62½: Diana’s Peak, St Helena

Diana's Peak
Diana’s Peak. The tree in the background marks the summit of Cuckold’s Point.

Date: I first undertook a version of this walk on 27th November 2021. As there were no views, I didn’t blog about it at the time, but some photos from that day do appear below. My second visit took place on 28th January 2023, and that day’s hike is the primary source of information for this page.

Weather conditions: The Peaks are frequently shrouded in cloud, but 28/1/23 was clear and warm, with sunshine but also enough cloud around to prevent me being baked.

Generally, St Helena’s climate is more moderate than its tropical latitude (16ºS) would lead you to expect, thanks to the vastness of the ocean in which it sits, 1,200 miles from the nearest continental land (Angola). And the windward, south-eastern side of the island is often cloudy and damp even when the capital, Jamestown, is enjoying sunshine. For walks here I would always wear sunscreen and bring plenty of water, but also pack a sweater and/or a waterproof jacket, just in case.

Gorilla's Head
In the centre of the picture, the ‘Gorilla’s Head’. Well, it does, doesn’t it?

County Top bagged: Diana’s Peak, which at 2,690 feet/820m above sea level, is the highest point on the island of St Helena. This isn’t a ‘county’ of Britain in the same way as is (say) Sussex, but a British Overseas Territory, and so part of the United Kingdom in some form or another since Oliver Cromwell granted the East India Company jurisdiction over it in 1637. It can therefore count as a ‘bonus’ CT, though not part of the main count, hence the ’62½’ numbering. See also the commentary.

The walk also takes in two neighbouring peaks, Mount Actaeon and Cuckold’s Point, both of which are 2,670 feet/814m. Note that the height of 820m for Diana’s Peak is marked on the map and on a post that stands on the summit, but Wikipedia suggests the altitude is slightly lower, at 818m.

Mt Actaeon
Mount Actaeon, seen from the summit of Diana’s Peak.

[ << West Lomond, Fife (62) | (63) Surrey Hill, Bracknell Forest >> ]

Start and end point of walk: There are two places at which the walk can start: one at Cabbage Tree Road to the west, and then Black Gate to the east (see the map below). It was Black Gate that I used on my second walk and so the information on this page is based on that being the start and end point.

You might, of course, consider starting at one and finishing at the other, but it is quite a walk between them along the tarmac road. And in any case, there is only sporadic and unhelpful public transport on the island, so to reach either one of these termini you need a car. In the end it probably is best just to pick one of these points and both start and finish there.

Local avifauna. I think these are juvenile common waxbills.

Pub at end: There is nothing in the vicinity. Of the various pubs on the island that I have so far patronised the best one is the Mule Yard in Jamestown, although this is only open on weekends. Rosie’s Bar in Half Tree Hollow is also good and has spectacular sunset views of the ocean.

Distance walked: The information board at the starting point says it is 2.4km to Diana’s Peak from Black Gate, so let’s say about 3.1 miles/5km for a round trip that also takes in Cuckold’s Point.

Total ascent: The starting point is already quite elevated, at least 600m up. There is some up-and-down between the peaks, so I will estimate around 985 feet/300m of total ascent.

Stairway path
One of the walk’s various stairways.

Difficulty: ★★. This is a straightforward walk, particularly by local standards, and much easier than the one I did three days before to Great Stone Top. Much of the route lies up and down engineered stairways (see the picture) which make both the walking and the navigation easy, even in cloud. Stick to the paths, however: for reasons that will be very obvious when you are up there.

Ease of access: Judged against the standards of the other walks on this site there is no alternative but to award zero stars for this one. There is presently only one flight a week to St Helena, from Johannesburg (and here it is, seen from the top of Mt Actaeon).

Even once you are on the island, the lack of convenient public transport makes the starting points awkward to reach unless you use a car, and even though nowhere here is very far from anywhere else as the crow flies, the roads are narrow and winding. Zero stars is therefore quite reasonable.

Weekly flight landing
The weekly Johannesburg flight comes in.

Scenic qualities: ★★★★. There are no rocky crags on the Peaks — this being the defining characteristic of five-star walks — but it’s hard to dispute the quality of the scenery and summit views if you go up when it’s clear of cloud. Virtually the whole island can be seen, and man, does it look good.

The area: St Helena is only 47 square miles in extent but packs in a great variety of landscapes. Unlike in Britain, here it’s the lower, coastal regions that are barren, but the mountains are covered with lush vegetation. The reason is, simply, rainfall: it’s the peaks that precipitate out the moisture blown in from the ocean. One can walk down from tropical cloud forest, through pastureland that looks rather like parts of Yorkshire, and into barren, rocky desert, in about an hour.

Cabbage tree
Specimen of a ‘cabbage tree’, a species found nowhere else on the planet.

Hundreds of years ago, before humanity discovered it and started wantonly buggering about with the ecosystems, the whole island was covered in forest, but these primeval woods are now restricted to the very top of the Peaks. Here you will find species like the cabbage tree (pictured), tree ferns, flowers, and some invertebrates (like the ‘blushing snail’) that are found nowhere else on earth. Sadly, the dominant flora is now New Zealand flax, planted early in the 20th century in an attempt to produce a local cash crop, but which now covers large portions of the hills in a carpet that risks swamping what endemic plants still hang on in there. Naturalists (like my local contact Becky Cairns-Wicks, who accompanied me on my first visit and who is pictured in one of the photos below) are doing their best to retard the spread of this weed and revitalise the endemics, but it’s a long struggle.

It’s worth visiting here for more than just the environment, too. There is much of historical interest, beyond just the connection with Napoleon (exiled here for the last six years of his life). And Saints are certainly among the friendliest and most welcoming of all people. It’s not a place without its problems — many of which, down the centuries, have been the result of being ruled by a government in London that really couldn’t give the slightest toss about this pimple in the ocean, far away — but if you can make the trouble to get here, I highly recommend it.

Map of walk 62.5

Map: A good and up-to-date 1:25,000 map of St Helena was published in 2020 and can be bought for £10 on the island. This image is a rather unsatisfactory photograph of the relevant part of it, but it’ll do for now. The starting points at Cabbage Tree Road and Black Gate are marked with little ‘footprint’ symbols towards the top of the map, with Black Gate being the one to the right (east). However, you won’t need this map to undertake the walk: signposting is clear and the path will not be lost.

Note that there has been variation down the years in the ordering of the names of the three peaks. Some older maps show them with Cuckold’s Point and Mount Actaeon swapped around. These days, though, the summits have marker posts on them that seem to confirm that Cuckold’s is the southern and Actaeon the northern of the three.

Summit marker
Confirming the identity of Mount Actaeon, at least.

For a guide to the whole island, I recommend Ian Mathieson and Laurence Carter’s Exploring St Helena: A Walker’s Guide, published by Anthony Nelson in the 1990s. In some ways it’s now a little out of date but it’s still the only comprehensive reference work. The 2020 edition of the Bradt guidebook to St Helena is also worth picking up for more general information.

Route: There’s not a great deal needing saying about the route itself. This is a short and fairly easy walk, surprisingly so perhaps, and a lot more straightforward than some other routes on the island (cf. my hike to Great Stone Top the other day). There is some climbing to do, and on a sunny day you should take your time and drink plenty of water, but I doubt anyone would need more than two hours to complete it.

View to Great Stone Top
The nursery to the right. Great Stone Top in the background.

From the sign at the roadside, ascend the lane, which zigzags stonily upwards to the greenhouse and sheds of the ‘endemic nursery’, part of the project to preserve the unique flora (see above). Go through the gate, then at the junction a little higher up, decide what way round you want to do the three peaks. If you follow me and bag Cuckold’s Point first, turn left here. The views are already excellent: behind you is the pointy Flagstaff Peak, the big blocky Barn, and the airport on Prosperous Bay Plain that so annoyed the Daily Mail (and remember Drew’s Axiom #1: anything that annoys the Daily Mail is definitely worth doing).

The path passes a shelter then climbs fairly steeply, under the shade of cabbage trees and ferns. Before too long it tops out at a junction where a signpost points to Cuckold’s Point on the left. The views open up on the other side of the ridge as well, revealing an awesome panorama of the Sandy Bay district, crowned by diverse basalt columns including Lot (pictured here) and the aptly-named Gorilla’s Head (see picture above).

Lot. His wife is somewhere over to the left of this picture.

Cuckold’s Point is a dead-end, so after attaining it, retrace your steps to the junction and then carry on along the walkway and up the stairs to Diana’s Peak, which is not just the highest point on the island, but the highest point for about 800 miles in any direction (Green Mountain on Ascension Island, the next nearest land, is slightly higher: see the list below). Almost the whole island can be seen from here, although Jamestown remains concealed in its deep valley.

Carry on over Diana’s Peak and go down then up again to Mount Actaeon, the last of the triumvirate. Look for the neat rock ‘window’ beside the path at one point. The path continues over the top and then drops down to a junction, where to return to Black Gate, turn right along a terrace path which marks a boundary between the wasteland of flax on the left and the endemic forest to the right (see picture here). In fairly short order this returns you to the nursery, after which just drop back down to the starting point.

Terrace path
The terrace path below the Peaks (and Becky C-W).

Commentary: Perhaps the most iniquitous of the various injustices imposed down the years on the people of St Helena by their colonial rulers in Westminster was the 1981 British Nationality Act. This was brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s government specifically to counter the perceived ‘threat’ of millions of Hong Kong Chinese deciding that, after that territory was handed back to China in 1997, they might like to come and live in a place that, after all, had benefited rather well from the colonial deal over the last century. This Act removed citizenship rights from all of Britain’s overseas territories, except the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar: the arguments made for why those were excluded skated around the basic point that these were the two with, largely, white-skinned people. But of course, Westminster would never make such judgments purely on racial grounds, would they?

Anyway the point is that during the twenty years of legal battles to restore St Helenians’ historic rights of abode in the UK, a report was published that suggested St Helena should be considered as having equivalent status to a county of the UK (Turner and Hopkins 1997: see this link). It observed that the island has been legally a part of the UK 33 years longer than Scotland has, and 127 years longer than Northern Ireland. Which is all fair comment, I think.

The Barn
The Barn: a mountain which apparently highly depressed Napoleon.

So seeing as I’ve got myself all the way out here and then up to the island’s highest point — twice, in each case — let’s consider Diana’s Peak an honorary County Top. I’m not going to add it into the lists in terms of its ranking by altitude and so on, because I can’t be bothered renumbering them yet again, but if it were included it would be the 24th highest CT of all, only just below White Coomb.

But it doesn’t feel anywhere near as ‘mountainous’ as peaks of equivalent height in the home country. This is partly because of the shortness of the climb; the house where I’m staying (belonging to my colleague Gareth) is itself about 1,700 feet up, higher than any inhabited place in Britain. It’s also down to the lushness of the terrain and the basic mildness of the climate. It’s a tougher proposition in the local winter (June – September), I’ve been told, but hey, I’m not here in winter. Still, it was a stroke of good fortune that the weather did clear on a day when I didn’t have other responsibilities and so I could take advantage. I type this at about 4pm on the same day, less than three hours after coming down from the summit, and it’s pissing down again — proving the point.

Summit vegetation
Summit vegetation in more typical weather conditions.

I do believe one makes one’s own luck, generally, but I’m still glad I have been able to set up certain aspects of my life and work so I can come to places like this. This trip only has another week to run, but I shall be back in 2024, hopefully for at least two months and longer, if I can manage it. There is plenty more walking to be done here yet.

Appendix: This list is my best effort at establishing the highest points in all the other remaining British Overseas Territories. I absolutely do not commit to bagging them all, and may never make any of the others — though I do hope to get to Ascension Island at some point.

Akrotiri and Dhekelia: [unknown, and possibly inaccessible due to this being a military base]
Anguilla: Crocus Hill, 240 feet/73m.
Ascension Island: Green Mountain, 2,818 ft/859 m.
Bermuda: Town Hill, 259 feet/79m.
British Antarctic Territory: Mount Hope, 10,627 ft/3,239 m [it’ll never happen]
British Indian Ocean Territory: [unknown: off limits to travel and nothing over a few meters high anyway]

View to airport
View to the airport runway, which I shall be using at least a couple more times in my life.

British Virgin Islands: Mount Sage, 1,709 ft/521 m.
Cayman Islands: The Bluff, 141 feet/43 m.
Falkland Islands: Mount Usborne, 2,313 feet/705 m.
Gibraltar: The Rock, 1,398 feet/426m.
Montserrat: Soufriere Hills, 3,440 feet/1,050m [off limits due to volcanic activity]
Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands: Henderson Island, 2,313 ft/705 m [almost completely inaccessible]
South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands: Mount Paget, 9,629 feet/2,935 m.  
Tristan da Cunha: Queen Mary’s Peak, 6,765 feet/2,062m.
Turks and Caicos Islands: Blue Hills and Flamingo Hills, 157 ft/48 m.


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