stop, is timed to meet the inbound flight for those flying from Cape Town. The aircraft is required by ICAO regulations to carry enough fuel for an alternative landing, (2.5 hours to Luanda) plus 90 minutes spare fuel, meaning that it must fly heavier than normal, with the result that 20% of the seating capacity is lost to fuel.

The inaugural flight to St Helena was a great privilege for us and the flight and landing was extremely smooth. Passing the steep volcanic cliffs on the way in, one could see into the green interior of the island. As is global traditional in the aviation industry, we taxied to the terminal through a ceremonial water-arch, provided by two of the airport’s fire tenders.

Jamestown square.

The two pilots went down the steps and formed an honour guard with the South African and St Helena flags as all the passengers disembarked to a warm welcome by the island’s Governor, Lisa Phillips. Once through immigration and customs, all passengers were again treated to the island’s hospitality as literally hundreds of ‘Saints’ as the islanders are known, turned out to welcome the first flight.

Jamestown square from Ladder Hill Fort.
Down to Business

As we were flying out the next day, we had only 24 hours on the ground in St Helena and were determined to make the most of it. Since we had been engaged in assessing business opportunities on the island for over two years, we were keen to view the prospects and see if our enthusiasm was appropriate. It was.

SHC PLC had recently acquired a small plot of land on St Helena, for the purpose of building a show-home. Coincidently, the timing could not have been better. Arriving on the flight with us were a project manager and seven staff of our contracting partners, T & B Log Homes of Knysna. Working together with T & B, we have developed four luxury log-home styles for the island, being a two bedroom unit, three bedroom unit, three bedroom three bathroom and study unit and a four bedroom four bathroom unit. We decided to place the three bedroom three bathroom with study unit on our plot, and promptly obtained planning permission in this regard.

The title deeds to our new property on St Helena were presented to us at an in formal ceremony at Bertrands Cottage an hour or so before our departure on Sunday, 15 October 2017.

We then have a situation whereby, we arrived on the Saturday, get our title deeds on the Sunday and work commences on site on the Monday. The timing could not have been better. With SHC PLC’s plans to develop a mixed ownership resort on the island, things could not have gotten off to a better start.

During our short stay on the island, we packed in every minute, in order to see as much as possible and meet as many people as possible. It can be best described as a speed-dating trip on steroids. Without exception, the Saints proved to be a most hospitable people, who opened their homes and hearts to the visitors. We stayed at ‘The Farm Lodge’ which is a stylish bed and breakfast owned and managed by Maureen Jonas and Stephen Biggs.

Plantation House – Governor’s Residence.

We were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the accommodation on the island, which also includes a new five star boutique hotel managed by the Mantis Collection, in the Main Street of Jamestown. Communication has improved with the introduction of a cellular network on the island and most hotels and guest houses have Wi-Fi.

As a tropical island, freezing weather is unheard of and the island is home to one of the most sought after coffees in the world. By comparison, the island of Jersey in the (rain swept) English Channel is 2% smaller than St Helena, but has a population of twenty times St Helena’s at more than 100,000 people. With the introduction of weekly flights, isolation is now a thing of the past and the population is expected to quickly grow from the current level of under 5,000. The opportunities are therefore boundless.

St Helena Island is therefore now truly ‘Open for Business’.

  • Anthony Fitzhenry founded Axiz (Pty) Ltd which he grew at 20% for 21 years, to become the largest IT distributor in Africa. In 2006 he was named ‘IT Personality of the Year’. Paul O’Sullivan, an engineer by profession, is also known as one of SA’s leading crime fighters. Since his arrival in South Africa in the late 80’s, he has developed over 1,500 homes, three hotels and multiple commercial premises.
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