Frontier Empire II: Ascension Island

Frontier Empire II: Ascension Island

Spending any amount of time around Ascension Islanders, one gets used to hearing the phrase “it’s a working island” a lot. Indeed, the whole concept of an “Ascension Islander” is a bit of a misnomer: each of the island’s 800-odd residents are permitted to stay only for as long as each family’s breadwinners continue winning bread in a government-sanctioned manner. But few other plots of land as small — 90 square kilometres, or about one-and-a-half Manhattans — and sparsely populated as Ascension can claim to host as dizzying an array of different types of work.

If Ascension is considered a working island generally, it’s more widely known as a military island. Much of this it owes to a prime location midway along lines of longitude between Africa and South America, and along lines of latitude between the UK and the Falklands; it was from Ascension’s primary air force base, Wideawake Airfield, that the Royal Air Force launched their bombing raids during the Falklands War. And the military isn’t restricted to just British forces, either: the United States keeps a large auxiliary USAF reserve active just down the road. But Ascension’s international contingent hardly ends with the American base. The United States Geological Survey gathers seismic data from a station near the most remote of the planet’s five GPS towers. The European Space Agency tracks launches across the Atlantic from here — NASA operated a site on the island until 1991 — while the BBC operates acres of relay stations to beam out the World Service across Africa and South America. Walking into the Volcano Club, one could reasonably expect to encounter Dutch climatologists, British conservationists, South African construction workers and Filipino seaman all sharing a drink together. A working island generally and military island historically, Ascension has found its true purpose as an international island.

Soft Serve Savannah: The base of a dormant cinder cone swirls into the island’s ever-present lava fields, a delta frozen in time.

Red Ash Geometric: A cinder cone gathers around the ventilation shafts of one of the island’s 44 dormant volcanoes.

Shadowbuilder:  Until Ascension’s not-insignificant population of feral cats was eradicated in the early 2000s, most of the island’s seabirds chose  to nest on nearby Boatswainbird Island instead.

The Great Droplet Derby: Clouds roll over the disused catchment fields atop Green Mountain, the site of what is perhaps the world’s most ambitious terraforming project. In an effort to increase rainfall on the arid island and provide a local source of drinking water to the garrison stationed here, nineteenth-century botanist Joseph Hooker took radical steps to create a large-scale moisture farm, or “cloud forest”, atop the island’s highest peak. Operating under a theory posited by Charles Darwin on his visit to the island in 1836, Hooker supervised a project that shipped in plants from the entire botanic inventory of the British Empire, seeing an entire landscape transformed over a span of several years. At its height in 1860, 27,000 trees and shrubs were planted in four months alone.

Dew Pond: At the peak of Green Mountain, bamboo thickets, a legacy of Joseph Hooker’s terraforming project, crowd a small pond that also happens to be the island’s largest naturally occurring source of freshwater.

Windward: A visiting tall ship, the Europa, takes on fresh supplies on its journey back to Amsterdam from Antarctica.

The Hungry Terminator: Sunset crawls across the veldt east of Georgetown. First introduced in the 1960s, the Mexican thorn bush has taken fiercely to Ascension and is today ubiquitous across the island. Whole tracts of landscape that were barren ten years ago are now more green than red, at a substantial threat to endemic flora.

Stories from an Easter Fry-Up: With so many people so far from home, a vibrant culture has emerged among the island’s expats. Here, a mixed group of Scottish military contractors and “Saints” from neighbouring Saint Helena, an island three days by boat to the south, keep traditions alive with a raucous Easter fish fry.

Softball at Moon Valley: League sport is the leisure activity of choice for much of the island’s workforce, with a single weekend often hosting staggered tournaments of cricket, soccer, softball and skittles. Here at Moon Valley Stadium on the USAF base, softball games are as high scoring as basketball games, while soccer tallies on Long Beach tend to creep up to traditional softball numbers.

Sunlit and Ascending: The late afternoon sun sets St Mary’s Anglican Church alight. Built in 1846, St Mary’s is one of two churches on the island; the other, an open air grotto near Wideawake Airfield, conducts Catholic services.

Tuna Seas(on): A local fisherman waits for the telltale tug of the rods at a favoured tuna fishing spot. Blue marlin and yellowfin tuna specimens off Ascension are on occasion known to exceed two metres in length and 400kg in weight, although lately, the fisherman laments, he’s been lucky to catch anything at all.

Ship to Shore: A small launch approaches the Georgetown pier as schools of aggressive triggerfish swarm.

A Posthumous Sip: A fisherman douses a bin of just-caught fish with water as he prepares to fillet them. Most weekdays at noon, locals gather at the Georgetown pier to buy fresh cuts of yellowfin tuna, wahoo, marlin, dorado, snapper, or whatever else happens to come in that day direct from the island’s fisherman.

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Comfortless: Sun-bleached cairns honour the dead at a cemetery near Comfortless Cove. What began as the final resting place for the yellow fever-stricken crew of the HMS Bonetta, quarantined here in 1838, the little cemetery has since grown to include casualties from some of the innumerable other fever ships that called on the cove in later decades.

A Lunar Diptych: The moon rises over a lunar landscape near Georgetown. The presence of a NASA tracking site at Devil’s Ashpit in the island’s southeast quadrant has given rise to a panoply of urban legends about the role the island played during the Apollo campaigns. Island conspiracy theorists are quick to prey on virgin ears with stories both benign and not-so-benign, with a common theory holding that the first moon landing in 1969 was in fact a hoax filmed here.

Garrison Metropolis: A Victorian-era pivot cannon watches over Georgetown, the island’s capital, from Cross Hill. First inhabited after Napoleon’s exile to Saint Helena in 1815 by a British naval garrison stationed with orders to divert any potential French rescue parties, for most of its history the island has been classified as a ship by the British for administrative purposes, the HMS Ascension, a “stone sloop-of-war of the smaller class”. With the island’s rich Napoleonic history and a golf course reputed to be the worst in the world, a nascent tourism industry has even begun to take root here, although owing to restrictive visas and limited seats available to civilians on RAF flights a month’s intake of card-carrying tourists can usually be counted on one hand.

The Exiles Club: The Union Jack flies over sleepy Georgetown.

Departures: Ascension retreats into the night off the port side of the departing RMS Saint Helena. Once every five or so weeks, the island is brought fresh supplies and an influx of returning workers by “the RMS”, one of two ships to regularly call at Ascension (the other, a British merchant cargo ship running the Falklands route, visits every few months).

For Distant Shores.

Author

Austin Andrews is a Vancouver-based photojournalist and occasional filmmaker with a penchant for finding the fantastic in the everyday. Contact him at austin [at] disposablewords [dot] net

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