The wonders of Ascension
19.10.2008 - 20.10.2008
Now I know what Captain Smith of the Titanic thought. You have vast, almost unmentionable amounts of empty sea to pass through, and what happens? You suddenly discover that you are bearing down on the only piece of anything for hundreds of miles in any direction. How unlucky is that?!
It is a very strange and unnerving sensation to still be wobbling about and cushioning yourself from the ships rolling when you are in fact on solid dry land. And it looks bleedin' ridiculous as well. Never the less, after 11 days at sea, this is the situation we found ourselves in after landing at Georgetown, Ascension Island for our one and only stop. In an odd way, I hadn't wanted to arrive at Ascension at all – we had such a good group of people and I was enjoying myself so much, that part of me kind of wanted the voyage to just go on and on.
Much faffing had gone on surrounding our arrival on Ascension and subsequent possibility to go ashore. Whilst the actual landing was never really in doubt, the day, timing and amount of time were. As it was, by the time we arrived around 4.30pm, MOD flight timings had been confirmed and departure plans for the following morning had been fixed, we were reduced to a quick evening trip. By the time we had disembarked onto the pontoon and launch, made it ashore and passed through immigration and customs, it was already 6pm, and we had less than an hour of daylight.
Thus we we're treated to a whistle stop tour of Ascension Island. It is a strange place: A British overseas territory (as part of the British Atlantic territories with Tristan da Cunha, and administered from St. Helena) but with a large America airbase on the Island which the British have only very limited rights of access/usage, and though there are roughly 1000 inhabitants, there are officially no permanent residents and people have no right of abode. In theory, all jobs are related to the base, and once employment ceases, the inhabitants – virtually all non military personel are genetically St. Helenians - must leave. Which means that it is currently possible for somebody to be born on the Island, go to school there, start work at 17 on the base and work all the way through to 65 without ever living away from the Island (or, though more unlikely, never even physically leaving the Island), only to be kicked off and told to 'go home' on retirement age. The fact that Ascension is home, and all they have ever known, is irrelevant. They must leave. The reasons are long, complicated, contradictory and generally grossly unfair and have to do with American military might. The plight of the Chagos Islanders in the Indian ocean (which were bought from the Maldives by the British in the 60's, and then were all unceremoniously kicked off in the 1970's to make way for the UK/US Diego Garcia base) and who recently had a high court ruling overturned by the House of Lords preventing their return to the Diego Garcia atoll – though for the last few years they have had limited access and rights to other atolls in the chain - is one watched with keen interest in these parts who fear similar fates on Ascension.
We were taken on a brief drive through the American base area, the British barracks, up Green Mountain with it's steep winding roads and sheer drops, through the Two Boats residential area and back to the capital, Georgetown. It was a combination of desolate, dusty, rocky land, interspersed with scrub and and cactus, with occasional assorted settlements and odd things you didn't really expect to see – a ballistic missile lying on the ground, a baseball square with a game in full swing, a canoe upended in sandy desert inland – that on reflection did kind of make sense. Donkeys and sheep (Yay! sheep!) roamed at will, and banana grew in abundance.
Sadly, Green mountain was covered in mist and clouds so after roughly half way we were unable to see the views (though some of the more squeemish were also spared the drops off the side of the rough gravel road, especially on one or two of the more interesting 3pint turns require by our knackered old minibus to make it round hairpin bends at gradients of 25%ish. At the top we were given a quick talk about the flora and fauna, much of which is unique to Green Mountain National Park but due to time, mist and the rapidly setting sun weren't able to go for a proper walk around the peak: something that after 11days on ship being more or less force fed, i desperately needed!
After a quick stop to see some crabs – actually crab singular, who, poor thing, was intercepted whilst merrily on his way and picked up and exhibited to us all possibly not of his own free will – we returned to Georgetown in pitch darkness. We went for a quick drink in the bar of the Islands only hotel, the Obsidian hotel, which was a bizarre place. It had a definite colonial feel to it, but also seemed to resemble an old railway station or one on a preserved steam line. And it also had the definite time warp feel of being back 50years. And yet, in all that and despite being miles from absolutely anywhere, i was able to get a bottle of an excellent English ale, Black Sheep, which was most bizarre.
Barely 3hours after leaving the RMS, we were back on board. The Americans object to people staying ashore/visiting unless they really have to, so we spent the night onboard, eating fish and chips, and watching some of the lads and crew fish off the back of the boat with decent success. After an hour or so, a large school of dolphins and porpoises, probably drawn by the smell of the bait, came and joined us, and spent the rest of the evening entertaining us.