young accountants Leanne Fisher and Rhea Ingram have just returned from the business trip – and the challenge - of a lifetime.
“There’s no comparison with other away jobs,” says Leanne, whose longest business journey before that had been in Aberdeen.
“It was a unique opportunity, you just can’t say no – although I did have to Google it, to find out where it was.”
Getting there was an unforgettable experience in itself, starting with a journey to RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, which is not only the largest RAF station and the main airport used for sending troops worldwide, but is also the airport for Air Seychelles commercial flights to Ascension Island.
After the eight-hour flight and an overnight stay on Ascension, it is a three-day boat trip to St Helena, which means it takes a working week to get out there.
Ascension and St Helena are very different islands.
“Ascension is very volcanic, quite flat and no one really ‘lives’ there. People are only there to work on the US or RAF bases and no one takes much ownership of things.
“Helena is not as volcanic, has a lot of valleys, it’s green and luscious. Parts are like an English countryside and you can turn around, face the other direction, and what you see looks like a desert.
“There are parts that look like a rain forest, and some bizarre things, too,” said Leanne.
“At one place there is a little bit of white sand half way up a mountain, yet there is no sand on the beaches, which are pebbly and more like shale than sand.
“Everyone is exceptionally friendly – and proud of their island. The islanders refer to themselves as ‘Saints.’ The camaraderie is amazing. We had only been there for half an hour and everybody was saying hello and waving.”
What tourists there are, tend to come from the Cape, so strangers who haven’t come from Africa start being quizzed about their reasons for going to St Helena as soon as they get on the boat at Ascension.
Leanne and Rhea found St Helena’s cuisine delicious and sometimes challenging.
“One of their dishes is pumpkin fritters, which I have been trying to recreate since I came home. Another is a tomato paste sandwich – I didn’t try that!” says Leanne.
“The tuna is really fresh and very, very good and the coffee from Helena is beautiful, but it has to get sent to the Cape to get roasted. They are quite reliant on shipping. While we were there, they ran out of tomatoes.”
When it comes to entertainment, the Saints usually finish work and go home at 4:30pm, returning to Jamestown to drink sundowners and dance, occasionally to live bands.
“They make spirits on the island,” says Leanne.
“They have just started making Jamestown Gin and they make a drink called Tungi, which is a spirit made from prickly pear and is lethal! They also make a coffee liquet called Midnight Mist, and Lion Spiced Rum.
The Tungi – pronounced Toon-jee – is around 43.2 per cent proof by volume and comes in a distinctive stepped bottle, that is a reminder of Jacob’s Ladder, the world’s longest straight staircase, which runs from St Helena’s capital, Jamestown, to Halftree Hollow. Leanne rates it as the most beautiful part of the island.
The Ladder has 699 steps, rises 600 feet and started out in 1829 as an inclined plane cable way, built by the St Helena Railway Company, but was turned into a staircase by the Royal Engineers in 1871.
“The locals used to go up and down it every day to go to school and used to slide on the hand rails,” says Leanne.
When it comes to getting around, there are plenty of cars on the island.
“They really need them to get anywhere, because the roads are so long and you have to go round the valleys,” adds Leanne.
“But the road network will be improved when the airport comes.”