Ascension Island

“To travel is to evolve.”

Pierre Bernado

Ascension Island is a British overseas territory, located in the Atlantic Ocean, north west of Saint Helena Island.  It is not part of the United Kingdom and it is self governing, making its own laws and raising taxes, although the UK is responsible for providing it with defense and internal security.  Ascension is a volcanic island and the western side is made up of volcanic ash and very little grows there.

Ascension Island History

Ascension Island was named after a Portuguese navigator, Afonso de Albuquerque sighted the island on Ascension day (the 21st of May that year).  The Portugeuse never claimed the land for the crown as they saw little appeal to it.  They and later ships collected fresh meat from the seabirds and green turtles, as well as introducing goats to the island for future ships.

Captain Cook even passed the island in 1775 and one of his crew, Georg Forster, described the island as a “ruinous heap of rocks”.  It was later that the British claimed the island and established the first settlement in 1815 as a precaution in case it be used as a staging post to rescue Napoleon, who had been exiled at nearby St Helena Island.

Ascension Island also made a useful stopping point for ships on route.  Charles Darwin stopped there in 1836 on board the HMS Beagle, where he saw an arid, treeless island with sheep, goats, cows, horses, guinea fowl, rats, mice and land crabs.  There were some houses on the mountain at this point fighting survive the elements.

When Darwin returned to England he encouraged his friend Joseph Hooker, a botanist and whose father was the director of Kew Gardens to visit Ascension.  Darwin also encouraged Hooker with the help of kew gardens to send shipments of trees to Ascension Island.  With the help of the Royal Navy the trees were planted on the mountain.  The purpose of the trees was to capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich soils.  Starting in 1850 shipments of trees arrived from Europe, South Africa and Argentina.  By the late 1890s, Ascension Island had been transformed and the mountain, now referred to as green mountain was filled with Eucalyptus, banana trees, pine and bamboo, creating a cloud forest.  Although a farm on Green Mountain to grow food, it is not able to support the population of Ascension Island and ultimately they import most foods needed.

By the end of the 19th century steam engines and the Suez canals meant there were less and less boats stopping at Ascension to top up their meat supply.  However in 1899 a telegraph cable connecting Britain to Cape Town, increased Ascension Islands importance again.  During the first world war radio receivers helped to communicate information to ships at sea.

In the early 1940s the US troops built an airstrip on the lava fields on St Helena, this allowed American aircraft to refuel their planes when flying from South America to Africa and Europe.  The only military action that took place in Ascension Island was on the 9th December, 1941, when a German submarine approached George Town with the intent to bomb any ships in the harbour, it was fired upon and retreated.

Americans returned to Ascension island in 1956, extending and improving the runway at the airfield to be used as an emergency runway for the space shuttle, although never used, it was the longest runway in the world at the time.  NASA later used Ascension Island as a tracking station from 1967 – 1990.  Although NASA no longer uses the tracking station an European Space Agency now operates a monitoring facility.

The British used Ascension Island with the BBC installing an Atlantic Relay Station in 1966 for broadcasts to Africa and South America.  Aditionally during the 1980s, the British used Ascension Island as a staging post during the Falkands War, to deploy bombers and tankers at the airfields and for the Royal Navy to refuel on its way to Falklands.  The British continue to use Ascension Island to provide a refuelling stop for planes between Britain and the Falkland Islands.

Ascension Island Fishing – Tristan

We were quick to whip out the fishing rods upon arrival at Ascension Island. Experimental casts in the water caused the swarms of small black triggerfish. They covered the whole surface of the water, and any hook placed into the sea was stripped of bait within minutes. One unlucky triggerfish was hooked and chopped up, as a bait fish. Another was caught, too, when we threw the bucket in to clean up after the grunting triggerfish; they were so densely packed around the boat, they flowed into the bucket. Their tough skin meant the other triggerfish couldn’t chew it off the hook, and the skin sank to the bottom. Within a few seconds, a fish was hooked and reeled up. There were many Rockhind Grouper on the bottom, spotted fish with big mouths and white flesh. With the newly devised tactic of triggerfish skin, we were able to catch several fish a day, for dinner; the fillets were thin enough that we could justify this number. We also caught some for Divanty, our sailing companions, though Antony was very hesitant to cut them up. So Dad showed me how to fillet the fish, and soon I was catching them and filleting them efficiently. A trawl along the reef edge proved unsuccessful in catching anything but black trevally and Rockhind Grouper; I guess what Ascension lacked in diversity, it made up for in sheer volume. It was possibly the easiest fishing I’d ever seen; it made Chagos look difficult in comparison. You can only eat so much of one fish after a while, though. Still, it was great fun and very delicious.

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One days catch of Rockhind Grouper

Our Time on Ascension

We spent the first couple of days on Ascension Island recovering from our passage before delving into hiring a car and exploring the island.  The cars we hired were reminiscent of the Mr Dinn cars in Langkawi, Malaysia, in other words old, barely holding together but will just get you from A to B.  We hired the cars with our friends, Ants and Div (from Divanty), Max and Ava eagerly went with them, which meant Tristan was stuck with us.

You would think in such a small place its not possible to get lost, however we couldn’t find the road to get to the beach, after a few failed attempts we asked a local, who set us straight.  To get to the beach we drove through the volcanic landscape, what I imagine perhaps Mars would look like.  We stopped for some obligatory photos before passing a myriad of BBC transmitter aerials, which form part of the BBC Atlantic Relay Station before reaching English Bay.

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Volcanic landscape of Ascension Island.

The water and beach at English Bay is beautiful, but it does have strong undercurrents which have caused a few drownings.  While in St Helena we had heard that Ascension had, had its first shark attack with a St Helena resident on holidays there being bitten.  We have discovered since arriving in Ascension that there are a large number of Galapagos sharks, we have had one nudge our dinghy.  We have been advised not to dive, due to the sharks.  There was another shark attack in July after our time in Ascension.

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Ants and Div with Max and Ava at English Bay

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Just before we arrived in Ascension Island, a tourist was bitten by a shark, the first time that has happened.

We happened to spot some empty turtle shells, green turtles breed on Ascension Island.  On closer inspection we saw the nests, a couple of dead turtles and large frigate birds hovering above.  At the bottom of one nest we saw a turtle which we assumed was dead until we saw his/her flippers move.  Max went down and put it in his hat and anxiously raced it down to the shore.  We all excitedly watched as the turtle slowly made its way into the water.  Hopefully this is one of the few that will survive.

Lone baby, green turtle on his way to the water at English Bay

We enjoyed a relaxing lunch with Ants and Div before making our way home.

Day 2 – Of our Car Trip

We had a leisurely Sunday lunch over at the British RAF base with Ants and Div before driving up the steep roads, which our car struggled with, to get to Green Mountain.  With the rest of the island so desolate it is amazing to see this mountain of greenery and also so much cooler up there.  Our walk up to the farm at the top of the mountain took us past some wild raspberries which Div and the kids enjoyed before walking past a couple of greenhouses growing indigenous plants.  We wandered around the grounds and looked through the windows of the old farmhouse.  Although the farm is closed down, there was, who I imagine is the caretaker out in his garden tending his plants.  On our drive back down we did spot some land crabs hiding in the old stone walls.  Amazing to think that Darwin had a hand it turning this desert into a green oasis.

Green Mountain: View from Green Mountain, Ascension Island land crabs, Red Lion Farm, wild raspberries and Ava  under a rock arch.

Time to Go

We had planned to go to shore to use the internet but were told that due to weather changes no one was allowed to come to shore as it was too dangerous.  We went on deck to have a look and shore enough there were huge waves crashing meters above the area we clambered from the dinghys to shore.  The weather was supposed to get rougher so we made a decision to refuel and head off.  Refueling in the increasing waves was a bit of a challenge, but worse was when one person from each boat had to go to shore to check out.  They sent a boat out for a crew member to go ashore and I definitely opted for Andrew to be the person from ours, he did admit it was a little scary.  Once checked out and all fueled up we headed for Brazil.