Imagine a washing line strung across the Atlantic Ocean between Fortaleza in north-eastern Brazil and the Angolan capital of Luanda on the south-western coast of Africa. Somewhere along that washing line, pegged to the seafloor by a solidified mass of lava, hangs the tiny volcanic outcrop known as Ascension Island.
Together with Saint Helena 1300 kilometers to the southeast and the archipelago of Tristan da Cunha even further south, Ascension Island forms part of a British Overseas Territory that not many people have even heard of, let alone visited. Naturally that ignited our curiosity, and we immediately set about applying for our entry permits. With no category listed for ‘virtual traveller’, Leroy and I decided to arrive by yacht, report in to the Assistant Harbour Master in Georgetown and then explore from there.
Given that we are only visiting virtually, it was tempting to avoid the paperwork side of things, but we thought it would be safest given that we’re effectively on a giant British Royal Air Force base in the middle of the ocean, along with a US Air Force presence, a European Space Agency rocket tracking station, and an Anglo-American signals intelligence facility.
Before he sent us over the police station for the immigration side of things (sigh), the Assistant Harbour Master explained a little of the island’s history to us. Apparently it was first discovered by a Portuguese seafarer in 1501 but thanks to the lack of fresh water and barrenness of the landscape, wasn’t officially claimed for Portugal. It was then rediscovered on Ascension Day two years later by Spanish explorer Alphonse d’Albuquerque. It was Alphonse who gave the island its name.
Ascension didn’t become permanently inhabited until 1815, when the British Royal Navy garrisoned the island after imprisoning Napoleon on Saint Helena. They must have been fiercely determined to thwart any escape or rescue attempts. Under military control, the island became a stopping off point for scientific explorers such as Charles Darwin and Joseph Dalton Hooker.
With the input and encouragement of Darwin, the botanist Hooker came up with an extraordinary ecological ‘terraforming’ experiment to change the island’s barren landscape to something more lush. Trees were shipped from Kew Gardens and replanted, creating a ‘cloud forest’ to create and catch rain. By the late 1870s, the island was home to an oasis of pines, eucalypts, banana trees and bamboo and, in parts, practically unrecognisable.
During World War II the island provided antisubmarine bases for the Battle of the Atlantic, and was also used by the British navy and air force during the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982. The strong military presence lingers now, and it’s not an environment I’m familiar with at all.
Initially I had some trouble convincing Leroy that we should start at the highest point of the island and work our way down, but he capitulated when I explained that it would takes us most of the day to climb and that there could be some piggybacking involved. He quickly came around to my way of thinking.
First of all we’re off to see the massive telescope installed at the John Africano NASA/AFRL Orbital Debris Observatory, the facility so aptly named that I don’t need to explain that it is used for tracking space junk that could prove to be a hazard on the busy space highways. Then I guess we’ll just be meandering, searching for the cloud forest and eating scroggin.
One thing we won’t be doing is playing golf, even if we were so inclined. The greens here are called ‘browns’ and the surface is made of crushed and compacted lava, mixed with diesel oil.
P.S. Jason Larkin’s photographs of the island are too good to miss.