Invisible on the map of the world, the small island called Ascension seems to be reduced only to a fragment of land lost in the South-Atlantic Ocean and devoid of any interest. A first exploration of the roads of the island reveals a volcanic landscape apparently without any serious possibility for discoveries or activities. The aim of our trip was not restricted to the beautiful white-sand beaches of Georgetown or English Bay and yet this seemed to be the only possible occupation on the island. We’re mistaken! As time goes by, the island tends to get "bigger" and welcomes us in its secret gardens. The length of our stay will be just enough for this marvelous discovery at each step.
An island with temporary immigrants only
Few inhabitants are seen strolling about in the four unique built-up areas of the island (Georgetown, Two Boats Village, RAF Travellers Hill and the American base in Cat Hill). We are far from the traditional tropical towns where the streets are often crammed, noisy and lively. Here, the total number of the actual residents amounts to 1’100 persons approximately and all of them are engaged in their respective jobs. The streets, calm and almost deserted, entrust upon the residential areas an aspect of ghost towns. At night, the atmosphere is still more peaceful except for the four pubs that are the ideal meeting places of nearly all the inhabitants; only the sound of some radio or television programs disturb the stillness of the night.
Although there are only a few people present, those whom we have come across are real friendly and nice; in every car that went by, the driver would always wave back to us. We have thus noticed that a greeting inevitably follows on passing someone on the street. The remoteness of the island and its few inhabitants favor the reconciliation of Man and his fellow comrades. Most of the people are welcoming and no one will get offended if you try to speak to them. On the contrary, the relationships are simple and often superficial but always pleasant. This superficiality is partly due to the temporary nature of the inhabitants’ stay on the island; as they stay back only until their job contract expires, there is a big stir-up.
On this small island, three distinct communities live together. The British, stolid, reserved and cautious have settled down along with their traditions. They manage the island through an Administrator, representative of St-Helena’s Governor, himself a member of the British Crown. The Americans, tenants of the base in Cat Hill and of grounds that extend over most part of the island, have imported the stereotypes of the traditional America: 4x4 vehicles, caps, hamburger and Budweiser! Between these two communities, we have the "Saints", inhabitants of St-Helena, who represent the necessary workforce needed for the various operations on the island. Warm and welcoming, they are strongly attached to the United Kingdom and have difficulty to accept the fact that they are denied British citizenship. Every inhabitant is an immigrant who has obtained a ‘temporary’ job contract: however, some have been on the island for more than 15 years! There are no traces of indigenous life although the "Saints", often settled down with their families, can be considered as natives.
Most of the people work for Cable and Wireless, the B.B.C, the CSO (Composite Signals Organisation) or for private maintenance companies such as Serco or Computer Sciences Raytheon. We must not be deceived by such enterprises whose principal activity is defense or any other related fields. If we take no notice, the work done by the people seems insignificant but if we think critically, the information related to employment is becoming increasingly vague and incomplete. Some installations, well guarded and where admittance is forbidden, did not reveal their activities. Others have kindly invited us in such as the observation post for the Ariane rockets (ESA). In concrete terms, the British use Ascension as a logistic base that sustains the garrison posted in the Falklands. Whilst, for the Americans, an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is an excellent location to deploy attentive "ears" in the form of antennas and parabolas.
As for every overseas British territory, the third millenium was synonymous of a new and uncertain period. The British Government and the big agencies present in the island show no willingness in administering this territory as it was being done in the past. It has ceased to be a constant priority especially from the military point of view. The worldwide political conditions have undergone a profound change and the significant costs of maintaining military bases outside the United Kingdom are hard to meet. The status of the island and of its inhabitants will surely change. Duties and income taxes, formerly inexistent, will soon be introduced, as well as a collective public utility. Tourism is considered as an excellent opportunity to bring about revenues that will be independent of the companies presently established in the island. However, due to the size of the island, the development of the tourism sector will be limited. It is thus vital to find better means of meeting up with the future population’s needs in a more autonomous and independent way.
Sea, land and a fauna full of amazing discoveries
The weather is hot and dry, nearly oppressive, and the lands offer few shadowy zones. Omnipresent, the volcanic rocks emphasize this sensation of dryness and the harsh landscape will make you decline any proposal of taking a stroll. If, from afar, the mountains and craters look like heaps of powdery ashes, the same slopes prove to be treacherous when seen at close range. Walking amidst these sharp and brittle rocks has always been considered as a perilous exercise. The only exception: the microclimate of Green Mountain at an altitude of 780 metres. Constantly veiled by clouds, the temperature is at about 6°C less than that prevailing on the coasts. Beneath this screen of fog, a genuine tropical forest is revealed, humid, moist and green, with various flowers and scents; only the fauna is missing. We expect to come across different types of insects especially because of the humidity and the existing lush vegetation. Surprisingly enough, it is not the case! We had heard about the presence of spiders (the black widow), but not even one had been spied and so much the better! Only some sheep lost in the mist had come forward. Even the scorpions that seemingly lived in the arid and volcanic zones did not deign to come out in the open.
In spite of the heat and the uneven ground, it is worthwhile to undertake some outdoors walks and outings. A spot like the "Devil’s Riding School" is worth the visit. It is a huge crater whose center formerly contained a lake but which is now completely dry and has thus formed extraordinary scenery, a miniature type of the Big Canyon. Climbing to the summit of this crater is not difficult but the crumbly volcanic rocks cannot be trusted as we have the same impression of walking on porcelain.
There are other tiresome and laborious walks that offer an unobstructed view of the island, such as the summit of "Sister’s Peak" that reveals a well-defined lava stream lower down. Deserted spots like "Pillar Bay", "Cristal Bay" or "Cocoanut Bay", found besides the sea, are of a very arid nature. Much difficulty is involved when trying to access these places by boats; the only way is to begin walking from the road that formerly lead to the station of the NASA. These spots enable a full impregnation in the atmosphere that prevails here. Once acclimatized to these places of interest, the solitude and the peculiar landscapes are spellbinding. The landscapes of Ascension seem dull and dreary at first sight, but in no time, its volcanic grounds reveal a range of astonishing colors: red, brown, orange, ochre.
Some underground caves can also be visited but they are without any particular interest and do not even bring about the anticipated freshness; the heat is more stifling than ever.
Most of the coastlines bordering the south-east region of the island are formed with impressive yet inaccessible cliffs. In the west, white-sand beaches contrast sharply with the fields of dried lava that end in the sea. The largest beach of Ascension Island, Clarence Bay, found in Georgetown, is the main spot where the green turtles come to reproduce. In certain years, more than 80 turtles can come to lay their eggs each night. It is quite fascinating to observe these monsters, which weigh 200 kg, dragging themselves on the sand and deploying extraordinary efforts to dig out holes where they will bury their eggs. They sweep the sand at irregular intervals with their flippers, then after some "efforts and actions"; they rest for about thirty seconds before starting the whole process again. This laborious task can last longer than one whole hour before they finally begin to dig a little hole in which to lay their eggs. At dawn, they return to the sea, leaving their tracks and the holes in the sand as sole remains of an assiduous night. However, it is in the sea that this animal is more majestic; it seems to "fly" without any difficulty in the liquid element. When trying to come close to them, we come to understand that we have not yet mastered the art of living in water: in only two strokes of its flippers, the turtle disappeared almost instantaneously and leaves behind the disturbed waters as sole evidence of its presence.
Time for change
Ascension is a unique place when viewed from nearly all angles. The main one is that it has always been an island completely shut to the rest of the world. There is no such time as the present and it is really important because it evokes the stage where the island should undergo a change and open up; the visitor or tourist is still perceived as an exception to the rule. There is no longer any doubt about it, the present situation will not last long, and the island has every chance of becoming a touristic spot just like any other. The freedom and the independence that we presently find on the island might as well make way for a more strict and controlled regulation. The other particularity resides in the fact that there are no fixed inhabitants, from one visit to another or from one contact to another, the persons might have changed. We can think of this situation as a problem but it can also be viewed as an advantage for everything needs to be constantly made over again. With the future changes in the island’s operations, the situation will evolved too. It is therefore important to visit this island before it becomes a little touristic haven devoid of any charms where instead everything is meticulously planned.
Text: © M.Chabod / F.Bettex • Photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra