So its been a while, many of you have perhaps thought I have given up on the writing, but in truth I have plenty to tell you, only I have been away from a computer for eight weeks, and only now, as I sit on the RMS starting our journey back to St Helena do I have time to really sit down and think about another passing of time. Eight weeks ago we were on the RMS heading towards Ascension Island. We had thought our time aboard this wonderful ship had come to an end, but with continued delays to the airport we had this, and at least one more trip across the Atlantic Ocean. This time however we headed North West, across the relatively short 700 miles to Ascension Island. Bev and I love Cape Town, but I have to say we were very pleased to have the opportunity to visit and explore this other remote Atlantic Island.
Leaving St Helena was strange, our original two years are up, and, many others who started their journeys with us, would be gone from the Island by the time we get back. I have been to many leaving breakfasts at the coffee shop, but this time it was the Tyson’s saying goodbye, not to the Island, but to people who have been close friends and family all rolled in to one, who have been laughs and smiles and support for our time here. I can honestly say it was a very difficult morning as we hugged and cuddled and tried to hold back the tears.
But soon we were on the RMS, with its uplifting atmosphere and family feel, saying hello to crew whom by now we have become very familiar with and feel like friends.
We travelled towards the equator, the temperature rising with each passing day as we left the cold Benguela current and headed into the South Equatorial current bringing with it warmer air. As we approached Ascension on our third and final day it struck me how much bigger the Island was than I expected, next I noticed the size of the waves crashing its shores on this relatively calm day. We had been warned about the treacherous swimming on most of the Islands coast, with only two of the many glorious beaches safe to swim in, and even then only on good days. The 20ft waves bouncing of the barren rock indicated why!
Ascension is, like St Helena a volcanic Island, formed some million or so years ago by huge eruptions from an undersea volcano. Eventually, after maybe hundreds of years of eruptions, sufficient rock built up to break the surface of the water, and a new Island was born. Its highest point, Green Mountain now stands at 2817 feet high, perhaps just half of the height it was before nearly a million years of weather and erosion have taken their toll. Looking at the Island, it is unmistakably volcanic, its most recent eruption was just a blink of a geological eye ago, some 600 to 1000 years, and as such not only is the Island still classed as potentially active, it has also limited the amount of time that vegetation has had to establish itself. Its remoteness makes it difficult for plants to reach the Island naturally, and its searing temperatures and lack of soil, prevent those plants that do arrive from establishing themselves.
Much of Ascension Island is barren, with black basalt rock from recent eruptions, and mountains of ash, and volcanic craters dominating the sky line
As we sail round from the South approach to the Island capital, George Town on the North Western flank, we see towering hills of barren red and black sands and rock, craters left from recent eruptions. The only area of green lies atop Green Mountain, a cloud forest created by man following decades of plant introductions to establish a more permanent water supply to the Island. The few remaining endemic plants and ferns cling to existence on the damp slopes of this high point, almost permanently shrouded in its moisture giving cloud. The rest of the Island is barren, from a distance completely devoid of life. The Island was first discovered in 1501, by the same chap as discovered St Helena, Admiral Joao de Nova, but such is the foreboding nature of the Island that both he and several other captains since, decided not to even step ashore. It was not until 300 years later in 1815 with the arrival of Napoleon on St Helena that Ascension Island became inhabited. Rear-Admiral Cockburn, charged with ensuring the captivity of Napoleon, ordered a garrison to be stationed on Ascension to dissuade the French from launching a rescue mission from this “nearby” land.
Ascension Island is actually named, HMS Ascension and bizarrely is classed as a stone frigate, a title bestowed on the Island by the British Navy in order to instil a greater level of discipline on the troops stationed there.
Throughout Ascension’s History it has been a working Island, and, up until 2014 it was not even possible to set foot on her soil without a work permit or forward travel. Even if you are born on Ascension, without continued work beyond the age of 18 you are removed and required to live elsewhere! As such the Island is strange to say the least, its inhabitants all serve to serve each other, each has a specific role and the comings and goings are dictated by the particular service the Island can provide at any given time. For many years of course it was a military outpost, non-more so than during the World Wars through which time the US built an air strip for launching campaigns into Northern Africa. Later, and to this day, the Island acts as a telecommunications relay point, the BBC, amongst others, using the network of radio antennae and other metal works of art to bounce the BBC World service across the Atlantic and on to South America and Africa.
Arriving on St Helena is even more treacherous than arriving on St Helena, transferring to a small boat we were then transported to the landing steps. Built in 1823 they are worn, slippery, sloping and narrow. It is a leap of faith in good conditions as the ship lines up its exit doorway with the steps, and three men stand waiting to grab your arms and pull you ashore when the right waves lifts you up and in, rather than down and out!
After a long wait through customs we were delighted to be met on the other side by no less than two families who had travelled to see us arrive. One, a Saint family who’s children have appeared often in my blog, moved to Ascension from St Helena some months before, the Bennets. Oliver being best friends with their eldest, Blaine and Charlie having already declared his engagement of marriage to both of their twin daughters, Bethany and Georgia, largely because he cant tell them apart! It was lovely to see them there and great to see how at ease the children were with each other after some time apart. We would see the Bennett’s twice more during our time on Ascension and enjoyed time at the beach and swimming pool with them. I really hope we see them again and our friendship can continue over the years.
At customs we were also met by the Gonsalves’s, Frankie, Dean and their troublesome twosome. They were returning to St Helena at the end of their mid-term break.They were by now, old hands at this Ascension game, and were able to take us to the hotel and point us in the direction of various useful shops and amenities. The very short drive from customs to our hotel, the Obsidian, took us through the centre of George Town, a strange, empty “capitol” of the Island where one expects to see tumble weed and one does see donkeys wandering the streets in greater numbers than people. Virtually everyone on Ascension are working during the day, so the streets are devoid of children, whom are in school, or pensioners, who don’t exist, or the jobless or shift workers with time during the day to spare, everyone is working, and so no one is around! The town itself is a mix of buildings built by successive military garrisons for one purpose or another, the area is tarmac in the main, with wide roads, almost to the point where road, car park, pavement and garden all merge to form a large car park with buildings sat on top at random intervals.
Despite having been forewarned of the short comings of our home for the next four nights we were pleasantly surprised by our accommodation in the Obsidian hotel, air conditioned, large, comfortable with good food, a nice atmosphere, a good selection of beer and friendly staff. I’m not sure what all of the noise surrounding this place had been for, we found it very pleasant indeed.
Returning to the UK always gives a perspective to the things we like most about our Island home, and a particular occurance on Ascension helps to hammer home some of the differences. We hired a car whilst on Ascension, it was fine, nothing fancy but it went and got us where we wanted to go. I collected it from a pleasant man who personally came to meet us at customs on arrival. He took no deposit, explained the cars quirks, and handed over the keys. In order to pay for the hire of this vehicle we had to go to the Islands only fuel station, where, on our last day we filled up the car, and paid for its hire. But we continued to use the car after this time, with the polite request that for any further mileage we do, we leave 20p per mile in the car. We were permitted to leave it at the airport when we flew and someone would collect it from there later. As a service this is second to none, met at arrival, leave the vehicle at departure and leave some small change in the car to cover petrol, fantastic.
There is much to be impressed with on Ascension Island. The presence of US and UK military helps to bring in funds which would otherwise not exists. On the evening of our departure we eat on the American Airbase, a place which wants for nothing or so it seems, a baseball arena, basketball courts and swimming pool surrounded the bar and restaurant complex we stopped at. An all American bar serving beer at 75p a bottle and showing sports from around the world on its numerous wide screen TV’s. This was an entirely modern and up to date world we had stepped into. So, where were you when Wales played in the Semi-finals of the European Championships? I was watching nervously in an American Bar, on a US airbase, on Ascension Island!
Ascensions wildlife is as unique as it is beautiful. The sea is warm and stunningly clear. Frigate birds patrol the skies and giant land crabs forage in the wild mango forests. Oliver turned his hand to fishing. But not the normal kind. He had a knack for literally reaching out and grabbing black trigger fish from the huge shoals that gather in shallow waters.
We spent four nights on Ascension and I really wanted more, I loved it. We spent time on glorious tropical white sand beaches, surrounded by tracks of young turtles whom had made their way to the sea the night before. We swam in the clearest waters I have ever encountered and were surrounded by marine life of all kinds. We swam in one of three pools on the Island, drank in numerous bars which are open throughout the day ( a pleasant change after the experience of St Helena) and marvelled at the landscape of larva rock and red sands, jagged alien formations of sharp pinnacles littered with ever present radio wires and communications dotted about the Island. Up until our last day the weather remained beautiful and it is fair to say we were all sad to leave, but grateful for the opportunity to visit somewhere that almost nobody in the World has been lucky enough to visit.
The beaches on Ascension are stunning, even if a little odd with their backdrop of telecommunications everywhere. Comfortless cove is so called as it was used as a quarantine station for sailors with disease. Apparently once called comfort cove to hide the conditions here. A small cemetery is testament to the men who died here through the years in the barren, cove.
I hope for the continued extension of the RMS, from an entirely selfish point of view and not withstanding the obvious benefits to St Helena, I for one am grateful for the continued delays to the airport opening. Travelling on the RMS and opportunity to visit such marvels as Cape Town and Ascension Island, are, for us, once in a life time stuff, and the longer the ship continues to service the Island the more of these once in a life time opportunities we can enjoy.