Monday, March 22, 2010

March 19, 2010 - Ascension Island

After 5 days and 4 hours of very pleasant downwind sailing we arrived at Ascension Island on Wednesday afternoon. Rounding Southeast Head and passing Boatswain Bird Island, a major breeding site for seabirds in the Atlantic, we were struck by the stark landscape of Ascension. Our eyes swept up brown, black and gray craggy cliffs, devoid of vegetation, to the lush green mountain perched above. It looked like a different island had been plunked on top of the first.

Our attention was diverted from the stunning landscape by the dozens of Ascension Frigatebirds that were diving on the array of fishing lures we were trailing. After one of the frigates managed to pluck a pink squid lure out of the water we decided to pull them all in to keep from injuring the birds and to avoid losing any more lures.

Rounding North East Point we saw our first of the many antennas, wind farms, domes and military installations that dot the island. Ascension belongs to the British and was first garrisoned in 1815, during the time of Napoleon's exile on St. Helena. 100 years later, the first radio was installed on the island, commencing its role as a communication's hub. The United States built an airstrip here during World War II. At one point during the conflict there were 4,000 service personnel on the island. After the war the population dropped back to 170 who supported the Cable & Wireless installation. During the Cold War the US Air Force returned, followed shortly thereafter by the British Broadcasting Company and NASA. During the Falklands War the British armed services were a bit miffed (not to mention embarrassed) when the Americans told them they couldn't use the airstrip at the US base to refuel (Thatcher eventually convinced Reagan to authorize the joint use of the airstrip at the US base). Ever since, the Royal Air Force has maintained a military presence on the island, just to make sure the Americans didn't get any further ideas about keeping the Brits from utilizing this outpost in the South Atlantic in defense of the Empire (Wideawake Field is now run as a joint facility of the USAF and the RAF). In 1990 NASA closed down its tracking station but the European Space Agency opened one on the other side of the island. Now there are approximately 800 people, a mix of Americans, Europeans and Saints, stationed on the island, which now seems to bristle with antennas.

From North East Point to Porpoise Point we were accompanied by a small pod of the biggest dolphins we've ever seen. We weren't moving all that fast, so there wasn't much of a bow wake for them to ride. Instead, they kept rubbing their backs and bellies on our bow.

Rounding North Point we passed English Bay, a golden beach framed by black volcanic rock and one of the only two safe swimming beaches on the island. From English Bay to Pyramid Point, the coastline was pockmarked with deep lava tunnels. Inland we could see volcanic craters, red mountains, and fields of black ash, sporadically dotted with round green patches, outlined in yellow, which we would find out were trees surrounded by their fallen leaves. We could only imagine how otherworldly this place must look from the vantage point of an airplane. From sea level it looked like we'd arrived at another planet.

Arriving in Clarence Bay, the only anchorage on the island, just before sunset, we carefully made our way around the floating pipeline in the middle of the bay and anchored in 30 feet of water. We were relieved to have arrived during daylight as the pipeline is not lit at night. Just after we dropped anchor, Sten caught a rock cod for our dinner off of the back of the boat. Actually, he had to catch two. The first managed to fling itself off of the fish table while Sten was in the midst of gutting it. So he put out his line and picked up another one.

Clarence Bay from Cross Hill. The floating pipeline is just visible to the right of the three sailboats.

Clarence Bay is so alive with sea life. Every time we throw kitchen scraps in the water a shoal of black trigger-fish dashes out from under the boat to scoop them up. They churn up the water so much as they fight over the scraps that they look like piranhas. It makes me almost afraid to put my toes in.

Ascension Island is a major breeding ground for green turtles. Each year thousands of turtles make the long swim from Brazil to mate and lay their eggs. The long golden beach that rims Clarence Bay is one of their prime nesting sites. At all hours of the day and night we can hear them surfacing around the boat to breathe. They pop their heads out of the water and make a loud pshhh sound as they inhale. The morning after we arrived we sat on deck with our morning coffee watching a pair of turtles mate. We then ate breakfast and started on our morning chores, all the while checking to see if they were still at it. They were.

When we arrived Wednesday evening we contacted Ascension Radio on VHF 16. It turns out that the shore station here is uplinked to St. Helena. So we were entertained to find ourselves reporting our arrival at Ascension to a radio operator in St. Helena, 701 miles away. The radio operator in St. Helena advised us to stay aboard until the Ascension Harbor Master came out to see us. Sometime after lunch on Thursday (hey, we were busy watching the turtles) we called back to ask if it was okay if we went ashore to find someone to check-in with. Shortly after that, the shipping office contacted us on VHF 08 and told us to come see them. After paying 15 pounds for "light fees" at the shipping office and 11 pounds per person and filling out a visa application at the immigration desk at the police station we were legal.

The pierhead on a calm day. To get ashore, we tied off our dinghy among the other small boats attached to the big mooring, then climbed onto small skiff, which is tied to the ladder, and pulled ourselves to the pier. When the swell is running, climbing on and off is a real challenge.

After we finished the formalities we wandered around town for 12 minutes. It isn't a big town. And Thursdays happen to be the day everything shuts down early, making this sparsely populated community feel like it has been abandoned.

It is hot here. We haven't been back in the tropics for very long and 90F and 60% humidity still feels oppressive. There are very few trees in Georgetown and very little shade to be had. By mid-day the black lava stone surfacing the streets and dark red-brown gravel covering the square had absorbed the full brunt of the day's heat and was busy radiating it back at us. So we found our way to the Saint's Club for a cold drink.

There is so little shade on this volcanic island that boat hulls were erected to provide some.

In the old stone building, which used to be a barrack, we found two seats at the bar and ordered some sodas. Sten just about swooned with pleasure when the bartender offered him ice for his glass. Most of the people who work on the island are originally from St. Helena. Before the Saints were granted full British passports a few years ago, Ascension was one of the few places they could come to make a living. Many Saints come to Ascension to work for 30 years to earn enough to buy some land and build a house back on St. Helena. The bartender at the club was almost done with her house and was getting ready to move back home.

On Friday morning we picked up a rental car from the only hotel on the island (we've since learned that the only filling station on the island has better rental rates) and set off to tour the island. We didn't have any plans, but we had a map, a picnic lunch, a cooler full of water and 11 liters of gas in the tank, which as it turns out, is all one needs to drive down every single road on this small island.

The Devil's Riding Circle with a USAF windfarm in the background

Shortly after passing the US Air Force Base, we pulled off at a sign marking the trailhead for the hike to the Devil's Riding Circle. Climbing the lip of the volcano we were walking on a surface surface of broken light-colored volcanic rock called "trachyte." The broken shards of rock under our feet clacked against each other, making it sound like we were walking on broken pottery. There were no trees or shade to be found in this hot, arid region. The only vegetation were prickly pear cactus (the magenta fruit of which, I couldn't help but sample, a stupid move for which I'm still paying in the form of several spines stuck in my fingers) and small, incongruous pink flowers.

As we climbed we passed many piles of bleached out bones and one sheep carcass buzzing with flies. It reminded me of one of the books I read in junior high, which I believe was called Deathwatch. Standing on the rim of the volcano, we could look down into the Devil's Riding Circle, so named because the outer ring of the crater is a lighter color than the inner areas, as though horses had been running around it, kicking up dust. We scrambled down into the crater and walked around a bit, but felt really uncomfortable in such an inhospitable climate, so we returned the way we had come.

In search of cooler climes, we continued up the road that runs along the backside of Green Mountain, which terminates at the now defunct NASA Tracking Station at Devil's Ashpit. We checked out the ashpit itself, then drove on back down the mountain. We made a run out to the ESA tracking station on the east coast before the heat got to be too much and we decided to head back up the mountain to find a cooler place to have lunch.

At the top of the mountain we found some picnic tables tucked among a garden. Above us hung a bunch of green bananas. As it has been a month since we left South Africa, our fresh food stores are running rather low. I topped up with whatever I could find on St. Helena, but supplies are more limited here. It will be at least a month before we reach the Caribbean. At this point, I'm not above stealing a bunch of bananas, but alas, our machete was back at the boat. Next time.

After lunch we walked Elliot's Pass, a flat trail that winds around Green Mountain and through several tunnels (a few of which are long, dark and creepy). The pass was built in 1840 to provide a series of lookout points for the British marines responsible for patrolling the South Atlantic for slave trading ships and pirates. Several small lookout caves still line the path, but much of the view has been obscured by misty clouds and lush vegetation as the island's climate has changed. Along the edge of the path groves of flowering ginger, wild raspberries and something wonderful smelling that looks like hydrangea, with large dark green leaves and clusters of fragrant blossoms (which I've since learned is called "glory bower," aka Lady Nugent's Rose).

While up the mountain we met three US Air Force pilots, Chip, Mike and Kaitlin who had flown out to the island from Westover Field in Massachusetts. Between Sten and Mike there was an awful lot of Red Socks paraphernalia loitering on the side of a mountain in the South Atlantic. Chip invited us to join them and the rest of their 12 person crew for a bbq that evening at the US Base. We immediately accepted. We got a bit muddy on our second hike, so had to find a beach to clean up at before we felt presentable enough to join anyone for a meal. So we headed over to English Bay where we cleaned off the worst of the dirt. The beach was gorgeous. We made plans to return in the dinghy to do some snorkeling.

On the way back to the US Base, we swung back over to the RAF facility on Traveler's Hill to pick up some beer and wine to contribute to the festivities. The NAAFI shop at Traveler's Hill is open to the general public, but the PX at the US Base is not. So we showed up with Castle and Guinness to a party flowing with Busch and Miller Lite.

We had such a lot of fun with the crew. Sten immediately pitched in with Chip in the kitchen, steaking two big tuna loins. Meanwhile, I did my best to encourage everyone to quit their jobs and go sailing. After dinner half a dozen of us headed down to the beach to watch the sea turtles lay eggs. Even though we were trying to avoid disturbing them, we were. So we decided to leave them in peace.

I'd love to know what the cancer rate is here.

1 comment:

sea-blue-sky & abstracts said...

Wonderful photographs of both Ascension Island and St Helena. I have enjoyed a very pleasant 20 minutes perusing these posts, which bring back happy memories of both islands. Best wishes, Lesley