The vet, the tortoise and the airport

image copyrightJoe Hollins

Six years ago Joe Hollins became the first permanent vet on the island of St Helena, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Here he looked after the oldest known land animal in the world, a 184-year-old giant tortoise - while at the same time seeing the island enter the modern world with the construction of its first airport.

St Helena is famously the island where Napoleon was exiled after the battle of Waterloo. I imagine he felt little joy on his arrival here, a tiny scrap of volcanic rock thousands of miles from Paris, but for me it was quite the opposite - I chose to come here, signing up for a five-year stint as Senior Veterinary Officer. And although I didn't know it when I took the job, I would also be witness to the biggest change in St Helena's history since the abolition of slavery.

The island of St Helena - a mere 67 sq miles of rock right out in the middle of the Atlantic, 1,300 miles from Angola and 2,000 miles from Brazil is now on the brink of joining the rest of the world.

After investment of £250m and five years of frenetic construction, it has an airport - a masterpiece of engineering perched on the cliffs, with a runway that ends in a sheer 1,000ft (300m) drop. It's not open yet, but it will be soon, and then St Helena, which is sometimes described as the second most remote inhabited island in the world, will feel a lot less remote than it does now.

image copyrightJoe Hollins

My favourite job, as the first resident vet, has been looking after Jonathan the giant Seychelles tortoise - a 450lb (200kg) crusty old reptile that I'm very fond of. There's no older living land animal on record in the world. We know he arrived in 1882, fully mature, which means he was about 50 then, which would make him about 184 today. He could be even older.

When I first met him he was in quite a poorly state. He was very thin - feeding was a challenge because his beak was blunt and crumbly so he couldn't cut the grass. He has cataracts and he's lost his sense of smell so he couldn't see where the good grass was.

I decided to supplement his diet, so every Sunday I would go down to the paddock in front of the governor's house, where he lives, to feed him fresh fruit and vegetables - bananas, apples, cucumber, lettuce and cabbage. He has a very fleshy, almost mammalian, tongue and a long reptilian neck, very much like a snake - and he is a prolific belcher.

media captionAt the age of 184, Jonathan has his first bath

After a year not only was he putting on weight and being more active, but his beak became razor sharp and I had to wear welder's gloves to protect my fingers. His libido came back as well, and he'd try to knock David, the perpetually randy younger male, off Emma, one of the three females. Not to any great effect, but it's a very good sign.

The life expectancy of these tortoises is approximately 150 years of age so Jonathan's already exceeded that by quite a long way. The ancient reptile has seen off many governors, but whatever he has witnessed in his 134 years on the island, not much has changed around him until now. The pace of change on the island over the past five years has been phenomenal.

image copyrightCourtesy of Joe Hollins
image captionJonathan (on the left) in 1886 - he was the same length then as now
image copyrightJoe Hollins

Oldest and rarest tortoise

  • Ships used to stack giant tortoises on board where they would stay alive and provide the crew with fresh food - thus most became extinct
  • There are two families of giant tortoises left in the world: the Pacific family (Galapagos Islands) and the Indian Ocean tortoises (Aldabra Atoll)
  • There are hundreds of thousands of Aldabran giant tortoises but only a few thousand Galapagos tortoises
  • Recently it was discovered that Jonathan is an extremely rare Seychelles giant tortoise of which there are only a few dozen left in the world

In order to prepare for the airport St Helena had to be readied for the modern world in every respect.

The UK government's investment - equivalent to £60,000 per capita - came with conditions covering everything from taxation to social and medical services, and land ownership. There were big changes in all these areas. Six months ago they even introduced mobile phones, something that had not been possible before because of the challenging terrain of hills and deep gorges. Now everybody walks along talking on their phones, as they do in the rest of the world.

I saw the very first plane land on the island on 15 September 2015 - a historic occasion. As luck would have it I had been called out to see a sick pig on the windward side of the island where the airport is. Quite a few people had gathered to watch as a small light aircraft zoomed across the airport construction site to have a look. Its first attempt at landing was aborted and it climbed steeply away again, above the 300m cliffs at each end of the runway and the massive outcrops of rock beyond them.

image copyrightRemi Bruneton / St Helena Government
image captionTo build the runway a gorge called Dry Gut had to be filled with 450,000 truckloads of rock

On the third attempt it landed and you could hear people cheering everywhere. It was not something the Saints had seen before. There were emotional scenes.

The airport was due to open on 21 May but there are still issues to sort out. Work is still under way to deal with turbulence and wind shear. Landing can be pretty hairy.

media captionThe first commercial flight makes a wobbly landing

Until now the only way on and off the island has been on the last remaining true Royal Mail Ship, the RMS St Helena. She leaves Cape Town every three weeks and takes five or six nights to reach St Helena. When she anchors in the bay passengers have to take a launch to the steps, and clamber ashore with the aid of a rope.

image copyrightJoe Hollins

One of the concerns around the airport is biosecurity. The ship has always acted like a quarantine station - because the journey took so long, if anyone was incubating disease there was a chance they would fall ill on board. But by aeroplane, people can get here within hours. All we need is for somebody to arrive with a new disease and the cat's out of the bag.

We recently had two workers on the island with malaria. Luckily we do not have the malaria-carrying mosquito, so it could not be passed on. But we do have two other pathogenic species of mosquito, Culex and Aedes, which can carry human diseases like the Zika virus, Chikungunya or Dengue fever. So the disease carriers are here but the diseases aren't - and we mustn't introduce them.

image copyrightJoe Hollins

I left, as I arrived, on the RMS St Helena. She's quite a ship. Only 100m long, with cargo at the front and passengers at the back, she's been the only means on and off the island forever, but she will be decommissioned as soon as the airport opens for business.

She's a lifeline. But while she brings families together, she also tears them apart.

There are a lot of tears shed on the wharf every time she departs.

Find out more

image copyrightJoe Hollins

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