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What are the rules of engagement when you’re alone, miles from land?

Also read: St Helena: in the valley of the saints

The RMS St Helena was built in 1989. Photo by Tyson Jopson

It finally happened. They finally landed a planeful of tourists on St Helena’s beleaguered runway. Now the island is officially just a six-hour flight away (read why you should go, on page 80 of the January issue). It got me thinking about the RMS St Helena. Until now it was the only way anyone could get to the island. As more planes land, the world’s last-remaining mail ship will surely enter its twilight years, serving an ever-shrinking crowd of octogenarian Napoleophiles, gear-laden naturalists and wistful romantics who dream of sailing to the end of the Earth on a historical voyager.

I have never dreamed of sailing to the end of the Earth on anything. But being a travel journalist means that sometimes you get to do things other people dream of doing even though it’s not something you dream of doing. It always feels horribly unfair, but it felt especially unfair when I left Cape Town on the RMS St Helena some years ago. Instead of absorbing the bucket-list voyage, I planned to use the five-day journey to finally get some writing done.

I was positively giddy at the thought of all that time without email. I ignored the onboard activity list: quiz, bingo, deck cricket – not for me; I was going to hole up in my cabin, stare wistfully out of the porthole and pen masterpieces from my glorious isolation.

And so, when I got into my cabin, waiting for my bags to arrive, I began arranging a workspace. I was some way into deciding which font would best accentuate my rapier wit when a man arrived with my luggage. Only it wasn’t my luggage. It was someone else’s luggage. He checked the number on the door, nodded and put the bags down. Then he surveyed the cabin and the fold-out bunks and said, ’Do you like to be on the top or the bottom?’

‘Sorry? There must be a mistake. This is my cabin. I’m here on the writer’s package which guarantees solitude … and wistfulness,’ is what I might have said if I wasn’t afraid of conflict, and also if there was such a package.

‘The bottom, I guess. It’s closer to the desk,’ is what I did say. And that is all I said. For five awkward, silent minutes I just stood there watching him unpack, trying to remember the last time I spent five days bunking with someone I didn’t know. Boarding school. Totally different – the rules for personal space in a group of boys are simple: there are none. It’s bedlam.

The man in front of me was very much grown up already. He had a beard and a shirt that was tucked into his trousers by choice. Not only had this man scuppered my chances of literary acclaim, but he was about to thrust himself into the kind of personal space that takes normal couples years to be comfortable sharing.

A flurry of questions flooded my mind. Can I smother him with a pillow if he snores? Who showers first? If his shampoo smells better than mine, can I use it? What if our laundry gets mixed up – can you just hand another man his underwear? Do we say goodnight, or just lie there wondering if the conversation is over? Who decides when the lights go out? What if I’m not done talking about my day?

Just then the dinner bell rang. ‘I’m Stephen, by the way. Do you want to sit together?’

The dining saloon was lit like a French cafe and soft violin sounds sauntered between the tables. I had the yellowtail, Stephen ordered the pork belly. We both agreed on a reasonably priced Merlot. He told me he was an X-ray machine specialist and spent a few weeks a year servicing the island’s hospital. He also told me he loved old planes and began naming every type that flew in the great wars. I told him I was a travel journalist and that soon he’d be able to fly to St Helena instead of spending five days at sea.

‘I like the boat,’ he said, ‘you meet interesting people.’

A short while later the captain came by and asked us if we’d be joining the quiz that night.

‘What do you say?’ Stephen looked at me. ‘Want to be on the same team?’

‘I guess, but only if we can call ourselves Cabin Fever.’ I said.

That made Stephen laugh. And it made me remember that the best stories don’t come from sitting alone and staring at the ocean from behind a porthole. Nor do they come from speedy flights in sterilised airliners. They happen when you meet new people, and step out of your comfort zone. It also made me realise that it’s always better to have dinner with someone before you sleep with them.

This story first appeared in the January 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.

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  • Fiona Budd

    Loved this article – absolutely brilliant! St Helena (by boat or plane) is so on my bucket list.

  • Vernon Titus

    Thank goodness the RMS had not been decommissioned as planned! On the 1st December 2017 my wife and I boarded the historical vessel on our maiden voyage: some-how romantic and nostalgic over the end of an era. Apart from this, the deciding factor was undoubtedly the concern over the impact of wind sheer on the larger planes attempting to land at St Helena Airport. This has thankfully been sorted and therefore we opted to fly back – getting the best of both worlds and spending Christmas with the locals!
    Apart from the unparalleled and contrasting beauty of the island, it is the Saints and their culture that have impacted my stay the most. Their patience (restraint?) is truly unmatched – how else would you explain that two motorists who are travelling in opposite directions would be allowed to stop for a chat and even exchange the obligatory Christmas card without the string of cars behind them flashing rude digits or honking their horns?
    Christmas is the best time to visit. From street parades and the Festival of Lights in Jamestown, to sing-alongs at the Mule Yard or carols at Rosemary Plain or Longwood. The odd two-step shuffle at Colin’s Bar in Sandy Bay or at the community hall at Blue Hill. Pulsating reggae and gyrating youngsters at Donny’s by the seaside. A good meal at the Blue Lantern or at Rosy’s …and the opportunity to picnic at Horse Pasture, Green Hill or Ruperts.
    One of the highlights has certainly been the dolphin trip, which had us agog at the site of hundreds of pods canoodling in tandem and back-flipping for kilometres on end next to the boat!
    …and the stories?! James and Hannah, with their brood of three, who have travelled the world on their yacht and who promise to take tourism to another level…and Michael who tried to make a fisherman out of me…and Hazel and Anthony and Elaine…the Eggshells…and Pat…and Dawn…
    Warm people with generous hearts. We will definitely be back!