Ascension Island is a tiny dot (88 square kilometres) in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, some seven degrees south of the equator. It is one of the most remote inhabited places on the planet. Do visit it – you won’t regret it.
LS Bartlett, Resident Magistrate, on the island from 1934 to1936 well summed it up thus:-
“A strange farrago of volcanic activity and tropical verdure, a true medley of ugliness and beauty painted in red, brown and grey, the home of the giant turtle and in the track of the south-east trades – Such is Ascension Island”
and thus it remains.
In this review I make an attempt to provide a potted history of the island and some rudimentary commentary on its animal and plant life.
My subsequent reviews elaborate on and add to the details provided in this introduction. I do hope you enjoy this introduction and the reviews which follow and hopefully a few of you will be inspired sufficiently to visit this fantastic island.
Some practicalities (none of which should put you off visiting)
Getting there is neither easy nor cheap – you have two options (unless you own a yacht or can hitch a lift on one) – a Royal Air Force flight from Brize Norton in England or by ship – the RMS St Helena from Cape Town via St Helena. I arrived from Cape Town via St Helena and continued on to Brize Norton. A small number of cruise ships have Ascension Island on their itineraries but for reasons I will explain in a separate review this is not the best option for seeing the island.
Sleeping – there is one hotel provider on the island
Eating and “shopping”– very limited options with the establishments all having rather limited and irregular opening hours
Getting around – There is no public transport. Car hire is your only option (two providers)
Fuel – one provider with very limited and irregular opening hours.
History and raison d’etre
The island was first discovered in 1501 by Portuguese explorer, Joao De Nova, who named it Conception. De Nova failed to register his discovery thus it became Ascension Island when Portuguese navigator, Alfonso de Albuquerque rediscovered it on Ascension Day in 1503.
The island, dry and barren, remained uninhabited (apart from the odd criminal sailor dumped there for such dastardly crimes as casting lustful eyes on cabin-boys) until 1815 when the British set up a garrison on it to intercept any French renegades bent on rescuing Napoleon from his new home (or place or exile) on “near-by” St Helena some 1300 km to the south east of Ascension.
On 22 October 1815 the island was claimed for Britain and King George III and remains British (though at times governed by Eastern Telegraph Company (now part of Cable & Wireless Worldwide)) to this day – as part of the British Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan de Cunha.
Since 1815 the island has had immense strategic importance especially during the Cold War when it was a key spy base for both the UK and the USA. A current high ranking official on the island assured me (albeit somewhat tongue in cheek) that all the high tech equipment and couple of hundred US consultants on the island are now dedicated to tracking space junk!
Until 1990 NASA maintained a major station here (supporting the Apollo program). Cable and Wireless, the Arianne Station and the BBC Relay Station remain hugely important installations for the island (in addition, that is to the US infrastructure for tracking space junk!).
The island played a key role in role in World War two during which the United States built the still critically important airbase called “Wideawake” (named after a noisy local bird). The island’s runway is one of only six in the world which can accommodate a landing of ad space shuttle. Despite initial US resistance, in 1982 the island became a critical staging post during the Falklands war and to this day Royal Air Force planes going to and from the Falkland Islands refuel on Ascension.
The islands population currently numbers around 800, the majority of whom are engaged by entities referred to above with the balance employed in the islands administration and support activities for the above. Interestingly no-one can take up Ascension Island citizenship – thus the majority of the islands residents are from the US, the UK and St Helena.
Animals and Plants
At first sight Ascension is a stark island, seemingly full of volcanic clinker and little else. While the island does have over 40 volcanoes (last known eruptions around 1000 years ago) it also sports some 32 beautiful sandy tropical beaches most of which are inaccessible without some serious bush walking. Only two beaches (easily accessible by car) are suitable for swimming but most of the beaches are home to the nesting Green Turtles for which the island is justifiably famous.
The island has a fantastic seabird colony best seen on Boatswain Bird Island (from a boat as you are not permitted to land on the tiny island). For reasons I will explain in a review on the Green Turtles I took a dislike to the birds of Ascension Island. While not a fisherman myself, the island affords some fabulous ocean fishing opportunities for those so inclined and dolphins sightings are a common occurrence.
On land, goats introduced in the 1500s by Portuguese explorers ate much of the islands native flora and the later introduction of rabbits, sheep, rats and donkeys, and over 200 imported species of plant pretty much wiped out what the goats hadn’t eaten with the consequence that by 1843 the island was barren with few plants. Cows were also imported to the island but are now very rare – something which Margaret Thatcher has been blamed for – I will explain in a separate review.
The current vegetation, limited to (with the exception of lower level acacia trees) the higher parts of the island, was introduced following an 1843 visit by botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker. On Hooker’s advice (supported by Charles Darwin who had visited a few years earlier) the Royal Navy with the help of Kew Gardens, embarked on a long-term plan of shipping trees to Ascension. The planted trees (sourced from all over the world and including Norfolk Pines, eucalyptus, bamboo and banana) captured more rain than the then existing and sparse vegetation and improved the soil. The current tropical cloud forest on Green Mountain was thus created. Green Mountain now affords some excellent walking opportunities – made all the more inviting by the fact that temperatures are typically a few degrees lower there than on the lower parts of the island and the coast. There are numerous other walking tracks all over the island – the island’s famous “letterbox” walks. More anon.
Do follow the link below and join me on my tour of Ascension Island, starting with some practicalities.
This blog entry is the first of a group (loop) of entries on my trip to Ascension Island. I suggest you continue with my next entry – HERE.