Saturday, 30 April 2011

Ascension Island

Saturday, 30th April on Ascension Island was a day of great contrasts - I arrived by sea in the morning and departed, later the same day, by RAF Flight. Ascension Island is only small but it turned out to be one of the oddest places I've visited.

I went on deck first thing and the island was in sight, with proper mountains dotted around. Artificial lights were apparent in places and, as we approached, various structures became apparent. Each hilltop was crowned by a 'golfball' - the radome provided on some radar and communications antennas to protect them from the weather - so it was clear that Ascension's role as a 'listening post' in the Atlantic remained significant.

At seven o'clock, I went below to the dining room for the last opportunity to enjoy the cooked breakfast. By the time I was back on deck, the crew were preparing the gangway and a motorised pontoon was making ponderous progress towards us through a somewhat more lively sea. We learned that there was some sort of problem lowering the anchor and we eventually hove-to further out than is usual. At last, the first pontoon was able to come alongside by the gangway for transferring passengers but it was a little off-putting to note that one moment the end of the gangway was neatly touching the deck of the pontoon and, seconds later, there was a gap of a couple of feet between the end of the gangway and the pontoon. Various other pontoons now appeared to deal with the cargo containers and a passenger launch tied up at the first pontoon, discharging a number of dockers who would assist the ship's crew in the unloading process.

People with low-numbered landing passes (including the writer) were summoned to the gangway and we hastily made our final goodbyes to passengers and crew we'd leave behind. There was plenty of assistance to aid our transfer from gangway to pontoon and then from pontoon to launch. The secret, of course, was timing. The boatmen would hold us back until gangway and pontoon or pontoon and launch were suitably aligned and then command us to move. Within a few minutes, the launch was full and we pulled away from R.M.S. 'St. Helena' with her cranes already working on the cargo.

The launch was headed for a stubby jetty with a single road-mounted unloading crane. It was strange to recognise the scene as, before my trip, I'd looked at the Ascension Island Webcam which shows the jetty and crane from the landward side. We approached a set of steps cut into the jetty and the vertical motion between boat and jetty was rather off-putting. Again, the boatman timed our movement and there were plenty of hands offering support so regaining dry land was easier than I expected.

A short walk across the jetty took us to a stone-built shed with double doors and a sign 'Welcome to Ascension'. Inside the shed, our luggage was waiting for us so, having successfully found both my bags, it was on to immigration. Formalities were pleasant and brief so I was soon back in the sunshine meeting up with my Texan friends. We were met by the friendly driver of the people carrier from the Obsidian Hotel and he took our luggage. We'd booked a brief tour of the island and Natasha, from the Conservation Department, was waiting with a Land Rover. We bundled into the Land Rover for the five minute drive to the Obsidian Hotel to check-in and pay for our day rooms. Within a few minutes, we were back in the Land Rover. The 'bug-hunters' from England had decided to join our tour so, having picked them up, Natasha drove through the town on the road leading to the air field.

A well-maintained road soon brought us to the start of the United States base on Ascension. A neat, illuminated sign read 'U.S. Air Force Ascension Auxiliary Air Field'. What was lacking was the usual surrounding fencing and a Guard Post. We just carried on past what looked like accommodation blocks and administration blocks. We knew we were in the heart of the camp when we passed the 'PX' (Post Exchange), but everywhere appeared deserted as we drove by. A side road lead to what was signposted as the airstrip passenger terminal but we continued on the main road passing another sign, facing the other way, reading 'U.S. Air Force Ascension Auxiliary Air Field' so we'd left the Base.

Natasha said that she would take us to nearby Mars Bay. The well-made road ended and we were soon bouncing over volcanic rocks and sand, heading towards the sea. The only reminder of the base behind us was a substantial earth cable laid on the surface and leading to the ocean. We parked near a small fenced-off area protecting an unusual flora which was attempting to establish itself and walked under blazing sun across the lunar landscape. We passed a sign saying 'Sooty Terns Nesting - Please Do Not Drive' and stopped short of a huge, noisy colony of birds either standing on the rocky ground or swooping through the air. The incessant calling of the birds gives rise to their local nickname 'wideawakes', the name given to the nearby airstrip. The birds were flying low over our heads, but it did not seem to be threatening behaviour to drive us away - rather, they simply ignored us. As we walked back to the Land Rover, we came upon a number of abandoned eggs and, scurrying through the rocks, a centipede about five inches long. Whilst exploring the foreshore, we'd been surprised by the brief roar of a jet engine. As we drove back through the camp, we saw a large Air Italy passenger jet had arrived - we'd heard the noisy reverse thrust as he landed.

The road now took us around the landward side of the camp and airfield and we passed many different designs of radio antenna presumably eavesdropping on many different frequencies. We passed the diesel-powered generating station which supplied the base and airfield and caught sight of a group of modern wind generators further inland.

The well-kept road led us to a plateau looking down on the airstrip. Here, the American base commander had a spacious, single-storey home. The runway had been built between a number of hills and the airfield control tower looked odd perched on one of these hills (although it must command a splendid view). The earliest standard night time aid to landing aircraft was the 'Pundit' - a rotating beacon alternating white and green. Usually, this is mounted on the roof of the control tower but I was intrigued that, at Ascension, it is mounted on a tall post near to the Base Commander's house.

We drove back to the main road and continued our tour. Each turn in the road revealed a stunning new vista and, as we climbed Nasa Road, the temperature dropped and the vegetation became lusher. At one point, we were driving above the clouds which swirled between the hills. The road ended at the Challenger Centre, originally build by NASA as a tracking station in connection with the Apollo Space Flights but long since disused. The antennas have been removed but the substantial concrete main building found a new use, converted as a weekend centre by the First Ascension Island Scouts. However, it appeared that Nature was taking over again. We clambered back into the Land Rover and moved off, but Natasha suddenly stopped because she'd spotted a Land Crab in the grass at the side of the road. The crab was a remarkable sight - pale blue with orange legs and two claws - one enlarged and capable of delivering a nasty injury. It didn't take kindly to being closely observed by humans and scuttled away sideways. When a tree blocked its path, to our amazement, it backed up the trunk until it was about five feet above the ground where it just stayed until we'd all taken photographs and returned to the Land Rover. A remarkable encounter.

Next, we made our way to Traveller's Hill, where the RAF personnel and families live. The larger single-storey houses would not have been out of place in a modern English development but there was also simpler accommodation which appeared to be shipping-container sized units supplied fully installed and then provided with an overhanging steel roof because of the fierce sun to be expected. There were also a number of large buildings containing shops or other community facilities. This really looked like England with numerous families engaged in Saturday shopping.

We carried on through Two Boats - more pleasant houses and the Island's school - and then One Boat. Once, disused boats had been set up at these locations, giving rise to the names. The originals are long gone but a replacement has been set up at One Boat decorated, for some unfathomable reason, with bowling trophies. One Boat is home to the Island's Golf Course. The volcanic terrain is not conducive to golf course design and at one time the course had the distinction of being called 'the worst course in the world'. From here, we took the road to English Bay, passing more exotic aerial installations.

Improbably, this is BBC territory (yes, the British Broadcasting Corporation). A series of tall transmitter masts radiate the World Service to Africa and, I think, South America. Two satellite dishes form the BBC Atlantic Relay Earth Station. The BBC operate a large, modern desalinisation plant and a diesel power station which both serve the island. English Bay has a beach of white, fine sand which was blowing everywhere when we visited surrounded by black volcanic rocks. It's a popular spot for swimming and diving. Natasha drove us back to the Obsidian after a brief, but fascinating, glimpse of the contrasts on this small, remote island.

At the hotel, the lady receptionist advised us that our flight to Brize Norton would be two hours late and so our transfer to the air field would be at 5 p.m., not 3 p.m. She advised us that there would be no food available at the hotel until the evening and that the 'Tasty Tucker' Cafe a couple of hundred yards away would close at 2 p.m. Reception then closed for the day so there was no opportunity to find out about their advertised internet service or puchase books or souvenirs from the Hotel Shop!

My accommodation was fine for a few hours stay. There was a rather spartan shower room with wash hand basin and W.C., a bedroom with a decent double bed and a sitting room with settee, an odd assortment of furniture and a small television. I didn't switch the television on but my Texan friends reported only three channels of indifferent technical quality. There were open french windows with closed screen doors in the bedroom and sitting room and, aided by a powerful portable electric fan in the bedroom, the temperature was quite comfortable although it remained hot outside.

I'd agreed to join my Texan friends for lunch so we walked across to the 'Tasty Tucker' before it closed. I had a decent omelette and chips, not knowing quite when I'd eat again! A number of the passengers who'd landed from the R.M.S. 'St. Helena' seemed to be eating here. In fact, it was the only place in town showing any sign of life apart from the St. Helena Club across the road. After lunch, my Texan friends were made welcome in the Club but I decided to explore on my own. I showered and liberally applied sun block before venturing into the afternoon sun.

My Hotel seemed to be one of the largest group of buildings in town. The main block with Reception was of two-storey, concrete construction. I was in the adjacent older single storey building which included the Anchor Inn, the Anchorage Restaurant and a number of bedrooms. When we first arrived, there had been a number of people sitting in the open verandah section of the Anchor but, by the time I started my exploration, they’d disappeared. In addition, there was at least one more building with accommodation forming part of the Obsidian. In addition to the hotel name appearing on the front of the main block, superimposed on a blue silhouette of the island’s coastline, a large ship’s anchor had been set up on the approach road lettered ‘Obsidian’.

There was also an old buoy lettered ‘The Anchor Inn’ which fascinated me since it retained its original owner’s brass identification plate marked ‘Eastern Telegraph Company Ltd. London No. 263’. At the start of the telecommunications era, Ascension was an important relay station and I believe the first submarine cable via Ascension was completed in 1899, operated by the Eastern Telegraph Company. This company later became part of Cable and Wireless which still has a major presence on the island, operating a large satellite ground station and the local telephone network.

Looking along the main road to the airfield, I could see the nicely-proportioned Ascension Island Government building, two storey with modest arcading and cement quoins, Union Flag fluttering from the flagpole. The building looked quite handsome painted white, although I was not so sure about the pink quoins and details. Next was the large utilitarian offices of Cable and Wireless and, further away, the Conservation Department building. I started walking in the opposite direction, towards Long Beach and the sea, passing the St. Helena Club. The music emanating from the club was the only sound disturbing the quiet of the hot afternoon. On my right was the Magistrate’s Court, in typical colonial style with a long verandah at the front. As decoration, two bomb casings stood sentry (at least, I hope they were bomb casings, not live bombs). Next, I passed the white-painted building of the St. Helena Police Service (Ascension’s civil administration, like that of remote Tristan da Cuhna, is provided through St. Helena). I detoured to look inside St. Mary’s Church. Building commenced in 1843 when the British military presence was strong. Next to the church, there’s a large parade ground surfaced with the black gravel that appears everywhere. The arcaded, white-painted barracks, complete with bell tower, faced the parade ground but is currently unused. I continued towards Fort Hayes, passing a neat estate of rather utilitarian housing.

The Fort and the adjacent Museum, I knew, had closed at 12.30 but there was still a little to see. I’d assumed that there was no ‘railway’ on Ascension but the Museum had 2 foot gauge wagons and a length of track on display outside. Apparently, in 1923 the English Bay Company started digging out guano from Boatswain Bird Island for export as fertilizer. The tracks extended from the mining site to a jetty at the south end of English Bay. There had also been a railway at the Pierhead in Georgetown.

Climbing the hill behind the Museum, I passed the Ascension Hospital, which looked like another relic of the British military put to good use. I rejoined the main road by Cable and Wireless and continued past the government building towards Long Beach. I assumed that the comfortable-looking house with verandah and another Union Flag flying was the residence of the Island Administrator. On the hillside, I noticed two black and white striped poles, presumably ‘day marks’, to be lined up by an approaching ship to find a safe channel. There was also a pyramidal obelisk but I did not discover whether this is memorial or daymark. I passed a rather bleak-looking shop in the nature of the ‘Company Store’. It was, of course, closed. Finally, I came to Long Beach, regarded as a globally important nesting site for the endangered green turtle. The females come ashore at night to lay eggs so there was no danger of disturbing a turtle. Long Beach is a exquisite, timeless spot. The view of the R.M.S. ‘St. Helena’ at anchor a few hundred yards out did not jar, only the white sphere of the radome at the far side of the bay seemed out of place.

As I made my way back towards the Pierhead and the remains of Fort Thornton, I passed a sewage outfall pipe (probably abandoned) which was being used as a highway by a procession of small green crabs heading for the sea. The remnants of the Turtle Ponds are a depressing reminder of man’s relationship with nature. In the 19th century, turtles were captured and kept alive in the ponds until required to re-supply ships. Having made brief inspection of the stone buildings on the Pierhead, I returned to the hotel across the Parade Ground. The walk had left me tired and rather sticky, so I had another shower, a couple of cups of tea (the sitting room had the means to make tea or coffee) and a brief lie-down before completing my packing.

At five o’clock those flying out assembled, with luggage, at the hotel reception and the driver who’d met us at Pierhead in the morning loaded up the suitcases and drove us to the airfield. The town and military camp seemed as deserted as ever but, as we pulled up at the Passenger Terminal, there were quite a few people apparently queuing to enter the building. With a sinking feeling, I joined the queue but, after a few minutes, a member of the RAF Operations Staff came out to give an apology. With camouflage dress and boots, he wasn’t quite what I’m used to at airports but he regretted that the ‘Rapiscan’ baggage scanner had broken down, introducing some delay because bags were having to be hand searched. This prompt information lifted the mood and it wasn’t long before an employee from ‘Serco’ (the security contractor) was searching my bags. He was also so pleasant that it was impossible to be cross. Another RAF man was manning Check-In and he displayed the same courtes When planning the trip, I’d tried to book their ‘Premium Economy’, because I was a bit worried about a long flight with a narrow seat pitch. I’d been told it wasn’t possible so was resigned to making the best of things. I was thus surprised and delighted to be told I’d been allocated what they call a ‘Wide Seat’. I passed into the Departure Hall provided with seats, wide screen television, a ‘NAAFI’ Shop and ‘NAAFI’ Snack Bar. Even better, there was an outdoor waiting area provided with seats and tables giving an excellent view of the apron. There was a single grey-liveried jet transport aircraft on the apron. I afterwards identified it as a Pratt and Whitney powered C17A ‘Globemaster’ (more information here).

The evening was warm and pleasant and I remained surprisingly relaxed. Our flight arrived from the Falklands and slowly taxied to the stand. Steps were placed against the aircraft and all passengers, including transit, disembarked and joined us in the waiting area. Meanwhile, vehicles moved across the tarmac to deal with luggage and refuel the aircraft. I think a few of the disembarking passengers went through immigration, but most were waiting to re-board for the onward flight to Brize Norton. Servicemen are told to wear ‘civvies’ on these flights so it’s not possible to be sure which passengers are in the forces. I was amused by posters displayed around the terminal warning servicemen not to discuss their activities since they might be talking to civilians! It reminded me of the famous ‘Fougasse’ poster from the second world war ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’.

Eventually, the aircraft was ready for boarding. Since the steps had been placed at the front of the aircraft, it was logical that they called passengers in blocks from the rear seats first. By now it was dark but still warm. Lights twinkled on all the surrounding hills and red aircraft warning beacons marked the location of the ‘golfballs’. As I walked across the apron to the aircraft, I was happy to be going home, but sad to leave Ascension, a tiny island which had served up so many contrasts in just one day.

The aircraft was a Boeing 767-300ER in Air Seychelles livery. The first four rows were laid out with 2+2+2 fully reclining seating and I was in 4A. The seat next to me was empty until just before take-off when a middle-aged lady shot forward from row 5 (the start of the narrow seats) to occupy 4B. This, plus the friendliness of the crew convinced me that she was herself cabin staff or similar. This seemed confirmed when she had a special meal which I notice was marked 'For Auntie Janine'. Although we spoke briefly, she spent most of the flight talking to the cabin crew at the front of the aircraft. We had a simple snack meal and later in the flight a simple but reasonable main meal. 'Up front' we were given portable TV screens which gave a fair range of entertainment. I watched one film (it must have been good - I can't remember the title) and then managed a few hours sleep.

We arrived at Brize Norton about 6.15 a.m. Luggage arrived promptly, formalities were quick and Alan was waiting to take me home. An excellent end to a most enjoyable and thought-provoking trip. The ship was great, St. Helena was fascinating but Ascension made a strong impression.

Ascension is a 'closed' area - although British Territory I needed an Entry Permit to visit the island as well as my full British Passport. The total population o Ascension is around 1,000, most of whom are fairly short-term residents on contract to the U.S. Air Force, the RAF, Cable and Wireless or the BBC. I believe that there is still no 'Right of Residence' on Ascension, even for those born there. When it's so difficult to enter and leave the island (a fact which no doubt appeals to those responsible for the various electronic spying activities), it's perhaps clearer why the base has no obvious security. Then, there's the complication of an American base on British soil. A Wikipedia article here gives some background. I also found the old NASA Tracking Station interesting as 'industrial archaeology' of the recent past. There's more information here and on the Old Scout Site here. Ascension also has a role as a tracking station for missile testing by the Americans in the South Atlantic. Incidentally, Ascension Island has its own Newspaper - the On-Line version is here.

My Ascension Island pictures.

All my pictures from the trip are here.